3 Lessons from the Early Church

Dr. Luke describes 3 characteristics of the Acts 4 church

3 Lessons from the Early ChurchThe book of Acts unfolds as an historical narrative of the early church, the activities of the first followers of Jesus and those who join them. For the most part, Acts simply describes what happens, with little commentary and few instructions for proper conduct.

While we can look to Acts as a possible model for church life, we would be in error to treat it as a requirement for right behavior. In this way Acts can inform us today, but it doesn’t command us. For example, if I wrote, “My church went to a baseball game after the service,” no one (I hope) would think I was saying that attending baseball games is prescriptive of church life. No. It was merely descriptive of what one church did one time. We would never build our theology on a statement like that.

So it is with the book of Acts. Yet we can learn from it. Luke writes three things about that church:

Unity: The Acts 4 church is of one heart and mind, just as Jesus prayed that we would be one (John 17:21). Their actions are consistent with Jesus’s prayer. Jesus prayed it, and the early church does it; I hope unity describes every one and every church.

Community Minded: In the Acts 4 church, no one claims their possessions as their own. It isn’t my things and your things; it is our things. They have a group mentality and act in the community’s best interest. While we might do well to hold our possessions loosely, notice that this isn’t a command; they just do it out of love.

Willing to Share: Last, the Acts 4 church shares everything they have. Not some things, not half, but all. This would be a hard thing for many in our first-world churches to do today but not so much in third-world congregations. Again, this isn’t a command (and later on Peter confirms that sharing resources is optional, Acts 5:4); it is just a practice that happens at this moment of time in the early church.

While these three characteristics should inspire us to think and behave differently, and can provide a model for church life, we need to remember that the Bible gives us no commands to pursue a communal-type church. We can, but it’s one option. Of the three only unity rises as an expectation because Jesus yearns for it to be so. That should give us plenty to do.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Acts 4, and today’s post is on Acts 4:32.]

Jesus Talked about the Kingdom of God and We Made a Church

What if Jesus never intended his followers to form a church as we know it today?

Jesus Talked about the Kingdom of God and We Made a ChurchI looked at where the Bible talks about the kingdom of God and where it talks about church. What I learned is shocking.

These are New Testament Considerations: Both the church and the kingdom of God (along with the kingdom of Heaven) are New Testament concepts. None of these terms occur in the Old Testament. Since Jesus comes to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17), the kingdom of God must be one way he intends to do so.

Jesus Teaches about the Kingdom of God, not Church: Jesus talks much about the kingdom of God (Heaven) and little about the church: fifty-four times versus three. Clearly Jesus focuses his teaching on the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of God is so important to Jesus, it should be important to us as well.

A Change Occurs in Acts: A transition of emphasis happens in the book of Acts, with twenty-one mentions of church and only six mentions of the kingdom of God. Early on Jesus’s followers shift their focus from the kingdom of God to the church. This is logical because a church is a tangible result while the kingdom of God is a more ethereal concept. But just because this is a logical shift, that doesn’t make it right.

Jesus’s Followers Focus on Church: The rest of the New Testament (Romans through Revelation) emphasizes church over the kingdom of God: ninety times versus eight. Even though the early followers of Jesus favor the practice of church over the concept of the kingdom of God, the fact remains that their practice of church then is far different from ours today.

Today’s church should push aside her traditions and practices to replace them with what Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God. It will change everything.

(Here’s the background:

The word church occurs 114 times in the Bible, all in the New Testament. Of the four accounts of Jesus, church only occurs in Matthew and then just three times. Acts, the book about the early church, mentions church twenty-one times. The word church occurs in the majority of the rest of the New Testament books (fifteen of them).

Instead of church, Jesus talks about the kingdom of God. The phrase, kingdom of God, occurs sixty-eight times in the Bible, again, all in the New Testament. The majority of occurrences are in the four biographies of Jesus, accounting for fifty-four of its sixty-eight appearances. Acts mentions the kingdom of God six times, with only eight occurrences popping up in the rest of the New Testament.

