"Adapting to Current Needs"
May 2, 2010 Acts 6:1-8
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?
While changing the newspaper around the edges of our aging cat's litterbox, I spotted this photo of a local pastor and the president of that community's Lions Club holding a cheque. At first you might think, "How nice - a church making a donation to a benevolent cause in the community." But wait - the headline reads, "Dungannon do-gooding heats up local church." It turns out the Lions Club had pledged to match donations up to $1,000 towards furnace repairs at the church. About $2300 was raised in total: a very kind gesture on behalf of the community. But isn't there something wrong with this picture? Shouldn't it be the other way around, the church giving to the community? Has it really come to this - that we as Christians are dependent upon support financially from our unchurched neighbours? The article quotes the pastor as saying, "Hopefully this is a sign that more people will join us on Sundays and support the church regularly to keep it operating well into the future." Hmm - don't think I'll hold my breath about that one. In a secular society like ours, people are increasingly suspicious of organized religion that may be perceived as 'guilting' people to participate, or at best, runs programs in an attempt to attract people so the cause may continue for its own sake. Folks are quick to spot any 'angle' in our activities.
In the book of Acts, the early church remembered the words the Lord Jesus Himself said: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:35) In Acts chapter 6, we find the early church responding creatively and benevolently to social needs, without losing a sense of important spiritual priorities.
HALLMARKS OF THE EARLY CHURCH VS 'THE SYSTEM'
There are at least 3 passages in the first half-dozen chapters of Acts that describe hallmarks of the early church. Acts 2:42-47 mentions the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread (communion), and prayer; apostles doing wonders and miraculous sings; benevolence, as believers sold real estate and gave to anyone as they had need; and meeting together in the temple courts - public space.
In Acts 4:29-35 there are some similar features mentioned: speaking the word; miraculous signs and wonders; they were one in heart and mind, sharing everything; and there was benevolence - selling their goods and distributing to others as they had need. The apostles testified to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power.
Again, in Acts 5:12-16, the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders; the believers met together in an area of the Temple known as Solomon's Colonnade, sort of a porch inside the inner wall enclosing the outer court. Also crowds gathered from the surrounding towns, bringing the sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all were healed.
So in these brief snapshots of early church life we see repeated emphasis on 4 key features: teaching and preaching of the message about Jesus; miraculous signs and wonders - things that only God could do; fellowship, meeting together; and benevolent generosity, selling and giving wealth so no one would be in need (remember, there was no welfare system or old age security). This together came across as 'Good News' to hurting, broken, bound-up people.
Contrast that, the church (without walls), to what we might call "The System" - with walls. The Way movement challenged the Jewish Temple system as more and more folks were drawn to it like bees to pollen. 6:7 records, "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." That last part especially must have rattled the religious authorities - even lower-tier leaders, the priests, were joining the church. 6:8 says the new church leader Stephen "full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.Opposition arose, however..." What was the essence of the System's criticism of the new movement? Read the charges in vv13f, "speaking against this holy place [the Temple] and against the law.For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us."
The problem was that the Jewish system had become institutionalized and legalized to the point it no longer facilitated people's meeting with God. There was a barnacle-ization of belief (barnacles are hard-shelled sea creatures that cling to the bottom of boats, slowing them down, so they have to be scraped off from time to time); there was an encrusted entrenchment of religion.
One prong of the accusatory attack against Stephen mentioned the Temple. The building becomes an idol, shifting focus from ministry to maintenance. Jesus had declared that true worship didn't require one to be in Jerusalem or any other particular place; the worshippers God seeks are those who worship Him in spirit and truth.
The other prong was the law, the customs which had grown up around it to the point of becoming a bother or hindrance. Jesus criticized Pharisees for ceremonial hand-washings and tithing of the minuscule, while overlooking major things like justice, mercy, greed, and hypocrisy (Matthew 23; Mark 7). Religious folk can become resistant to change. They like to be comfortable, knowing what to expect, they don't want to be challenged or do anything different. But James Ryle has 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."
RESPONSIVE, YET ROOTED / "REMAINING"
The beginning of Acts 6 shows the church healthily finding a balance between flexibility and structure. In contrast to the rather idyllic snapshots in chapters 2-5, a situation had developed. There were rumblings of discontent. 6:1 states, "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." How would the leaders handle this one? V2, they gathered all the disciples; v3, suggested the group choose seven men to deal with the matter; v6, these men were presented to the apostles who prayed for them and commissioned them.
Note the process was participatory and consent-based rather than hierarchical; the whole Body got involved. Also, the process was not elitist, the Jewish apostles didn't play politics; v5 shows that all seven names of those chosen were Greek. The leaders delegated the task to those closest to the situation, men who could readily understand the situation of the overlooked Grecian widows. The church was learning to entrust responsibility to relative newcomers, rather than hoard power and control in a sort of 'Family Compact'. There's clear delegation: v3, "We will turn this responsibility over to them..."
What other options were open to the apostles? They could have decided: (a) "we're not a social agency - scrap the food distribution, we're strictly a spiritual enterprise, heavenly-minded." Or, on the other hand, they could have decided: (b) "there's a real need here - we need to go at this whole-hog [not that a good Jew would likely have used that expression!]...We're going to devote all our people-power to this, assigning all 11 apostles to it right away." That would have been to ignore the spiritual essence of Christianity. Instead, they went with (c): discerning those God had prepared with a passion and gifting to develop this needed service, to His glory.
They responded creatively, effectively, without compromising priorities. Note 6:4, we "will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word." The church serves or ministers to social need but is not a 'service club'. The apostles remembered Jesus' caution about not becoming detached from the vine, but staying rooted by communion with God, the importance of remaining or abiding in Jesus by spiritual disciplines. The Master had said in John 15(4f,7f), "Remain in me, and I will remain in you.No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me...If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing...If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." The church's leaders knew that prayer and the word were essential for abiding in Jesus and bearing fruit.
FROM ATTRACTIONAL TO MISSIONAL
It doesn't stop with prayer and the word; healthy faith goes beyond the church walls to bless others through kindness and draw them in to caring fellowship. In this ten-minute clip from Regional Gathering, keynote speaker Hugh Halter describes how our traditional way of 'doing church' can change to become attractive to unchurched folk in society who would actually be drawn to Jesus' Kingdom if they only saw it lived out...
WHO'S YOUR 'FIONA'?
I'd like to close with Hugh Halter's brief account of how dialogue with a waitress wary of church sparked him into re-investigating this whole business of how the Lord wants us to be His people in the world. As you're watching, maybe God will whisper to you who a 'Fiona' is in your circle that He's wanting to love through you...