An Adventist Frontier Missions candidate was a year away from entering her mission territory. As her fear and excitement about her family’s upcoming journey mingled, she said something interesting: “We need to learn the culture in order to be accepted into the culture so that we can work in the culture.”
I posted that quote on Facebook. The comments I received indicated that while many carry this insight into overseas mission, few apply it to the mission field of Western culture. We forget that our Western world has become a needy mission field as well. What kind of foundation do we need in order to reach the Western culture with the gospel message?
Experience through relationship
The Shema (God’s proclamation and command to Israel in Deuteronomy 6:4, 5) is God’s invitation to move His followers from belief into experience through relationship. David G. Benner writes, “Any authentic spiritual journey must grow from direct, personal experience of God. There is no substitute for a genuine encounter with Perfect Love.”1 God’s command to Israel within the Shema moves the nation from belief into experience through a relationship. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4, 5).2 This movement begins with identity that is shaped by love.3
According to P. J. J. S. Els, “The fact that love could be commanded indicates that ’hb in Deut 6:5 . . . expresses not primarily feeling, but rather a certain behavioral pattern, i.e., obedience (in gratitude) to Yahweh’s covenantal commandments and faithful and total commitment to him.”4 The love that God commands engages the whole person, which anchors the follower to a foundation upon which experience through relationship needs to be cultivated. Rather than relating godliness to rule keeping, the Old Testament relates genuine godliness to love for God, a love unified through trust and faithfulness that stem from gratitude.5
In Isaiah 41:8, Abraham is called the friend of God because of his relationship with God. This relationship is the model of godliness (2 Chron. 20:7).6 The events that took place in the Exodus and conquest laid the foundation for gratitude within Israel.7
Likewise, Christ’s death on the cross lays the foundation for gratitude within the followers of Jesus Christ.
In the Shema, the combination of “heart,” “soul [life],” and “strength [power]” reveals characteristics of mental and emotional faculties that display themselves in the life of the follower through self-discipline.8 David G. Benner observes, “Leaving the self out of Christian spirituality results in a spirituality that is not well grounded in experience. It is, therefore, not well grounded in reality. Focusing on God while failing to know ourselves deeply may produce an external form of piety [godliness], but it will always leave a gap between appearance and reality. This is dangerous to the soul of anyone—and in spiritual leaders it can also be disastrous for those they lead.”9
Benner emphasizes that the follower must have self-knowledge in order to bridge the gap between the inner life with God and the outer life with others. Bridging this gap becomes the challenge of mission-oriented living.
Church plant in the Western mission field
On August 21, 2006, my family and I moved into a hotel in Keller, Texas, with the task of planting a church, but without a core group or money for ministry. I began visiting Seventh-day Adventist churches in the area, asking for members who lived in Keller and if they would be interested in starting a church there. I also began visiting area businessmen, casting a vision for reaching millenials (those born around 1980).
The first three months of visitation led us nowhere. In spite of the disappointment, my wife, Ashley, and I began praying together on Wednesday nights after we had put our seven-month-old daughter to sleep. At the end of three months, we had a core group of 11 members, several hundred dollars for ministry, and a weekly outreach to 25 teenage skateboarders. We kept praying and taught our small core group to pray as well. Through weekly prayer, our core group began developing love for one another, a love that began to ripple outside of our core group.
A year later, I began driving through Keller in order to find a place to teach our community to pray, believing that prayer with the community would change the community, just as it had been changing us. We leased the front office of an auto body shop in an older part of town and began 12-hour prayer meetings on Friday nights every other week. Taking one-hour shifts we confessed sins, prayed to be changed, and asked God to break down strongholds in Keller. Through persistence in prayer and consistency in showing up in people’s lives, we became the first church to join the Merchants Association. It was not long before we had a chance to put our love into action.
The Merchants Association began planning their first annual Keller Crawfish Krawl, in which they would serve large amounts of crawfish and alcohol on a Saturday morning, all in order to promote the businesses in the Old Town district. They had a need to provide transportation for those too inebriated to drive home. I immediately said that our church would rent a van and take care of that. I also offered to supply volunteers to pick up trash and the use of our church’s portable sound system. Immediately, one of the most antagonistic people towards our involvement snapped, “Why would you do that?”
“Because,” I said, “I believe that Jesus would.”
She replied, “Well, hallelujah!”
On the day of the Keller Crawfish Krawl, we set up our sound system and began serving as security, transportation, and clean up. We did this to show the community that our prayers for them were leading us to love them. At the end of the day, a community leader who strongly disliked our involvement told me, with tears in his eyes, “Thank you!”
