Springtime of the Church

The Church - 4

Springtime of the Church
The Church as a Vital Community
(Acts 2:42-47)

The Christian church often seems encrusted in centuries of tradition. A significant recent development, however, has been the rediscovery by many churches around the world of forms and dynamics of church life drawn from the early church, as described in the book of Acts. In this message, preached at St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 11 May 1997, Rob Yule examines the life of the early church and its relevance for us today.

The book of Acts gives us a picture of the Christian church in its beginnings. Like a mountain stream near its source, it flows pure and clear, sparkling fresh and beautiful in the impulse of the Spirit, unpolluted by later accretions of tradition. It radiates a vitality that is extraordinarily attractive, inspiring countless renewal movements throughout subsequent Christian history.

In recent times, particularly under the influence of the Charismatic Renewal movement, many churches throughout the world have discovered afresh principles and patterns of church life based on the early church, as described in the pages of the New Testament. Freeing themselves from sometimes centuries’ old tradition, they have been rediscovering dynamics that made the church so effective in its infancy, turning society upside down in the 1st century of the Christian era.

A Biblically Functioning Church

One such church is the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, now the largest church in the United States. It began from a homegroup in the nineteen seventies, as its founder pastor, Bill Hybels, sought to put into practice the vision of the early church inspired in him by his theological teacher, Gilbert Bilezikian, in a course on the book of Acts.

At his seminar, ‘Building a Church for the Future,’ held in Palmerston North on 28 April 1997, Bill Hybels outlined ten features of what he calls ‘A Biblically Functioning Church’:

  1. Anointed Biblical Teaching, proclaiming the full counsel of God.
  2. Evangelistic Orientation, recognising that lost people matter to God.
  3. Culturally Relevance, using contemporary art forms and media.
  4. Manifest Authenticity, involving the minimum of pretence and cringe.
  5. A Culture of Service: ‘Is there any way I can serve you?’
  6. Loving Relationships: ‘What would be the loving thing to say or do?’
  7. Commitment to Small Groups.
  8. Excellence, which is both honouring to God and inspiring of people.
  9. Leadership by People with Leadership Gifts.
  10. Full Devotion to Christ and his Church as normal for every member.

For Hybels, whole-hearted sacrifice should be the motive for all we do as Christians. These values inform the whole vast organisation of the Willow Creek Church. Murray Robertson, Senior Pastor of Spreydon Baptist Church in Christchurch, New Zealand, who visited Willow Creek with a team in 1996, tells me he has never seen any organisation so universally informed by a culture of servanthood, tenderness and compassion. As he looked along the row, he saw his entire team weeping, so moved were they by the experience.

The one significant omission from this list, though, when compared with the descriptions of the Bible itself, is the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. The book of Acts attributes the life and energy of the early church, its beauty and attractiveness, to the presence and action of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4, 14-18). If we are to reproduce a Biblically Functioning Church today, we must not overlook this fundamental dynamic. Looking at the description of the early church in the book of Acts, we can sketch the elements in what I would prefer to call a ‘Spirit-Filled Biblical Church’ (Acts 2:42-47).

A Spirit-Filled Biblical Church

1. It was a Learning Church

Luke, the author of Acts, tells us that ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching’ (Acts 2:42). Unlike the current mood of anti-intellectualism in Christian circles, John Stott points out that these new converts ‘were not enjoying a mystical experience which led them to despise their mind or disdain theology. Anti-intellectualism and the fullness of the Spirit are mutually incompatible, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth.’ (The Message of Acts [Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 2nd ed., 1991], p. 82).

Stott says that ‘Since the teaching of the apostles has come down to us in its definitive form in the New Testament, contemporary devotion to the apostles’ teaching will mean submission to the authority of the New Testament. . . . The Spirit of God leads the people of God to submit to the Word of God.’ (p. 82).

A truly Spirit-filled church is a community of believers in love with the Scriptures as God’s authoritative communication to them. In the early days of the Charismatic Renewal movement one of the most beautiful things was the discovery by Catholics of the joy of Bible study.

2. It was a Loving Church

Luke says that ‘They devoted themselves to the . . . fellowship’ (Acts 2:42). Christian fellowship has a double dimension. The triune love of God is what we share in. The practical love of other people is what we share out. The bridge between the two is the Holy Spirit, who brings the love of God into our lives. ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’ (Romans 5:5).

