A few posts ago I asked the question, How can we start a church planting movement?
The first answer to that question is that we cannot! And so a common characteristic of church planting movements is a passion for prayer.
Persecution and martyrdom
Another common characteristic is persecution. Persecution in the early church was sporadic. Sometimes a whole generation passed without state persecution. But social disapproval was constant and martyrdom was always a possibility for its leaders. The persecution of the Chinese church under Mao was horrendous, constant and sustained. Even now Christians are imprisoned and beaten for their faith.
What is the lesson for us? I think it is that our pattern for Christian living should be martyrdom, it should be dying. That sounds likes an oxymoron so let me explain what I mean.
From an incremental approach to discipleship …
We tend to take an incremental approach to discipleship. A person is converted and we begin to ratchet up their commitment to Christ. We encourage them to ‘come out’ to their friends and to share the gospel. We then might ask them to serve in church. If they prove very keen we might encourage them to think about cross-cultural missionary serve. We do not even ask people to live among the poor, but we are impressed when they do. Martyrdom is a distant prospect. Through a series of steps we increase for people what it means to follow Jesus.
… to a call to die
But in persecuted churches martyrdom is written into the call to conversion. A decision to become a Christian might well mean persecution, ostracisation, imprisonment and martyrdom. To decide for Christ is to decide to die.
This is how Jesus issued his call to conversion: ‘Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”‘ (Mark 8:34)
When the decision for Christ means a decision for martyrdom, everything else is already effectively decided.
A friend of mine was talking about a missionary to the Middle-East who was converted form a Muslim background. He told another Muslim convert that he thought this man’s wife worried too much about money, that the man himself perhaps worried too little about money. The Muslim convert replied: ‘Of course he doesn’t worry about money. When he become a Christian he gave up everything. He gave up family, reputation and every prospect of wealth.’
The way of the cross
The choice for martyrdom contains within it a whole life of cross-centred discipleship. And this is the point: not that we should look to be martyred, but that we call people to cross-shaped lives of self-denial.
Michael Gorman calls it ‘cruciformity’, a fancy word meaning ‘cross-shaped’. This is not just ‘radical discipleship’ as if we were simply talking about being ‘very’ Christian. Christian life has a distinct and definite shape and that shape is the cross.
Actually people want to give themselves to something. Our experience is that people are drawn to a radical movement because they want their service of Christ to be significant.
More important, we need to extol the preciousness of Christ. The kingdom of God is like a man who find treasure in a field and sold everything he had to buy that field.
A Jesus-Shaped Life: Living the Cross and Resurrection
Spelling out what this looks like in practice was the subject of one of my talks at the North American Total Church conference back in August. I’m also writing a book which IVP (UK) will publuish next year. The working title is A Jesus-Shaped Life: Living the Cross and Resurrection.