Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Matterhorn Bobsleds. Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye. Mad Tea Party. And my personal favorite, Space Mountain.
Those of you who possess a palate uniquely trained to appreciate the most urbane features of American culture will identify the category into which each of these is to be placed. They are Disneyland attractions. More to the point, they are the attractions that most frequently leave riders feeling nauseated, especially after a big bowl of clam chowder. Most of you, I expect, are acquainted with this experience.
The forces at work
Are you aware, however, of the laws of physics that actually ensure it? All these attractions expose their riders to the pressures of centripetal force and centrifugal force. What are these? Centripetal force pulls a person toward the center of a rotating body, while centrifugal force pulls a person away from the center of a rotating body. In either case the result is the same: somebody on these attractions inevitably—wonderfully—gets squashed.
In many ways, this same dynamic illustrates the two volumes that comprise the Spirit-inspired writings of Luke. Not that anyone gets squashed or nauseated. But a careful reading of Luke’s New Testament contributions makes it nearly impossible not to feel the pressure of movement in his writing—that is, the force of being pulled in or the force of being thrust out.
In his initial volume, referred to as the third gospel, the movement is centripetal. As if a law of physics was at work, Luke inexorably draws his reader to a geographical center: the city of Jerusalem (Luke 9:51; 13:22; 17:11; 19:11). Something significant is to occur there.
In Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts, the direction of movement changes dramatically. While Luke begins at this geographical center, his narrative quickly displays a decided movement away from it—almost as if there were centrifugal forces at work in defiance of anything seeking to resist them.
This raises the obvious question: If Jerusalem serves as the geographical pivot for this centripetal/centrifugal shift in Luke’s writings, what is it that sets this shift in motion? The answer: A composite of salvation/historical events centered upon Jesus of Nazareth: his death and resurrection followed by his ascension and exaltation as the universal Lord, all of which climaxes in his outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those who belong to him.
This is the turning point for Luke, triggering an irresistible law of redemptive physics. The achievement of Jesus Christ is not to be confined to a geographical center. Rather, the entire world must realize that God’s Son has brought salvation to humanity.
The church’s glorious agenda
This brings us to our glorious agenda: the unique and irreplaceable mission that has been given to the church by her resurrected Lord. A mission that, at present, is threatened by conscious and unconscious efforts to dissuade the church from it. At a time in which nearly everything is being uncritically heralded as “the mission of the church,” Christians need to discerningly evaluate these claims via the light of the explicit instruction of Jesus and the apostles.
Acts 1-2, specifically, provide a significant contribution to this necessary discussion. A careful exposition of these chapters provide objective and revelatory criteria for self-evaluation. Though the process may potentially prove uncomfortable, its importance is beyond calculation—especially given the susceptibilities to which many churches are quickly falling prey, as illustrated in the following parable.
On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude, little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea. With no thought of themselves they went out day and night, tirelessly searching for the lost. This wonderful little station saved many lives, and over time it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, sought to become associated with the station—to give of their time, money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.
Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge for those saved from the sea. So, they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Gradually, the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members. Over time, they decorated it exquisitely, using it as a sort of club. Fewer members, however, were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do the work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club’s decoration, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club’s initiations were held.
About this time, a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick; some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So, the property committee immediately had a showerhouse built outside the club where shipwrecked victims could be cleaned up before coming inside.
At the next meeting, there was a split in the club’s membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities altogether, having come to regard them as unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did.
As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It too evolved into a club, while yet another lifesaving station was founded. History has continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today you will find several exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown. (This telling is modified slightly from Theodore O. Wedel’s “Evangelism—The Mission of The Church to Those Outside Her Life,” published in The Ecumenical Review.)
Challenging congregational narcissism
This is a parable and therefore fictional. The effectiveness of a parable, however, lies in its proximity to reality. Its success turns on the immediacy it shares with the person to whom it is being told. As a pastor, this parable grips me with a very real immediacy. It requires no explanation because, frankly, I live in dread of just such a possibility: the creation of a missional irrelevance as the result of a congregational narcissism. Or, stated differently, professing followers of Jesus who, while absorbed in the self-satisfying benefits of church life, are no longer preoccupied with getting themselves dirty searching for drowning people.
This parable highlights one of the perennial anxieties of every discerning pastor: that a congregation would become so self-absorbed—with doctrinal minutiae, musical styles, political agendas, nuances of family life, social issues—that she eventually loses her preoccupation with mission. In a real sense, the cause of this self-absorption is immaterial. The potential reality of it is what proves so disconcerting—a reality that has not only made itself repeatedly evident throughout church history, but one that continues to make itself evident in congregations within our own respective communities.
I invite you to carefully examine Acts 1-2. It is my prayer that doing so will stimulate in you a fresh consideration of the mission Jesus has assigned to the church. It is no exaggeration to claim that these two chapters have forever changed me. They have not only provided me with truth I had never before considered but have furnished me with conviction I had never before felt. This is a most wonderful gift that the Spirit of God can give to a preacher of the gospel. I have no doubt that he can effect this same kind phenomenon within you.
Art Azurdia is senior pastor of word and worship at Trinity Church, a USMB congregation in Portland, Oregon. This article is adapted from his book, Spirit Empowered Mission: Aligning the Church’s Mission with the Mission of Jesus, published in 2016 by Christian Focus Publications.