"The Purpose of the Church"
May 31, 2009 Acts 4:23-35
A CHURCH'S CHANGE: FROM SOAKING TO SHAKING
Churches grow through various stages. At Pentecost about 120 disciples were gathered in one place. The Holy Spirit descended upon them in tongues of flame and enabled them to talk about God's wonders in strange languages. Peter preached a great sermon connecting what was happening with Jesus' recent crucifixion and resurrection. People felt convicted about crucifying brutally God's unique Messiah and soon there were over 3,000 new Christians. What a development! Thousands of baby believers all needing nurture and to come to grips with this new experience of eternal life and sonship / daughterhood with God.
Acts 2:42-47 describes the infant church's experience. We might call it 'soaking' or 'steeping' as a tea bag has to permeate the liquid and flavour it. "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer...Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need...They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God..." Rick Warren comments that here we see the clearest example of the 5 purposes of the church: "They taught each other, they fellowshipped together, they worshipped, they ministered, and they evangelized."
But this was the church just starting out - soaking and savouring this newfound goodness of God. They had much to learn, so devoted themselves hard-core to the disciples' training. A couple of chapters later we see them enter another phase, their immediate priorities shift. The context is the threats of the Jewish religious leaders for Peter and John not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus (Ac 4:18). The first response of the young congregation on hearing all this is to raise their voices together in prayer to God. 4:24, "Sovereign Lord, You made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them." There's a Sense of God's Sovereignty. 'Sovereign' translates a word similar to 'despot', there's the idea of total submission as of a slave to a master. Next there's the Wonder of God's Word: v25, "You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David" - and proceeds to quote Psalm 2 about the earthly rulers plotting against the Lord and His Messiah. God is a fluent God who communicates His plan.
In vv27-28 we see the Power of God's Purpose, as Herod and Pilate unwittingly fulfilled the predictions of prophecy. "They did what Your power [literally, hand] and will (plan / purpose) had decided beforehand should happen." Nothing takes God by surprise: in fact He had decreed Christ's sacrifice to redeem many sinners. Mysteriously it had all come together, with the actors freely responsible but God's hand guiding the process.
That awareness of God's sovereignty, His wonderfully active Word, and mighty purpose combined to change this from a 'soaking' church to a 'shaking' church. Note the Spunk and Selflessness of God's Servants in what comes next. V29, "Now, Lord, consider their threats and..." How would a cozy comfy North American Christian finish that sentence? "Consider their threats and - protect us! Save our hides! Fry our enemies with a lightning bolt!" Run for cover, in other words. But surprisingly that's not how the Spirit-filled, Sovereign-conscious, power-provided church of Acts finishes the sentence. "Lord, consider their threats and - enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." Such spunk! They're ready to move out and tell about the Saviour even if it brings persecution and punishment - remember, these enemies are quite capable of killing again.
Confident in an awesome Creator, their selflessness comes through in v32: "All the believers were one in heart and mind.No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own..." Gone was a dividing possessive sense of "mine" vs "yours": instead it was 'ours', for common use.
Last in this passage, we see the Good news, Grace, and Giving of God's Group. Good news, vv31&33: "And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly...With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus..." Grace: (continuing in 33) "and much grace [literally, great grace] was upon them all." Grace is goodwill, merciful kindness - a key quality of Jesus that drew people to Him. Giving: vv32&34f, "...they shared everything they had." They retained individual ownership (not communists) but were quick to relinquish possessions as anyone had need - even selling lands and houses to provide for those who had come for the feast but stayed on for this concentrated period of training and equipping with the apostles post-Pentecost.
This was a church that was maturing rapidly, moving from 'soaking' in their new experience as Christians to 'shaking' their surroundings, even as the place where they were meeting was shaken after they prayed for God to mobilize them.
REVIEWING / FINE TUNING OUR PURPOSE
In a similar way, our own congregation is moving on from its initial experience. At first we had been through somewhat of a crisis religiously and benefitted from time to regroup, reorganize, and consolidate in a new pattern that strove to be "Christ-centred, Bible-believing, Fellowship-friendly, and Growth-geared." A newer contemporary style of worship music was most welcome. But there comes a time to move from 'soaking' to 'shaking', by God's grace. It's best for the tea bag not to be left to steep indefinitely!
As a result of our most recent Natural Church Development survey, the elders have been discussing future priorities. A suggestion was made that maybe we needed to clarify our purpose. Personally I thought we had a purpose that was just fine - a vision of "Making Disciples for Jesus, in our homes, community, and world." That was embedded in our charter, along with our motto and logo and values and membership promises. It comes straight out of the Great Commission in Matthew 28(18-20); what's the matter with that? "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"
But while it's all there in theory, it may not be informing our congregational life very much consciously. It's not 'owned': would we recognize a disciple if we bumped into one? How do you tell? Can anyone tell us off the top of their head what are the steps in 'making disciples? Probably it's time to challenge our members to translate this 'vision' of 'making disciples' into terms we can understand, commit to, and carry out.
