Home > Blog > Movement and the Early Church [Part 1]

December 2, 2017

Movement and the Early Church [Part 1]

By JR Woodward

Left with the co-mission to go and make disciples of all nations, to live as sent ones, to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and the utter ends of the earth, the disciples (aside from Judas) and the rest of the 120 in the upper room waited for the filling of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus told them.

Notice that the first posture of the church was to wait. Too often we are anxious and in a hurry to try and do things for God, as if movement is something we create, manage, or control. If we want to live into church as movement, one of the essential pieces of wisdom we need to digest is that “waiting in prayer is the disciplined refusal to act before God acts.”[1] Do not breeze by that statement. Ruminate on it.

As Jewish pilgrims from all around the world gathered for Pentecost, the wind of the Spirit blew through the upper room. As they were filled with the Spirit, they spoke in tongues and all the people heard the Good News in their own language. Peter lets those who were gathered know that Joel’s prophecy is coming to bear, that now God is sending young and old, male and female, rich and poor to live into and spread the Good News far and wide, that “the one true God has now taken charge of the world, in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection.”[2]

As they lived out their sentness, they did so with humble boldness, as “Irvin and Sunquist helpfully observe, ‘the earliest Christian missionaries from Jerusalem went out as refugees and victims of persecution … these first Christians had expansionist tendencies without worldly power.’ ”[3] As they confessed Jesus as Lord of the universe, it was clear that they believed Caesar was not. This is one of the reasons the early church suffered discrimination and persecution.

The accepted worldview of the Romans was paganism. Because the Christians didn’t honor the deities of the Roman pantheon, including the emperor himself, whenever something went wrong, like a natural disaster or lack of rain, the Christians became the scapegoats. The Romans believed their lack of reverence for Roman deities angered the gods, which in turn removed their protection from Rome.

The Growth of the Early Church

Yet in the midst of this discrimination and persecution, the church flourished. There were only 120 Christ followers that gathered in the upper room. Later in Acts 4:4 we are told that 5,000 believed. And according to Acts 21:20, by the sixth decade of the first century, there were “many thousands of Jews” in Jerusalem who now believed.

The early church didn’t have what we have today. They didn’t have much money. They didn’t have church buildings and seminaries, the things we think are necessities. They didn’t even have a completed New Testament, at it was in the process of canonization during this time. How was it that the church flourished even in the midst of discrimination and persecution? And why are less and less people in North America self-identifying as Christians?

While there are a number of important elements to consider, what becomes clear as one reads through the Book of Acts and early church literature is that our triune God is building the church, and the gates of hell will not prevail. We don’t need to try and find the formula for success. If we did we would have to include persecution and discrimination, because that was one of the key elements at work in the early church that most formulas for movement don’t include today.

While there are things we need to recover that we have forgotten, maybe the biggest changes we need to make involve our posture in the world. Living in the land of luxury, we think have made church planting too complex, too programmatic, too complicated. What we need in this time of liminality is to change our posture, and re-learn what it means to be the church in a growing post-Christendom, post-attractional context in a way that reflects Jesus.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in which we’ll consider taking on three postures for movement.

[1] Eugene Peterson, God’s Message for Each Day: Wisdom from the Word of God (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 2004), p. 54.

[2] N.T. Wright, Simply Good News, p. 55

[3] Edward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church: Themes and Reflections (Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014), p.16.


JR Woodward

JR Woodward (@dreamawakener) is a church planter, activist, missiologist, and author of Creating a Missional Culture. He co-founded Kairos Los Angeles, the Ecclesia Network, the Solis Foundation and Missio Alliance. He currently serves as the National Director for the V3 Church Planting Movement. He serves locally at the District Church in Washington DC and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester (UK). He just turned in the manuscript of his next book The Church as Movement, with co-author Dan White Jr. It is scheduled to be released the summer of 2016. He loves to surf, travel, read, skateboard and meet new people. He enjoys photography and film and tries to attend the Sundance Festival whenever he can.


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