This Sunday we continued our conversation about the church and how it was designed to work. With the help of a summary of the church Luke offers in Acts 2, we saw that the church was designed to rest on four pillars. Keep reading to see what those were and what we need to do about them.
While there have been very large churches at various times and in various places throughout the history of the church, the megachurch movement in this country began in the 1980s. One of the first churches that was a part of this movement and in many ways came to define it, was Willow Creek Community Church. Willow Creek was founded by Bill Hybels. It started as a youth ministry meeting in an old theater in 1975 in Chicago, but under Hybels’ visionary leadership it quickly became the largest church in the country. Today it averages 26,000 people a weekend. It’s main sanctuary seats just over 7,000 people.
In order to get there, Willow Creek threw away a lot of the stereotypical things that churches did then. They embraced contemporary music wholeheartedly at a time when such a move was still pretty fraught with controversy. They made excellence in music, drama, and teaching one of their chief values. They constructed their services intentionally to be comfortable for non-church people whether the church people who came were comfortable or not. The result was not just a really big church, but a whole movement of churches across the country who began to pay very close attention not only to what Willow Creek was doing, but how they were doing it. They have had many copycats over the years, some of which have grown as large or even larger than they are. Eventually, Willow Creek capitalized on all of this and formed the Willow Creek Association. This was a group of churches who set out to do church like they had done in hopes of sharing in some of their success in their own locations. Willow Creek in turn shared their resources with these churches so they had access to many of the same ministry tools Willow Creek was using, all of which they created themselves.
Well, in the wake of all of this attention given to large and growing churches, the publishing industry got on board. There is a whole market today for books written to tell churches how to do what they are doing better in order that they might grow larger. If you were to do a search on Amazon for “church growth books” you would find a list of more than 25,000 titles and I’m frankly a little surprised that’s all there is. There you’ll find books like The Blessed Church: The Simple Secret to Growing the Church You Love and Ignite: How to Spark Immediate Growth in Your Church and even more directly: Church Growth: It Is Possible. There are literally 1,000s of different ways experts say a church can be grown larger than it currently is. Everywhere in the church world are folks promising to help you get your church larger. And they keep producing more. They keep producing more because almost every church wants to be larger than it currently is. Sure, there are a few who genuinely don’t want to grow for one reason or another, but most have bought into the line that they need to grow. Bigger is better. More people means a more successful ministry. A more successful ministry means a better image in the community and world. It means people are looking to you for leadership. You define what success is. There’s more money to be had this way…to do more ministry of course. On and on goes this line of thought. But do you know what sometimes gets lost in all of this hype? Just being the church.
This morning as we continue to kick-off this new ministry adventure we are starting together we are in the second part of our conversation about the church. We are spending these couple of weeks talking about how the church was designed to work in the beginning and what are the results of getting that right. Last Sunday we took a look at how God designed the church—every church—to operate. We saw with the help of Paul’s applications of the theology he had been spelling out in the first three chapters of Ephesians that in order for the church to be working properly, every part has to play its part. The church works best when every part plays its part. When a person becomes a part of the body of Christ, she receives a set of gifts from the Holy Spirit that are intended to be used to build up and strengthen the particular church to which she belongs, in order that it might become more fully who God designed it to be. What’s more, these gifts are given to this person because God has a specific role in mind for her to play in the body. Now, a person’s ministry might very well go beyond this particular role depending on the needs of the church at a given time, but without this person playing that specific role the church will not be as strong or effective in the mission God has given it. It just won’t work. That’s not how God designed it to work.
Well, that’s all well and good, but it’s not terribly specific. Knowing we need to do all of that is good, and we can’t do what we’ve been called to do as effectively without it, but if we are indeed going to do what God has created us to do as a particular body of Christ, having something a little more concrete and specific to us would sure be helpful. This morning I want to take our conversation one step forward and do just that. We’ve looked at the big picture and, as I said, over the coming months we are going to look to bring more clarity to the absolutely specific-to-us picture of who God has designed us to be as a church, but if we are going to do whatever that is, what are the elements that need to be in place in order to see it happen?
In order to see what these are, kind of like many churches around the country did with Willow Creek, looking closely at one church that is or was getting it right is a pretty good way to see them. But, unlike many churches did with Willow Creek, our look won’t be so we can just copy what they did and hope for the best. Our look will be concerned with the patterns, with the framework of what was working so well in order that we might start thinking more clearly about how we might copy those and adapt them to our specific cultural context. That takes a little more work, but the end result is something much more tailor-made for our success.
