St Barnabas and St Matthias 17th Jan 10
Reading – Acts 5:41-6:7
If there’s one thing every church wants, no matter what their tradition or denomination or background, it’s growth. Church growth, it seems to me, is rather like a modern version of the holy grail. It’s something elusive, something rather mysterious that many devout believers spend years and years of their life seeking. Sometimes for good, honest, kingdom reasons, that people are brought to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, sometimes just so we can impress the visiting bishop or tell our friends from St Nowhere in the Wilderness just how much our numbers are increasing.
But whatever our precise motivations, church growth is something we all aspire to, and it’s little wonder that over the past 20-30 years a whole industry has grown up devoted to the subject. Yet what is so surprising is how little all the various writers and experts agree on how growth should be achieved. We’ve had cell church, we’ve had network church, we’ve had liquid church, and for the time being fresh expressions are the flavour of the day – at least if the paperwork I’m filling in for the diocese is anything to go by. Now don’t worry if you don’t understand any of these terms because this morning I’m not going to focus on any of them, and besides which, there’ll be a new one coming along any time soon.
Because instead I’m going to go back to the pages of Scripture and ask a very simple question: how did the early church grow? And the very simple, and perhaps surprising answer, is that it grew through preaching and teaching. You may remember the story of Pentecost where the Holy Spirit came upon the first believers. What happened next? Peter stood up and preached a sermon to the crowd. Chapter 3: Peter and John miraculously cure a beggar in the temple. As the crowd wonder what is going on, Peter looks at them and, guess what, preaches a sermon. Chapter 4: the church continues to grow, and what do the apostles do? They continue to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (Acts 4:33). It isn’t rocket science to work out that the early church grew through the public preaching and the private teaching of the word of God. In fact Acts 5:42 we heard earlier sums up exactly the church growth strategy of those times: Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.
Now I realise in saying this I am swimming complete against the tide of current thinking. Sermons, preaching, public homilies are widely decried even in some church circles as boring, irrelevant, out-of-date. They are written off as being out of touch with today’s high-tech information culture, and out of keeping with the age of the sound bite and the text message. They are seen as dull and one-dimensional in a society that prizes highly visual, multi-media presentations. And above all, they are seen as not really meeting the needs of ordinary people in the 21st century, but instead focusing on narrow and obscure topics that, if we’re honest, nobody is really that interested in.
But then, maybe the fault lies not so much in the idea of a sermon as in the quality of the preaching that most people in the pew experience. And let’s face it, this has been an issue for a very long time. A few months back I was reading a letter of William Wordsworth written over 200 years ago in which he related how his friend Samuel Coleridge went to church to Cumbria where the rector pleaded with the labourers in his congregation never to aspire to be a courtier for the King of England. That kind of preaching, it seems, to me is a recipe for church death rather than church growth, preaching that is neither relevant to the needs of the people nor centred on the good news of Jesus Christ. And if my preaching this morning falls into that kind of category, you will let me know, won’t you? Because teaching and preaching is only effective when it is under the word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit and with the aim of glorifying Jesus Christ.
So before I go any further, stop and pray that the words you are about to read are not just my words, but God’s words to you today …
Of course it is very easy to read the early chapters of Acts with rose-tinted glasses. The first believers received the Holy Spirit. They preached and taught the word of God. People heard and believed their message and the church grew. End of story. Well, actually, no it isn’t quite like that. What the book of Acts is so honest about is that church growth brings with it its own issues, issues that need to be identified and dealt with if that growth is going to continue. And that is an important point for us to take on board. You see, once we start growing as a church we can’t sit back and simply let it happen. We have to be ready for the challenges that lie ahead and in one sense be even more dependent on the Lord and reliant on His Holy Spirit in order to meet them.
So what exactly are these challenges I am talking about?
First of all, there is outright opposition. If you go back to chapter 5, verse 17 you will see how the religious establishment of the day became jealous of the apostles and had them thrown into jail for the night. Their aim was to silence them once and for all, and somehow contain the growth of this new teaching which was spreading like wildfire throughout Jerusalem. But if you carry on from that point, you will read how the apostles are miraculously released from prison, and immediately go back into the temple to carry on their preaching ministry. They know that their work is so important and their message so urgent that not even the highest authority in the city can possible stop them. And when they are called to account before the ruling council, the Sanhedrin, their response is simple We must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:28). Neither imprisonment nor flogging nor even death will stop them. Indeed even as they leave the court building, we find them rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. (Acts 5:41).
How well will we cope with outright opposition? Of course, in some ways there has always been opposition to the Christian message, and to some extent a growing church will inevitably attract jealousy and/or suspicion from those outside. But we need to recognise that if we are serious about being a living, growing church then increasingly in this country we too will face opposition not just on a personal, but also on an institutional level. Some of you may be aware that at the moment the government is considering an Equality Bill which will – and I quote – restrict the rights of religious bodies to employ personnel who conform to their teachings only if their duties are confined to worship activities or the explanation of doctrine. So, for example, if you want to start a pre-school or employ a youth worker then you will have absolutely no control over whom you can employ. Even if their beliefs or lifestyle conflict with the good news of Jesus Christ then in the name of equality you cannot take this factor into account when you take them on.
