“If your church were to close, would your community miss it? Would your community even notice it is gone?” Like many preachers before me, I have asked these rhetorical questions as part of talking about our connection with, and contributions to, the communities in which we worship, serve, and seek to engage. When I ask such questions, I have a particular Bible story in mind.
As the church began to spread—as Jesus predicted—“in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NLT*), new believers took up the faith and ministry of Jesus. Among these was Dorcas—also known as Tabitha—in the coastal town of Joppa. Her life work is summarised beautifully, albeit briefly, in the Bible: “She was always doing kind things for others and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36).
As recipients of Dorcas’ kindness and service, these people were drawn together in their grief in response to her death. But they were also drawn toward the Source of her work and the Power that could change all their lives.
Such was her ministry that the description of Dorcas as a “disciple” (see Acts 9:36) is the one time this term is used to describe a woman in the New Testament. Ellen White commented: “She was a worthy disciple of Jesus, and her life was filled with acts of kindness” (The Acts of the Apostles, p 131). Dorcas’ faithfulness, energy, and focus on others was recognised even beyond her home town, and, through the re-telling of this Bible story even today, far beyond anywhere she could have imagined.
Her fellow disciple, Peter, was visiting the nearby town of Lydda, and the believers in Joppa asked him to come in response to Dorcas’ untimely death. On his arrival, Peter was met by many of the people Dorcas had helped through her work for the poor. They showed him the clothes she had made, and undoubtedly told him many stories of how she had helped them and others. She and her ministry were not only remembered, her work was missed and she was mourned.
As recipients of Dorcas’ kindness and service, these people were drawn together in their grief in response to her death. But they were also drawn toward the Source of her work and the Power that could change all their lives. When God performed a miracle through Peter, widows and those who were poor were the first to witness His power and goodness.
Not only were they overjoyed to have Dorcas back among them, they became witnesses to the resurrection power of God. And God used these people to share this news further still, to make a strong impact on the people of Joppa: “The news spread through the whole town, and many believed in the Lord” (Acts 9:42).
Dorcas’ faithful works of service brought people close enough to witness the power of God at work in her life, and this same power sent them out to share what they had received and experienced. It’s an important picture of how God works through us in our local communities, even when we might not expect it.
At a church camp meeting last year, two women responded to my “If your church were to close . . .” questions by coming up to me after I had finished speaking to share their story. They were from a small country town in Western Australia, and they told me how the people of their community had responded when their church building had been badly damaged by fire a few years earlier. Much to their surprise, many members of their community came to help with the clean-up work, explaining that they valued the Adventist church as part of their town.
“We had not realised that people even knew we were there, but the experience has changed the way we think about being part of our town,” they said. “Yes, we would be missed if we were not there. And, by their kindness to us, we were given a different perspective on who we are in our community.”
Those preachers’ questions are worthwhile reflections on the impact our churches have in our respective communities, but might ignore the reality that we are disciples simply by being there and living faithfully (see Jeremiah 29:4–14). Jesus suggested that His disciples will be surprised at the impact and significance of their service (see Matthew 25:37–40), so we should not underestimate how our presence or contributions might be valued or noticed, or how God can work through us to change lives and communities, even in moments or experiences that might look like defeats.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing Company in Warburton, Victoria, Australia.
*Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
**Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.