A young mother sits in worship Sunday morning fighting tears. The baby hasn’t been sleeping, the toddler has been throwing fits, and last night she and her husband had another huge fight. Yet she manages to smile and nod as she says, “I’m fine, how are you?” during the typical Sunday morning pleasantries. A new minister is selected, or a new elder is installed because he is an exciting and dynamic speaker, however no one realizes that he is not doctrinally sound until the spiritual growth of the congregation has suffered. A widower slips quietly away immediately after services. Everyone is so busy with their own lives and families that they don’t realize how desperately lonely he is as he falls through the cracks. An elder and his wife cry to each other in the evenings because they feel like a failure because all they hear are complaints and criticism. A minister is suddenly fired, loses his home, his family is uprooted, and no one knows why. The work of the church simply carries on while the congregation searches for “a better fit.”
What do each of these scenarios have in common? A few things actually. First of all, each of these is a real-life scenario occurring in congregations all over our country. Second of all, each of these scenarios is allowed to transpire due to the complacency of the brethren. Sisters, I fear that as the Lord’s church, we have become very comfortable with coming, sitting, worshipping and going home. We like to know exactly what to expect in every worship service, and we hate to be uncomfortable.
However, the truth is that people are messy. This means that by extension, as a body made up of messy people, the church is messy. Just look at the epistles: 1 Corinthians is full of mess among the brethren. 2 Corinthians addresses mistakes the brethren made in dealing with the mess. Galatians is about division in the body between the Jews and the Gentiles. Philippians deals with drama occurring between two sisters in Christ. Philemon is about the relationship a slave owner should have with his runaway slave turned babe in Christ. There are arguments, name-calling, loneliness, neglect, hurt feelings, and false teachers galore in the New Testament.
Then the question becomes: what is the primary difference between the first century church and the 21st century church when it comes to these issues? I believe it is this: without even realizing it we have accepted the politically correct nature of our society. We don’t reach out to the young mother because it’s none of our business and we don’t want to offend her. Doctrinal soundness in our leaders isn’t always a priority because sometimes we are more interested in keeping people in seats than in achieving functional spiritual growth in the brethren. No one reaches out to the widower because everyone is so absorbed in their own lives they genuinely do not see him. We aren’t growing spiritually or numerically because we are more interested in “getting something out of” our worship services than in what God expects of us. Our leadership is discouraged because we only go to them with complaints and believe that the church’s job is to keep us happy. We ignore when a minister is let go and we don’t know why because it is simply not OK to ask questions and rock the boat.
Where does all of this lead? We have congregations that are cliquish and divided, yet the majority of our brethren feel isolated and alone. We have brethren who are struggling with their relationships and struggling with their faith while we carry on with our lives blissfully ignorant. Congregation after congregation is being led astray by charismatic false teachers, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find men who desire the office of elder or to be ministers because we, as the sheep, have made the job a difficult, draining discouragement for our elders, and our ministers have no stability because they can be fired simply because someone doesn’t like them.
So what do we do? How can we get our congregations and our relationships back to where they need to be? We follow the biblical example.
When all Christians needed encouragement because they were all babes in Christ, what did they do? “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved,” Acts 2:42-47.
#1 – They were devoted to the apostles’ teachings. It is no coincidence that the very first thing listed is a devotion to the apostles’ teachings. Can we honestly say that we are devoted to the word of God? How much time do we spend in it each day? Most of us can quote songs, movies or tv shows, but how often does God’s word come out of our mouths as we interact with our friends and family on a daily basis?
Do we actively engage in sermons and Bible classes, or are we just passive observers? In Acts 17:11 the Bereans are commended for examining the Scriptures in light of what the apostles were teaching. Do we do the same? Do we test what we are taught as John tells us to in 1 John 4:1? Just as importantly, when a falsehood is taught do we follow Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:15-17 and go to the brother or sister? And in our politically correct society for most places I know the answer to this one, when someone is blatantly teaching false ideas, or causing division in the body, do we publicly let that be known as Paul teaches in Titus 3:10, and as he did in 2 Tim. 2:14-19 and as John did in 3 John 9? Sisters, I have certainly struggled with this in the past. I have been ignorant of God’s word and unable to identify false teaching when I heard it. I have also been afraid to identify those who teach falsehoods or are divisive because I’m afraid of being seen as the bad guy. Sisters, we cannot let our fears, and certainly not our ignorance allow false teaching and divisiveness to destroy our congregations.
