Hello and Welcome! – Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries
Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries
Move. It is, in the first instance, a verb. Merriam-Webster defines the verb with a series of others: “to go, to proceed, to become, to start, to keep pace,” and so on. Our English word move descends from the Latin movere, which expresses the idea “to set in motion” or even “to disturb.” The Latin also carries the sense of “to prompt toward some action or outcome” (as in, “I was moved to tears”).
The Church of God has long seen itself as a movement. We do not imagine ourselves to be a denomination or institution, but a movement. We speak of ourselves as the Movement. The Oxford Dictionary helps us here, defining movement as, “a group of people working together to advance shared ideas.” We have seen ourselves as a movement within the larger Christian family, emphasizing certain core ideas drawn from Scripture, calling the best out of the larger Body of Christ, expanding the Kingdom of God.
Move. It is the name we’ve given to this new vehicle of communication for the Church of God—to this new channel of ideas and, hopefully, motivational thought. It is a name born by who we are and what we want to be: a Movement.
Truth be told, we might, at some times, have been better branded stuck (the Oxford Dictionary renders stuck to mean, “unable to move or to be moved”). Synonyms for stuck include: frozen, jammed, set, lodged, and wedged. For much of the 20th century and into the present, we have been not so much on the move as we have been stuck. Our influence on the larger Body of Christ (bringing it to holiness and unity), our impact on the world around us (reclaiming and redeeming), and our ability to expand the Kingdom’s boundaries, have (by every measure) declined (as a proportion of the whole population, as a percentage of the larger church, as measured by our own previous trajectory in the first half-century of the Movement).
This is not to say, of course, that progress has not been made, that God has not used us, that somehow we have failed in our calling. Great things have been done—and there has always been a growing, living edge, to the Movement. But, it must be also said that we have too often failed to maximize our calling. We must acknowledge that, if our course does not change, the Movement as we know it cannot long endure.
There has been much discussion over the last decades, within the church, about the whys and what-ifs, about the if-onlys and we-should-haves that might explain the present challenge. Whole movements within the Movement have been born since World War II, trying to prescribe remedies and vouchsafe the faith once delivered to the saints. I respect and understand this. And, especially as I have accepted the call to serve as general director at Church of God Ministries, I have been wrestling with the same.
In this pursuit, I have been, over the last year, diving into the Acts of the Apostles, reading and re-reading this sacred history. As a Movement, we have also seen ourselves as a restoration people, restoring the church of today to the power, purity, and agency of the original New Testament church. We have always read the Acts of the Apostles and wanted to be like them (and help the whole Body of Christ to become more like them). It has been a compelling and transformative study.
As this edition of Move is launched—as this small engine of ideas is itself set in motion—I believe the Movement might do well to go to the end of the Acts to craft a list defining how to begin the new year. Indeed, I am convinced the end of Acts captures truth with which we, as a Movement, can reach for a new beginning, actually moving, once more, to change the world and the church Jesus purchased with His own blood.
What I propose below is not a complete list of steps with which to move forward—as individuals or as local churches—but a starting point. For some, it may be old hat; for others, so elementary as to be useless. But, for me, it is fresh and of God.
Check this out: Acts 28:30–31 reads, “For the next two years, Paul lived in Rome at his own expense. He welcomed all who visited him, boldly proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. And no one tried to stop him” (nlt).
That’s it? The closing words of this seminal history of the first-century church? But, what happens next? What happens to Paul? What about his trial before the Emperor? What kind of ending to the sweeping narrative that begins with Peter’s adventures after the Ascension and swerves into Paul’s lane and describes the advance of the gospel across the Empire? I thirst for more detail.
But, as with all things Scripture, I trust that the Holy Spirit has put pen to paper with just the right stuff. The Acts of the Apostles is a record that is all it needs to be, for the ages. For you and for me, for the Church of God.
The Spirit, in guiding Luke’s hand in this writing, has left us just where we need to be with these final two verses, opening a doorway through which we must also be committed to walk.
First, notice that Paul welcomed all who visited him. In the last two years, I’ve learned that, no matter what we say, we don’t always welcome all who visit us. I’ve learned that a warm welcome in a local congregation of the Church of God cannot be always taken for granted. Indeed, I’ve learned that you can be told that you’re not welcome. I’ve learned that some are told straight up, “You’re not welcome to fellowship here,” and others are treated in such a way that the unwelcome message is clear, even if the words are not spoken. Ouch.