Though originating in the Holy Spirit, this love is not mystical, but intensely practical. The Greek word for ‘fellowship’ (koinonia) is also the word Paul used for the collection of money he was organising among the Greek churches (2 Corinthians 8:4, 9:13), and the related word koinonikos is the Greek word for ‘generous’. These first Christians shared their possessions with one another. ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need’ (Acts 2: 44-45).

Here is amazing evidence of the transforming love of the Holy Spirit, freeing people of acquisitiveness and selfishness, giving them an impulse to share their lives and possessions. James K. Baxter, our leading New Zealand poet, had a transforming experience of the Holy Spirit just months before he died. He says, ‘The first Christians did not start to share their goods in a free and full manner till after the bomb of the Holy Spirit exploded in their souls at Pentecost. Before then, they would be morally incapable of this free and joyful sharing. The acquisitive habit is one of the deepest rooted habits of the human race. To say, "This is ours, not mine," and to carry the words into effect is as much a miracle of God as the raising of the dead.’ (Thoughts About the Holy Spirit [Wellington, Futuna Press, 1973], p. 11).

Unlike Communism, which this passage inspired, this sharing was free, not forced; voluntary, not compulsory. In the Old Testament there is a strong tradition of care for the poor, and the Israelites were to give a tenth of their produce ‘to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans and the widows’ (Deuteronomy 6:12). ‘How could a Spirit-filled Christian give less? . . . It is part of the responsibility of Spirit-filled believers to alleviate need and abolish destitution in the new community of Jesus.’ (Stott, p. 84).

3. It was a Worshipping Church

Luke records that ‘They devoted themselves . . . to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2: 42). The reference is to the Lord’s Supper, which was originally part of a larger meal, and the definite article indicates that ‘the prayers’ were probably prayer services or prayer meetings rather than private prayer.

The early church was balanced in its worship, combining formal, structured or organised worship ‘in the temple courts’, and informal, unstructured, and spontaneous worship ‘in their homes.’ These early Jewish believers continued to worship in the temple. They didn’t cut themselves off from the institutional life and worship of Judaism, but worshipped and witnessed within the setting of their Jewish culture - just as Messianic Jews are seeking to do today. But they also preserved the Jewish tradition of worship in their homes, among families and friends, in more personal settings. So their worship was both formal and informal, structured and spontaneous, institutional and intimate.

This balance is also evident in the comment that they worshipped God ‘with glad and sincere hearts’ (Acts 2:46). Their Spirit-filled worship was both joyful and purposeful - not mindless and over the top like some Pentecostal worship today, but intelligent and sincere, as well as full of joy.

4. It was an Evangelistic Church

The early church was not an introspective church. It was outward-looking, motivated by the impulse of the Holy Spirit to reach out across its own boundaries and across cultural barriers. ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses. . . .’ (Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit is a missionary Spirit, and the early church, inspired by the Spirit, was consequently a missionary church.

It is God who is here described as the principal evangelist, adding daily to the church’s numbers (Acts 2:47). This is a valuable corrective to modern-day pride and arrogance that thinks we can build the church by our own church-growth techniques and communications technology. The church is the creation of God, through the Holy Spirit.

It is also interesting to see the link in the early church between salvation and church membership. Those ‘added to their number’ were those ‘who were being saved’ (Acts 2:47). There was no nominal Christianity - people added to the church’s number who were not saved. And there was no solitary Christianity, people saved who were not added to the church’s number, like the vast numbers in today’s individualistic society of loners (who are unattached to any church) or drifters (who float like flotsam on the tide of fashion, from church to church, depending which is the flavour of the month).

What is especially remarkable about the early church is that unlike us today, where conversions are rare or occasional, it experienced steady, uninterrupted, and continuous conversion growth.

Here is an ideal to aim at, a benchmark to measure our achievement by, a target to pray for, a goal to work towards. Our aim should be to see unchurched or secular people regularly being added to the numbers of the local church, as faithful and effective disciples of Jesus Christ.

Rob Yule
11 May 1997,
Revised 28 August 2000

© 2000, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand