"Adapting Structures to Address Needs"
Nov.12/06 Acts 6:1-7
Sometimes complaints can draw our attention in a helpful way to genuine needs. Other times, though, they're just complaints.
A certain monastery enforced a vow of silence. Each monk could utter only 2 words every 5 years, and those 2 words had to be spoken in the presence of the abbot. One of the monks, when given his opportunity to speak, said, "Bad food!" Five years later, his 2 words were, "Bed hard." When given his third opportunity to speak 5 years later, he said, "I quit." "Well," said the abbot, "you might as well quit. All you've done since you got here is complain!"
...On some occasions, it's change that makes us uncomfortable and elicits complaints and grumbles. But change isn't bad in itself: it can be a sign of growth. James Ryle once observed: "Healthy churches grow, growing churches change, changes challenge us, challenges force us to trust God, trust leads to obedience, obedience makes us healthy, healthy churches grow."
In our lesson today, we see a time of growth and transition in the early church which sparked some complaints. Instead of it being negative, though, the church leaders responded wisely, and God used the change to further increase the church's health and ability to respond to need.
In the beginning chapters of the book of Acts, we see the church experiencing an exciting time of burgeoning growth - and, along with it, gradually increasing opposition. Peter and the other apostles dynamically preach the good news of Jesus' resurrection and Lordship in chapters 2-4. At Pentecost some 3,000 come to faith in Him; a couple of chapters later, the number is 5,000 (2:41; 4:4). 5:14 ntoes "more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number". At the same time, the apostles were enabled to perform great miracles, signs, and wonders. People were bringing the sick into the streets in hopes that Peter's shadow might fall on them as he passed by. Crowds from the towns around brought their own sick relatives and those who were tormented by spirits, and these were healed (5:15f)
The movement was becoming so popular that the high priests and Sadducees "were filled with jealousy" (5:17). Opposition mounted and persecution began. The apostles were put in jail. The Jewish leaders threatened them; later, jailed them again (though an angel released them - how annoying!). After they were rounded up again, the apostles were flogged (4:3,21; 5:18,40). But despite the increasingly harsh persecution, the apostles rejoiced "because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name" (5:41). Their unquenchable joy in the face of hardship must have made the faith all the more notable and attractive to onlookers.
As might be expected, the rapidly multiplying number of believers caused some growing pains. Let's pick it up at 6:1: "In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food." It seems complaints in the church are nothing new! They're a symptom of a problem that begs a solution. (In this case, there was something wrong with the Grecian formula...it was becoming enough of a headache to give anyone grey hairs!) Because there was no welfare, no social assistance, Christ's love for one's neighbour in the early church led it to become an effective agency for social relief. 1Timothy 5(3-8) is an example of the criteria used to determine which widows, without immediate family, qualified to be placed on a distribution list for supplemental assistance. Whether through language or location factors, or simple misunderstanding, apparently some of the Greek-speaking widows had been missed in the daily rounds.
The church responded promptly and effectively by taking four steps. First, the church RESPONDED TO THE NEED. They had been responding to the needs of the poor for some time. Chapters 2(45) and 4(35) describe how people such as Barnabas sold property and donated it to the church; it was distributed to "anyone as he had need". In this case, the apostles call a general meeting to deal with the problem.
Servant leadership responds to the needs of others. In John 13 we see Jesus setting an example for the apostles, showing how much he loved them by dressing as a servant and washing their feet. He said, "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet." (Jn 13:14) In Philippians 2(6ff) Paul describes Jesus' attitude as making Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, humbling himself and becoming obedient to death; going to the cross to look to our interests, not His own. A servant church responds to needs.
Second, the apostles SET PRIORITIES. The Twelve say in 6:2, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables." They see the importance of a ministry of the word - that the wonderful news continue to be preached. Yet they acknowledge they can't do it all themselves; waiting on tables, the merciful ministry of food distribution, is necessary as well. There is an ordering or organization of ministries. They also recognize their own calling as apostles, charged to preach and pray and give direction. Later, the young minister Timothy was reminded to honour his own calling when he was told, "Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you." (1Ti 4:14)
Paul reflected the apostles' understanding of an order within the church in 1Cor.12(28): "And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues." Notice the "first...second...third...then...also...and". Establishing orderliness and effectiveness requires that we set priorities.
Third, the Twelve RECOGNIZED GIFTING. 6:3 begins, "Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom..." That the men chosen have Greek-speaking background is obvious from their names. Stephen's qualifications are further amplified in 6:8 when he's said to be a man "full of God's grace and power".
If you're a Christian, honouring Jesus with your lips and life, you have God's Holy Spirit living within you. And the Spirit works his own fruit and gifts within us, individually. Paul reminded the believers at Rome of the variety of their giftings: "We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully." (Rom 12:6ff) God is working within each of you to develop your unique gift in the Lord! Don't expect it to be the same, or any less significant, than the gift of the person sitting next to you. Part of our journey in our life as a church is to help each one recognize their gift.
Fourth, we see the apostles DELEGATE SUPPORTIVELY AND ORGANIZE ACCORDINGLY. Look at the second half of 6:3: "We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word." And they formalize this in v6: "They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them." They didn't micro-manage this new department, but authorized and released these godly men to have full responsibility for this area. They laid hands ON praying for God's strength and equipping through His Spirit, but then handed that portion of ministry OFF to the new appointees/deacons. We see a similar entrusting of authority and pattern of empowerment when Paul writes to Titus, "The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you." (Titus 1:5) Operating at a distance of hundreds of miles, without modern communication, Paul was used to delegating significant responsibility to his co-workers. He may offer guidance in a letter or two, but let them run with the ball.
So, the complaints didn't cripple the work but opened a new window for meaningful service. The apostles responded to the need; set priorities; recognized gifting; and delegated or organized accordingly. Did it work? Oh yes! We see the blessing of them heeding the Spirit's creativity: v5, "This proposal pleased the whole group"; and v7, "So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith." Even priests - a large number: that sounds like significant inroads into the old system. People not only heard the message about Jesus, they say His love and holiness acted out before their eyes. That was convincing.
In a recent Pastor to Pastor recording, HB London interviewed a pastor from Louisiana named Gene Mills. He's been involved constantly over the past year in the clean-up and relief effort following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Churches across the United States were mobilized to help people who'd lost their homes; some churches adopted pastors who wanted to keep serving their communities but whose own churches had been blown away. The problems Gene and his staff encountered must have seemed insurmountable at times, but God kept providing breakthroughs when they turned to Him. They've been forced to respond creatively to huge needs. Gene says a verse he prays every day is Proverbs 8:12: "I wisdom dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions." He's had to rely on the Lord to show Him solutions to perplexing problems - 'witty inventions'. HB recalled one time he was visiting the relief effort, and the leaders realized there was a great need for refrigerators. They prayed. Within an hour a phone call came from a major company that had just decided to donate a trailer of refrigerators! And things like that happened day after day. Adaptability was required; when they relied on God, He showed them a solution.
Ray Bowman and Eddy Hall's book, "When Not to Build: An Architect's Unconventional Wisdom for the Growing Church" emphasizes that healthy churches respond adaptively to the needs of people, and so honour Jesus. A couple of weeks ago we as a congregation completed a questionnaire. One question asked, "Is it possible that your space needs could be met through more creative use of your present facilities, such as converting space to multiple use, changing furnishings, scheduling services and ministries at alternate times, or using off-campus meeting space?" This question gets at what the authors call "The Principle of Use": they maintain, "A church needs more space only when it is fully using the space it already has."
In this section of the book, something they stress is, "Know your community". For a church to be a servant body, we must find out what the needs are that we can meet in our community. Bowman recalls, "A church in a bedroom community near San Francisco was considering whether to build. When I asked what future ministries they envisioned, they mentioned, among other things, a ministry to the poor, perhaps a soup kitchen or clothing closet. But when the pastor checked the local demographics, he found that almost no poor families lived in the neighbourhood. Instead, the church's neighbourhood attracted upper-income families. His people, this pastor realized, were fantasizing about ministry to a group not even present in their community...A church near New York City had a major ministry to the poor, the homeless, and runaway teens. Even with two services they had outgrown their sanctuary, so they bought land to build. On further reflection, though, they realized that relocation would separate them from the very people to whom they ministered. While they needed more space, the location of that space was critical. They sold the new land and used the money to remodel their worship space. By fully using space in two adjacent houses and a commercial building, they were able to expand in the same location."
Another thing these experts recommend is that churches set priorities - both in laying out a building plan, and in their programming. In planning, the first priorities are: changes that can be made quickly and economically; and those that address a church's most pressing needs. For example, fire and safety codes are 'must do's'; and accessibility for handicapped people is important. In the area of programming, ministries that have run their course must be pruned, even if there is a sense of loss. Programs that compete for participants and leaders may be combined. For example, one church that was having trouble recruiting teachers for adult Sunday School realized the major purpose was 'fellowship' - so shifted emphasis to home-based small groups instead.
Another thing the book emphasizes is recognizing people's calling and gifting. Program-driven churches run into trouble by asking, "How do we fill the slots?" This leads to some square pegs in round holes. Call-driven churches ask instead, "What is God calling you to do?" Each member is guided through the process of identifying spiritual gifts, discerning call, and dreaming creatively about ministry possibilities. People are encouraged to consider what they would dream of doing if the sky were the limit; when they're empowered to obey call and fulfill their ministry dreams, "doing church takes on a whole new level of excitement." Also, program-driven churches tend to be 80% or more inwardly focused; call-driven churches tend to have up to half their members serving in the community and the world.
Finally, using resources creatively involves organizing in a way that responds to needs and maximizes gifting. In team teaching, for instance, teachers are more likely to minister out of their area of spiritual gifting; preparation time is cut dramatically. One church was trying to fill 187 slots of workers needed for children's ministry. when they re-organized, streamlining programs and combining classes, only 60 people were needed; the positions were filled early in the year, and every position was filled by a person whose heart was in children's ministry. Quality was enhanced.
Another area to look at is whether a church is truly "open for business" 7 days a week - rather than just a brief period of time on Sunday morning and a weekday evening. Signage, advertising, staff availability play a big role. Church offices need to be visible and accessible. Perhaps a church can make use of off-campus space, such as unused retail space or housing to make their ministries more accessible to the community.
The apostles could have resisted sharing their authority with a new body of 7 Greek-speaking men. Jesus could have resisted taking the time and energy to wash the disciples' feet, not to mention the indignity of stooping to do "servants' work". But His Spirit within us prompts us to be a church that meets people's needs, for the love of Him.
Ray Bowman admits that several of his suggestions for adapting creatively to solve problems of church growth create inconvenience for church members; such as double-up parking, multiple use of space, movable furnishings, meeting at nontraditional times. But he also says, "I've discovered that a distinguishing mark of practically every growing church is that the people of the church are willing to be inconvenienced for the work of the church. When church members will not volunteer for some inconveniences, the church is unlikely to grow."
Jesus 'inconvenienced' Himself mightily for us. The seven 'inconvenienced' themselves to meet the needs of the widows. What about you - are you up to the challenge? Do I hear any complaints? ....Let's pray.