Matthew generally writes using the kingdom of Heaven instead of the kingdom of God. He uses kingdom of Heaven thirty-one times and is the only writer in the Bible to use this phrase. By comparing parallel passages in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see the same account with the only difference being that Matthew writes kingdom of Heaven whereas Mark and Luke use kingdom of God. Clearly Matthew, the only biblical writer to use kingdom of Heaven, equates it to kingdom of God. Additionally Matthew uses the kingdom of God five times.)

Grumbling About Church Shows That We Care

People complain about things that matter to them; silence reveals apathy

When a customer complains about a business, the astute businessperson knows to embrace it as an opportunity. The fact that the customer is complaining means they’re still a customer, and they’re simply providing a chance for improvement. After all, if they no longer view themselves as a customer, why would they bother to share their concerns? They gripe, because at some level, they still care.

They may post a rant on social media, grouse to all their friends, or contact customer service to demand a resolution. But regardless of their approach they yearn for a better outcome than what they experienced. This is because deep down they want a business relationship and hope for it to improve.

Grumbling About Church Shows That We CareI’m a lot like that when it comes to the universal church, the church of Jesus. I complain about his church because I care. In fact, I complain a lot because I care a lot. The church that Jesus’s followers started could be so much more than what it is. It should be so much more than what it is.

Not everyone agrees with me, though. In fact most people don’t. They’re basically happy with the church status quo and how she operates. They essentially like the way things function and the traditions they have. They still embrace the basic tenets of today’s church meetings: a Sunday service with music, a lecture, and a collection. Maybe the church will even tack on a social time: call it a Christian happy hour with coffee.

And if they get mad or hurt or disillusioned, they’ll act like consumers and take their business to another church, one that behaves in a manner more aligned with their preferences, expectations, and experiences. But most will still attend church.

A few, however, will drop out. Though they leave the church, they usually don’t leave God. Contrary to what some people think, church attendance doesn’t equate to having faith in God. These church dropouts still love Jesus; it’s his people and their unexamined practices that drive them crazy.

Just as people can go to church and not have faith, they can just as easily not go to church and retain their faith. It’s not that they don’t like church; it’s that they sense she is broken. Though I go to a typical, modern church, I agree with these folks who have a sense that today’s church isn’t working as it should, that we’re missing the point of what it means to truly follow Jesus.

Though I don’t have a solution, I do have ideas. That’s what this blog is about. Stay tuned for more in the Sunday posts to come, because I have much more to say. After all, I write about the church because I care about her.

What is Your Spiritual Litmus Test?

Most Christians carry unexamined criteria that others must agree with before they’re accepted

What is Your Spiritual Litmus Test?I was once interviewed for a volunteer position at my church. The pair of interviewers cranked through a series of pre-assigned theological questions to determine my supposed worthiness to lead.

For some queries the answers were straightforward; others, not so much. On these tougher questions, instead of responding with simplistic answers, I shared a more complex perspective, one packed with more questions but backed by biblical support. I answered with shades of gray, but my inquisitors wanted black and white responses. I knew what they wanted to hear, but instead I was honest. I suppose that in a sense I should have responded with the religious equivalent of political correctness.

For my candor I earned a one-on-one meeting with the senior pastor. He had five areas where he sought clarification. We worked through the first four without issue; he accepted my grayscale answers.

Though I don’t remember what it was, the fifth area was problematic. As he drilled down I realized I was at a tipping point. If I gave the pat answer he wanted to hear I was in. If I vacillated, I was out.

I wanted to serve my church in this capacity and, more importantly, I felt God had called me to do so – more succinctly, he told me to. With only a tinge of guilt I gave the easy answer that would assure my acceptance. Pastor smiled and shook my hand. I was in. I passed his spiritual litmus test.

