Is it just me, or does it seem like church leaders are always trying to get their congregation excited about something? Sometimes it is a new sermon series, or a new initiative. Often, it is a building project or a new ministry the church plans to start or support. Regardless, I’m willing to wager, there is always something your church leadership wants you to get jazzed about.
If you’re one of those leaders, I get it. I’ve spent a number of years as a pastor myself, and there is something good about trying to get your congregation excited about what your church is doing. In fact, passion is in some ways the fuel for missions. But, it may be worth stepping back and examining the kinds of passion we are attempting to instill. In my opinion, there is one very important passion I see frequently in the pages of Scripture but rarely in the life of congregations today.
Too few churches today are marked by an apostolic passion.
In Romans 15, Paul outlines one of his primary passions in ministry. It is this profoundly biblical desire that I’m calling an apostolic passion. Paul writes,
My brothers and sisters, I myself am convinced about you that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another. Nevertheless, I have written to remind you more boldly on some points because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, serving as a priest of the gospel of God. My purpose is that the Gentiles may be an acceptable offering, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Therefore I have reason to boast in Christ Jesus regarding what pertains to God. For I would not dare say anything except what Christ has accomplished through me by word and deed for the obedience of the Gentiles, by the power of miraculous signs and wonders, and by the power of God’s Spirit. As a result, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum. My aim is to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named, so that I will not build on someone else’s foundation, but, as it is written, “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” (Rom 15:14-21, CSB)
Paul’s passion was to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named. That is the apostolic passion.
What is an apostolic passion?
A couple of things should stick out to us in Paul’s explanation of his apostolic ministry here. First, notice he provides his readers with a very clear purpose statement. Paul’s purpose in ministry: that the Gentiles may be an acceptable offering, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. For clarity’s sake, let me call attention to that word Gentiles. We do no textual harm translating it nations in this passage. It’s the same Greek word we see in the Great Commission. He is also very clear that this purpose can only be the result of proclaiming the gospel. That’s evangelism, folks, and Paul spells it out for us here; the purpose of his ministry is presenting an offering of people from the nations and he knows the means of doing so is evangelism.
What I want to point out here is Paul’s passion for accomplishing his gospel ministry where Christ has not been named. When was the last time we really called our churches to get jazzed about that? How many churches are marked by a passion to intentionally fulfill their gospel ministry (especially that of evangelism) precisely where others are not?
Of course, to some extent we press that passion toward our international missions efforts. We speak of the unreached people groups overseas, and we send short term teams and even long term missionaries to those people. That is great work; it is vital work, and every church should have a missions vision with a global horizon. That said, if we’re not careful we mark off Paul’s desire for doing ministry where Christ is not named as an “over there” thing and do not realize apostolic passion may have something to say about our church’s local mission here.
Let’s regain the apostolic passion in local church ministry.
Imagine with me for a minute, a city of local churches that intentionally attempt to work where others are not. A group of churches seeking out those specific locations, those specific social circles, where there is little gospel presence. What could this do for the local missions in that city?
First off, it takes talking to other churches. Churches in the same city would need at least enough relationship to know what others were actually doing. Churches being involved in one another’s ministry could have potential. Eventually, this might even start to erode some of that competitive spirit between local churches. No longer are two churches incorrectly fearing the other may slice into their membership. Instead, they concern themselves with those who are not going to anyone’s church. In fact, they begin to avoid activity that might draw people from another church and tell people who are church hopping to go back to their home church. Together, these churches begin looking for the holes. This would require churches to realize the importance of local cooperation.
Next, it requires a willingness to do things differently. For an apostolic passion in local ministry to flourish, churches would have to change their success metrics. Bigger may not be better. More of the same may not be the best strategy. Certainly, it would require sending our best to the areas in our city where we are not. J.D. Greear, in his book Gaining by Losing, writes, “Jesus’ measure of the church is not seating capacity, but sending capacity.” It would take doing ministry differently. In Houston, we have hundreds of different cultural and ethnic groups spread out over one of the largest metro areas in the United States. Doing ministry in the same cultural ways we have always done it will only continue reaching the people that are just like us, and usually those people are transfers from another church. An apostolic passion, however, thinks first of those people not like us. It turns first to those without the gospel. It looks for the groups of people or neighborhoods in a given city that have no gospel presence. We have whole language groups, thousands of people, in Houston with no gospel-preaching church in their language. An apostolic passion sees this as more of a priority than growing weekly attendance at our own, English-speaking church. Even among those who speak English, an apostolic passion would suggest making sure our efforts were turned toward those who are not already Christians.
Finally, it can only be done by relying on others who are better than us. Apostolic ministry requires humility. It recognizes that no single church can reach a city. It accepts that certain groups of people in the city will require a cultural understanding or skill set that our congregation may not possess. Houston is home to some of the biggest megachurches in America, many of them good, gospel-centered churches. When it comes to an apostolic passion, however, even these churches will have things they need to learn from the small, immigrant churches throughout our city. The largest and the smallest, the richest and the poorest, congregations of many languages and cultures, with a passion to preach the gospel where Christ is not currently named, that’s the potential of an apostolic passion.
What does your church celebrate? Take a minute to ask yourself. You’re currently trying to get your church excited about something. What if the thing your church was most passionate about was sending and speaking wherever Christ is not named?