When we withdraw the welcome mat from certain visitors or would-be members, we have our reasons, to be sure. We don’t trust them. We suspect them. We don’t agree with them. They don’t look like us or talk like us or dress like us. They are troublemakers. We are afraid they might cause trouble (even though they haven’t, yet). They are too much trouble. There are other churches in town they can go to. And so it goes.
For such conduct we must be ashamed and repent. Let it never be said that the Church of God did not welcome all who came to visit. Never say “all welcome” if you do not actually mean all are welcome. If you mean, some are welcome, say some are welcome. But, do not say all if you in practice mean some. Say all when you are ready, by the Spirit’s power, to make all feel loved and welcome.
There are cases, yes, when church discipline requires that the welcome mat be withdrawn. But, church discipline is not the cause of our challenge here. Church discipline is a process, by which evidence of injury to the Body is demonstrated to have occurred and a decision by the Body is made, for the good of all, to pursue some timeouts. This scenario is rare. I speak here, instead, of the church’s ethos of welcome. If we do not learn how, as did Paul, to welcome all who walk through the door—if we do not believe the Holy Spirit can help manage even difficult relationships in the Body in the same way we preach He can save a troubled marriage or heal the sick, etc.—we will not be a Movement of God. Polish and expand your welcome and your church will move.
Second, notice what were Paul’s subjects, as he welcomed all: Jesus and His Kingdom. Paul’s singular focus was “teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.” Yep, Jesus was his subject. Talking about Jesus, teaching about Jesus, defining all of Scripture through the lens of Jesus, living like Jesus: these are the ambitions of any Movement worthy of the Name. Jesus is not the also-ran, the assumed, the secondary, or the incidental of church life: He is the centrifugal force and subject. Preach Jesus and your church will move.
Paul also proclaimed the Kingdom of God. Why? Because that was Jesus’ subject. Jesus went about preaching and teaching the Kingdom. If Jesus is the subject, then the subject that interested Him most must also be at our fore. The Sermon on the Mount. The Parables of the Kingdom. The definitions of the Kingdom. And all the rest you find in the gospels, expanded in the letters and books of the New Testament that follows.
But, remember, when proclaiming the Kingdom of God, be sure to start with Jesus. Do not start with Paul (he would be appalled, I think, by the way we are prone to pull out Pauline words and phrases and build whole theologies on them, apart from Christ). Define Paul’s teaching by that of Jesus, not vice versa. Proclaim the Kingdom that Jesus brought into this world and your church will move.
Third, see how Paul conducted himself, as he welcomed all: he was bold. Be bold. The world will not be changed by our timidity or by our reluctance to stand sure-footed, even in the face of poplar fancy. Speak the truth in love, absolutely, but do not be intimidated by the wisdom of this world. Fads come and go, nations rise and fall, fashions shine and then fade, but the Word of the Lord endures forever. Listen well. Seek to understand and respect those who visit, even if they embrace ideas other than your own. Welcome them. But, be unashamed to present Christ and His Kingdom. Be bold and your church will move.
And, at the last, see this in the text: Paul lived at his own expense. He paid for the right to welcome and to be heard. He asked nothing of his audience, save its time. He created opportunity to share and to love and to persuade, so that all might be welcome and that all might be saved. Do the same and your church will move.
Think and pray about the welcome mat in front of the Church of God you call home. How comfortable is your church for those who have never before darkened the door? Is what happens in your church home tuned more for those already inside or to welcome those waiting outside? Is there a former church family member that you need to reach and welcome home? Is there someone who once visited, but was turned away, who now should be invited again, with a new welcoming spirit? Are there broken places that need to be mended with folks who pass by? Is there a former pastor or church leader who needs to know he or she is always welcome, having been made to wonder? Is there someone who you need to welcome whose values frame is not congruent with your understanding of the Scripture who nevertheless is thirsting for something more? Does your church live up to the “all welcome” measure of the Acts of the Apostles?
Would the Holy Spirit prompt Luke to write of us, as He did of Paul, “They welcomed all who visited them, boldly proclaiming…and teaching?” If He will, the Church of God will be, again, a Movement.
Open doors. Do not close them. Jesus is the subject. Move.