Summary: A winsome church does God's work God's way for the sake of God's world.
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.