The Church of Jesus Christ will always grow – the Almighty has so willed it. How wonderful that we get to help.
By Mark D. Harris
Jesus told His disciples to go to the uttermost parts of the earth and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1). For 2000 years the Church of Jesus Christ has shared the good news of the gospel throughout the world. The body of believers has grown from 120 members in the Upper Room (Acts 1:15) to over 2.3 billion people, out of a total world population of 7.3 billion, today. While the Way of Christ is growing by leaps and bounds in places like China and sub-Saharan Africa, progress seems to have stalled in Europe and North America. In the heavily Muslim areas of North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Indonesia, Christians comprise a tiny fraction of the people. Growth feels impossible, and some become discouraged.
Sometimes Christians have effectively demonstrated the saving grace of Jesus to those around them, but other times have not. Many people reject Christ because they don’t have a clear idea who He is. Dedicated believers have often looked to one of the most exciting periods in the history of Christianity, the early Church, for guidance on how to grow. This is a great practice, for the earliest years of any new religious movement (NRM) are the most dynamic. Since few NRMs survive their founder, early Christianity was an example of how to grow and sustain growth over the decades, centuries, and millennia. This article will examine Acts 2:41-47, which describes the earliest days of the Church, to look for clues about how to grow and sustain the Body of Christ today.
How to Grow the Church
It had been an amazing month. Jesus the Christ had been executed, but many of His disciples said that He had risen again. Believers saw Him, or in the eyes of skeptics claimed to see Him, alive after death. No one who did not believe in Him made a similar claim. After Jesus had ascended into heaven, His followers spent much of their time together in an upstairs room in Jerusalem praying, reading the Hebrew Scriptures, and waiting for guidance on what to do next.
Unusual events occurred at Pentecost, the Jewish feast of the first fruits, ten days after Jesus’ ascension. The Upper Room was filled with people when a powerful wind and something that looked like fire rushed in. It was the Holy Spirit of God. The disciples of Jesus started to speak in languages that they could not have known, and then the Apostle Peter explained what it meant. He must have moved outside the house into the open air to preach because hundreds and even thousands had gathered, far too many people to fit in one room. Peter told his hearers that he was an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life, and implicated these hearers in His death. The crowd was shaken and asked what they could do to be saved. Peter told them to repent, be baptized, join the group of Jesus’ followers, and receive the Holy Spirit of God. Three thousand people became what would later be known as Christians on that day.
These events were exciting, but while excitement rapidly wears off, God’s work is enduring. Anyone who has ever gone to a Spirit-filled church service or a powerful political rally knows that the initial enthusiasm doesn’t last long. If people are not directed into meaningful action within a supportive community, they will not stay with the group, and the group will not endure. Acts 2:42-46 shows how to take initial enthusiasm for the cause of Christ and transform it into the everlasting Church.
The first thing that the early Church did was dedicate themselves to the teachings of the Apostles. These men were not the richest, the best looking, or the best public speakers available. They did not say only what people wanted to hear. The disciples’ teachings had four characteristics:
- They were authoritative. These men had seen Jesus, heard Jesus, and lived with Jesus, so they had the best knowledge of the Savior.
- They were truthful. The disciples were honest men. Furthermore, since they had lived together they would be able to correct each other and hold each other accountable.
- They were important. Jesus’ apostles did not spend time with gossip, political intrigue, or trivial matters. They had a story to tell to the nations and they told it.
- They were edifying. Peter’s sermon was built on a firm Hebrew foundation that this Jewish audience would recognize. It dove into the depths of guilt for the crucifixion, but then ascended the heights of grace in God’s work of salvation.
The first thing, therefore, that the modern Church must do to grow and sustain the Body of Christ is to dedicate ourselves to authoritative, truthful, important and edifying teaching. We must choose carefully whose teachings we will follow, but then we must follow them. Christians ought to discuss sermons, Sunday School lessons, articles, and other Bible teachings with family and friends throughout the week. Teachers must help each other and hold each other accountable to provide truthful, important and edifying words. Lastly, leaders must challenge those they follow. The Word of God is always good but never easy.
