One of my favourite churches in the New Testament is the church in Antioch.
This church was based in one of the most influential cities of its time, and yet its outlook went way beyond simply reaching its own city (they could surely have a got a great thing going there). Instead, they were ready and eager to release people in their callings to see God’s kingdom spread across the known world – and they were even willing to send their superstars to see it happen.
Often when we talk about calling, our minds instantly gravitate to the question “What does God want me to do with my life?”. This is, of course, a very important question, but equally important is to understand the callings that God has given to others (particularly those in our churches) and to think through how we can support them in living out those callings.
This readiness to release people into their callings did not happen by accident in Antioch. As they built their church, they invested in some key things that shaped their culture as one to release and empower people into what God has for them.
Investing in these same things can have a similar effect in our churches.
They Invested In Reaching New People
When the disciples in Jerusalem experienced persecution, they ended up being scattered across a wide area, and as they went they preached the gospel. This is unreservedly a win. In the midst of horrible times they were telling people about Jesus, starting new churches, and responding to their circumstances with terrific bravery.
Still, the scope of their ministry was limited. We are told in Acts 11:19 that, “those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen travelled as far a Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.“
There were two factors that fed into this.
In part, it was based on a faulty theological assumption that a component of a Gentile’s salvation was a conversion to Judaism. This belief gets unpicked in the middle chapters of Acts, and it is established in Acts 15 that “we should not trouble those of the Gentiles that turn to God.”
The second factor feeding into it is comfort. As Jewish believers, reaching out to other Jews was the easiest thing to do. There is a much greater cultural connection, and the shared knowledge of the Old Testament meant that there were some obvious starting points for proclaiming Jesus. This is all well and good, and using the common ground that we have with people who have a similar background to us is a sound evangelistic strategy. However, when our vision for the church that we are trying to build is one that is (implicitly or explicitly) primarily made up of people like of us, then we have missed something of the heart of God to reach out to people of all nations, cultures and backgrounds.
It was in Antioch, however, that a new approach was pioneered. We are told in Acts 11:20 that, “there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.”
The church in Antioch did something that up until this point none of the other churches had been doing, and by doing it they were able to reach people that nobody else had been reaching.
It was this same willingness to move beyond what was easy and comfortable in order to win the lost that gave them a generous spirit when it came to releasing their people and unleashing them into their calling a couple of chapters later in the narrative.
They Invested In People Who Would Move On
In Acts 11:25, we are told that Barnabas brought Saul to Antioch and they spent the next year teaching in this church.
In the end, both of them moved on because the Holy Spirit spoke to the elders of the church about sending them out as pioneer missionaries. In Saul’s case in particular this would have been no surprise, as this calling had been very clearly spoken over his life prior to him ever arriving in Antioch. When Jesus spoke to Ananias about meeting with Saul following the Damascus Road encounter, one the things that he said was, “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Saul letter states (in Acts 26:17) that this sending to the Gentiles was part of what Jesus had spoken to him about also during that encounter on the road to Damascus.
To put it simply, Saul was never going to be in Antioch long term – and everybody knew it. But this didn’t stop him playing his part while he was there, being well received by the church and being entrusted with significant leadership opportunities.
When we overplay the need for long-term commitment in our churches, then we can create an unhealthily insular attitude where the “success” of a single local church begins to become a higher priority than the global spread of the Gospel and growth of God’s kingdom.
In our church in Manchester, several of our sites are located in transient communities. People move in, are part of the church for a while, and then ending up moving on to live somewhere else. It is always nice when there are people who dig in for the long-haul, but we have come to embrace that the transient nature of our communities is part of the gig. God entrusts these people to our care for a few years, and so we are determined that by the end of that time they have grown in their relationship with God, made some new friends, had a lot of fun, and are sent out well-equipped to knock it out of the park in whatever they are called to next. Approaching it with this mentality has enabled us to see people who have come through Christ Church Manchester over the last few years now leading congregations and churches across the world.
Are there people in your church who have a sense that God is leading them on in the future? Don’t discount them because they won’t be with you forever. Think about how you can get the most out of them while they are with you (or even better, think about how you can put the most into them!)
They Invested In the Prophetic
In Acts 11:27, we read of a group of prophets from Jerusalem who visit the church in Antioch. These prophets are well received, and we are told in the following verses of one specific prophetic word that was brought by the prophet Agabus and how the church determined to act in response to this word.