We all have spiritual litmus tests. Though I try not to, I know I do. So do you. Of a larger concern, churches have their litmus tests, too. These litmus tests are why our world is saddled with 43,000 Protestant denominations. After all, if we agreed on everything there would be no reason to take the unbiblical step of separating from one another, of dividing the church that Jesus prayed would experience unity.

While most everyone draws a spiritual line in the sands of theology that cannot be crossed, none of this should matter. Whether it’s disagreeing about baptism, communion, which version of the Bible is best, the song selection, pews or chairs, the color of the lobby, or even if men need to wear ties to church, Jesus wants us to be one. Unity is more important than theology (and personal preference). That’s what matters most.

Should We Be Busy For God?

Being active at church may seem a wise use of time, but it’s often misplaced action

Should We Be Busy For God?

One Sunday at church I passed our associate pastor as I scurried from one assignment to the next. “How are you?” he asked.

Instead of lying with a socially acceptable response, I told him the truth. “Busy.” I sighed.

As I scampered away he gave an approving nod with a knowing smile. “As long as you’re busy about the right things.” He even raised his eyebrows for emphasis.

Even though I returned his nod and his smile, I knew he was wrong. I was too busy.

This happened as a young twentysomething. A decade or so later, I hadn’t learned my lesson. Being between pastors, my church (a different one) needed me. In addition to volunteering for things that interested me, I also said “yes” to whatever it asked. I thought that being busy for God was my duty, a way to show him my love and devotion.

At the height of my folly I served in ten roles. I was in several leadership positions, served on committees, and had a prime teaching assignment. These kept me busy on Sunday mornings and several evenings each week. I was the guy who made things happen. There wasn’t much that occurred there I didn’t know about.

I wore my busyness as a badge of honor, and I shortchanged my family in the process. I was busy, too busy.

Wisely I phased out of my responsibilities. I began to say “no” to new ones. At first I declined with a heap of guilt, but eventually “no” empowered me. I began to feel free. I spent more time with family – and with God.

Now I have established some guidelines to keep me from overcommitment, three simple rules: Be involved in only one role at church. Volunteer for only one activity in my community. And no more than one evening away from home per week.

Though I’m yet to find a place where I fit at my present church, I do enjoy a weekly volunteer opportunity to give to others. And these things seldom take me away from family in the evenings. It’s a good balance, and I’m glad to not be so busy.

I can’t find a single place in the Bible where God commands us to be busy for him. What he does want is for us to worship him, be in relationship with him, and put him first. But putting church first is not the same has making God first. God doesn’t reward us for our many church activities. Though the cause may be noble, the activity is misplaced.

We honor God best when we put him first, not by being busy for him.

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Church Community is Key: Seek Connection At All Costs

If the church service you attend doesn’t provide meaningful connection, then you need to fix it or find a different church

Church Community is Key: Seek Connection At All CostsDespite being the most connected generation, Millennials are also reportedly the loneliest. It seems their massive number of online friends and followers offer them only superficial relationships that lack meaningful interaction. They crave connections with others that touches them at a significant level, but social media falls short in accomplishing this deep heartfelt need.

That’s why “hanging out with friends” seems to be their favorite, most desired activity.

I think that’s what church is all about. Or at least that’s what it should be all about.

The early church spent time together. We need to reclaim this, not just for the Millennials, but for our own wellbeing, too.

But hanging out doesn’t mean passive pew sitting, staring at the back of people’s heads for an hour. True community can’t occur when listening to the Sunday lecture that we call a sermon. Meaningful connection with each other doesn’t happen during the concert-like atmosphere we label as worship, where a couple of skilled musicians attempt to lead a largely unresponsive throng in singing. And don’t get me started on the disingenuous greeting time wedged into the middle of a service: it is too long for the socially challenged and too short for meaningful interaction.

