November 14, 2017

Risky Church - Acts 9:31

Theme: What does the ideal church look like?

Is the church dead? Is there such a thing as the perfect church? Is the current model of congregation and membership really viable in our modern age?

Mark Zuckerberg suggests that Facebook, now with over 2 billion users, can become the new church. It can fill in for giving a person a sense of community and togetherness that the decline in churches has left vacant. This line of thinking illustrates several problems:
1) The idea that church is only valuable if I get what I want out of it. Becomes self-centered.
2) The idea that church is only about giving people a sense of togetherness and something to share with each other.
3) Much more is lost in church decline than is gained in Facebook popularity.

The sad thing is that many Christians are the ones who first introduced these ideas about church. Like those closest to us, parents and siblings, church has become the easy scapegoat for pent up anger and bitterness. It’s always easiest to lash out against those closest to us and ever since America has existed we have had the church right beside us. People are taking advantage of this and apathy is the result. Churches now have to compete for attention and end up selling theology like used-car salesman. Factional rivalries between denominations often overshadow the gospel. People join and leave churches over petty, non-doctrinal issues, while ignoring the actual substance of soul-care they receive or leave.

Some are so fed up with all this they just choose a path of isolationism. Like progressive monks and nuns they still claim to be Christian but they isolate themselves from church. They say things like: “I can be spiritual without being religious.” “I don’t need to go to church to be close to God.” In their minds, the church has failed, and often they have a point, even if their response is foolish and dangerous.

Is the church viable? I continue to say yes, and not just because of my title or this robe I’m wearing, or because I’m standing here talking to you. I say this because we know the church has worked in the past, under much harder circumstances, and I say this because God willed the church into existence as His model. To summarize the ideal church, we look at a single passage from the book of Acts:

Acts 9:31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.

The book of Acts tells us about the formation of the Christian church after the Ascension of Jesus. There are several sections we could look at when contemplating what the church should be like. The verse before us came a transition point. The church had been firmly established in the regions that are mentioned: Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. However, this was still a relatively small section of the populated world of that time. God had bigger plans.

One of the main reasons why the church’s global growth was stunted was because of Jewish persecution, led by Saul. This verse from chapter nine came immediately after Saul’s conversion. Now that God had brought Christianity’s foremost enemy into the fold, the time was right to expand with missionary work among the Gentiles. And God would use Saul, who became Paul, to do this work. But, despite the persecution that the Jewish Christians endured, they still had strong churches. They would use their model to bring the message of Christ into Asia Minor, North Africa, and eventually Europe. Soon enough, a new form of persecution, this time from the Roman Empire, would arise. But, just like the persecution of the Jews, it would only serve to build the resolve of the Christians.

This was certainly a tumultuous time for believers, but God used these circumstances for their benefit. They were strong. They relied on God for everything. They were eager to serve others and the share the gospel. To summarize, they knew what was important in life. The church was a simple thing for these Christians. It was a spiritual haven. For many who were beaten down in life, both physically and spiritually, the church was a welcome relief and comfort.

In our age, we are thankful to be spared of major persecution. Many Christians still face it today, but not in America. But, there’s a tradeoff to this blessing. We often get lazy and apathetic in our faith. We tend to forget what is most important in life. And as a result we often lose the true vision of what the church is. In the book we’re using as the basis for our sermon series, the author lists several things that church is not, but what many people think, or what many churches promote. Listen and see if any of these resonate with you, or if you’ve ever experienced any:     

·         Church is not a social club for gossip, albeit with pews and a slightly odd smell.
·         Church is not a place where you go to observe a whole bunch of rules that have no connection to everyday life.
·         Church is not a political organization dedicated to the preservation of “what America used to be” or to a social agenda overturning traditional beliefs.
·         Church is not primarily about feeling better, thinking more positively, achieving your best self, spiritually “winning,” or getting healthier.
·         Church is not a place where some people go during the week to observe some old rituals that nobody understands but that are considered valuable because they create togetherness and make people feel special.
·         Church is not a place where people who look like one another congregate and do all they can to keep others who aren’t like them out.
·         Church is not a spiritual smoothie bar where you go when you have a sudden and unexplainable rush to get close to God, only never to return.
·         Church is not a money-raising organization or a series of weekly seminars on success. The church is not a personal improvement organization such that you can climb the economic ladder, get a better job, and become fabulously wealthy just by going there.[1]

I think that in some way, all of these false perceptions of church apply to our current culture. Some more than others perhaps, but they all give us insight into why we have such a difficult time determining what church is, and why many opponents claim that the true church can never exist or is no longer relevant today. Each of these misconceptions take away from what God intends church to be, what He intended it to be from the beginning. When these modern thoughts about church are compared with God’s description in this single verse from His Word, the simplicity of church becomes quite clear. Simply put, it is to be a place where the Word of God is preached, for the peace, joy, and safety of believers.

