THE WALL STREET JOURNAL recently published a report indicating that “the U.S. now has a bigger share of people who don’t identify with any religion than those who do. In the last seven years, the number of people unaffiliated with either Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant churches has spiked from around fifteen percent of the population to almost twenty-five percent. That’s one in four Americans! Meanwhile, mainline Protestants – Presbyterians and Methodists and Lutherans and such – have declined from about eighteen percent to about fourteen percent. Even evangelicals and Roman Catholics have seen a plunge in numbers.
Now, if we care anything at all about the church and its health – and we do, don’t we? – I’ve got to think we would like to turn this trend around. So how do we do it? How do we stop the decline and start to grow again? What do you think? What drives some churches in their efforts is the glitzy glamor of the new, the bigger, the better, and the innovative. If we could just do more of something or do something bigger and better than anyone else, maybe that would reverse the reversal. Ron Hutchcraft once described such dead end tactics as programs, personalities, people, property, and profits. Scott Clark talks about the “killer Bs,” by which he means bodies, buildings, and budgets. Get more bodies in the pews, build bigger, better buildings, raise more money. It sounds promising, but, the truth is: such measures don’t work – at least, not in the long run.
I know a church here in our community that wanted to attract young people, so they built a gym. They went into debt to pay for it, and, when it was finished, it just sat there. The youth did not show up. “Build it and they will come” is a myth, and it only works in the movies.
A fourth “killer B” would be busy-ness. And a lot of churches see mere activity as a sign of life? But is it? Or bigness! There’s a fifth “B.” Is that the proof that a church is healthy and vital? If not, what is? What makes for a winsome church that is alive and well?
When you look at Acts, chapter 2, you can see that it’s not the external trappings that make for a winsome church. It’s not what’s up front that counts; it’s what’s inside. A winsome church does God’s work God’s way for the sake of God’s world.
Acts 2 tells the story of that pivotal Pentecost when God poured out the Holy Spirit on his church. Some people call that first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension – they call it the birthday of the church. Being a Presbyterian, I don’t call it that. I used to, but not any more. To me, the birthday of the church is recorded back in Genesis, when God first made a covenant with Abraham to bless all the nations through his offspring. That’s when the church got its start. That was its birthday. Pentecost, in my mind, was the coming of age of the church. It marked the point in time when the church was equipped for its mission with power from on high. It was now grown up and ready to go to work.
And when the church does God’s work – if it does it God’s way for the sake of God’s world – then that’s when it has the vitality it needs not only to survive but to thrive. Here in Acts, chapter 2, that kind of church is defined for us, and it’s defined by three components: one is its message, another is its method, and, finally, there’s its mission.
Take the church’s message for starters. What is it that a winsome church has to say to the world? What do we talk about? We talk about Jesus. He is our message. Pentecost, of course, was a Jewish holiday, and it was celebrated annually. It always came fifty days after Passover. It was on Pentecost that God first filled his people with the Holy Spirit, and the result was: Those early disciples were able to get their message out in an unforgettable, totally remarkable way. Peter and James and John and the others spoke in their own dialect, but people from all over the world heard the gospel in their own language. It was such a demonstration of the Spirit’s power that many of the bystanders thought the apostles were drunk! Well, they were. But they weren’t drunk with wine; they were drunk with the Spirit.
Peter was the chosen preacher for that day. And when he stood to speak, his talk started with a quotation from the prophet Joel and it went on to some quotes from the Psalms, but it was all aimed at one topic. Peter had only one theme, and that theme was Jesus – who he is and what he has done. Peter said in verse 32, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses.” In the next verse, Peter told the crowd that Jesus was “exalted at the right hand of God” and that he was the one who had “poured out” the Holy Spirit on his people. In fact, Peter said – and this was the stunning conclusion of his message: “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (v. 36). That’s the message of a winsome church: who Jesus is and what he did and why it matters. Telling the story of Jesus: that’s God’s work done God’s way for the sake of God’s world. And if we want to be a vital, winsome church, that will be our message.
But what about the method? What is God’s way of doing God’s work for the sake of God’s world? What does a winsome church do? I see three things here in Acts, chapter 2. The people of Jesus wait, they witness, and they welcome.
