In John 4, Jesus states that his food was his encounter with the woman at the well in Sychar. The narrative concludes with Jesus exhorting his disciples to reap a harvest. The implication is that their sustenance is their missional encounter with others.
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to divine election as the identity of the people of God. So often we shrink back from this notion because it seems to imply an “insiders only” mentality. “We’re God’s elect and they aren’t.” We may have seen a doctrine of election put to use to endorse a lack of redemptive involvement in the wider culture.
Jesus indicates, however, that it is only when the church encounters outsiders in open-ended relationships that we are sustained.
I want to draw out one clarification of how this is supposed to take place and one implication of this for envisioning church life.
First, we do not encounter the other—or, the world—with a posture of condescension, arrogance, or even in order to set anyone right. Just as Jesus asked the woman for a drink, taking on a posture of mutuality and even need, we ought to cultivate friendships and relationships of mutuality with others. Books like unChristian and films like “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers” sufficiently document the destructive effects of Christian relational strategies of manipulation and coercion to let us know that not only do these not “work,” but they’re simply sub-Christian behaviors.
We ought not to imagine that we can embody our identity as the people of God by failing to behave like Jesus.
There are countless ways that churches can relate to outsiders and to surrounding culture(s) that follow the pattern of Jesus, but so many of these are unexplored. We tend only to imagine manipulative relationships, ones that will “get results.”
Churches can offer to clean up local neighborhoods, care for town parks, staff after-school services for kids from low-income homes, and enthusiastically support Big Brother and Big Sister programs to mentor kids from single-parent families. And we can serve the world in these ways with no interest in “the bottom line,” but simply with hopes of faithfully embodying our identity as followers of Jesus.
We’ll find that when we live this way, we are sustained by the Spirit of Jesus.
Second, an implication. If it is the case that God sustains us with his own life when we serve the world in the name of Jesus, how ought we to envision the corporate dynamics of our churches?
Evangelicals talk a lot about being “equipped” for ministry. We tend to imagine that we need to have all the right tools, get all the right teaching, and only then do we go out and get involved in our communities. I wonder if we think this way because we want to have some sort of guarantee that we’ll get results. Or, maybe to pacify our fear of failure.
One unintended consequence of this way of thinking is that we have many Christians who soak in plenty of Bible teaching in their churches but never get (or take) opportunities to act redemptively in their communities.
We are indeed sustained as we feed on Scripture. But, if we can think in terms of eating, this is only part of the meal. Or, perhaps hearing the preached word is only washing our hands before dinner. We eat, digest the food, and have it nourish and strengthen our bodies when we serve others and when we initiate and enjoy open-ended relationships with outsiders.
About a year into our urban missional church experience, I was walking with my friend John Mortensen in our church’s local neighborhood. We had imagined that God was going to do amazing things through our church. After all, we were sent there as their salvation. Or so we imagined.
The on-the-ground realities slowly dissolved our romantic notions and our big dreams. Rather than seeing lots of change in the neighborhood, we began seeing changes in ourselves. That conversation made all of this make sense to me. John and I came to the realization that we weren’t the salvation of that neighborhood. God had us there in that neighborhood to save us.
God was sustaining us and giving us life as we enjoyed conversations with people over a meal, as we shared about our lives and listened to their stories, and as we developed friendships of giving and receiving.
My point is that we must re-imagine how God sustains us with his life. It is certainly essential that we hear Scripture alongside one another and that we serve one another within the church. But it also essential to our connection with Christ that we relate with outsiders intentionally and with postures of humility.