Simple enough, but is it possible? Even in the churches that treat the Word of God with the utmost respect, failures are abundant. Yes, it is not only the mega-churches which emphasis entertainment over substance that have problems. Every church is operated by sinners, no matter how kind and sincere they are. Every pastor mishandles the preaching and application of God’s Word at times. No church has perfect leadership that never steers the congregation in the wrong direction. And there are plenty of opportunities to work for the Lord and to increase His kingdom that regular members fail to capitalize on.

In reality, the church seems to be a very broken institution. For many, that’s reason enough to not be involved. As we said earlier, it doesn’t mean people see no value in confessing Christ, just not in making that confession with others. Isolation is becoming more and more popular. But, it’s the very brokenness of sinful people that caused God to create a place for them to gather together.

It’s interesting to note that the Greek word for church simply means an assembly, a group that gathers together. Contrary to modern conceptions of church, you don’t need a magnificent building, hymnals, organs, potlucks and coffee, or community oriented projects to be a church. A church is just a group of people who gather. What separates the church from other groups that gather is what they gather around – the Word and Sacraments. Historically, these two things have been known as the “Marks of the Church,” that is to say that wherever the Word of God and Sacraments are used, church is happening – whether that takes place in a cathedral or in a person’s basement; whether 200 people are present, or only 2.

The more we focus on what we gather around at church, instead of all the other details about that gathering, the better vision of church we have. Take Zuckerberg as an example again. His view of church is that it is present to create a communal atmosphere. In his mind, church gives people an avenue to serve others by being kind to one another. And so, naturally, communities on Facebook could indeed supplant the church so long as they can do a better job of creating this communal vision.

Zuckerberg’s understanding of church is completely void of what we gather around. It’s more about what we do. Therefore, in his vision, there is no place for the substance – for the Word of God and Sacraments. But, notice what God tells us about the original church’s source for peace and edification. It was based on the fear of the Lord and walking in that fear. Whenever fear is mentioned, we need define whether we mean that in positive or negative sense. Negative fear is terror, positive fear is respect. Well, how do we fear the Lord?

Both. It is proper to feel terror from the Lord because He is righteous and we are not. God demands that sin be paid for and if we have no Substitute we must answer that on our own. But, we also have a reverence and respect for God because He reveals that we have a Savior who offered up that payment for us – because He loved us. Depending on what aspect of our lives we are looking at, there is a place for both kinds of fear.

This is where we get the division of law and gospel in the Bible. The law leads us to recognize the terror fear of God because it exposes our sins. The gospel leads us to fearfully respect God because of the great lengths He went to to save us. Christians need to hear both the law and gospel and that is why church must be a place to hear both. They are the what that we center on as we gather together.   

The fear of God is also the reason why God desires Christians to walk together. One pastor described church like a campfire. When the coals and embers are together they stay hot, but if you isolate one on its own it quickly dies out. If the proper fear of God through both law and gospel is our goal as a church, we can only do that together. The Christian who believes that they are warmer and stronger on their own is finding strength from something other than God because that method is completely the opposite of what God has designed.

The final aspect of our description of the ideal church really solidifies the need for individual Christians coming together. We’re told in the final word that the church multiplied. The fact that the church grew shows that Christians coming together is important. We are not meant to be isolated; we are meant to grow. You can’t do that on your own. Some today make more of growth than they should. They make growth the mark of the church, rather than the Word and Sacraments. They make growth the what that we gather around. Equally important to being on guard against isolationism is making growth more than it is, or having it be a higher priority than God’s truth. Only after the first Christians had proper fear of the Lord, which led them to walk in the Lord’s Word and receive comfort of the Holy Spirit, did they have growth. The same continues to hold true for us.

Can the church continue to exist today? Sure, if we want it to. If we are willing to listen to what God calls church and how He designed it. If any of those misconceptions we mentioned have dampened your desire to be in church, remember this simple description from Acts. Wherever the Word of God is used the ideal vision of church is possible. Let us humbly recognize our weaknesses as a congregation and where we can give a clearer witness to the true purpose of church, the eternal Gospel of Jesus. Let nothing get in the way of that and let God lead us where He wills. Amen.

[1] Strachan, Risky Gospel, 140-141.

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