First, they wait. Verse 1 says that “they were all together in one place.” Do you know why “they were all together in one place”? It’s because Jesus told them to wait. Back in Luke 24, we read how Jesus said to them, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [my] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” That’s what he said, but then he didn’t say, “Get busy!” He said, “Wait!” He said, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:47-49). Don’t do anything yet. They could have. They knew Jesus. They knew the message. They got it. They could have gone out and started proclaiming the Word. But do you what happens to the Word when it’s proclaimed without the power of the Spirit? It’s like an arrow that misses its mark. Those of us who stand in this pulpit and proclaim God’s Word – one of the things we need from you is: we need you to be praying earnestly that, when the Word is preached, the power of the Spirit will be evident in the message that’s proclaimed. I don’t know how there can be any power if the people aren’t praying. I urge you to pray. Pray for the people in the pews. Pray for the people in the pulpit. Pray that God’s Spirit will be present in power in our midst. I can’t help bu believe that, if all of us were praying from our hearts that God’s Spirit would be among us in his fullness, we would see a change. We would see something happen. This is God’s way. We Wait. We wait for the Spirit.
We’re not good at waiting, are we? We want action. We wanna get ’er done! But that is not God’s method. If we do God’s work our way, it won’t work. It will fail. God’s work has to be bathed in prayer. It has to be saturated in the Spirit. It has to be with his timing and with his power. The winsome church – the church that wins others to Christ – does God’s work God’s way.
And that, of course, involves not only waiting but also witness and welcome. Those early apostles bore witness. “Let this be known to you, and listen to what I say,” Peter said (v. 14), and when the people did listen and when they did respond, Peter and the others welcomed them and welcomed their families. Peter said, “The promise is for you [and] for your children” (v. 39). This is God’s method: wait for the power of the Spirit, then witness in the power of the Spirit, and welcome others into the fellowship of the Spirit. This is God’s method.
We need to make sure that, when people come into our midst, there’s a safe landing here. I want to encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and find somebody you don’t know, and I want to encourage you to go to them and meet them. When people come into our congregation, we need to get them into the mix. They need to feel that they’re coming into a family. And the only way they’re going to feel that is if we are a family. You don’t have to manufacture this stuff; you just have to live it. We need to know each other and care about each other and spend time together and make sure that other people know they’re welcome here.
We’ve seen that the message of a winsome church is what it says, and the method of a winsome church is what it does. Then, finally, its mission is where it goes. In Acts, chapter 1, Jesus told his disciples – he said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v. 8). Their mission was to the neighbor – that is, Jerusalem – to the neighborhood – or “all Judea and Samaria” – and to the world – that is, “to the ends of the earth.” That’s the way any vital church looks at its mission. It sends the message – it bears witness – to those who are near and far. “The promise is for you,” Peter said, “for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (2:39). If we want to be a vital church, that’s where we have got to go – here, there, and everywhere. That’s doing God’s work God’s way for the sake of God’s world.
Are we that kind of church? Maybe we are; maybe we’re not…or not yet. Or maybe we’re somewhat that way, but we have to move with even greater intentionality in the direction of doing God’s work God’s way for the sake of God’s world. One thing’s for sure. Being that kind of church has nothing to do with program. It has nothing to do with buildings. Or budgets. It has nothing to do with how big we are or how small we are. It has to do with our heart. It has to do with where our heart is. And if our heart is set on Christ and it is open to the Spirit of God and we are growing in grace, then we become contagious. There is absolutely nothing we can do to compete with the glitz and glamor of this world. I guarantee you. We don’t have the money. We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the expertise. And we don’t need it. We don’t need to be playing around with the world’s methods anyway. What we need to do is: We need to figure what makes a church work, and what makes a church work is the heart of the people. It is a lifestyle. And if you want to make it a part of your lifestyle, here are some things you might want to try.
I had several "Bs" a moment ago. Now I’ve got six “Ls.” Here’s the first one. What if you were to list the names of three people you know who are unchurched? Or, if not three, then two. Or, if you can’t think of two, maybe you can think of one person. One person who needs to know Jesus Christ. Can you think of one? Let’s say you can; then what?
Then this: love that person for the sake of the Lord. Build a relationship with them. That’s the second “L.”
Third, lift them daily to the Lord in your prayers. Pray that they may come to know Jesus the way you know Jesus.
And then, as occasion presents itself – and this is the fourth “L” – lead them to the Lord. Help them to know that the promise is for them and for their children.
And then, link them with the Lord’s people. Invite them to something here at the church that you think they might enjoy. Introduce them to others who know and love Jesus.
And then, whatever you do, don’t fail to this. Look after them. Stay with them. Shepherd them along.
And if you can’t do all these, then do the first three. Write down somebody’s name. And love them. And show that love by praying for them every day. That’s the kind of thing that will make our church a winsome church. That’s the kind of thing we’ll be doing when we do God’s work God’s way for the sake of God’s world.