If you are going to start a new church, you need a good reason why. It’s not enough to need a new job (your new church may never be able to pay you) or because your denomination is declining.
A church is a community of women and men who are “prophetic.” By embodying a different way of life, they critique the culture around them.
Because of their innovative nature and lighter amount of historical and denominational baggage, a fresh expression of Church has a tremendous opportunity to offer this kind of prophetic example to their surrounding culture.
But how do you know if your new church is a prophetic community?
To understand that, it helps to consider aliens and John the Baptist.
Arrival at Advent
2016 has been a good year for TV and movies, especially if you are into the nerdier movies like I am. But every once and awhile you see a movie that feels important. That’s what I thought when I saw “Arrival.”
Arrival tells the story of a linguist, played by Amy Adams, fighting against time to learn how to communicate with an alien. She discovers that when you truly understand something that comes from outside our system, it completely changes how you understand and live your whole life.
Outside voices, by their nature, provide a prophetic critique.
Arrival is a great movie to get us thinking about Advent. The season of Advent is the time of the year when we focus on waiting. We cultivate a sense of anticipation of what the world will be like when Jesus fully reigns. In Advent, we revisit a few familiar prophetic voices, with names like Isaiah, Mary, and John.
Prophets are known for “speaking truth to power.” At this point in our society, the voice of a prophet is an important one. We see many problems in our society that need uncovering.
During the season of Advent, as we look back to these prophets, we encounter John the Baptist, who has the distinct place in history of being the last of the Jewish prophets before Jesus. He’s also the cousin of Jesus.
We often try to apply the prophet’s words to our society or our lives as individuals. But I would suggest that John and his message, as well as Jesus, are more like the aliens in Arrival.
Six Signs of a Prophetic Community
John and his ministry take place outside of the social and religious structures of his day. I believe if we understand what he is doing (and Jesus does the same thing), it calls us to rethink our place in the world. John’s example provides six elements of a prophetic community to strive for in our fresh expressions.
1. Make Your Home in the Wilderness
In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said,
“He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”
The first thing we notice about John is that he sets up shop in the wilderness. There were synagogues and a National temple, but John went to the Wilderness.
The desert wilderness would have evoked a deep ethnic and religious memory in John’s audience of first century Jews. Their story began thousands of years before in the wilderness, where they lived for 40 years. In that time, God was judging them for what they had done in the past and helping them form a new, redeemed identity.
The wilderness is a far cry from the centers of culture, Jerusalem and Rome, New York, and London. In the wilderness you can’t plant or harvest or even make a home. You have to trust that God will provide.
But God uses the desert to form us into his people. We don’t need to be in the center of it all. We need to go to a place where we are totally dependent on God.
2. Identify with the Marginalized
John’s clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food, he ate locusts and wild honey.
The second thing we notice about John is that wears camel hair and leather. He eats what he can scavenge: locust and honey. Some scholars say that this is an allusion to other prophets who have come before him. Yes, but it is also clearly the marks of poverty. John dresses like those who can’t afford elaborate robes and belts. He eats like those who can not provide for themselves.
John chose to identify with his audience, people who were the marginalized. Becoming a prophetic people will take more than just reading books, sharing articles and having opinions, it means identifying with those who we are called to love and serve.
3. Announce Possibilities
His message was, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”
The third thing John does is call people to repentance. Repentance does not mean feel bad about something you’ve done. It means “turn around, and see what God has in store for you!”
We live in a culture that neither criticizes well nor takes criticism well. John shows us that critique alone is not enough, we must announce the kingdom. As a prophetic people, we have the opportunity to tell people “Look! God has so much more in store for you!”
4. Denounce Religious Hypocrisy
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of vipers!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God.”
John is especially hard on the religious leaders that come to hear him. He calls them “vipers,” a snake that was rumored to eat it’s young.
The reason he criticizes them is important. By saying “we have Abraham as our father,” they were claiming undeserved favor, simply based on their race. John is clear: God judges us on our actions toward God and others, not our socio-economic happenstance.
Religious hypocrites claim to be privileged but often use their status to oppress others. John demonstrates that we must hold our religious people to the standard they claim to deserve.
This applies today to religious leaders we see in our culture, and it also applies to us.
5. Invite Both the Outsider and Insider to Change
…when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River.
John is known primarily for being a “baptizer.” John, like Jesus, was a Jew, which is both an ethnicity and religion. But every once and awhile, people chose to convert. As a part of their preparation, they would go through a cleansing ritual that became known as baptism.
But John isn’t trying to proselytize outsiders; he’s baptizing insiders! John’s message is that we all need to change, turn around and embrace who God is wants us to be.
As a prophetic people, we are never focused on getting outsiders to change, but modeling and announcing to the world our need to change!
6. Point to Jesus
“I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals.”
John ends his sermon by announcing that Jesus is coming and that Jesus will separate what is useful from what is useless. John could be starting a religious revival, a new religion or an uprising. Instead, he invites people to prepare people to meet Jesus.
As a prophetic people, it is never our job to blow our own horn and proclaim to the world around us how we have it all figured out. Instead, we tell them that Jesus is here, Jesus’s kingdom is near, and in Jesus, a better, more useful life is possible. Like John, we should only be known for one thing: pointing to Jesus.
Choose to be on the Outside
There was a time in American history when the church was on the inside. It carried both practical power and moral authority in the public sphere.
For all intents and purposes, that time has passed.
In Arrival, Amy Adams’ life is turned upside down by coming to understand a message from the outside. John the Baptist did the same for his culture: prophetically forcing his audience to reevaluate life in light of a message from outside their daily religious reality.
If we try to start churches for the center of culture, we will either fail to launch or compromise our message for that culture.
John is proof of another option: we can be a start of something fresh and prophetic, if we’re willing to do it from the outside.
Chris Morton serves as Community Developer for Austin Mustard Seed, a new Church Community for North Central Austin. As his day job, he helps organizations like Fresh Expressions tell their story with Content, Email and Social Media Marketing. He blogs about getting life on track and the Church on mission at ChrisMorton.info.