#2 – They were devoted to fellowship. Our first century brethren gathered together on a daily basis. They ate meals together. On a regular basis they were in each other’s homes. They were each other’s best friends. It breaks my heart when I see Christians whose closest friends are of the world. Typically these are the people they spend the most time with: at school, at work, at sporting events, at band. We will naturally be closest to those we spend the most time with. It is so important to remember 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Bad company ruins good morals.” We will be most like those we spend the most time around.
We must also remember Ecclesiastes 4:12b, “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” When is this true? One at a time the cords can be snapped easily. It only becomes more difficult when all three strands are woven together. Sisters, we will only truly be able to stand against the darts of Satan when our lives are interwoven with our brethren.
#3 – They were devoted to prayer. We are all familiar with James 5:16, “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” But do we live it? Do we confess our sins openly so our brethren can pray for us, or do we put on our happy church face as we crumble inside? When we are hurt by our brethren is our first reaction to pray for those who have hurt us? Do we pray for opportunities to share the Gospel? Are we regularly praying for our ministers and their families? Do we pray for our elders? Sisters, I believe we have forgotten the power of prayer and relegated it to something we do before meals, maybe before bed, and a few times during worship.
Without fail, every one of my children went through a phase as toddlers where they would hold their empty sippy cup out to me and grunt. Did I know that they wanted something to drink? Absolutely. However I would not get it until they politely said, “More drink please?” Our Heavenly Father is the same way. He knows what we need and what we desire, but He wants us to rely on Him enough to ask for it. If we aren’t growing spiritually as individuals, if our congregation is not growing, if there is division, strife or apathy, we need to follow the example of our first century brethren and investigate our prayer life.
#4 – They were aware of and meeting each other’s physical needs. This is another benefit to gathering with each other on a daily basis, and it is two-sided. These brethren were in each other’s lives to the point where they were able to see, recognize, and then meet each other’s needs. What we as “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” Americans tend to struggle even more with, however, is that they were willing to allow their needs to be seen and met by their brethren. How often do we deny our brethren the opportunity to serve because we are prideful? If God had intended for us to keep our struggles to ourselves and do it on our own, he wouldn’t have established the church for us. My husband frequently says, “God doesn’t need the church, He can be worshipped in any way. He created the church because he knew that we would need it.”
The question is, what good does the church do us if we aren’t willing to lean on each other in times of need? Sisters, we must spend enough quality time with each other to know what each other’s struggles and needs are. Then we have to step out of ourselves and our own lives long enough to meet those needs. Finally, we have to be willing to go to that scary, vulnerable place, swallow our pride, and allow our brethren to help us when we are in need.
#5 – They were continuously praising God. We have already established that many of these brethren had great need. We have also established that even the wealthy brethren did not stay that way because they were devoted to meeting each other’s needs. Yet they were continually praising God. They understood what many of us have forgotten, that this life is a temporary path to an eternal destiny. What makes us think we will want to praise God eternally in Heaven if we are too busy to praise Him here and now? Regardless of our current circumstances, we have hope. We have a Savior who loves us and died for us to give us that hope, and even in the darkest of times, sisters, that deserves praise. What better way can we be a light to the world than by continuously praising our Creator?
#6 – The result was that the church spread like wildfire. When the Lord’s church focuses on these five areas: biblical teaching, fellowship, prayer, meeting each other’s needs and praising God Almighty, the natural result will be spiritual and numerical growth. Sisters, we don’t need more “programs” in our congregations, we need to get back to the basics our faith was built upon!
According to Acts 17:6 the first century Christians were literally turning the world upside down! It wasn’t with charismatic and dynamic preaching. Going to worship on Sunday mornings and sitting in a pew didn’t do it. It wasn’t through waiting for the elders and ministers to do the work. Following the latest trends in church programs didn’t do it. It was through the Acts 2 and Ephesians 4:11-14 model. The Lord’s church grew because the individual Christians were in each other’s lives, they were in God’s word, and they lived out their faith for the world to see every single day. Sisters, lets embrace their example! Let’s get back to the basics our faith is built on! Let’s turn the world upside down!