The modern world is rapidly urbanizing. With that change, of course, comes increasingly diverse cities. But do our churches reflect this reality?
Sadly, many churches remain largely segregated in nature: mono-ethnic, mono-economic, and/or mono-educational.
Birds of a feather do indeed flock together. Much has been rightly said about the need for churches, in our fragmented and fearful society, to model the horizontal reconciliation the gospel creates. In light of this, I think the church—and church-planting pastors—can learn a lot from the church in Antioch.
In the book of Acts, Luke seems to be answering a question we should be asking: What should the church look like in a city packed full of different people?
Just before his ascension, Jesus outlines the global scope of the mission (Acts 1:6–8). As the gospel spreads through local churches, it will be like a rock falling into the center of a pond. It will initially hit Jerusalem, but the ripples will quickly travel to Samaria, Judea, and on to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:6).
Yet the manner in which this spread occurs is surprising—it’s not primarily through a missions committee hunched over maps, or big events meant to attract a crowd, but through persecution. That’s how the gospel gets to Antioch (Acts 11:19).
Initially, the message is shared only among Jews, but Luke is quick to tell us that Greeks are hearing and responding to the gospel, too (Acts 11:20–21). Suddenly, we’re creeping into the ends-of-the-earth territory.
Challenge of ‘Global’
Antioch was a massive city, with nearly half-a-million people and an eclectic mix of cultures and ethnicities. When first built, it was constructed as a divided city—with a literal wall to keep Syrians and Greeks apart. By the time Luke wrote, though, at least 18 different ethnic groups were living within the city’s boundaries. Yet division remained, and these groups largely kept to their own communities.
Here in Antioch the believers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26)—presumably, at least in part, because they were difficult to categorize. In a place where people kept to themselves, here was a group that didn’t.
The church was being built, not on a social agenda, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The early Christians defied cultural norms. They were a diverse group of people not conforming to the ways of the world. The church was being built, not on a social agenda, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As the church is built, leaders start to emerge. In Acts 13:1, Luke tells us about five men almost as different from each other as one could imagine.
Paul and Barnabas were both Jewish, but had been raised outside Palestine. Both were fluent in Jewish language and customs, but they also spoke Aramaic and Greek. Then there’s Manaen, a man who grew up with incredible opportunity and education within the household of Herod Antipas. Next there’s Lucius of Cyrene, from North Africa, who may have been one of the initial evangelists who arrived amid persecution and began reaching out to Greeks. And last but not least was Simon called Niger, who was most likely a black African.
How’s that for a diverse leadership team?
Now, the elders I serve with are a fairly diverse group. Our cultural differences sometimes require longer meetings. But just imagine the early leadership meetings among these five.
Surely, there would’ve been great potential for cultural faux pas and other misunderstandings. Imagine the need for careful listening, love, and forgiveness. They would’ve had to practice humility, to keep short accounts with one another (1 Cor. 13:5).
At the same time, there would’ve been remarkable opportunity. Here was a diverse leadership for a diverse people.
But as was often the case, these leaders didn’t get to stay together for long. The Holy Spirit called them to set apart Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2–3) to take the gospel beyond Antioch by planting more churches.
Presumably in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas would’ve had to wrestle with difficult questions about contextualization—to learn how to communicate and apply the gospel in a way that would be understood. Now, as they left to plant churches in a variety of contexts, they’d have experience to draw on.
It’s significant that these men willingly sent 40 percent of their core leadership team.
But we should also notice these leaders’ global heart. They didn’t challenge or dispute the sending of Paul and Barnabas; they simply obeyed (Acts 13:4). It’s significant that they willingly sent 40 percent of their core leadership team. This is the outworking of generous gospel hearts.
It doesn’t take much for us to connect the dots to our global culture today. Yes, there are questions to work through; it’s important to ask how much Luke intended to be prescriptive, and what is simply descriptive.
But one thing is clear: we have a global God who intends to spread his gospel around his globe. May the churches we plant reflect something of these magnificent realities.