Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Power of Connection

This is a recent message (Sept. 13) on what happens when we connect with other believers for ministry and especially in small groups. Growth groups started this week. I strongly reccomend Activate by Nelson Searcy and Kerrick Thomas as the best how-to guide for small groups.

The Power of Connection
Acts 11:19-26

Elton Trueblood, a great man of God of an earlier generation, said this:

As everyone knows, it is almost impossible to create a fire with one log, even if it is a sound one, while several poor logs may make an excellent fire if they stay together as they burn. The miracle of the early church was that of poor sticks making a grand conflagration. A good fire glories even its poorest fuel.[1]

The “poor logs” illustrate the power of connection. You can be a poor log, a common person, no great leader or anything that will show up in a history book, but bound together, you can create an excellent fire.

There were very few famous people on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, but the combined action of a bunch of poor logs burned down the Nazi empire.

There were very few famous people who stood up to the British at Lexington and Concord and Yorktown, but the combined will of free people gave birth to a nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the idea that we are all created equal, and freedom’s torch still burns bright.

And there were very few famous people who made up the early church. We have just a few dozen names of the early believers. Their names are lost to history, but known to God. These common people, people with family problems and aches and pains and really hard work schedules—these are the people who came together to worship and work and study and pray and care for the world that God cares for—for the people of the world—and together they were ignited by the Spirit of God and burned brightly and turned their world upside down.

We owe a lot to these people. We are all their children, in a sense. They were the ones whose faith was passed on, and on, and on, until it came to us, and here we are!

They understood that they were nothing standing on their own. They understood that they were “poor logs.” But they also understood that God was changing the world through them. They didn’t gather for worship so they could “cope” and limp by for another week; they gathered together with the conviction that their little fellowship was the point of the spear of God’s transformation of the whole world.

Not only that, they were convinced that their little fellowships, their little churches, meeting in homes and halls, is the hope of the world. God was not doing what He was doing through lone ranger teachers and prophets; the heart of His work was happening through these fellowships of transformation.

I want to share a story from the book of Acts that illustrates the power of connection. Then, I want to apply this to the call God has on each and every one of us to be connected, to stay connected and to enhance our connection to bundles of believers who make “excellent fires” for God and His work today.

I want to draw you attention to Acts 11:19-26. I want to start by reading vs. 19-21, which sets up the story:

19Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. 20Some 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. 21The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

Acts 7-9 tells us about the first major outbreak of persecution of believers, against the church in Jerusalem and Judea. Here we’re told that some people did as people always do in times of persecution: they moved out, in this case north, to places like Cyprus and Phoenicia and Antioch, a major city in what’s today’s northwest Syria. And at Antioch, a major bridge event occurred: Jewish believers began to evangelize Greek-speaking Gentiles. The church at Antioch was on its way to becoming the first mostly Gentile church. We’re told that a “great number” believed.

We’re probably talking about thousands of brand-new Jesus followers who had no Jewish background. That meant that they didn’t know beans about the Bible (the Old Testament), they didn’t know who Abraham or Moses was, they didn’t know about the Ten Commandments, they didn’t know about the creation, they didn’t know about the 23rd Psalm—you get the picture. They didn’t know jack!

Two crucial things have to happen for a church like the one in Antioch to move forward: they had to have proper leadership and they have to have the right structures in place to instruct people, to nurture people and to mature people. Most of the apostles were still down south in Jerusalem, and that’s what they started to do—read Acts 11:22-24:

22News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

Barnabas had a number of things going for him. First, he was a proven leader. He was someone that they knew they could count on. Second, he was culturally the perfect guy: although he was Jewish, he’d been raised on Cyprus (Acts 4:36). He was a “cosmopolitan”: someone at home in a multi-cultural environment. He could speak great Greek and he was comfortable with Gentiles customs. Finally, he has the right personality characteristics. His real name was Joseph, but he’d picked up the nickname of Barnabas, which can be translated as Son of Encouragement. He was the kind of guy who always had a smile and made you feel like everything was going to turn out fine.

God blessed his work there in Antioch. He encouraged the believers. He strengthened them. The church kept on growing.

But—he knew something was missing.

He could sense it in his own life. Maybe he sensed it in the lives of the people there in Antioch. There was only so much he could do for them.

