by Steve Smith
The King’s ways in this world are counterintuitive. Intuitively we think His kingdom should follow a certain path or principles natural to us, but we find that it is quite the opposite. The primary way to discover the counterintuitive ways of the kingdom is to meditate on the Word of the King—Scripture. We think we should curse our enemy, but King Jesus says bless (Luke 6:27-28). We think that by elevating ourselves, we will succeed, but the King says to humble ourselves (1 Peter 5:5-6). We think that resources, education, and connections are the paths to breakthrough, but the King tells us that the weak, the have-nots, and the are-nots will find the ultimate victory in this world (1 Cor. 1:26-29).
Perhaps it is in this last reference that we, as a North American church, are challenged most. We are so accustomed to the power of education, resources, and fortitude to change the world that we’ve become much too self-reliant and too little God-reliant. If we ask ourselves the question, “Am I doing anything right now that absolutely requires faith in the Spirit to sustain me as opposed to my own personal abilities?” we often find ourselves at a loss.
I recall a group of twelve East Asian believers I worked with in a Church-Planting Movement. Their people group, on many economic scales, was classified as the poorest group in the country. Many individuals had one, perhaps two sets of clothes. Most had little, if any, money. The average educational level ranged between third and sixth grade. Illiteracy was at 86%. Drunkenness was rampant. They brought nothing to the table in their effort to reach their people group with the gospel—no resources, no education, no connections. And this brought great despair in a society in which connections were everything.
When I first saw them, clothes ragged, hair disheveled, teeth missing, I almost lost hope that God could do much with them. But then God gave me these counterintuitive promises for these precious new believers:
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:26-29 ESV)
I told them: “You’re the poorest tribe in this country!” Their shoulders slumped. “You’re the most despised in this country!” Their eyes looked down at their toes in realization.
Then I told them, “So rejoice! That is why God is going to use you to win the world! You are in these verses. You are the weak, the poor, the despised to whom God will give grace. God gives grace to the humble, and there is no group more humbled than you! Take up your calling.”
At that, a deep, Spirit-prompted identity rose up in the hearts of this “insignificant” band as they laid hold of that promise. These were their verses. God had shown them their place in the cosmic plan for the redemption of this world. They took up this mantle and began to spread the kingdom of God from village to village and from valley to valley.
The counterintuitive nature of the kingdom joyfully catches us by surprise.
The Mustard Seed of Kingdom Growth
CPMs are kingdom movements that operate in the power of the Spirit on kingdom principles. Because we don’t naturally or intuitively understand kingdom ways, Jesus painted many word pictures of the kingdom in the form of parables, starting most of them with “the kingdom of God is like….” Each is a kernel of truth about the overall mystery of the King’s reign.
Jesus answered [His disciples], “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted…. But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. (Matt. 13:11, 16, NASB, emphasis added)
Parables are a mystery to those outside, but to those who come like little children, God will disclose the mysterious nature of the kingdom. Surrender your pre-conceived ideas to Him and ask Him to speak afresh to you. We must be very purposeful if we would live King-centered rather than human-centered ways of ministry.
A foundational kingdom kernel is the mustard seed.
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matt. 13:31-32 ESV)
What is more insignificant than a mustard seed? What was more insignificant than this little band of barely literate, ignored believers in East Asia who sought to change the world?
The parable teaches us that large movements start from small beginnings. In this manner, God most fully receives the glory. Powerful transformation comes through those we would deem weak. It is not the resources, education, and connections that enable us to succeed but rather the recognition of our spiritual bankruptcy and absolute need for Jesus every day.1
What transformed that humble band of twelve into the early apostles was their recognition of their insignificance and their utter dependence on nothing but the Spirit of God. They had no other options. Like Peter, they could say, “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee.”
The CPMs around the world have nothing to do with earthly socio-economic status and everything to do with spiritual socio-economic status.
This bursts a common myth about CPMs: that they only occur in poor societies. They more often occur in poor societies, perhaps because their physical poverty helps them recognize spiritual poverty. But CPMs are also taking place in educated communities and professional arenas. The key is not economic status but the status of the heart.
The King’s ways are to take the spiritually bankrupt when they rely on Him and His Word in absolute dependence and use them to spread throughout the world as His change agents. In the West, we find it hard to imagine that a small group of poverty-stricken or poorly-educated believers and churches could grow like a mustard tree and become the largest tree in the garden. We find the speed of Church-Planting Movements of the world unbelievable precisely because we forget how the kingdom operates. It does not depend on human resources or engineering.
And that’s what I love about CPMs: God taking bedraggled have-nots and shaming the haves. That’s our King! If we plant the right DNA of the kingdom in the right types of individuals, the growth of the kingdom is inevitable. It is critical that we get the beginnings right! We must start with the counterintuitive ways of the King.
About the Author: Steve Smith planted a church in Los Angeles and then helped initiate a church planting movement (CPM) among an unreached people group in East Asia. He trained believers in CPM and worked with the International Mission Board (SBC) in reaching Southeast Asian Peoples. Steve graduated to heaven in March 2019.
This article was first published in Equipping the People of God for the Mission of God, May/June 2013 pages 28-31. It was used here with permission.