By Eddie Lowen
For a long time, I believed every church needed a target group: the irreligious, the unchurched, men, young families, singles, young adults . . . some group that is underrepresented in most established churches. But my thinking has shifted. I am now cautious about identifying target groups.
Acts 10 introduces Cornelius, captain of the Italian Regiment. It’s safe to assume Cornelius looked and sounded much like the soldiers who brutalized and killed Jesus. That unsavory association made Cornelius and other Roman military personnel persona non grata at most gatherings for followers of Jesus. In fact, the earliest Jewish Christians would have been stunned if someone had predicted a book named Romans would be part of their soon-to-be updated Scriptures.
Who could blame those believers for not thinking of Roman military officers as potential siblings in the faith? But Cornelius had a heart for God, something that always attracts God, no matter how unlikely the source.
Meanwhile, Peter was in Joppa at a friend’s house, occupying the first-century version of a man cave (overhead, not underground). Peter was on the roof praying, though certainly not for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church. However, Peter was praying, and that’s what matters most when it comes to prayer—doing it. It’s infinitely more important to pray than to know what to pray for because God responds to prayer, not prayer formulas.
Peter recalls the moment in Acts 11:5, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision.” I love the realism of Acts 10 and 11 because these chapters illustrate a reason why prayer is difficult: distractions. Back in chapter 10, we learn that Peter is hungry. Have you ever tried to pray when you were hungry?
Most people would stop praying and eat. But Peter remembered what happened when 120 prayed on the Day of Pentecost. He wanted God’s Spirit to continue moving, so he kept praying. I wish I were more inclined to pray, no matter what. I’m a sucker for distractions. Once, as I paused to pray in my office, my assistant knocked to pass along a gift card someone had dropped off for me. The devil will even pay you not to pray!
If you’ve ever had a dream that somehow incorporated your actual physical circumstances in the dream sequence, you have an idea of what Peter experienced. God included some food in Peter’s dream. But there was a complication: it included food that faithful Jews didn’t eat. Peter recalls, “I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat’” (11:5-7).
Peter gets a message many dieters would love to receive from God, Forget about the diet. Just eat. But Peter senses a test. He isn’t falling for it. He isn’t about to eat food that is unclean.
If you were reading this for the first time, you might expect God to say, All right Peter, I was just testing your resolve. You did well. I’m glad you didn’t eat forbidden food. Here’s a lamb chop. But that doesn’t occur. In verse 9 Peter explains, “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’”
As the account unfolds, Peter realizes God is suspending Jewish dietary rules to make an even bigger point: God makes the rules. God decides who’s in and who’s out. And now God wanted people like Cornelius, the Roman military officer and Gentile, to be included. The take-home: the church is for everyone. If you’re a Gentile, you’re welcome through Jesus Christ. If you’re a foreigner with a questionable career, you’re still welcome through Jesus Christ.
Just in case anyone suspects God was creating a category of second-class believers in his kingdom, God gave irrefutable confirmation of the Gentiles’ equal status. In Acts 11:15 Peter says, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning.” This outpouring was familiar. The same manifestations of the Spirit the Jews experienced in Acts 2 was now being enjoyed by the Gentiles in Acts 10. The same confirmation had been given, and the same blessing imparted. Peter understood the lesson: God has no favorites among the races. The Jews weren’t being “unchosen,” but the Gentiles were being adopted into God’s family. We’re a blended spiritual family now.
If I dared to distill the series of events in Acts 10 and 11 into one word, it would be everyone. God was saying: Peter, I want the walls to come down. In fact, I’m pushing them down. I will tolerate no more Jewish superiority. I want no more justification of hate for the Romans. I am coming out against cultural intolerance and spiritual elitism based on race. I make the rules, so I’m inviting the outsiders to be insiders. I have given the same Spirit, to the same degree, in the same incredible way to make it obvious that the same commands and the same blessings apply to everyone.
What a moment this is. Centuries of Jewish culture and theological presumption are being confronted and exposed as falsehood. It is a moment that would change every church till the end of time.
Who Am I?
In Acts 11:17, Peter asked a question that is still as valid as it is challenging: “So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” I don’t dare envision a church that is less inclusive than the one God envisioned.
I recently read that the hormone oxytocin helps us trust and bond with other people. That’s not surprising, because hormones are the chemicals that facilitate human emotion.
However, researchers have discovered a limitation of oxytocin. It bonds us best to people who are similar to us. That means, even on a biological and chemical level, it’s easy to be cliquish and tribal. That’s why Peter needed a new, Heaven-sent vision for the church. That’s why many modern believers need a new vision for their churches.
What if the people we most naturally view as cultural enemies—as Peter probably viewed the Romans—are in reality our most fertile mission field? In Acts 10:34, 35, Peter said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
There’s an old axiom about group dynamics that says, “Everyone’s job is no one’s job.” The church doesn’t thrive when its mission is delegated to a few leaders. So, everyone should pray for someone, engage someone in conversation, invite someone to a healthy church, and even offer to pray with someone who is far from God.
If more of us don’t reach someone, we’ll never reach everyone.
Eddie Lowen, lead minister of West Side Christian Church, Springfield, Illinois, writes the “Ministry Today” column semimonthly in CHRISTIAN STANDARD and serves on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.