My suspicion is that Barnabas felt a little bit like the guy in the circus who does that trick with the spinning plates. You can keep them going, but boy, you have to keep moving! Because he was such a nice guy, such an encouraging guy, people were probably running to Barnabas with their problems 24/7. (If there was a Mrs. Barnabas, think how she felt!)

Here’s what I think Barnabas was thinking: I can’t do this all on my own. We need to build a team. I need somebody to help me here. Somebody who loves Jesus and who’s sold out for God, but somebody whose gifts and personality is way different from my own. And I know just the guy!

A few years before, Barnabas had befriended a new convert named Saul. (We know him better today as the Apostle Paul—they were big on nicknames back then.) Here was a guy who was driven, tough, no nonsense, a natural theologian and a gifted organizer, the kind of guy who was always thinking six moves ahead. Although he was sometimes criticized for his people skills (or lack thereof), he had actually had a huge heart for people. He would complement Barnabas perfectly. Let’s read Acts 11:25-26:

25Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26and 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.

I can just imagine Barnabas; Tarsus was a fairly short boat ride from Antioch. He goes looking for him, and the way Saul/Paul makes waves, it probably wasn’t that hard to find him! I wonder—how hard it was to persuade him to come to Antioch?

The next line tells a whole story:

So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people.

I can just see Saul/Paul as he sets out to do the job in Antioch. He gets out a calendar and his desktop and sets up a schedule of teaching. Then he organizes leader training. He sets up small groups; he organizes the leaders and trains them. The man is a ball of lightening! He and Barnabas become team teachers for the church there and they start to train others as lead teachers. And the effect is so powerful that something happens at Antioch that would change the world:

The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.

The transforming effect of the teaching of Saul and Barnabas is so strong that the people in Antioch began calling the believers by a new name: “Christians.” They would have understood this to mean, Christ-followers or, to belonging to the house of family of Christ.

I don’t think it’s stretching it to think that the citizens of Antioch started calling believers Christians because all these people could do was talk about the greatness and the love and the glory of this man, Jesus Christ. They were clearly “Christ’s people”, not Barnabas’ people or Saul’s people or Peter’s people. They belonged to Christ. And they were like Him to. One of the shades of meaning of Christianoi is “little Christs.” The character of Jesus was being reproduced in their lives.

How did this happen? Well, there are several factors—the work of the Holy Spirit, the power of the word of God, and faith of the believers and others. But I think a significant factor here is the power of connection. You can see that in two ways:

First, think of what Barnabas and Saul were able to do together. The team connection that they made, combining different gifts and different backgrounds and very different personalities came together to create something that was way more powerful than anything either of them would have done on their own.

It’s also clear that team building continued on there at Antioch. In Acts 12, the action shifts back to Jerusalem, so the story really continues on in Acts 13, and in the opening verses we’re told that the team had expanded on to five key players. Again, what these five could do together for the kingdom of God was way more than if each were operating independently. There we’re told that the power of combined action was so powerful that the Spirit launched a missionary movement out of Antioch that would take Barnabas and Saul away, leaving the church there in the hands of new leadership—three men named Simeon, Lucius and Manaen.

There’s another dimension of the power of combined action that’s hiding just under the surface here: how was it that in one year that the church could be so fully trained and new leaders raised up so that there was such a revolution that the believers began “doing business as” (that’s actually what the word “called” means in vs. 26) Christians?

If we think for a minute that all they had to do was have Saul and Barnabas give a lecture for an hour each week and everyone sat and took notes, well, that’s just a fantasy.

Years later, Paul gave his younger associate Timothy a glimpse of how this happens. The passage is 2 Timothy 2:2—think of it as 2T22!

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.

This was the secret of the way that the church at Antioch grew in maturity so much in just one year. Biblical truth and the very character of Jesus were being transmitted from person to person in the context of meaningful relationships.

We have this word, fellowship. A lot of churches have a room they call Fellowship Hall; I know the church where I was baptized—where Lynann and I were married—they had a Fellowship Hall. But fellowship isn’t something that happens while drinking over-sweet punch and eating underdone cookies. Fellowship is where life change occurs and I become more like Jesus Christ because I get together with other believers, study God’s word, pray for each other, apply God’s truth to my life and where we care for each other and nurture one another—and where we serve together and reach non-believers with God’s love. That’s real biblical fellowship.

