In my work with City to City North America, I get to come alongside multi-ethnic, trans-denominational leaders in strategic cities in North America as they seek to catalyze gospel renewal in their cities. In addition to helping them create tables of friendship with like-minded leaders (which we believe is crucial), we equip them with a unifying theory of change that enables them to situate their work within a larger vision as well as to coordinate their efforts with other collaborative leaders.
One key element of our theory of change is naming the pattern we believe the gospel produces in an individual, a church community, and in broader networks and organizations. When we look at the history of revivals and renewal movements, we believe a consistent five-fold pattern emerges (though in varying degrees), and that this pattern can be used to guide our work in cities. The five-fold pattern is as follows:
Self-replication. Organic self-reproduction is the “engine” that drives every renewal movement. Disciples begin making disciples, churches begin planting churches, networks and societies begin birthing new networks and societies. Inherent to any movement is a dynamic of spontaneous self-replication.
Grace renewal dynamics. In seasons of renewal, not only are non-Christians converted but Christians are reawakened to the power of the gospel for their life. Revivals are marked by the rediscovery of the gospel as the key to genuine Christian growth. Christians learn how to use the gospel on their own hearts rather than resorting to legalism or redoubled moral effort. Genuine revivals unleash a grace renewal dynamic.
Barrier-crossing, power-inverting love. The outpouring of the Spirit creates communities marked by an unusual love that breaks down some of the most deeply entrenched walls of human division. These communities become social spaces where power is inverted – the first are last, the poor are blessed, the meek inherit the earth, the foolish shame the wise. Genuine revival creates new human communities that practice the ethic of the upside-down kingdom.
Justice and mercy expression. The gospel always creates a renewed concern for the poor and marginalized of society. Nearly every historic revival had associated with it the mobilization of benevolence, generosity, and social reform. These expressions ranged from the building of hospitals, the care of orphans, the ending of slave trade, etc.
Faith and work integration. Finally, genuine gospel renewal doesn’t just revive one's private spiritual life; it draws all of life into the purview of the reality of the reign of God in Jesus. There is in every genuine revival the recovery of the “priesthood of all believers” where the laity begin to integrate their faith and their work to approach their professions as sacred vocations, contributing to the renewal of all things.
Take a moment to reflect on this pattern. Where would you say you, and your church, are strong in expressing the gospel pattern in your city? Where would you say you are weak and need growth?
Of these five elements of the gospel pattern, it has very often been the third element – the barrier-crossing, power-inverting love – that has gone overlooked. It is distinct from the fourth element of the pattern – a justice and mercy expression – in that it refers less to a concern for the poor and marginalized outside of the church and focuses more on the kind of community that is being cultivated within the church. That is to say, it is far easier to form a community that shows concern for the poor as outsiders in need of our assistance than it is to foster a community that, in its very life together, embodies a love that rejects the instincts of the world to center the powerful, the impressive, the successful, and the influential and instead centers the perspective and experience of the weak, the overlooked, the failed and the powerless. Even in the history of our revivals here in America, it proved to be far easier to creation mission bases to reach the indigenous peoples or enslaved Africans with the gospel than it was to create a community that crossed the barriers and inverted the power that led to genocide and slave trade.
Put another way, it is easier to reach a specific social demographic with the gospel as long as one is willing to stay within the social confines that creates these demographic categories. Missiologists refer to this the “homogeneous unit principle” which states that people are most easily led to personal faith in Christ through homogenous social networks. What is far more difficult (which is what we see in the New Testament church) is to seek to reach specific social demographics while also expressing the kind of barrier-crossing, power-inverting love that subverts the social conditions that have created it. The early church, at every turn, refused to create Gentile-only and Jew-only churches, even though that almost certainly would have led to greater evangelistic effectiveness. Instead, they chose to create a community that would breach that dividing wall even though that commitment would go on to create a vast majority of the pastoral conflicts and tensions that we see being addressed in the NT epistles.
An early interview with the great evangelist Billy Graham provides a clarifying example of this tension. Graham was asked earlier in his ministry why he continued to segregate his evangelistic crusades by race. He responded:
“We follow the existing social customs in whatever part of the country in which we minister. As far as I have been able to find in study of the Bible, it has nothing to say about segregation or non-segregation. I came to Jackson only to preach the Bible and not to enter into local issues.”
For Graham, at least at this time (he would later desegregate his evangelistic crusades as a matter of biblical conviction), he understood that challenging the social order of his time would be a significant obstacle to evangelistic effectiveness. When the barrier-crossing, power-inverting love is not explicitly identified as an essential part of the gospel pattern, evangelism can become the singular purpose of the church and the Christian life and can serve as justification for not disrupting even a profoundly unjust social order. It is this part of the gospel pattern that we believe has far too often been neglected in the history of the church in America.
But if this barrier-crossing, power-inverting love is an essential part of the pattern that the gospel produces? What might happen if we began to identify it as such? What might the Spirit do if every Christian and every pastor and every church were to ask ourselves not only “What demographic are we called to reach?” but also “What dividing wall are we called to breach?” What if both of these questions were to be treated as equally essential to defining the mission of a local church and the purpose of the Christian life?