Michael Moynagh’s book “Church for Every Context, in its first chapter, suggests that there is much to learn from the apostle Paul about being a relevant church. Following Moynagh, I want to suggest five indicators from Paul’s ministry that may say something to us about how we offer ministry in our situation, or situations. I am not sure that the five are entirely distinct from each other, nor am I absolutely sure exactly what to imply, but I think there are some hints in each.
The first thing I want to say is that Paul identified with the contexts that he sought to reach. He became all things to all people. That is explicit in 1 Corinthians 9:19 -23 – ….To Jews I behaved like a Jew … To win those outside that law, I behaved as if outside the law. … To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. … I have become everything in turn, so that in one way or another I might save some. … How do we identify with the contexts that we ought to be reaching? One of the questions we ought always to be asking is about what our mission is. How do we identify with the contexts of our congregations? How do we identify with the contexts in which we are set? Putting it another way, what are the missional things we are doing? What are the missional things we ought to be doing?
The second point is not unrelated, but perhaps challenges us towards a subtle shift in what we have just been saying. Paul allowed the needs, and so the cultures, of both Jews and Gentiles to inform his behaviour. He became the servant of his listeners. I cited 1 Corinthians 9, from verse 19, but actually began the bit of quoting that I offered from that section from verse 20. Let’s listen to verse 19, and Paul saying, I am free and own no master; but I have made myself everyone’s servant, to win over as many as possible. We often emphasise the freedom that we have in Christ, and so we should, but notice Paul’s willingness to qualify that freedom by engaging in a ministry of service. We would say we do the same – but do we? It is very easy to get caught up in pressing for what we want, often for the best of reasons, but in a way that does not serve the other. Paul entered the habits of his audiences and showed what the gospel would look like when it was enacted in their setting.
Let’s make another shift as we move to our third point, again significantly related to what we have just been saying. This is about leading by example. Moynagh says this: “So, in Corinth, where people cherished success, sought to climb the social ladder and prized clever rhetoric, Paul had an occupation without status, assumed a servant role and rejected crowd-pleasing rhetoric. … He showed how the gospel was distinctive within our context? What are the things we need to be commenting on? What do we need to be saying?
Let’s make another subtle shift as we reach the fourth comment. Moynagh simply makes the point that “Church happened in the midst of the everyday.” Is it perhaps the case that we too easily detach church from the everyday? I think we need to get church more rooted in everyday things – and it is worth thinking about how we can do that. How do we get church feeling a natural place for people to be?
That brings us neatly to the fifth of these points. Moynagh points out: “The Jerusalem church was born as a reform movement among the Jews. The disciples attended the temple daily and had a strong sense of their Jewish identity. They saw themselves as the nucleus of a new Israel, living in the last days. … The conversion of Cornelius challenged that expectation.” The question of identity is a very interesting one. It is also both relevant and challenging. The very early church saw itself as a Jewish off-shoot, but, as Gentiles began to join the church, it started to take a rather different shape. What is our identity as church? In a post-Christian society, the question of Christian identity is highly relevant. The Bible and the church still have huge influence on our culture. How do we help that to stay relevant? Indeed Paul offers us a lot to think about so far as the question of being a relevant church is concerned.