We had earned the right to share Jesus with our community, but it did not come from playing it safe. Outreach is anything but safe; for this reason, we found it important to lay a foundation for witnessing through primitive godliness.
Primitive godliness is an experience through relationship that places all facets of human life into faith.10 Living a life of primitive godliness is a journey into oneness with God. “ ‘ “I will bring him near and he will come close to me, for who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?” declares the LORD. “So you will be my people and I will be your God” ’ ” (Jer. 30:21). This describes the foundation for primitive godliness. Hebrews 8:10 connects this covenant promise to Israel with the Christian church:11 “ ‘I will be their God, and they will be my people.’ ”
This move towards oneness with God should not be presumed through human effort.12 According to Jon Stock, Tim Otto, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “Any understanding of what it might mean for the people of God to be righteous must begin with the nature of God’s righteousness.”13 Only God can bring the follower into oneness with Himself through the Person of Jesus Christ.
Regarding Scripture’s role in conjunction with primitive godliness, Ellen White states,
Whenever the people of God are growing in grace, they will be constantly obtaining a clearer understanding of His word. They will discern new light and beauty in its sacred truths. This has been true in the history of the church in all ages, and thus it will continue to the end. But as real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God’s word and discourage any further investigation of the Scriptures. They become conservative and seek to avoid discussion.14
The follower who lives a life of primitive godliness in the twenty-first century must, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, shape a living theology that roots itself in the great commandments (Matt. 22:37–40). Primitive godliness can be understood as justice through the parable of the sheep and the goats, in which the actions of the follower have demonstrated love to God and others, and the actions of the perceived follower have not.
Scot McKnight posits, “Justice is also structural at some level: it refers to the establishment of conditions that promote loving God and loving others or living in the Spirit.”15 Consequently, the church community gives an indication of spiritual life as it discerns truth and lives that truth to those in need of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Thus, the church is led into mission. For it is not so much that the church has a mission as the mission has a church; mission is something God does and the church joins in it.16
This strategy engages “the moving parts of the church” (i.e., weekly programs, Sabbath worship, service to the community, children’s ministry, mission trips, for example).17 Commitment to, and consistency in, the strategy of primitive godliness within the members of the church is important. Thus, the life of primitive godliness in the twenty-first century composes an ideal example in that the spiritual depth the follower gains from such a life equips the follower to help reach the soul of the notyet-Christian.18 Furthermore, the authenticity of the follower brings credibility.19
Through sitting with God during devotional practices, the follower discovers his or her role as he or she lives out a life of primitive godliness through the means of God’s church. Mission that carries out a focused God-given vision, flows from a church in which the majority of the followers live lives of primitive godliness.
Nothing else will work. We, in Keller, are still learning that deep spiritual truth, which we believe is key in leading people to a life-changing relationship with God.20
1 David G. Benner, Surrender to Love (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 27.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible references are from the New International Version.
3 Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), 5:98–103.
4 P. J. J. S. Els, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 1:287.
5 Ibid., 286.
7 Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1–21:9, 2nd ed., Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 6a:98–143.
8 Ibid., 143.
9 David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 20, 21.
10 Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 141.
11 F. D. Nichol, ed., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1980), 4:463.
12 Gerald L. Keown, Pamela J. Scalise, and Thomas G. Smothers Jeremiah 26–52, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 27:104.
13 Jon Stock, Tim Otto, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Inhabiting the Church: Biblical Wisdom for a New Monasticism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2007), 17.
14 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 5:706, 707; emphasis added.
15 Scot McKnight, A Community Caled Atonement (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007), 125.
16 Alan Hirsch, “Lord Jesus . . . It All Begins Here” (lecture, Exponential 2008 Conference, Orlando, FL, April 22, 2008).
17 Will Mancini, Church Unique (San Francisco, CA: JosseyBass, 2008), 203.
18 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shape of Things to Come (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 95–107.
19 Frost, 99.
20 After four years of mission, the church in Keller grew from three people without any resources to 74 people who are playing a vital role in loving people into the kingdom of God. Of the 74 people involved, previous church attendance is as follows, 28 attended the Seventh-day Adventist Church regularly, 22 are reclaimed Seventh-day Adventists, 19 are formerly unchurched, 5 came from another denomination. Of this group, 51 percent are millenials, 19 percent are in their thirties, 16 percent are in their forties, 7 percent are in their fifties, 4 percent are in their sixties, 3 percent are in their seventies.