“Suddenly, Jesus was standing there amongst them!”
The week following Easter can be a curious time. We still carry the spiritual high from Easter Sunday, buoyed by the imagery and words. Numerically, attendance may have been more promising, and we continue our journey of hope, moving towards celebrating the Ascension and then Pentecost, which some refer to as the church’s birth.
I am hopeful for the rural church, and like many, I see signs of encouragement popping up like hotspots around the country - I simply don’t think it will continue to look like it once did in terms of shape and form. My hope is in the new, the emerging, the re-interpretation of ancient practices and rhythms for a culture that I think is hungry for God, but not necessarily in our inherited understanding of church where success is measured numerically.
To avoid the risk of disappearing down another rabbit hole of discouragement, I want to share a journey that I have been on in reconsidering the birth of the church and when this took place. Many of you are intelligent people, and I am sure you have already given this headspace, but Ross Hastings’s book, ‘Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-Evangelising the West’ opened my eyes to the possibility that the church was birthed in John 20 rather than Acts 2.
We like the imagery of the church in Acts 2 with its description of three thousand being added to their number. It resonates with our understanding of measurable growth and the metrics of bottoms on seats. It chimes with our Western worldview of significance, success, and the ‘sage on the stage’ who needs ever bigger containers (buildings) to hold the blessing. Admittedly, I am applying an artistic license to scripture. I know this was not what Acts 2 is all about; nevertheless, we embrace the hyperbole in the institutions and structures by strategising and planning to achieve the numerics of prosperity.
If, however, we begin to see that the church started, as described in John 20 (recognising that John doesn’t use the word church), with a group of notable failures, we perhaps come to a different perspective. These fearful few had ministered alongside Jesus to the point that a couple even thought they were successful enough to be seated alongside Jesus in the structure of the kingdom. Yet here they are, late in the day, gathering behind locked doors, terrified of being outed, insignificant in number, doubting, questioning and fragile. And it is into this environment that Jesus appears in resurrected form before their eyes and commissions them for the future.
Our overfamiliarity with the text can rob us of the shell-shocking events John is describing. Here in their midst is the one they thought dead, the one in whom they’d placed their trust, with the ability to physically pass through locked doors and walls as if they weren’t there. Standing amongst them was the evidence to corroborate the story of the women whose account they’d previously dismissed. And what does Jesus do? Tell Peter off for denial? Gripe about them doing a runner? Shake his head in a condemnatory manner and their lack of faith? The text tells us that Jesus blesses them, imparts his Shalom, inspires them with the greatest of all commissions and gifts them with Holy Spirit. Jesus invites them to participate in God’s mission: these fearful failures (in the eyes of the world) are to become the prophetic pioneers and practitioners of a new community.
Ross Hastings’ book suggests that no matter how challenging things may seem, the church will never be in a worse state than that described in John 20:19. So what might this mean for us in the places and spaces we gather today? I sense that there is a challenge to set aside our programmes and planning for how we can make things more sustainable, even successful, and instead ensure that everything we do is about recognising Jesus as being in the very centre of who we are and where we are.
Too many rural churches today look like a locked door, fearful communities, insignificant in their number and outdated approach, hiding away. Historically, the church has exerted more spiritual influence and impact when it is a struggling, sometimes persecuted, minority. We need to embrace defiant optimism within the church. Our task is not to call people back to church but to figure out where there is an openness and receptivity for the Gospel in our communities. It is to look for signs of the kingdom, imagine what the local community might look like if the Gospel transformed everyone, and then join God in this. Three thousand might not be added to our number, but I am sure all will be able to give testimony to Jesus being in our midst, commissioning us again to join in with God’s plan of salvation. Let’s encourage a defiant optimism based on a risen Christ and a task in which we are each empowered by the Spirit to undertake. Let’s celebrate the birth of the church.
CEO, Rural Ministries