Gary has pointed out that we resemble what Rick Warren calls the 'Family Reunion Church', focusing primarily on fellowship: "This church is shaped by the pastor who is highly relational, loves people, and spends most of his time caring for members.He serves more as a chaplain than anything else [SURPRISE! - that's the model in which I was trained]. Key terms for this church are love, belonging, fellowship, caring, relationships, potlucks, small groups, and fun. In the family reunion church, the gathering is more important than the goals...A family reunion church may not get much done, but it is almost indestructible...Relationships are the glue that keep the faithful coming." (Get the 'soaking' picture?)
Another nudge to revisit our purpose came from our denominational President, Phil Delsaut. In his report to the 2009 General Assembly earlier this month, he wrote:
"There is an inward focus that is corrected by an outward focus...This inward focus shows up when we complete the following sentence: 'The fruit of a disciple is... a deeper walk (or some equivalent, deeper spirituality, more mature, etc.). While this sounds spiritual...its effect has proven toxic for the disciple and for the Church in its mission...In our seeking to go deeper or become more mature in our faith we can fall into the Enemy's trap. The quest for a deep and rich inner life can become a retreat inward, in which our walk with God is reduced to the quest itself. It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who observed that 'Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good'...the fruit of a disciple is... another disciple. This is an important insight, but one that still finds resistance among the people of God...the fruit of a follower of Jesus is another follower...If we are to keep step with Our Saviour, we must embrace our marching orders as disciples: Make disciples.
"This brings us to another important insight. The church does not make disciples. Let me repeat it: THE CHURCH DOES NOT MAKE DISCIPLES. [that caught my attention, having the 'vision statement' we do!] ...saying that 'the church is to make disciples' has proven to be a disempowering statement. For example, Bill Hybels has stated that Willow's task is to turn 'irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ'. After years of ministry, the Willow team has discovered that they have not done so well in developing 'self-feeders'. The reason is simple, the church does not make disciples any more than it is responsible to raise or teach my children. The purpose of the church is NOT to make disciples any more than it is the purpose of the church to teach my children or raise my children...It is the responsibility of parents to raise and teach their children, and it is the responsibility of a disciple of Jesus to make another disciple. The 'Church' as a system that creates programs and structures must be careful that it does not create a codependency that co-opts either parents or disciples.The Church has an extremely important role to play in nurturing good parenting and good disciple-making...At the end of the day, I, as a follower of Jesus must own my responsibility in my journey with My Master: 'I am a follower of Jesus.Irrespective of what anyone else may do or say, I own MY journey in following Jesus.I am responsible.I also value being part of a community of mission, in which WE are helping each other and others on the Way. But I am responsible.'"
PURPOSE - DISCOVERED, NOT DICTATED
It's a temptation for any preacher to just start with the Great Commandment and Great Commission and TELL you what your purposes should be. But then that won't be owned by you - far better for you to come up with these on your own, in your own words; then you know them for yourself, as revealed by the Lord not by man. Still, Rick Warren does offer some 'hints' for the process.
It should be Biblical - recall how the early church was struck by the Wonder of the Word. We're Protestants, understanding the Spirit illuminates truth in the Bible to communicate God's will to us, rather than by means of a pope or church councils. Warren notes, "An effective purpose statement expresses the New Testament doctrine of the church. Remember, we don't decide the purposes of the church - we discover them. Christ is the head of His church. He established the purposes long ago. Now each generation must reaffirm them."
In the early months of Saddleback Church, Warren led the congregation through an extensive Bible study on the church. There is a sheet available with over 40 different passages he offers on that theme. I'd recommend you take it home and review 1 column each day for your devotional time this week, praying, "Lord, what do You want to show us about Your priorities for our church?" The church in Acts 4 was very conscious of how God had fulfilled Scripture to accomplish His purposes.
Rick Warren suggests: "Look at Christ's ministry on earth...What would He do if He were here today? Look at the images and names of the church" (body, bride, flock, army, etc). "Look at the examples of New Testament churches.Look at the commands of Christ...What did Jesus tell us to do?" "What are we to be as a church?...What are we to do as a church?"
It's Christ's church, not ours. Jesus founded the church, died for the church, sent His Spirit to the church, and will someday return for His church. As Head of the church, He has already established the purposes; our duty is to understand them and implement them. The programs may change, but the purposes don't.
Today we're allowing about 10 minutes for some small group discussion. We'd like you to form about 4 groups with an elder in each group. A couple of questions to talk about: "What ministries of the church have helped you most to 'own' or take responsibility for your journey with the Master?" And, "Are there any ways you've sensed the Lord may be leading our church to do something differently? If so, what might be the purpose behind that?" [...discussion]