A church responds in crisis: Lessons from Acts 11
Updated: Apr 3, 2020
Who could have imagined the devastation the Coronavirus has brought to the world causing unprecedented political, social, cultural, financial, and personal consequences as the global pandemic continues to spread across nations, communities and families.
For those of us born after the 1960's we have never seen or experienced such scenes that we are witnessing today. In talking with elderly members of my congregation, some of whom had experienced the horror of the Second World War and lived during difficult post war times, they too could not recall a time such as this. We are living in a time of neo-crisis and likely be living with its immediate effect for some time, and its lasting impact will be felt for many years to come. In some ways the world will never be the same again, not least for families and friends who will lose loved ones that can never be replaced. Like many, I have tried to keep safe and heed government warnings and advice, and yet sought to try and live out my Christian faith in practical ways as part of a community of faith that is rediscovering the importance of prayer, discipleship, creativity and perhaps most importantly of all, learning what it means to be a good neighbour to anyone and everyone. Despite the constant engagement of online meetings and Zoom conference calls, and Whats App groups, and the over abundant glaring at laptop screens, I've had a need, and opportunity, to cultivate gratitude more intentionally, respond to change more imaginatively, and reflect more deeply. As part of the latter I have had the privilege to belong to networks and conversations that have frequently discussed how the church should respond to the current crisis and have enjoyed listening to, and learning from, many wonderful leaders, churches, charities, community organisations and personal stories that have demonstrated genuine hope and compassion across the world in tangible and practical ways.
However it was upon reading the story of the church at Antioch in Acts 11 in a quiet space that a few thoughts came to mind as I read and re-read the story. There is nothing particularly profound in what I have to share (feel free to leave now if you haven't left already!), but a number of things resonated with me from the story found there, that seemed to speak into the times we are in now.
The Church in Antioch (Acts 11 v 19-30)
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
In this story, the church in Antioch faced not one, but two external crises. In the first part of the story the church faced a lock down from the authorities who sought to stamp out the fledgling church. Following the execution of Stephen, the church rooted in its Jerusalem centre, was forced to scatter to regions and places it had not been previously, and began for the first time to extend its influence to Greek cultures crossing boundaries that resulted in new churches being formed (including the multicultural church at Antioch). Established by ordinary Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene, these apostolic and evangelistic people took the gospel with them wherever they were sent and wherever opportunity emerged to share it. As a consequence of the upheaval of persecution, the church on the move grew, a great number of people came to faith, and truly the Hand of the Lord was upon them. The news of these events reached Jerusalem (Church HQ) and in turn they responded to the events that were emerging organically through grassroots missional movement. Barnabus (a safe, trusted, godly and gifted person) was sent to Antioch, perhaps to check out what was happening, but his cultivating leadership of pastoral encouragement, blessing, and support strengthened the church and it continued to grow exponentially. This called for backup support and so Barnabus went to fetch his apprentice Paul and together, as teachers of the Word, they discipled the new believers for a whole year, deepening their faith and earning them the nickname “Christians” for all the little Jesuses that were being formed.
In the second part of the story the church faced another external threat, a global pandemic, a severe famine, that would spread over the entire Roman world. News of this catastrophe was brought through the prophetic ministry of Agabus and the other itinerary prophets who were also send by the Spirit and the church in the mission of God from Jerusalem to Antioch. In response to the prophetic word, the church mobilized the believers, as each was able, to provide compassionate and practical help to their sisters and brothers who would not be exempt or untouched by the global crisis, but would be supported in it through the sacrificial generosity, care and practical support of others. In reflecting upon this Lucan story, I could not help be drawn to some principles and practices that might speak to the church today as it to finds itself caught up as participators in external crises which they too are not exempt or delivered from.
First, God’s hand is in the crisis but there is silence as to its cause. We need therefore to be cautious about equating catastrophe to God’s intervention or notions of Divine judgement.
Second, when the church is forced to disperse (scattered), it re-imagines and recaptures its apostolic calling. Consequently the good news of Jesus is lived and shared in places and among peoples that are beyond the current influence of the church. New cultures and subcultures are reached as ordinary men and women plant the gospel wherever they are sent.
Third, the response to the gospel leads normatively to the forming of new communities and new disciples as they embrace Jesus and follow him.
Fourth, in a time of crisis there is a need and opportunity to deepen discipleship and encourage the people of God in their faith within Christian community.
Fifth, the release of the five-fold ministry (Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds and Teachers) is clearly needed and evidenced in this story if the church is to be re-calibrated in the mission of the Spirit to the world. Sixth, exponential growth is initiated by the work of the Spirit, multiplies through the grassroots movement of believers, and is cultivated by creative missional leadership that does not control but releases others into the mission of God.
Seventh, the first response to pandemic crisis, whether famine, disease or other, is always to join with others in loving their communities, neighbours. brothers and sisters through sacrificial generosity and tangible actions of practical compassion.