Photo Credit: Lia Filles
It was an accident… an unexpected stumbling into a modern-day New Testament church. Sort of. It was actually a converted warehouse in a dodgy Cape Town suburb. I was attending a workshop on Christian nonviolent activism when the peace-award-winning speaker was cut short by black pain spilling out of its floodgates.
For the next two hours, we white people listened (squirming, uncomfortable, some looking toward the exits) while 400+ years of historic hurt was voiced with anger and tears. (Twenty-five years after Apartheid, South Africa still has the greatest economic disparity between the races on the planet.) At one point, a young man from a township raised his shirt and compared the scars on his side to Jesus’. His were a result of a blade and gang violence. Another eloquent and enraged young woman described the daily violence her mother endures: Her shack has no running water, so she makes do with a bucket bath and communal outhouse. Yet, she cleans a white woman’s grand bathroom … Every day. She cares for white children in safe neighborhoods while her own are often left unattended in her township. Year after year. Then, the angry, articulate young woman stated, “And, my mother doesn’t steal from them, doesn’t kill them! That’s nonviolence!”
Do you feel uncomfortable? Or empowered? The answer would depend on the story inside you. It’s a prickly process to have your hidden inner narratives exposed to your own self. I imagine these types of subversive, heated and awkward conversations would have been prevalent in the early church as the Jewish believers extended welcome to unclean Gentiles, second-class women, slaves…
Theologian Scot McKnight describes the member roster of a typical early church in Rome. It’s a shocking, unlikely mix of around 30 members, mostly Gentile, such as:
- The Master – The church would meet in this wealthy, large home.
- The Master’s Wife – A woman well placed and respected in society.
- Slaves – Who had no political rights. (Scandalous fact: During this Roman era, it was common for the Master to have sex with his male and/or female slaves. In my book, this house church just got very awkward.)
- Widows – Who were entirely dependent upon the church and master for survival. (Did the Master’s wife ever get tired of the constant need draining their resources?)
- Tenant Farmers and their Wives – They rented from the master. (Were they shy to express their struggles and opinions around their landlord/boss?)
- A Jew – Who was conditioned to hate Gentiles.
- A Zealot – Who was a Jew in an aggressive political party aiming to overthrow the Roman empire. (This church just got political… perhaps even a little dangerous.)
- A Jewish Tax Collector – Who, by the Zealot’s standards, was a sell-out to Rome, not a real Jew. (This church just got politically polarized.)
- Citizens, such as Poor Laborers and a Wealthy Merchant- What was their chit chat like? Did the laborer talk about his struggle to put food on the table while the merchant complained of the scarcity of fine wine for his parties?
- A Converted Pagan Priest – How in the world would this man interpret letters from Paul?
- An Enslaved Temple Prostitute – She’d be an active prostitute as property of the temple with little chance of earning freedom. (She also may have known the pagan priest, and perhaps a few others around the table, intimately… if you catch my drift.)
- Homeless – Are they there for the food or God? No one probably ever knew. It is a question that has endured through the ages.
“The gospel isn’t offensive because of who it excludes, but for who it includes.” – Steve Schallert
The early church didn’t sit in pews facing forward, listening to one voice preach and then go home. No. The early church was not a spectator sport. They sat around one giant table called the Lord’s Supper, facing each other, sharing food, and eating it with their hands. They bumped elbows and traded germs. They’d read the latest letter from Paul aloud or recount a tale about Jesus. And, they’d respond out of their own stories and life experiences, wrestling with the Messiah’s actions or Paul’s crazy notion that Jews and Gentiles could be one family in Christ. They’d discuss. They’d listen. They’d sing. They’d pray. They’d eat. This was what the Table of the Lord actually looked like, and it is the central metaphor for the Kingdom of God throughout the New Testament. It was uncomfortable. It was beautiful. It was awkward. It was empowering.
“God has designed the church – and this is the heart of Paul’s mission – to be a fellowship of difference and differents… The church is God’s world-changing social experiment of bringing unlike and differents to the table to share with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together are designed by God to be. The church is God’s show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a family.” Scot McKnight.
Photo Credit: Lia Filles
Can you see why in that dodgy Cape Town warehouse I felt like I’d stumbled into a New Testament era church?
When the tide of racial pain ebbed back out into the ocean of generational injustice from which it emerged, our mixed-race group took Eucharist together. The eloquent, enraged young woman prayed a passionate prayer. A white worship leader strummed tentatively on his guitar. And, we sang worship songs in African dialects which most of the white people didn’t understand. It was painful. It was beautiful. It was humbling. It was honoring. No one left the same.
It was there that I understood listening can be a form of worship – a transformational spiritual discipline.
Listening as a discipleship tool requires us to look deeper than words and tone and into someone’s story. It requires us to see the storyteller as the image of God through which Holy Spirit is currently speaking to us. Listening as worship requires us to lean into the pain and sit in the discomfort (which is why it’s an increasingly lost discipline in modern society). Listening as a form of worship is detrimental to your ego, to your false self. Listening as a form of worship is not about forming an opinion, but about Jesus being formed within you. That day in the warehouse, the image of God I was called to listen to came in the form of the angry young woman educating me: To the poor, living next to indifferent (or even sympathetic) wealth feels like violence. I saw the passion and pain of Jesus a little more clearly. I also saw my culpability more vividly. Listening as a form of worship often creates more questions than answers, yet it inspires change.
How does that New Testament era membership roster compare to your church? Is there primarily one race? One political party? How prominent are female voices? Who would not feel welcome? If the churches around you are like the churches around me, they are a fellowship of sameness. It’s easier to worship with people who will validate our way of seeing self and world rather than challenging it. I often wonder how the development of God’s family has been lopsided because we shy away from this type of chiseling. Where are we blind?
“The church is a group of people who don’t agree called to learn to love one another.” Theologian Dallas Willard
The early church was often a fellowship of discomfort, yet Acts says people flocked to this Table by the thousands. Why? Perhaps it’s because at the Table, the master had to listen to his wife. The slave was given a voice for the first time. The zealot considered the tax collector’s brotherhood over his lack of patriotism. The prostitute was not sexualized. The widows found family. The poors’ voices became valuable, and the rich learned to be their friends. The hungry were fed. Through that process, they saw God more clearly. It was beautiful. It was messy. It was broken. It was glorious and revolutionary. The point of church isn’t about coming to agreement; the point is learning to love better.
“Listening is an act of love.” Jim George
In Part Two, we’ll look deeper into this listening fellowship, how it revolutionized culture, and discipled its members neurologically.
McKnight, S. (2015). A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together
The Warehouse Trust in Cape Town