Light in Dark Places

One of the goals of Navigators Church Ministries is to help churches build disciplemaking cultures: moving disciplemaking beyond the ministry of a few to become part of the fabric of a church’s life. In this article, Justin Gravitt explores a key aspect of such a culture—aiming at those who do not know Jesus.

Light is meant for dark places. Jesus’ life testifies to this fact. His life was aimed at the darkness, not the light. He moved away from the religious elite of His day and toward those they looked down upon.

Disciples live like Jesus lived. They walk like He walked and talk like He talked. And so disciples dwell with the lost. Disciplemaking cultures are aimed at the lost.

However, too often we, the church, are aimed at the wrong target. The image that comes to mind is that we’re often like a rocket that’s sitting upside down on a launchpad. In many ways, it’s locked and loaded but aimed at the wrong thing. Despite numerous attempts to prepare and ignite for launch, it’s stuck. It’s not stuck because it lacks the needed resources (fuel, training, astronauts, and the like), but because its foundational direction is misaimed. If it doesn’t focus outward, the shuttle will be stuck.

Jesus’ shuttle was perfectly aimed. He communicated His mission explicitly: He came to bring light in order to rescue people from the darkness (John 12:46). He came to seek and save the lost. He came for the sinning people, not the righteous people (Mark 2:17). There are other reasons He came—to testify to the truth, to give His life as a ransom, to bring peace—but all hold together within the context of the lost.

Jesus lived life aimed at the darkness. He wasn’t merely a friend to sinners; He was a friend of them. In other words, they considered Him a friend. Jesus and sinners were so tight that it made the religious people uncomfortable. 

Like Jesus, Paul’s shuttle was aimed at the darkness. Though a Jew of Jews, Paul and his team would move into Gentile neighborhoods and share not just the gospel of God, but their lives as well. They dwelled with the Thessalonians and in the process loved so deeply that people were transformed by Jesus. The quality of their relationships was characterized by love, not information delivery or transfer. The friendships that developed were heart relationships that Paul carried with him long after he left the city.

In the past 40 years, many churches have sought to orient their shuttle around the lost. They have changed everything from sermons to music to attract more non-religious types. In my experience, I’m sorry to say, it hasn’t worked. I believe this well-meaning approach was born out of the church’s inward focus. The underlying assumption is that the lost should come to join them. It turns out, by and large, that the lost aren’t too interested in church gatherings.

Changing the Sunday experience was a great attempt to right the shuttle, but it’s not what Jesus did. Jesus didn’t establish a new kind of synagogue where His sin-loving friends would feel more comfortable. Instead, he went to them. He cared about them so much that His lifestyle included them. He dwelled with them!

Of course, this isn’t easy. It’s costly and uncomfortable, especially when we’re seeking to dwell with those whose life priorities are so different. But the way I see it, it’s essential.

Disciplemaking cultures are aimed at the darkness. They make disciples who understand that the context of their call to be “children of God” is to be lived out in the darkness of “a crooked and depraved generation.” It has to be that way because light is meant to overcome darkness. And it’s there that we’ll “shine like stars in the universe” as they live their lives” (Philippians 2:15-16, NIV).

So what does this look like? Disciplemaking cultures aimed at the darkness can take many forms, but here are a few distinctives I’ve seen:

1. Preaching is sprinkled with personal stories. The stories show that the pastor’s life is enmeshed with lost people. Not only is he continuing to learn, but he’s also a person to be emulated. He can say with Paul, “Follow my example as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

2. Teaching is focused on equipping people to live like Christ among the lost. For many of us this task is a cross-cultural mission. We must conquer fears of rejection and persecution before we’ll go. It’s not easy, but it is doable. The measurable goal is to be a friend of, not a friend to. One question I ask myself and others is, “When was the last time a non-Christian invited you to do something together?”

3. Church leaders intentionally create margin to encourage people to dwell with lost people.Since the number-one obstacle to Christlike living is busyness, church leaders choose to leave some “empty seats” in people’s schedules. Some churches do this by cutting programs that require a lot of volunteers to maintain, others have small groups meet every other week instead of every week, others schedule both small groups and church services for Sundays, leaving the rest of the week open. Regardless of how, dwelling with the lost requires time.

What’s your church aimed at? Is it focused on making more members? Increasing giving or knowledge of the Scriptures? Maybe it’s focused on making disciples, but has yet to connect that mission with reaching those outside the church.

God’s people are in the world to glorify God by fulfilling what’s in the front of His mind: reaching the nations of lost people. Making disciples is a way to multiply workers for the task, however it’s not the task. The task is bringing Jesus to the nations.

Light is meant to overcome darkness and shuttles are meant to aim towards the darkness. In most disciplemaking cultures it’s this piece that takes the most time to develop, but it’s essential. What first steps could you take to make sure your shuttle is aimed in the right direction?

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