This opportunity for true, meaningful community does not take place during the church service; it occurs after the benediction. When the final “amen” is uttered the clock-watchers flee, and a few people hang out to talk. Every church has a few of these folks. Though they may be the social butterflies, they may also be the ones who understand why we are supposed to not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). They seek profound community.

Although this time of hanging out could reside on the surface, talking about safe (and meaningless) topics, such as the weather, the game, or the Sunday dinner menu, the wise people focus on discussions that matter. We listen to each other on the heart level. We minister to and serve one another, we pray and are prayed for, and we encourage and are encouraged. When we do this, we prepare ourselves and our church community for the week ahead so that we can go out into our greater community and be Jesus to them.

True church community is the key to make this happen. Don’t let the official church service get in the way.

Church Is For Girls

The modern church is geared toward women and men don’t fit

Church Is For GirlsI have known the title for this post for a long time. In my heart I knew it was true, but I struggled to articulate why. Now I can.

I read David Murrow’s book Why Men Hate Going to Church hoping to understand why I struggle so with church attendance. Though it’s no one’s fault (and yet we are all complicit), the Christian church is a place where women thrive and men die. In most all that it does – from décor, to language, to programs, to music, to sermons – today’s church provides what women crave, while offering little that appeals to men. Guys: check your testosterone at the door.

This explains why women make up the majority of church attendees. In going to more than one hundred churches, I’ve never been to one with more males than females. That’s because church is for girls. It really is. If you don’t believe me read Why Men Hate Going to Church. (The book also explains how to fix it.)

Clearly, the church repels the Wild at Heart guys. Yet, I’m not a wild at heart kind of guy, at least not in a conventional sense. I assert my masculinity in non-stereotypical ways. I see myself as a spiritually militant misfit:

  • I am an advocate who pushes the envelope for change, yet the church is adverse to change. There is no place for my voice.
  • I am a thought leader who pursues innovation, yet the church wants lay leaders it can control. It doesn’t want me.
  • I am a person who challenges the status quo, yet the church institution exists to maintain the status quo and suppress dissension. It fears what I represent.
  • I am a spiritual seeker who probes issues that most don’t consider, yet the church hates questions that lack pat answers. It shuns me because I am spiritually impertinent.
  • I am a follower of Jesus who yearns to take spiritual risks, yet the church wants to be a safe place that doesn’t confront anyone’s unexamined theology. My risk-taking perspective isn’t wanted.

I once actually found a church that encouraged me in these things. It was a church plant. We made change normal, pursued innovation, constantly challenged the status quo, encouraged questions, and embraced risk. In many ways we followed The Barbarian Way, and I thrived.

Incidentally, David Murrow says the one instance where men find a place is in church plants. I get that. I was alive at this new church.

Yet over time, decision by decision, the church became civilized. It instituted structure and limited me. It became more and more like the thing it sought to break free from. I no longer fit. I slowly withered. I didn’t want to go to church there anymore.

“The church has emasculated me,” I told my wife. (That hurt me to say.)

“But you let it,” she answered. (That hurt me to hear.)

“It’s only because I so badly wanted to fit in and be accepted.” (That hurt me to admit.)

But in the end, I don’t so much like this person I’ve become, and the church still doesn’t want me.

After all, church is geared for girls and I’m a guy.

[This is from Peter DeHaan‘s July newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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Should Church Be a Place of Refuge?

If we don’t protect the innocent from retribution, who will?

Should Church Be a Place of Refuge?God tells Joshua to establish cities of refuge, a safe place for people to seek sanctuary. The specific context is a place for people to go if they accidently kill someone. Once they make it to the city of refuge, they are legally protected from retaliation sought by the avenging relatives of the person killed. As long as they stay in the city of refuge, they are safe.

We don’t have cities of refuge anymore, but sometimes people do seek sanctuary in churches. Though I have never personally seen this happen, I have heard stories of it occurring. I wonder if seeking sanctuary in church should happen more often?