In the Scriptures, perhaps nowhere do we get as clear a picture of how one church was doing than in the book of Acts. Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. The two books really tell a single story, but tradition has kept them separated for most of church history. Luke’s Gospel tells the story of how Jesus came into the world and, by His ministry, death, and resurrection launched a movement dedicated to continuing His mission. Acts picks up right where Luke leaves off and tells the story of how that movement coalesced into what became known as the church, began to grow and spread, and eventually reached the farthest corners of the Roman Empire. It is a gripping narrative filled with enough action and intrigue that Mark Burnett and Roma Downey made an eight-part miniseries out of the first 12 chapters called A.D. The Bible Continues.
The story begins with Jesus and the disciples gathered on the Mount of Olives, just outside of Jerusalem. They promptly reveal that in spite of everything that had happened in the last few weeks including the resurrection, they still didn’t understand the kind of kingdom Jesus was proclaiming leading Him to smite them all and find a new batch of knuckleheads who weren’t quite so dense. Just kidding—I’m seeing if you’re still paying attention. That’s what I would have done. Jesus patiently explained again that they were going to be empowered by the Holy Spirit in the next few days to set about accomplishing the mission He had given them of bearing witness to all they had seen and heard starting in Jerusalem and expanding out from there. Then He left them standing there staring up into the sky cluelessly until a couple of angels told them to snap out of it.
About ten days later, the Holy Spirit did come on the original group of 120 men and women who were gathered together waiting for Him. The event attracted a crowd to whom Peter, the spokesman for the group, preached the very first Christian sermon ever. From this point the church exploded into existence. Yet the journey forward was neither smooth nor easy. They almost immediately clashed with the ruling religious authorities of the Jewish people who were absolutely flummoxed that the followers of this troublesome man whose death as a political revolutionary they had just overseen were out in the streets proclaiming that He was alive. The boldness of the disciples (and after the coming of the Holy Spirit all the followers of Jesus were called “disciples” while the original twelve are generally called the “apostles”) provoked these clashes to a fever pitch until a particularly charismatic leader in the movement named Stephen was put to death as a blasphemer. With Stephen’s execution, the rising tide of tension finally spilled over the dam of social order and under the leadership of a zealot for the Jewish law and way of life named Saul, the persecution of followers of Jesus in Jerusalem boiled over to the point that most had to leave town.
Far from stamping the movement out of existence, though, this only served to spread its seeds throughout the region the way a wildfire will scatter the seeds of some plants making sure they not only come roaring back, but do so in even more places than they had been before the conflagration. This spreading of the seed of the church, though, resulted a series of existential crises wherein the followers of Jesus slowly began to realize that He had something entirely more global in mind than they first realized or even imagined. Beginning with Peter’s call to share the Gospel with a Gentile, Roman centurion—the very last person in the world with whom he would have imagined sharing the Gospel if left to his own devices—and continuing into the newly converted Saul—soon to be Paul—along with his mentor Barnabas overseeing a rapid expansion of the church into the Gentile neighborhoods of Antioch, the church overcame every obstacle placed in its path and rolled forward like a tidal wave until it covered not just Judea, not even just the Roman Empire, but the entirety of the world. Today about 1/3rd of the world claim “Christian” as a title. When it has stayed true to its first mission and message, operating on the boldness they demanded, nothing has been able to stand in its way.
Well, as you can see, this is a big story. Fortunately, Luke offers some summaries along the way to kind of help us get our bearings and to be reminded of what was most important. The first of these comes at the tail end of Acts 2 after Peter had preached that first sermon to the crowd. This summary describes for us both what that earliest community was like, what made them tick, and the results of their ticking loudly. Check this out with me at Acts 2:42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” Let’s stop there. We’ll come back to the last part in just a bit.
So, what’s going on here? This was a strong community. A few weeks ago Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, shared in a speech that he wanted to see Facebook grow to the point that it filled the role that churches often play in a person’s life. He wants to see it become a community hub that encourages people to engage together the way at least he thinks people engage with each other in a church. With respect to Mark, when it comes to the church being the church, Facebook doesn’t stand a chance. Facebook offers at best a thin community wherein you may get some likes or smiley faces or encouraging comments, but nobody is going to show up at your door with a casserole when your new baby arrives or your loved one dies unexpectedly. Instead, the church is a thick community. David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote about thick communities. He defined them as communities which become “part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul.”
