(March 22, 2021) Dr Jim McClure, straight shooting theologian, shares important church growth principles…
This past year has been a challenging time for churches throughout the world as each local church has attempted to redefine how to perform and survive as a church.
The Covid-19 experience has been challenging and at times oppressive, and, because of the present state of the world, we who belong to the church could so easily sink into despair. But for one fact – God is still in control!
I believe that the challenges of these days may prove to be a positive thing for Christians and churches as it may challenge us to look more seriously at what we honestly believe, to whom we are unmistakably committed, the significance and relevance of how we live as Christians and how we operate as the body that we call the ‘Church.’
There are many Christians today who somehow have embraced the idea that the church as we find it in the New Testament provides a perfect picture of what the church of today should be like. But… the letters of Paul, Peter and John illustrate that the churches to which they wrote were clearly not perfect principally because they were composed of imperfect people – like every church today!
Some time ago I read an article that was titled, Getting Back to the New Testament Pattern. It was based on Acts 2:40-47 and listed 13 items which the writer claimed represented the biblical pattern of Christian worship and behaviour for all ages. In fact several the items listed in the article were never part of the church beyond the first months of its existence after the Day of Pentecost.
So why did Luke record those verses and is there anything that we can learn from them that are relevant to the church in any place and at any time?
Luke, in fact, was providing a window into some of the activities of the early church but he was not writing to establish a pattern for all Christians in all ages. Instead he was outlining some principles that can be applied to all churches in all generations.
I notice five principles to which those first Christians were committed…
1. Engagement in Evangelism and Church Growth
Acts 1:15 tells us that before the day of Pentecost there were about 120 believers, then when the Holy Spirit empowered those first believers and Peter preached his first sermon, Luke tells us in Acts 2:41 that the church grew that day to around 3000 people… ‘Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.’
Now, that is what I call powerful preaching! That is what I call a response to the gospel! That is what I call church growth! The church was launched on evangelism! The word ‘evangelism’ comes from a Greek word that means ‘good news.’ We could rightly say that evangelism was the foremost principle of the church.
In Luke 4:18-19 we see that sharing the ‘Good News’ of God’s love was certainly the prime focus of Jesus Christ when he began his ministry in a synagogue in Nazareth and he applied to himself the passage from Isaiah 61 verses 1-2. ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
The evangelistic outreach of the church, which began on the day of Pentecost, continued in the days that followed. And so we read in Acts 2:47, ‘The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’ The early Christians had certainly grasped that fact – evangelism lay at the core of their existence. And as we read early church history, we discover that the church grew at a phenomenal rate, despite there being no newspapers, television, Google, YouTube or WhatsApp!
So how did the first Christians get out the good news of forgiveness and God’s gift of eternal life to a pagan, God-resisting world? Well, it wasn’t left to pastors to preach a gospel sermon on Sundays, nor was it left to evangelistic preachers to do that work. No, it was just the ordinary Christians who, wherever they went, shared the good news of God’s love and forgiveness.
Michael Green, a theologian who died two years ago, described it as, ‘informal chattering to friends and chance acquaintances, in homes and wine shops, on walks, and around market stalls. They went everywhere gossiping the gospel; they did it naturally, enthusiastically.’ Green also wrote, ‘Every Christian was called to be a witness to Christ, not only by life but lip.’ By that he meant that it is not only by how we behave but by what we say that we proclaim the gospel.
The early church had firmly grasped that principle that we today seem largely to have forgotten. And it is time that we rediscovered it and applied it!
2. Commitment to God’s Word and Prayer
Act 2:42, ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’
This is such an illuminating verse because it shows us the priorities of those Christians. Luke was writing here, not about private devotions, but particularly about things the new followers of Jesus did together as a church.
He wrote, ‘They devoted themselves.’ The Greek words used here could be translated. ‘They were constantly committed.’ They were really serious in their commitment to grow in their relationship with Jesus. This verse lists four things to which they were ‘constantly committed.’ I want us to look at this verse in two parts. First, let’s look briefly at the words – the ‘apostles’ teaching’ and ‘prayer.’
(i) The apostles’ teaching
What actually was that? It was the faithful teaching and exposition of God’s holy word in the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus Christ. There was an evident hunger among those Christians in the Jerusalem church for hearing and understanding God’s word.
If ever there was a time for sound, biblically faithful, apostolic teaching it is today when…
- The foundations of the Christian faith are under attack from so many quarters,
- Christians are confused about what is true and what is false, and
- Many pastors in many denominations are preaching sermons and giving teachings that stand in direct opposition to what the Bible clearly says or avoiding teaching on current challenging issues such as homosexuality, same-sex marriage and abortion, or giving teachings that try to align with today’s hostile secular values.
The Christians in Jerusalem were ‘constantly committed’ to understanding God’s revelation, his values, his requirements. Oh, for such a passion for such hunger for knowledge and understanding among God’s people today! Sadly much of what now passes for preaching and teaching falls far short of apostolic standards.
Here is a question for each of us to ask ourselves – ‘Am I, as a 21st century Australian Christian, ‘devoted to’ understanding God’s word and hearing and obeying what he is telling us today?’ That is a principle we must never lose sight of.
The importance of prayer had been well drummed into the apostles by Jesus who had trained them by instruction and personal example. They would remember the prayer that he had taught them – what we call the ‘Lord’s Prayer.’
They would recall the evening in the upper room when Jesus prayed, ‘Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. … I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. … Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. … For I gave them the words you gave me, and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. … As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world’ (See John 17).
And the infant church had grasped the significance and importance of prayer. They recognised that prayer was not just a religious ritual, nor was it a formal Christian exercise which included the repeating of familiar religious phrases. No, they realised that prayer was a privilege, that there was power in prayer and that prayer provided them with indescribable opportunities as it gave immediate access to God’s throne of grace.
The scriptures encourage private prayer when we as individuals can open our hearts to God and thank him for his blessings and share with him our innermost longings and fears.
But the scriptures also encourage corporate prayer when together the people of the church join their hearts and voices in praising and petitioning the Lord God Almighty. The Bible tells us to pray for one another and with one another. Corporate prayer is a central norm in God’s purpose for his church as we clearly see in Acts 2:42.
Because prayer is so vital, the enemy tries every technique he can think of to stop believers from praying. Because prayer has…
- Altered circumstances.
- Resulted in changes of direction.
- Been answered in miracles.
- Paved the way of revivals.
- Often been answered in ways that are significantly better than our requests.
- Surmounts unassailable problems and opens apparently locked doors – as the early church literally discovered in Acts 12.
Next month (April, when the church celebrates the death and resurrection of its – our – Saviour, Jesus Christ) I will share Part 2 of this ‘window’ into the first church that gives us challenging, life-transforming and enduring principles to embrace and practice – individually and collectively – if we want truly to reflect God’s love in his church and accomplish his goals through his church.
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books such as the enlightening Grace Revisited and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
All of Dr Jim’s writings are highly recommended – such as Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments, Interpreting the Letter of James, and Faith Works – A Commentary on the Letter of James. All are available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and offered free. Link for orders and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org