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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Doing Church

In Acts 2 we get a picture of what the first church was like:
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).
Now ... think for a moment about your church. What are the similarities? What are the differences? Okay, for me, the similarities are minor and the differences are vast.

Have you ever asked yourself if what you and I know of as "church" is what it is supposed to be? I know. I can find lots of good things about church. I'm not suggesting it's ... bad. But here's the interesting thing to me. Almost nothing that marks "church" to us today can be found in the Bible. In other words, while I'm not saying what we do today is wrong, it does appear that it's not biblical.

What are the components of the first church? They had a specific leadership -- the apostles, men who had been in the company of Christ and discipled by Him. Of course, we don't have that today. Can't have. But we do have what they wrote, so we can have "the apostles' teaching". We just can't have their leadership.

What else made up that first church? Fellowship was listed second. The word is koinonia. It refers to communion, to communicate, to share in common, companionship. It has all of this in mind. This church wasn't a come-and-go affair. You didn't attend church. Oh, no. It was deeply interpersonal. It's interesting, too, that Princeton defines the concept this way: "Christian fellowship or communion with God or with fellow Christians; said in particular of the early Christian community." Why "in particular of the early Christian community" and not today?

The next two components were "the breaking of bread" and "prayer". I stick them together because, in a sense, they are part of "fellowship". If fellowship is "communion", then clearly "the breaking of bread" is part of fellowship, whether it references observing the Lord's Supper or actual eating together. And prayer is a marvelous interpersonal tool. "How can I pray for you?" is a question that any Christian would love to hear.

It's interesting in this first church that "everyone kept feeling a sense of awe". You didn't hear, "Church isn't that relevant to me." No one was looking for new music or trying to adapt it to new arenas. The presence of God was sufficient.

Perhaps the most astounding thing this passage outlines is this: "All those who had believed were together and had all things in common." It was a physical togetherness as they met house to house day by day. It was a doctrinal togetherness as they devoted themselves to the apostles' teachings. It was a financial togetherness as they sold their goods to meet the needs of others in the group. It was a social togetherness as they ate together day by day.

The more I think about it, the less I think it would be tolerated in today's churches. Oh, sure, we'll gather and even listen to the Word. But daily? No, thanks. Twice on Sunday has become too much. Eating meals together? No, thanks. I need my space. And that whole "selling their property and possessions" thing to share with each other is a bit over the top, isn't it? I mean, look, there's no command that we do that, is there?

The passage above lists one interesting comment about this church. It says they were "having favor with all the people". Now, we know that Jesus promised persecution and they got it, so they got both favor and hatred, but it seems to me that the church today, at least in America, only gets one side of that coin, and it's not the favor side. Is it possible that we today in the "enlightened" 21st century are maybe not doing church right? Is it remotely possible that the church to which we've become accustomed is not the church that was originally intended or even most effective? Is it possible that we would do well to reexamine what it means to do church -- from a biblical viewpoint?


Eric said...

I don't have a Greek New Testament (and couldn't read one anyway), but I'm given to understand that in the Greek there is a definite article in Acts 2:42 immediately prior to the word "prayer" or "prayers." This is also reflected in my ESV Bible. This is most likely a liturgical reference to the continued use of the Psalms in worship. (That's enough majoring-in-the-minors for one comment.)

I am pretty uncomfortable reading the Book of Acts to try to figure out how church ought to be done. ("Believer's baptism" and "Holy Ghost baptism" are both derived from observing the patterns so apparently obvious in Acts.) Yes, they had the benefit of living apostles, but clearly they were learning as they went. There is some indication of this in Acts itself. Another illustration is the fact that it took so long for them to start writing down the story. (I don't agree with theories of higher criticism that date the New Testament writings after the deaths of the apostles, but I know of no one who believes any of the Gospels were written within 5 or 10 years of the Ascension.) The passage you are highlighting here from Acts 2 really shows a congregation living in the glow of the moment. Easter, Ascension, Pentecost had happened only days earlier, and they expected the Second Coming to occur almost immediately. In many respects we simply cannot do church the way they did because we are no longer living in that moment.

I share your frustration though. The church is so busy imitating entertainment culture, business culture, and the local community/recreation center. If someone wants to put together a congregational get-together it has to be referred to the Board of Fellowship (business culture). And instead of enjoying one another's company we have to get busy and put on a Vacation Bible School (community center) in an "outreach" effort to draw in whatever vagrant children can be found in the neighborhood. Once we get them in the door we try to keep their attention with clever entertainments.