Students can learn on their own but the richest learning is in the presence of a teacher and other students. Learning, like most everything else in life, is a person to person activity. Many non-Western societies consider the written word dead and the oral word alive. There are some good reasons for this. Written words lack a speaker who can place these words into the right context for the hearers. Written words can’t answer a question about themselves, and they last in print longer than they may be useful. Spoken words die the instant they are spoken, remaining only in the memories of the speaker and the hearers. But for that very reason, spoken words are powerful, moving from the soul of one man to the soul of another. The early Church learned in community.
Secondly, the early Christians dedicated themselves to fellowship. Put another way, they dedicated themselves to the fellowship, that is, other believers. Man is a social and emotional creature more than a rational and intellectual one, and so the best teachings could not alone sustain the Church. Rather, man must be in a community if he is to thrive. Early Christians made community in several ways:
- As noted above, they learned together.
- They shared experiences. To validate their teaching, God gave the apostles the ability to perform mighty works. These works were done in the presence of believers to strengthen their faith as well as non-believers to help them believe. While such miracles are not commonplace today, at least in the West, Christians should still share powerful experiences. Nature, music, other arts, and missions work can provide powerful emotional experiences of worship and service, the kind that can generate and maintain enthusiasm over a lifetime.
- They cared for each other’s needs. No movement can succeed without shared knowledge, shared experiences, shared purpose, shared support, and shared work. Part of the work of the early Church was reaching outsiders, and part of it was caring for insiders. People who left Judaism for Christianity could be ostracized by the Jewish community, and they needed another community where they could go. Christians provided food for the hungry, funds for the unemployed, and resources for others in need.
- They ate together. Every culture and religion understands that there is something special about eating together. The breaking of bread forms a lasting bond. Christians ate together in an intimate setting; each other’s homes. They did it often, with groups of Christians getting together daily. This does not mean that every believer ate with other believers at a different house every day, but that every day some group of believers met with another group.
- They prayed together. Prayer, the time when men and women present themselves before God, is one of the most solitary things that modern Christians do, but it was often a group event in the early Church. Believers prayed for themselves, for brethren, for outsiders, and for any other need (Matthew 6:9-13).
- They controlled their attitudes. Early Christians chose to be steadfast (42), to revere the work of God (43), to agree on the important things (46), to be grateful for what they had been given (46), and to align priorities (46).
As a result of what the early Church did, the Lord gave them favor with the people of the community. Furthermore, He added to their number every day (47). One reason for the intensity of action among early believers was their small number. Another reason was their belief in the imminence of Christ’s return. A third reason was how distinct they were from the surrounding culture. All of these factors made for a tight Christian community in the first century. The community was close, but it still welcomed outsiders.
Mistakes we make
In growing and sustaining our churches, modern Christians make many mistakes compared to our early brethren. We choose whoever looks or sounds the best, or says what we want to hear, to be our leader. We ignore God-given authority. We believe lies that are “supported” by pseudoscience but are inconsistent with the Bible. We spend our time in trivial pursuits. We ignore guilt, pretending to be without sin, or we wallow in guilt, forgetting that we have been saved by grace. We try to learn alone.
Western culture holds to the primacy of the individual over the group. While there are advantages to this way of thinking, there are disadvantages too. The main danger is mistaking individualism for isolation. The Church will grow if modern believers share experiences of God. It will grow if we care for each other’s needs. It will grow if we eat together and pray together. The Body of Believers will get stronger if we as individuals control our attitudes.
The Church of Jesus Christ is the largest religious movement on earth. Empowered by the Almighty Himself in ways that we do not fully understand the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. However, Christians can and must do a better job of sharing the Good News of Jesus with the world. The early Church provides a good role model for us to do exactly that.