One summer during my high school years I was walking down the street in Steubenville, Ohio, with a friend when someone suddenly accosted us by shoving a religious tract in our hands and loudly telling us we may be going to hell. My first instinct was to say have you looked around? We’re in Steubenville. We may already be there. But before I could speak, my friend Steve pointed to me and said you should talk to him. He’s going to be a minister. That just encouraged the guy, as he started telling me that being a minister wouldn’t save me from hell.
I suspect that guy saw himself as being evangelistic.
As we continue our series of messages on spiritual gifts, we continue with the relational gifts today by talking about evangelism.
I want to approach this topic a bit differently today. I want to talk about what we might call corporate evangelism; that is, how the church as a whole attracts people.
As we read the New Testament, especially the book of Acts, we find that the early church was growing rapidly and in large numbers. When we compare that to our religious landscape we have to ask what’s wrong today? Why do so many churches struggle? Why are so many congregations in decline? Why do some churches close their doors and die? Why do so many people seem to be turning their backs on the church? Why is it so difficult to grow churches? Are we doing something wrong? Has the modern age begun to reject faith on a large scale? Is Christianity dying? What was the key to the vitality of the early church as it engaged its culture with the message of God and his love?
I believe our Scripture passage for today contains the keys to the evangelism of the early church. The word evangelism comes from the Greek word euangelion, which means good news, or to bring good news. There were specific ways the early church delivered that good news, and they are ways that are just as applicable for us today. Though we are separated by two millennia from that era, today’s world is not all that different in many ways. People are still struggling with the same questions of life, death, meaning, purpose, and existence as they were two thousand years ago.
They were devoted to building a sense of community.
Verse 44 says All the believers were together and had everything in common.
We live in such a fragmented world, but so did the first followers of Jesus. There was a mixture of cultures, languages, political views, and religious beliefs that made up the world of the early church. Sounds a lot like today, doesn’t it? Within that tremendously diverse environment the early church was able to build a sense of community. They were able to create an environment that was not defined by one political or cultural point of view.
I know I beat the drum on this point quite often, but I think it’s very important. Today, many churches are so narrowly defined by one point of view that there is no room for people who represent a different point of view.
There were some in the early church who sought to define the church in very narrow terms, but they were always defeated by those with a vision of community that embraced the full diversity of people.
The early church stepped across the line of class, race, and culture to build a sense of community. Roman society was very stratified, and the idea that we should not allow things such as class, race, and culture to separate us is a gift that faith has brought to the world.
They were focused on what mattered most.
The early church wasn’t very structured. They didn’t have a lot of programs and activities. Things were very simple. They focused on what mattered the most. They loved one another. They encouraged one another. They took care of one another.
We live in day and age where we are so used to choices that it is tempting to create a structure with a thousand different choices, and in doing so we can forget what matters most.
To use the language of business, the early church kept the main thing the main thing.
It would be an interesting study to ask people outside of the church what they saw as the main purpose of the church. My guess is there would be a few basic answers; I don’t think there would be a long list. And I think they would all be a variation of two things – love people and help people. That’s the main thing.
They were generous and sought to meet the needs of others.
In verses 44 and 45 Luke writes that the early church had everything in common and sold their possessions and goods, and gave to anyone as he had need. Sounds kind of scary, doesn’t it?
Helping others can be a complicated business at times. Sometimes people scam us and sometimes there are people who take advantage of our generosity because they don’t want to do for themselves.
But I don’t believe those people are the rule; I believe they are the exception. And there are a lot of people who are in need of the generosity of others.
Within the political arena, people have been saying for a number of years that the church ought to step forward and take care of more of the social needs and the government should do less. I believe very strongly there is a role for the government to play in taking care of those in need because the costs are too great for the church to bear. But more and more people are knocking on the doors of churches, and they are people who have not sought help in the past.
They practiced hospitality.
Verse 46 says They broke bread together in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts. The early church really knew how to practice hospitality. They opened their homes to share meals together so people would have something to eat. They cared for one another.
There are many ways to demonstrate hospitality, and it is a dying practice, I’m afraid. I try, as often as I can, to sit down with others and share a meal. Whether it’s at a fast food restaurant or somewhere else, it is one of the few times in our day and age when we can sit down and share our lives together, which is the essence of hospitality. The central act of our worship service – the gathering at the Lord’s table – comes out of the context of a shared meal. When Jesus instituted communion, it was during the Passover meal. The earliest Christian worship services took place within the context of a shared meal.
Hospitality moves us beyond the surface and shallow relationships that make up so much of our world.
Their faith was not tied to institutionalism.
Someone has said that the church survived the first two thousand years because it institutionalized, but to survive the next hundred years it must learn to de-institutionalize. Simply put, churches must learn how to get out of their buildings.
The early church was not familiar with church buildings. Some of them worshipped in synagogues, but most people met in house churches. In the earliest days of the church there was almost no structure, and the church certainly wasn’t an institution as it is today.
The problem with institutions is that they very easily morph into a way of being that is simply about perpetuating the institution rather than carrying out the purpose of the institution.
Do you know where the church is experiencing some of its greatest growth in today’s world? China. China, which has a government that is officially atheistic is experiencing church growth that is greater than what we are experiencing here, in our Christian society.
I suspect that one of the reasons is that the church in China is primarily a house church movement. There is something about a movement that has not yet institutionalized that brings about a vitality and focus and excitement that lends itself to growth.
In one of the early messages in this series – the message on Apostleship – I told you about a friend of mine. I was his youth minister during the 1980s, and he is one of the greatest spiritual entrepreneurs I know. He is the founding pastor of a church, and while in the planning stages he asked me what kind of advice I could give him. There wasn’t much I could think of that I could pass on to him – he already has such a great understanding of church. What I did tell him was that he should remember that in a few years his new congregation will institutionalize, so he should work hard to make sure it institutionalizes the right things. They should institutionalize love, compassion, and outreach, making sure it becomes a part of the very DNA of the congregation.
By doing so, they will be certain to always be bearers of the good news of God’s love.