Based on a talk by Mike Hill, Bishop of Bristol, at the Keswick Convention 2013.
I want to talk to you about the nature of the church. You hear lots of stories of people who have picked up collateral damage from the church, and people who have given up. Whether or not you can forfeit your salvation, pastors feel a dull ache when they meet people who had a heart for God and were prominent in their church, but have given up altogether.
One of St Luke's little cameos of the church is in Acts 2:42-47, and helps us by describing some of the marks of a healthy church.
A church devoted to the Word of God.
People of God need to know what the word of God says in order to know how to live. In the early church, verse 42 tells us that the people were concerned about learning from the Word.
How much time do people in the West waste, watching mindless stuff on TV or messing around on the internet? But there are some great sermons out there on
YouTube that we could look at.
I fear these days, that a lot of our worship services can feel a bit busy. Is there appropriate time given to teaching? Some preachers seem to think that the art of preaching is the preacher telling the audience how much he knows. But it should be what the preacher feels God has told him to tell them.
Are you devoted to the word of God, like the Christians in v42?
A church devoted to fellowship
In verse 42 it tells us that the early Christians were also relational, and devoted to the fellowship. How many churches do you know are falling apart because people don't get on? I know a church where a group of Christians are plotting to get the pastor out. If you're a pastor who's been on the receiving end of plots, you know how decimating it is.
An obedient church
Verse 42 suggests that they were also an obedient church. Obedience is a difficult concept in 21st century discipleship, because the wider community has a difficulty with authority. Is obedience blind, uncritical obeisance that someone else will exploit?
We're not saved by our obedience, but as far as I can see obedience is a component of healthy discipleship. Jesus said, "if you love me, you will keep my commandments." This world would be a better place if a few more of us would keep those commandments. What's written in the Bible is written for our good. A lot of it is counter intuitive and is not the way we would naturally behave. We have to pray for the grace to follow these things.
A church filled with awe
"Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles," verse 43 says. I stand in front of lots of different congregations. You would be hard pressed to see that awe is what has brought them there. A lot of our congregations, it's like as if they're waiting for a bus to arrive!
I'm fully aware that the church has a diverse view about signs and wonders. The Anglican church is a mixed bag, with conservatives, charismatics, liberals.
Someone said the CofE is like Noah's Ark – it's got lots of strange animals on it. But I sometimes speak to some evangelicals who talk like liberals, as if God will not intervene in the lives of human beings, to bring healing and wholeness.
In the early church, I pray that when we come to worship the living God, we would come with a sense of awe. This is the sovereign God of Heaven and Earth who wants to know us. Doesn't that fill you with awe?
When we worship God, let's celebrate the fact that this God is awesome. Until you realise what God has done for you on that cross on Calvary, you'll never have awe. God's love shown to me, even though I don't deserve it? Why does God bother with someone like me? It's awesome.
An expectant church
Verse 43 also suggests that it was an expectant church. When you stand up to preach, you can believe that God is going to use what you say. Every time you as a believer say ‘amen', we should have a mentality, that we have no idea what will happen next. When we pray for someone who is sick, be expectant that God will do something. Maybe he won't replace the missing arm or leg, but God will do something.
A socially aware church.
The believers held property in common and gave to those in need, according to verse 44-45. Some left wing politicians think they dreamt up this kind of social awareness. But this shows a level of commitment you don't see too often these days. I know a church where they pooled their garden equipment such as lawnmowers. It was war. Everyone wanted to cut the lawn on a Saturday.
There was a time when evangelicals were accused of preaching the gospel to starving people. I think it's over-caricatured myself. But we were slow off the mark as to how we think about caring for people in our communities. We may have swung just a way too far. Now, I'm nervous that we're more concerned to tell people what we're doing than telling people what God has done.
A witnessing church.
Verse 46 shows they were meeting in temple. These Christians were not liked by the Jewish establishment, but what they were doing they were doing in a public place. We've got a lot to do, to get the gospel outside of our churches and into our communities where there is great brokenness and desperation.
There will be scores of people who face a Christless eternity, because they've never had the opportunity to hear the good news. I have dreams about unsaved people, and they're terrifying dreams. Maybe we don't share enough about what God is doing in our lives.
A joyful church
Verse 46 shows they had glad hearts. Some of us walk by fear rather than walk by faith.
A committed church
The same verse also says they had sincere hearts. We can't march with a half-committed army.
They enjoyed the favour of the people
It seems that people looked at the manner of the church and were attracted to it, in verse 47. Though, when the Christians opened their mouths, the public weren't that attracted by the message of the church! Marketing people tell us we've got to affirm people and make them feel good about themselves. But we're different. You've got to start telling them, that before you know Christ you're a mess. But to be attracted by our manner is a healthy thing.
A growing church
The last verse also says, "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved". I have never met a pastor who didn't want their church to grow... We've been massively intentional about this in my diocese. It feels like, we're trying to wake something up.
If you care about lost souls, you want your church to grow. Luke 15 tells us that God is deeply concerned about lost people. We want to build our church because we want to see heaven populated.