This church in Acts 2 was a thick community. They didn’t just see each other on occasion to say hi and ask how they were doing, they shared life together. They shared their time, their talents, and their treasures with one another in ways that have never not seemed radical. Far from being some kind of a promotion of a collectivist community, though, this was a heartfelt, voluntary generosity that came out of the overflow of their gratitude for what God had done for them in Christ. They engaged with one another on a daily basis. They worshiped together and fellowshipped together as often as they could. But, they were also together a positive force for their broader community, sharing the love of Christ in practical, meaningful ways as they grew. They were at one and the same time radically committed to one another and wide open to the community around them. Too often churches go one way or the other and die by either isolation or dilution. This group walked that line perfectly. It was a community whose members were transformed because they were a part of it.
In particular there were four elements that seem to be at the heart of what they were doing together. These are presented in summary fashion in v. 42 and then again with more details in the following verses. These elements are teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. Given that these things seem to be at the heart of this church that was operating at such a high level, let’s take a little closer a look at them to understand exactly what they were and the role they might have played.
Before we get there, let me offer a bit of historical background to give you a better picture of the kind of group this first church was. It could perhaps go without saying that everybody here was new to the church. This wasn’t just a church plant, it was the very first church plant ever. Nobody knew how to do church. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t called a church at all. Instead, the Greek word used to describe these early gatherings was ekklesia. The word ekklesia refers to a gathering of people. It is an offshoot of the word kaleo which means “to call.” An ekklesia, then, was a gathering of people who had been called together for a purpose. When the various writings that became the New Testament were being translated from Greek into Latin, the term ekklesia had gradually come to describe not just the gathering itself, but the place where the gathering happened. As a result, while there were words that were more exact translations available in Latin, translators went with the word curia. Well, curia comes from a Greek word, but not ekklesia. It comes from the word kuriakos, which itself comes from the Greek word most commonly translated, “Lord.” It refers to something—or somewhere—that belongs to the lord. Rather than describing a gathering a people, curia carries the idea of kuraikos forward and more specifically describes a gathering place. You can perhaps see the problem. As Latin translations gradually overtook Greek translations in terms of cultural dominance, people began to think of the gathering of believers more in terms of location than mission. In other words, the church was gradually becoming thought of not as a people with a mission, but as a place. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but neither is it the idea that guys like Luke were trying to convey about the gathering of believers in the New Testament. When Martin Luther and others translated the Bible into German (at which point Guttenberg’s printing press made it the first mass produced and widely read copy of the Scriptures ever created), they solidified the error in thought by using the German word kirche which basically meant “building.” You can perhaps see how the English word “church” comes from there.
I tell you all of that for two reasons: I want you to better understand what the New Testament is talking about when you see the word “church,” but I also want you to understand exactly how this first church thought of themselves. They were a group of people who had been called out and empowered by God to accomplish His mission. They were, in other words, an ekklesia. In order to do this, they had to learn. As a result, the teaching of the apostles—the guys who knew Jesus personally and were witnesses to the resurrected Jesus—was a centerpiece of their mission. Today, teaching and preaching have to be a fundamental element of any healthy, successful church. The reason for this is simple: People don’t know what they need to know in order to live the Christian life to the fullest measure possible on their own. They—we—need to be taught. Recent surveys have shown that more people go to a particular church because of the preaching it offers than of anything else including music which frankly surprised me because I think music is hugely important and we’ve got great music here. Now, that puts some pressure on the preacher, but solid, Biblical, audience-specific teaching needs to be present at every level in the church. How exactly this will look will vary, but no church can be the church well without really good teaching.
The second foundational element here is fellowship. This first community in Acts fellowshipped together a lot. As I said, they lived life together. There are some churches today in which the members see each other at church functions, but not a lot other than that. Those may be really dynamic churches, but they aren’t as healthy as they could be. Being a part of a church is not like being a part of some other group. In the church, we are not merely co-members with one another. We are family members. We are brothers and sisters of one Father. In the church that is being an ekklesia rather than merely a curia a person will have many spiritual brothers and sisters as well as fathers and mothers and even children (and, by the way, those categories don’t necessarily line up with ages the way we might think). I am a firm believer that every church needs a time dedicated to fellowship as a part of their regular life cycle. This can exist in a lot of different ways, but one of the best ways—especially considering that we are Baptists and Baptists and food go together like peanut butter and jelly—is to have a regular meal time together. Doing something like this in such a way that it is paired with a regular time of teaching can be even more powerful because now instead of just one element, you’ve got two of them working together. For us, the easiest way to do something like that would be to have a meal together before Bible study on Wednesday nights. Now, that takes some work. For the folks intimately involved in making something like that happen it takes a lot of work. But I can tell you from experience that the payoffs in terms of what a time like that can accomplish in a community is huge. It can become a backbone in the church’s lifecycle in a way that is really unlike anything else. It can become a place where people connect and become, not just visitors, but parts of the family. However it looks, though, no church can be the church well without a regular time of fellowship.