Or to take another example, a Labour peer at the moment is tabling a proposal that would allow civil partnership ceremonies to be performed in church. Which would almost certainly mean in practice that very soon any church would find itself if not compelled, at least under severe pressure, to undertake such a ceremony, even if that church objected to the practice. I say all this not to scare you, but to warn you that if we are serious about being the church God wants us to be, living and growing under the word of God, then there will almost certainly come a time when we will have to decide whether we will stand with the first apostles who said We must obey God rather than man. It might just be that God is sending us such opposition to test whether our desire for growth really is for His kingdom, or for our own glory.
I think too often in the past the church has tailored its message to avoid offending anybody, subtly changeing its teaching to accommodate the spirit of the age. But if we are really intent on seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness than this strategy will not work. We might have an established religion which keeps the favour of the authorities, but that religion will be weak, compromised, and unable to clearly articulate the good news that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 5:42).
But growth does not only bring with it pressure from those outside the church. As we move into chapter 6, we see that another issue is one of division. You see, when the word of God is rightly preached, then the good news of Jesus Christ will reach many different people from many different backgrounds. And this in itself brings with it all kinds of challenges. I was reading the other day an article about children and the church which contained these words When Christians gather around God’s word, all kinds of people rub shoulders who, but for the gospel, wouldn’t be seen dead together1. Now at one level this is exciting and a testament to the fact there are no barriers of race, class, gender, age or anything else when it comes to receiving the good news. On another, it also forces us to work hard at keeping together a godly unity that brings glory to God, and credit to the church.
And this is precisely the issue we find at the start of chapter 6. You see, there were two very different groups in the church in Jerusalem. Both had originally been Jewish, but while one group had come from a Hebrew background and spoke Aramaic as their mother tongue, the other had come from a Greek background and thus most naturally spoke this language. Now we have no way of knowing whether in fact the Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1). However we can be certain that the real reason why this dispute was so important was not the details of case itself, but the way it revealed the deep tensions which needed to be brought into the open and resolved. That because of the differences of outlook and language one group felt they were being treated less equally than the other. And rather letting the dispute escalate and come to dominate the life of the church, the apostles dealt with it quickly and publicly so that they did not get distracted from their core growth strategy of preaching and teaching the word of God.
I think there is just so much we can learn from the example of the apostles here. I guess so often churches are afraid that, when there are disputes or disagreements, somehow it’s an indication that things are not quite right, and the whole matter gets swept under the carpet, even as the various parties smile at each other sweetly over the peace. Or else certain areas of the church life become no-go areas which never get discussed while everyone becomes more and more dissatisfied at the way the things are being run. Let’s be clear – growth brings with it challenges as to our unity. But our task is not to hide them or ignore them, rather as Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:15 to speak the truth in love and so grow towards that maturity that Christ wills for His church.
And the other thing that the start of chapter 6 so clearly demonstrates is that growth brings with it needs to be met. For the more the church grows so the more it will touch areas of poverty, of inequality, of injustice. We will attract the hungry, the poor and the widow, because the gospel of Jesus Christ is meant particularly to be good news for just such groups of people. But the important point to realise is that such practical issues need a spiritual solution. We are not simply another welfare organisation or public charity that exists to meet the needs of others – although we will certainly aim to play our part. We are the body of Christ charged with proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed, and we need to find ways of sticking to our primary mission even while actively supporting the poor and destitute.
So what then was the apostles’ solution? Verses 3-4: Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. Not that the apostles saw that this kind of ministry was somehow beneath them – after all, as Acts 4:35 tells us they had up till this point been responsible for the distribution of poor relief. Nor that they wanted to wash their hands of the whole business. But they knew that if the church was to grow they needed to use the gifts God had given them in the ministry God had provided for them.
But instead of doing what we so often do and handing the whole job over to one person, they created a team. Seven people who were known to be full of the Holy Spirit and who had the practical wisdom to effectively carry out the task entrusted to them. Because actually having just one person carrying out a task isn’t good for the health of the church. It is neither good for the people who receive the ministry, nor the person who is trying to carry it out.
And what’s also important to realise is that the distribution of food to the widows was treated just as much a ministry as any other task in the church. We read how in verse 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. You see, in God’s kingdom there is no division between the spiritual stuff like prayer ministry, and preaching, and practical ministry like making the tea or packing food parcels. In God’s kingdom, it is all spiritual. Yet somehow we have bought into a particular mindset that there are certain parts of the church life that are more religious than others, that there are parts which need to be prayed about, and others that don’t, that if you’re particularly mature in your faith you don’t get involved in the some of the nitty-gritty of everyday church life.
So to sum up: if we are serious about growth, we need to recognise that it comes through the preaching and teaching of God’s word. This isn’t however a magic bullet. We will face opposition from those around us, and increasingly those over us. We will need to work maintain unity in Christ, and we have to be ready to meet the needs that come our way. But, just to end on a positive note, if we do prayerfully recognise and address the issues of growth, then we will find that even more opportunities come our way.
After all, how does this passage end? So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. And that shouldn’t surprise us. Because a church that is not deflected from its core task, a church that seeks to glorify Christ in all that does is a church that will keep on growing. And for the early church in Jerusalem that even meant some of the very priests who had sought to arrest and silence the apostles became followers of Jesus. But then again that is perhaps not too astonishing. Because in the end growth is ultimately all about the grace of God and we should never forget there is no limit to what He can do.
1 David Gibbs, p.30, the Briefing Jan-Feb 10