When it comes to "doing church" I don't think we can do much better than loving one another. "By this," Jesus said, "all men will know that you are my disciples." Worship together, love one another, and serve our neighbors. Sure there is some organization involved in each of these, but it doesn't have to be nearly so complicated as we often like to make it. I like the way you put it too... "The presence of God was sufficient," and even if we find it mundane in this particular moment, it should still be sufficient today.

Dan Trabue said...

Yes, I think we would do very well to reexamine what it means to do church! Excellent thoughts.

Stan said...

Eric, I can see the danger of making Acts 2 the standard for church, but you would think that they'd have something right going on, wouldn't you? I'd hate to find out that God was shaking His head all along saying, "No, no, no, that's not at all what I had in mind."

Ruth said...

I think this is a very important discussion. I think most people follow Eric's view of "in many respects we simply cannot do church the way they did because we are no longer living in that moment." It's kind of sad to think like that, though. It seems sad that we aren't living in that moment, being always in the glow of knowing what Christ did for us and looking toward His coming. I'll hazard to share the growing opinion in my mind that it is not that we "cannot" live this way; we WON'T live this way. It would be difficult to look so different from the world, even though we are called to be peculiar and set apart. And I agree with where I think you were going with that last comment, Stan. If all the Scriptures are useful for instruction, then the example given in Acts must be as well.

In my personal journey, I was blessed to have a church that fit at least a little more succinctly with the early church in Acts. The buiding where we met was right around the corner from my family farm. Members of my family and community met to worship there...and we saw each other most every day as we worked together, talked together, ate together, argued together, etc. When I grew up and "attended" other churches, I was surprised...and finally understood so many criticisms I heard about the "organized church." For now, I'm more of a lone voice crying in the wilderness, desiring to have fellowship with the brethren to learn from them and grow with them and praying for like-minded, understanding souls to talk with and live life with.

Stan said...

Ruth, I think that, while we can't look at Acts 2 as a formal guide, we can certainly use it as a guide in principles. That is, the principles that formed that first church ought to still be in effect today ... shouldn't they? That's my view. So maybe we can't, for instance, meet every day and share meals every day and all that, but the principle of a deep and intimate fellowship should still be the case, as an example, as opposed to what we generally see of people who merely "attend church".

Eric said...

Of course, I would not presume to know God's impression of the Acts 2 church, but I doubt it was all that negative. I'm sure they were doing "something" right -- probably a lot of things -- maybe most things -- at least, for that time and that place.

Ruth's comment is really valuable. I enjoyed reading it. You see how in her desire to live in the Acts 2 moment she emphasizes the need to re-create the community connectedness we seem to find in that passage. The charismatic church of my youth also wanted to live in the Acts 2 moment, but its focus was on the intense joy of that time and on the signs, wonders and miracles. That is what we were trying to recapture. Some other church, focusing on some other aspect of the Acts 2 passage, might try to establish a daily celebration of the Lord's Supper.

I wish I had been in Ruth's shoes when I was growing up. The simplicity and community of what she describes in her upbringing truly sounds like a beautiful blessing. But I don't think it is because they were able to retrieve the Acts 2 moment. They were just good at Christian fellowship. Where people are not good at fellowship in general -- and that is most of urban America these days -- striving to achieve community could potentially be as discouraging (and ultimately futile) as my former church's effort to achieve perpetual joy and miracles.

When I say that we cannot live in that moment, I do not mean that we cannot experience joy at the remembrance of what God has done for us in the events of Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Pentecost. I do not mean that we cannot or should not work for a stronger sense of Christian community and fellowship. We can and we should. I mean that: 1) we cannot experience those events the same way they did, nor can we recreate the cultural context in which they lived; 2) we should not think too highly of what they achieved -- we should not idolize the early church; 3) we should not think that God gave us this narrative in order to show us what our particular church needs to be -- Acts is a history book, not a how-to manual. But, keeping those things in mind, it can certainly be good and profitable to look for, and cautiously seek to apply in our own circumstances, whatever good we can find in the early church.

Dan Trabue said...

At our church, this is a big part of how we try to do church. Our name even reflects that - Jeff Street Baptist COMMUNITY...

We are community. We do share meals together in various forms - not daily, but regularly. Some of us are even striving to build a shared community on a farm nearby, not unlike Ruth. We believe in shared work, shared meals, shared music, shared dancing and, to a small degree, shared economics.

We perhaps can't and perhaps shouldn't live just as the early church did, but I think it certainly should be a focus and something that stays in the forefront of our minds as we go about "doing" church.