Christians in the West today increasingly finds ourselves living on the margins. It was the same for the readers of 1 Peter. In a series of posts I’m identifying principles from 1 Peter for developing a gospel and missional DNA in our churches. The first principle was to proclaim the gospel to one another within the Christian community.
The second is to proclaim the gospel to create a missional identity.
In the world around us our identity (who we are) is based on our activity (what we do). In other words, who I am is based on what I do. I’m a successful person if I succeed. I’m an attractive person if I’m cool. I’m a good mother if I have lovely children. I’m a professional if I gain the necessary qualifications.
The mercy of God turns the world’s way upside down. In the world our identity must be achieved. In the gospel it is generously given to us in Christ. As a result, in the gospel our activity (what we do) flows from our identity (who we are). God makes me a good person (a person declared righteous in his sight) so I do good works.
You are not a missionary because you do mission. You do mission because you are a missionary.
So the first question we need to address if we want to change is not What must I do? but Who am I?
Look at how Peter does this in 2:9-10: ‘You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ (2:9-10) He describes the church using some key Old Testament allusions, particularly to Exodus 19:4-6 and Isaiah 43:20-21. Old Testament citations in the New Testament are like hypertext links. Click on them and you discover a context that gives meaning to the quote.
Exodus 19:4-6 are the words God spoke to Israel at Sinai to introduce the Mosaic covenant. As he is about to give his people the ten commandments, he tells them how they should see themselves and outlines the purpose of the covenant. He says: ‘Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
Israel is called to be a priestly kingdom. Ordinarily priests made God known to the people and offered sacrifices. Now the whole of Israel as a community is to be priestly: making God known to the nations and calling the nations to find atonement through sacrifice. Peter’s reference to a royal priesthood is more than an affirmation of the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of believers (though in the light of 2:5 it’s not less than this). Peter is talking about our corporate identity as God’s priestly people whose life together commends the goodness of his kingdom. Similarly, God’s people are to be a holy or distinct nation just as God himself is holy. God is carving out one place on earth where the goodness and freedom of kingdom can be seen. In other words, the community of God’s people is to be a missional community. The law is missional in intent, defining the distinctive community life that will draw the nations to God.
The same missional ideas are present in Isaiah 43. God says: ‘I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.’ (43:20-21) Isaiah is looking ahead to the exile of God’s people in Babylon, an exile in which Peter sees his readers (1:1; 5:13). Exile was the curse that Moses warned would fall if Israel failed to be a light to the nations through her faithfulness to the covenant (Deuteronomy 28:49-68). But Isaiah says God is going to lead through a new exodus. The One who brought his people through the Red Seas and led them through the desert and gave them water to drink is ‘doing a new thing’ (Isaiah 43:16-20). Peter has already described the death of Jesus as a new Passover (1:18-19). Now God’s redeemed people are again to declare his praises.
Israel was called to be a light to the nations. And Israel would again be redeemed to declare God’s praises to the nations. God’s people are to draw the world to God through the quality of our life.
Peter is saying this missional identity is fulfilled in the church. This is how he applies these allusions to the Old Testament: ‘Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’ (2:11-12)
Practical action: model a missional identity
If you are a large church then our advice is not to change all your structures, but to create a working model. In other words, say to a handful of people, ‘Go, do it.’ Teach them, train them, lead them, show them and then release them to be a gospel community within your church. Then encourage this group to talk to other people about how it is going – their vision, their joys, their frustrations. In this way the people of your church have the chance to observe a gospel community in action. Then, as you teach about how the gospel gives us a communal and missional identity, you can point to what is happening and say this is what it looks like. As people hear what is happening it may spark their imagination and they too may start to catch the vision.
You may then want to take your home groups or small groups and release them to be gospel communities. Give them a mandate to be church and to do mission and to reproduce. Rather than dismantle church life, you can gradually shift the focus to everyday church. Make the gospel communities the front door and the gathering the support structure rather than the other way round. Or keep a big lighthouse model of church with its beam of light sweeping across the whole city, but at the same time get that light dispersed at street level through the gospel communities.
If you are a small church then be a gospel community. Stop worrying about putting on events and programmes that mirror big churches. Instead, start being the people of God together on mission. Hang out together throughout the week. Get in and out of each other’s homes. Let people know the struggles you are facing and the opportunities you have. Find ways in which your lives can intersect with one another. Invite unbelievers to be part of this community life.