One of the things that prophets can do is to lift your heads from your own current circumstances to God’s bigger picture. The revelations that they bring from God can shape your agenda and introduce new ideas, dreams and opportunities as well as providing insight in the things that you are already going for.
Prophetic ministry is vital in keeping an Antioch spirit in our churches. We should work hard in our church plants to invest in those in our number who are showing prophetic gifting (Simon Holley has some suggestions on how to do that in this Broadcast) and we should also look to do what the church in Antioch did and invite recognised prophets from outside our setting who we have relationships with to come and speak into our situations.
They Invested In Other Places
The prophetic word that Agabus gave to the Antioch church was that a famine was on its way that would effect the whole world.
I try to imagine how I would respond if a similar word were given today. It is likely that my first thoughts would turn to my own personal finances and to the funding for the ministries that I am involved with. I would perhaps try to save up for the difficult times coming (like when Joseph and Pharaoh set aside grain in the ‘fat cow years’ for the ‘thin cow years’ that followed).
The first thought of the Antioch church, however, was to send relief to the brothers in Judea. They were aware that those Judean believers had already been through a tough time with persecution, and had probably left their property and possessions behind as they scattered. A famine would be difficult on everybody, but in Antioch they were able to see beyond their own struggles to the needs of those elsewhere and use their resources to serve the church in other places.
In different seasons of ministry, investing in other places may take different forms. At times it will look just like it did in Antioch – providing financial support in a time of crisis. At other times it may mean sharing ministry resources, committing to pray for a particular church or ministry in another place, sending regular teams of people to help, developing strategic partnerships, or leveraging online connectivity to develop supportive relationships with leaders elsewhere.
Whatever it looks like, it is important to use what you have available to invest in other places. This is (of course) very good for those who you are helping, but it is also very good for your own church and builds the kind of outward focus into your church that is a key component of the Antioch spirit.
They Invested In People Who Might Let Them Down
Leadership development is a messy business.
There are two approaches to it that we can take. We could either sit tight until ready-made leaders with a proven track record show up on our doorstep (which did actually happen in Antioch – at least in the case of Barnabas) or we could do the hard work of helping shape those before us into all they can be.
Carnegie says that it happens in a similar way to how gold is mined. It involves sifting through the dirt to find the gold, but the focus is never on the dirt but on the gold that you find. Working with people is similar, and bringing out the best in people can involve sifting the worst in them, and running the risk of those people letting you down.
In the case of the Antioch church, one individual of whom this was true was John-Mark. When Barnabas and Saul returned from Judea after delivering the offering that the Antioch church had collected, they brought John-Mark back with them and he spent some time in the Antioch church. Whilst there, he was clearly given opportunities to take on important responsibilities (as can be seen from the fact that he was sent to accompany Barnabas and Saul on their subsequent missionary journeys).
As it turned out, John-Mark didn’t live up to expectations and quit the mission when things got tough, returning to Jerusalem instead. Later on, he did return and accompanied Barnabas on further journeys (and was eventually reconciled to Saul as well – see 2 Tim. 4:11). Nevertheless, at the time we are looking at, John-Mark was a young man who had no track record and some areas of concern, and yet the church in Antioch were willing to work with him, invest in him and give him opportunities. If we are to grow and send like they did, then we need leadership pipelines that can cope with mess and that will invest in those who are not finished articles (exactly as Jesus did when he sent his disciples out two-by-two).
They Invested In Prayer
As we hit the beginning of Acts 13, we reach the moment where the Antioch church actually send Barnabas and Saul on to their wider calling. The context of this decision is a prayer meeting.
At the church were gathered a few prophets and teachers and they had gathered together to pray, and it was in this prayer and worship time that they heard the Spirit telling them to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work they had been called to.
By investing in prayer, the Antioch church were creating a space to corporately listen to God. They were putting their own agenda in second place and inviting that first and foremost God’s will be done, and when they heard the whisper of God they were quick to respond and do what he had lead them to.
It sounds cliched to say that there is power in prayer, but it is true. And nowhere is this more true than when the people of God come together corporately to pray. Churches have been planted out of prayer meetings. Tough situations have been resolved. Breakthroughs have been made. Relationships have been mended. People have been healed.
And in developing the Antioch desire to bless the world and unleash countless missionaries into their God-given calling, being frequent in prayer can challenge our tendencies to hold on to what God would ask us to release, and can embolden our faith to step out for him.
Which of these characteristics of the Antioch church have you found to ring true in your experience? Why not Tweet us (@BroadcastCP) and let us know?