At the end of Acts 2 (vv. 42-47) we see a new community forming among those who were baptized into Christ in response to the call to follow Christ (v. 41). The New Living Translation describes that event like this:
42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper[i]), and to prayer.
43 A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. 44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. 45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. 46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity[j]— 47 all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.
This description of the early church became the defining standard for what “church” should look like and be like – and it still is.
This is the type of community that all of us Christians want to be part of – a family of believers who are devoted to the gospel message of King Jesus, who enjoy the fellowship of other Christ-followers and practice the “one another” responsibilities of Christ-centered community, who welcome one another at the dinner table and the Lord’s table, who regularly meet and worship together, who share what they have with those in need, whose fellowship is marked by great joy and generosity, who love to praise God together, and whose good reputation grows among their neighbors.
That kind of community is contagious and attractive and draws people in so that they can also be saved from sin by Jesus Christ (v. 47).
But something got lost in translation.
Some sought to turn the church into a political organization that would gain worldly power; some turned the temple of the Lord into a den of “money-changers;” some used church to gain popularity and judged success by the number of attendees rather than faithfulness; some got confused and started amassing a following for themselves instead of helping others follow Jesus; some became enamored by the entertainment and production value that the church could produce; and some changed the teachings of Jesus in order to be more accepted by their culture.
This led, in America, to a consumer-mentality that became an obstacle to the Great Commission of Jesus. Instead of seeing themselves as ambassadors for Christ who have been sent into the world to tell the world about Jesus, many Christians saw themselves as “customers” that “the church” must please. Consequently, the cross that disciples are to take up daily to follow Jesus was replaced with comfort and “cultural Christianity.”
And, at various times in my life I have been seduced by these temptations.
But something is changing.
The church is changing – and that’s a good thing.
Because the church is starting to look like Acts 2:42-47 again.
In a recent blog post, English theologian Andrew Wilson highlighted several ways that “the Coronavirus outbreak is making us more like the New Testament church.” Here are four:
Households are becoming the basic social unit of the church. Social, and often legal, limitations on contact mean that we now think of ourselves fundamentally as members of a household rather than as individuals, for probably the first time in living memory. We take exercise as households. We identify as households for the purposes of meals, socialising, leaving the home (if applicable) and healthcare. We even (gasp) worship as households. No doubt they are almost always much smaller than their first century equivalents, but that’s an interesting development.
There is a renewed focus on caring for the poor and the elderly. In the New Testament, we continually run into churches and apostles obsessing about serving the poor and caring for widows. The plight of the most vulnerable is not just something people think about sometimes; it is uppermost in their thinking. And today, thanks to the grim disparity in survival rates between the young and the old, the healthy and the sick, we are facing a nationwide (even worldwide) return to that position. Ordinary people make daily life choices on the basis of what will help, or harm, the poorest and most vulnerable in society; churches circulate the practical needs and prayer requests of people who, in normal times, might not always receive such attention.
The role of the pastor is changing. In many churches, pastors spend a good deal of their time running things: Sunday services, rotas, programmes and initiatives, volunteer teams, and so forth. (I often think of Eugene Peterson when he first heard his pastor friend utter the phrase, “I run a church.” Peterson writes that although it was decades ago, “I can still distinctly remember the unpleasant impression it made.”) Now, however, after the initial flurry of confusion and activity—how exactly are we going to do Sundays when nobody can leave the house?—the role of the pastor has become much more traditional. Find out how people are doing. Care for them. Connect people together. Pray for them. Rinse, wash, repeat.
There is a renewed focus on prayer, for the simple reason that there really isn’t very much else we can do. When we feel invincible, we don’t pray so much. When we feel helpless—how else are we going to get out of this without masses of people dying?—we realise our intense need of God’s deliverance. When you couple that with the previous point, you get both the incentive and the opportunity to pray.
I am seeing this kind of shift in my own thinking and in the life of the church family I serve – and it is wonderfully refreshing!
But here’s something else I am noticing: this pandemic disruption is causing both Christians and non-Christians to gain a greater appreciation for the church. Non-Christians are seeing how the church is on the frontlines of serving people and of caring for people during this crisis, and they are praising the church for it. And we Christians are realizing just how much we enjoy and need our physical meetings with one another.
One of the members of our congregation (and one of my spiritual heroes) posted this Sunday on social media:
What a blessing to meet, via social media with our Alameda family this morning. Thank you Steve for your words and your shepherd’s prayer. Thank you Rusty for your appropriate and uplifting message, and thank you Lee for leading us in communing together while we’re together only in spirit and on media. Thank you to all of our elders and ministry team for providing for these options which help so much during these unprecedented (at least for us) times. Having said all of this, I commit to never again take for granted the privilege, joy and blessing of meeting in person with other Christians in worship. ❤️🙏
Yes, the church is returning to its New Testament roots, and I too commit to never again take the community of Christ for granted.
When all of this is over, I can’t wait to gather with my church family and hug everybody and sing and laugh. But I also hope that we will hold on to the lessons we’re learning, or re-learning, about the true nature of the church, and that we will continue to intentionally seek ways that we can be the church on mission for King Jesus!
The church is changing – and that’s a good thing.