Certainly churches shouldn’t harbor the guilty from receiving judgment, but what about protecting the innocent from injustice? What about offering a safe haven to those people wrongly pursued or protecting those folks pummeled by prejudice?

Sadly this may be too much of a stretch for many church attending people to bear. They want their churches as sanctuary for them – but not so much for those on society’s fringe; “let them fend for themselves,” they say (or think) or perhaps “your problem is not my problem.”

However, this is selfish. The church needs to be a safe place for everybody, physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. We have a long way to go to make this happen.

Do you think today’s church should be a place of refuge? What can you do to make your church a safe place for everybody?

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Joshua 19-21, and today’s post is on Joshua 20:2-3.]

Sunday is a Great Day For Some Recreation

Having a regular Sabbath provides an opportunity to rest and recharge

Sunday is a Great Day For Some RecreationThe dictionary defines recreation as a time of refreshment for our mind or body through the use of an activity that amuses or stimulates; an activity that provides refreshment. More simply, recreation is to play. After working hard for the workweek, people seek recreation on the weekend, and with Saturday often packed with more work, that leaves Sunday as the only day left for recreation. Many people pack Sunday full of recreation, so much that they return to work on Monday exhausted. Doesn’t that defeat the goal of recreation?

Or consider recreation another way. Synonyms for recreation include regeneration, rebirth, restoration, and leisure. Does that provide a bit more insight into what our Sunday recreation might look like?

What if we insert a hyphen into the word to get re-creation? Then we can see our Sundays as a day to re-create ourselves. We do this by resting, refocusing, and recharging.

Yet none of these things happen when I go to church on Sunday. In fact, I view my chance for much needed Sunday recreation as what happens after I go to church. I delay my weekly recreation until after I fulfill my weekly obligation to attend a worship service. Thankfully our practices have changed from two Sunday services down to one, leaving only one requirement to interrupt my recreation.

I can envision Jesus shaking his head in dismay, wondering if I’ve forgotten his words: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” Mark 2:27, NIV.

Indeed I have forgotten, or at least I need frequent reminders.

We need to stop pursuing our Sunday church attendance with legalistic furor and start re-envisioning our worship services as a time of holy recreation. God does not expect us to serve the Sabbath but for the Sabbath to serve us.

Now we just need to figure out how to do that.

May today be a day of holy recreation for you.

Do you think Sunday is a time for holy recreation? How can you change your Sunday so that it better fits Jesus’s teaching?

We Need to Learn From the Seven Churches in Revelation

John’s vision for the area’s churches provides us with practical insight today

We Need to Learn From the Seven Churches in RevelationMany people love the Book of Revelation, the apostle John’s supernatural treatise of the end times. It’s an epic read of God’s awesome power and the amazing, scary, exciting events that will usher us from this world into our eternal reality. Yet readers are often in such a rush to read those words, they breeze through the first three chapters of John’s grand tale.

In chapter 1 of Revelation we read the book’s introduction. The exiled apostle has a supernatural experience, a grand vision. God tells him to write what he sees and send it to seven area churches, those in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (Revelation 1:10-11).

For each church God shares words of commendation and condemnation. We do well to carefully consider what he says. Though the immediate application applies to those seven specific churches, the broader function informs our churches today.

What can we learn from these churches to affirm and reform our local branch of Jesus’s church today? First we must celebrate what we do well, without a smug sense of pride and with an eye toward maintaining and growing each strength.

More importantly we must ask if any of Jesus’s criticism for those churches rightly applies to us today. If we’re willing to read with an open mind, we will find much to correct, as well as warnings of what to avoid.

I think a third application provides even greater insight for us on a personal level. How do Jesus’s words confirm and confront us?

We need to read Revelation chapters 2 and 3, not to unveil the future, but to unmask our present. “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” Revelation 2:11, NIV.

Which of the seven churches do you most identify with? What is one thing you need to change?

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Revelation 1-3, and today’s post is on Revelation 1:10-11.]