Real fellowship requires authenticity, mutual support, sympathy and mercy. It also requires honesty, humility, courtesy, and frequency.

Jesus pioneered the system that would harness the power of connection when He enlisted 12 very ordinary men for the job of changing the world. Then the early church just copied Jesus. In Acts 2:42 and 46 we read,

42They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…

This is how they grew: the word (the apostles’ teaching) and the fellowship was experienced in two very different venues: the big group met in the temple courts (where there was room, if you needed it, for thousands of people) and they met in homes as well, in little groups of probably no more than 10-20 people.

Some people think the idea of “small groups” is some kind of fad. No way—it’s rooted in Jesus’ methods, it was copied by the early church, and in every era where the church is being effective, it springs up again.

I think one of the things that Saul/Paul was doing during that year in Antioch was training the home-to-home leaders, the small group leaders. You see, you need this experience of applying God’s word as well as the big group. I read recently about the idea of the four social spaces that we all need for healthy and authentic relationships. We need intimate space, personal space, social space and public space. Intimate space is like between a husband and wife or with a very close friend. Personal space is what you share with a small handful of close friends or relatives. Jump to public space—that’s like at a worship service or a ballgame. What most of us are most likely to lack is “social space”: the “buddies” that you “hang out” with.[2]

The apostles were the original “buddy group.” They weren’t all best friends, but they were friends who loved and supported and cared for one another. (Yes, they did have one huge drop-out named Judas, which tells you that small groups sure aren’t perfect!) We need the Lord’s imprint in our lives in all four of these social spaces—in our church, our small group, in our close circle of relationships and in our marriage.

You need to experience the power of connection if you want to maximize what God desires to do in your life. Connection can take the form of a Sunday school class or the form of a Growth Group, but you need to be connected. Saul/Paul didn’t experience the fullness of what had planned for his life until he joined the team there in Antioch. I’m convinced that the church in Antioch took off like a rocket in terms of their knowledge and Christ-like lifestyle only when they had trained leaders and everybody bound together in smaller groups. When poor logs get bound together, they sure can build an excellent fire!

Think of that image again: poor logs making an excellent fire. Let’s take that word FIRE and see four things that we can do to bring this power of connection alive in our lives.

F: Find a group to connect to.

Today we have a listing of all our classes and growth group opportunities in your worship folder. You’ve heard a testimony about the power of connection. Whatever you do, find a group to connect to. You can check the name (or names) of the class or group you’re interested in and that group leader will get back to you. Or you can go to the tent on the front lawn to ask questions and sign up there. We make it easy for you, and we’ll do the follow-up.

I: Invest the time needed to make it work.

“I don’t have time” is the number one reason people don’t connect. All I can say is, you get what you pay for. Barnabas got on a boat to build his team and the payoff was huge. You’ve heard about the impact being part of a group has had. The question is, isn’t the time worth it? If there’s power in connection, then it’s also true that there’s weakness in isolation. Invest the time and you’ll reap the dividends.

R: Resist the temptation to go it alone.

In the Old Testament, the Elijah went it alone and got so depressed he asked God to kill him! (You can read the story in 1 Kings 19.) God told him to get up and to reconnect with those who loved the Lord.

Listen: lone rangers are alone! They have no one to cry with, no one to challenge them to grow, and no one to celebrate with.[3] You’re not being “tough” when you go it alone—you’re being selfish and shortsighted. Make the connection investment.

E: Expect God to work in your life.

Expect the power of connection to make a difference in your life. Maybe it won’t be as dramatic as what we saw happen at Antioch. But for you, it will be just as real. Expect to find friends. Expect to find purpose. Expect to find answers. Expect to find God’s guidance. Expect to find God at work in your life, making you more and more like Jesus—more and more into a “Christ-person”, a Christian, like they were first called at Antioch!

[1] Cited in The Beautiful Fight by Gary Thomas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), p. 218.
[2] Activate, Nelson Searcy and Kerrick Thomas (Ventura: Regal, 2008), p. 19-27.
[3] See Tony Morgan and Tim Stevens, Simply Strategic Volunteers, p. 136-137 (Loveland, CO: Group, 2005).

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