Notwithstanding that there appear to be church institutions in abundance, and glamorous ‘mega-churches’ that are colorful and attractive, … there is the lurking question of what makes a Christian community genuinely and spontaneously contagious? What makes its participants irrepressible in their fervor to be engaged in the mission of God and the message of God in Christ, … to declare God’s love for all humankind his passion to have them reconciled to himself, and to one another, through his son, Jesus Christ?

When something is contagious, it knows no boundaries. Something causes it to spread infectiously. This certainly was the case with the first century church, and again and again in episodes through its history. But then also, it goes into those periods when it retreats into institutional passivity, becomes self-satisfied and non-reproductive—not at all contagious. Comfortable and non-demanding church communities easily become the home of religious ‘fellow-travelers’ who are evidently not at all converted to the life of obedient discipleship.

I have always been fascinated by (what is easily passed over in casual reading) the account of Paul’s missionary work in Ephesus. It tells of Paul doing what was his typical pattern, as a Jew, of going first to the synagogue, and when he got a hearing he would tell the participants of Jesus who was the promised messiah, whom the Jews had been anticipating over the centuries. He was convincing to some, while other rejected, even resented, his message. In Ephesus (a major commercial center) he first found some disciples of John the Baptist who were responsive to the message of the fulfillment of John’s prophecy in the coming of Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit. These dozen persons were to become the first Christian community in Ephesus.

He, then, went to the synagogue with the same message of Jesus and the kingdom of God, and for a brief period, evidently got a hearing, but ultimately that message was rejected by the leaders of the synagogue, and he took those who believed to a public meeting place. There, it records, that for two years he equipped them with the whole message, the ‘whole counsel of God,’i.e., he became their disciple-maker, their teacher and mentor as well as their model. And in that process these disciples became contagious. How do we know that they became contagious?

We can only extrapolate the answer to that question in understanding that Ephesus was a commercial center, and the city which had communication with the other cities in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). That would mean that those early disciples undoubtedly were part of that commercial enterprise and would be travelling all over Asia Minor on a regular basis.

So, then, let me make just two points here: 1) those disciples were not passive about the message of Jesus, but we convinced of it, converted passionately to it, and contagious with it. And, 2) the account says (Acts 19: 8-10) that in those two years “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” How did they hear it? Not from Paul, or the other apostles. No! All the residents of Asia undoubtedly heard it from the contagious disciples from Ephesus, who in their regular business travels into those cities, could not keep the message to themselves.

Christian discipleship can never be passive about the mission of God, or the message of God in Christ. True discipleship is, by its very nature, spontaneous and contagious. It incarnates itself in each disciple’s unique personality, and in his daily context. It is the responsibility of the overseers and teachers of the Christian communities to be constantly equipping the participants for such daily contagious lives in both their behavior and in their capacity to communicate the message convincingly. That’s how and why some communities are contagious, … and some are not!

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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