The third element here is the breaking of bread. This is in reference to a meal, but more specifically it is talking about the observation of the Lord’s Supper which, for them, would have been one of the central elements in their worship service. In other words, this third element is worship. With the understanding in place that worship is properly understood as our recognizing, celebrating, and taking part in the character of God, no church—and I mean an ekklesia—can be the church at all, much less well, unless worship is a central part of who it is and what it does. After all, God is the one we are following. If we are not merely tuned in to who He is, but celebrating that and taking an active part in that, curia may be a better description of who we are because we are certainly not a group of people called out by Him to accomplish His mission.
The final piece that needs to be in place for any church to function like it should is prayer. This really doesn’t need much of an explanation at all. Prayer, when done right, is a conversation between us and God. We talk and He listens…He talks and we listen. In any relationship, conversation is how we come to know someone better. It is how we come to know their personality, their character, their plans, their dreams, their desires, and so on. Prayer does all that and more. It taps us in to God’s power. It gives us access to His spiritual resources which are limitless. More than even that, it unleashes that power and those resources in our lives and the life of our community such that kingdom transformation can happen. Prayer is powerful stuff. If we are going to be the church, prayer has got to be part of our foundation.
We have four things: teaching, fellowship, worship, and prayer. These form the four foundation pillars for the church. If we are going to be the church, we must be built firmly on these footings or we will not stand. We can’t stand because we will be seeking to be and do something on our own that we don’t have the wherewithal to accomplish. Nobody does. The church—the group of people called out and empowered by God to accomplish His mission of bringing folks back into a relationship with Him through Christ and transforming the world by those relationships—is a spiritual venture. It requires spiritual power; power that comes through these four elements being properly in place.
And when they are? What did the text say again? It said they had favor with all the people. You see, when these four elements are in place in a community, something powerful happens. The engine of the church roars to life, and the community begins moving. It starts moving through its broader community, transforming not just individual lives, but whole organizations. It becomes indispensable. But it doesn’t stop there. It continues moving outward, broadening and expanding the reach of its impact all along the way. It keeps moving until suddenly it finds itself reaching farther and higher than it ever thought possible. It finds itself out on a branch that can only be supported by the spiritual power that comes from those pillars. That’s a scary place to be, but it’s also a good one. Perhaps the question we need to ask then is this: Where can we be more present being the church in our community? How about this: Oakboro STEM School? I know many of you were part of the movement that saw the school district move to reopen it. Well, wouldn’t it make sense to go ahead and take the next step to support it? I am going to sit down with Ms. Dombrowski, the principal, this week and talk with her about some ways we can do just that. I’m really looking forward to that meeting. The potential for impact there for us is really beyond what we can imagine. I’d love to hear from you about other places we can reach out to have an impact.
Now, I said a little while ago that we’d come back to the end of v. 47. Let’s go back there now and then we’ll get out of here. What are the results of getting all of this right? Look at the text: “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” When we get being the church right, growing the church comes naturally. It comes naturally because when we’re faithful with the mission God has given us to expand His kingdom…His kingdom expands and at least some of that expansion happens right in our midst. So as it turns out after all of this conversation and 25,000 titles on Amazon aside, if we want to grow the church—and I don’t just mean numerically—being the church is a great place to start. In fact, it’s the only starting point that will get us there. If you want to grow the church, you’ve got to be the church. If you want to grow the church, you’ve got to be the church. If you want to have a community that is stronger, deeper, more loving, more faithful, and, yes, filled with more people, being the church is how you’re going to get there. Being an ekklesia—called out on mission and intentional about accomplishing it—instead of being merely a curia is the only way to get there. It’s what worked in the beginning, and this was a place where they got it right the first time. If you want to grow the church, you’ve got to be the church. If we want to see this church grow and become more fully who God designed it to be, then together we must commit ourselves to being the church; to being a place of teaching, of fellowship, of worship, and of prayer. If you want to grow the church, you’ve got to be the church. I think we should do it, and I would love it if you would do it with me.