Summary: What are the marks of a church that is alive?
Back From the Dead
June 6, 2004
We are a church that is alive, and that excites me. We are in an enviable position in Benton. We have caught the embersI am familiar with so many little churches in our own and other denominations that are lamenting their fall upon hard times. When I first began in ministry I was appointed to a small two point charge in Jackson Parish. Both churches were small but vital congregations, full of life and a willingness to do new things. I am saddened to know that one of those churches that averaged 80 people in attendance now only averages around 20, and to know that death and age has taken a toll on the other little church so that attendance that was 25 is now down to around 14.
There are many reasons for the declines in these and other congregations like them. Many people place the blame on the people who are not there, and want to find some fault in them. Others like to place the blame on the preacher. He should visit more. He should preach better, or longer, or shorter, or harder, or not quite so hard. Sometimes, the denomination gets the blame. Bad theology, or liberal theology, or no theology, or too much money being sucked out of the local church. Whatever the reason, the result is the same, whether the church is Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian or other—it gives the indication that the church is dying.
We look to those situations of decline and wonder what can be done to reclaim what once was. People and pastors look back to the “glory days” and wish it could be that way again, assuming, of course, there is anyone in the congregation old enough to remember the “glory days.” What seems to make the matter worse, is the temptation to look around the corner or next door, or to the next city and envy what another church is doing to reach people and grow. “Why are they growing and we’re not?” seems to be the question many people ask.
I think our text this morning answers the question. In this morning’s text I identify three marks of a living, vibrant church—three essentials that will give life to every congregation. After all, the early church was blessed with an outpouring of God’s presence and power, and the text tells us “each day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved” (v. 47). What are the three marks of the early church that will bring renewal to a dead church and sustain life in a living one? Let’s look and see.
Mark #1: A living church is committed to community. The church was born on the day of Pentecost as the Holy Spirit came from heaven and brought God’s power to the disciples gathered in the Upper Room. Peter and the others went out into the streets of Jerusalem, and their preaching began to change lives and win souls to Christ—three thousand that first day. Luke tells us something very interesting about those three thousand—“they joined with the other believers and devoted themselves”—they were devoted to certain aspects of life that impacted not only their life, but others as well. They gave themselves, not to an explanation, but to a way of life. A way of life that bound them together in a very special way, and with very special purposes. They are the same things that bind us together today, and when we make them the focus of our way of life we will see the same effectiveness the early church saw.
The early church was a community of believers who gathered to devote themselves to the apostle’s teaching. People are drawn together by the things they believe or have in common. Too often, we Christians don’t know what we believe, or rather, we are willing to believe anything that sounds good. It is what Paul called “tickling the ear.” We have today what some have called “buffet Christianity.” Buffet Christianity is that faith that takes a little from this pile, and a little from this pile, and a little from that pile, and for dessert, we get a little sweetness added in, and what we end up with is a jumbled mess of beliefs that are in constant contradiction to each other. We end up confused and confusing, and we are unwilling to share our faith with others because we don’t know what we believe ourselves.
The early church had the benefit of direct teaching from the apostles. They had the chance to hear Peter, and talk with John. Paul would come along to challenge their faith. We don’t have that same benefit today, but we do have teir faithful testimony. We have the Scriptures that record for us the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the writings of the early church. We have the testimony of the early church fathers that serve to point us back to the cross and the resurrection. We have the creeds of the early church that served as their affirmation of faith, and it was the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Every time we recite one of those creeds, we witness to the apostle’s teaching, and the church that seeks to be alive will devote itself to teaching its members the Biblical witness to the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.