As we draw near to the dawning of the 21st century we hear much talk about the “Shape of the church in the 21st century.” Seminars are offered which are intended to teach us how to be prepared for ministry in the 21st century. You can go into any Christian bookstore and find an increasing number of books addressing the necessary preparations for ministering in a new century.
It is absolutely necessary for the church to be prepared in every age. However, it seems that as we look to the future, we too easily forget the preparation that God has always provided, the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it seems that the best way that the church could be prepared to minister in the 21st century, is to look back to the church of the first century as recorded in the book of Acts.
Jesus promised to equip this newborn church for a brand new kind of ministry He did so by empowering them with the gift of the Holy Spirit. As we read the book of Acts we find the incredible accomplishments of the Spirit-filled church recorded. The church was alive, active and productive as the Spirit empowered them for service.
I recently heard a sermon on Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37. As I was reflecting on the passage and the message, the thought struck me, “How often don’t our churches seem like that valley of dry bones? How often don’t our congregations seem as responsive as a valley of dry bones?” Then my eyes were drawn to v.14 where the Lord states: “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live…. ” If the “breath” of God can make a valley of dry bones come to life, if the Spirit of God can make a disobedient people come to life, can’t we expect the same within the church today? Shouldn’t we expect the same within the church today?
Unfortunately when one begins to talk about a “Spirit-filled” church today, thoughts usually are directed to a worship style. We envision people raising their hands, clapping and stomping, speaking in tongues, laying on of hands and people being “slain in the Spirit.” We grow suspect that any talk concerning the Spirit’s power is going to lead us to such extremes as the “Toronto blessing” and “Holy Laughter.”
However, if we examine the “Spirit-filled” church of the first century we find that they weren’t marked as much by worship methods as by mature ministry. In Acts chapter 2 verses 42–47 we receive a beautiful picture of the first century church. From this picture I believe we can formulate a blue-print for the church of the 21st century.
Luke describes this Spirit-filled church as having four central qualities. We might well call these the four cornerstones upon which the Spirit-filled church is to be built.
THE SPIRIT-FILLED CHURCH IS A LEARNING CHURCH
First, the Spirit-filled church is a learning church. The very first evidence that Luke mentions of the Spirit’s presence in the church is that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). As Dr. John Stott describes this he says, “One might say that the Holy Spirit opened a school in Jerusalem that day The apostles were the teachers, and the students were 3,000 pupils starting out in kindergarten.”1
But we notice something far different in these students than so many students today. Today it seems that often times the only reason that students are in school (or Sunday School) is because they have to be. These first century students were there because they wanted to be. They were “devoted” to learning. They had a deep hunger to know more about God and His ways. They sat at the feet of the apostles with an insatiable appetite for God’s Word.
It seems that as we look at the church of today we are often struck, not by the devotion of the students, but by their apathy. Several years ago The Banner reported the results of a study done in the Christian Reformed Church. That study revealed that for every one man that studies the Bible there are ten who are not interested. I doubt whether we would note any significant increase in that number if a similar survey were conducted today.
When Jesus gave the great and first commandment, He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (emphasis added). How can we love the Lord with all our mind if we seldom exercise our mind in serious study of God’s Word?
Intellectual laziness is disobedience of the first and great commandment. It is also a sign of spiritual poverty.
A lack of desire to participate in the study of God’s Word is simply not compatible with being Spirit-filled. The person who is Spirit-filled will be devoted to learning more about God’s Word. If our excuses come easier than our Bible Study, we had better examine our spiritual vitality.
THE SPIRIT…FILLED CHURCH IS A LOVING CHURCH
The second cornerstone of the Spirit-filled church is that it is a loving church. “They devoted themselves…to the fellowship.” The word here for “fellowship” is the common Greek word, koinonia. The word is used in the New Testament for more than talking about sports and weather. Rather, it refers to the common life that those within the church shared.
There is the union that we share because God is in us. Our fellowship with God shapes our fellowship with one another. Paul often says that we are “in Christ.” That union brings us into union with one another.
Therefore, we are going to be willing to share with one another. Luke describes the members of the church here as “selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as they had need” (v. 45). No, Luke is not mandating a communal lifestyle for the church. Rather, he is demonstrating the impact of the Spirit. Because of the Spirit, we no longer selfishly hold on to what is ours, but generously share with those in need.
However, research shows that the national average for Christian giving is 1.3% of our income. In fact, it has been found that Christians give only .2% more toward charitable causes than do non-Christians. What has happened to Spirit-induced generosity? Again quoting Dr. Stott, “Unrelieved suffering and poverty among Christians in this world is a standing rebuke to us who are more affluent.”2 We must demonstrate the presence of Christ in our lives, by our generous spirit.
THE SPIRIT…FILLED CHURCH IS A WORSHIPING CHURCH
The third cornerstone of a Spirit-filled church is its worship. “They devoted themselves…to breaking of bread and to prayer.” Their devotion was shown in their learning, in their loving and in their worship.
The Greek text uses a definite article before both “bread” and “prayer.” This would suggest a reference to the Lord’s Supper on the one hand and public, corporate prayer on the other. The sharing of the sacraments and prayer was crucial to the health, life and out-reach of the first century church. They were excited and exuberant about worship. In fact, they worshiped at any and every opportunity that they had.
Gordon Keddie tells of a young Christian who once asked his pastor why it was necessary to attend two worship services on Sunday. “After all,” he objected, “the Bible doesn’t say we have to have two services.” The Pastor responded, “Well, I’ll agree that you don’t need to come twice on Sunday, provided you agree to do what the Bible says.” “Okay! Fair enough,” the young man responded. “Well then,” said the Pastor, “I’ll see you on Monday morning…and Tuesday…and Wednesday…and we’ll follow the apostolic pattern in Acts 2:46.”3
No, Acts 2:46 wasn’t meant to be a regulative pattern for the church of all ages, but it demonstrates that the Spirit-filled Christian thirsts after true worship, sound teaching and living fellowship. When you are filled with the Spirit you will not stay at home, or at the lake, or on the golf course on Sunday, morning or evening, wasting your opportunities for worship.
Why do so many today view worship as a rather hum-drum affair? Possibly we have lost some of the joy and reverence that was evident in this Spirit-filled Church. Luke describes these worshipers as having “glad and sincere hearts.” The word translated “glad” can also be translated “exultation.” These believers knew that Jesus had died to save them from their sins. Therefore, they had plenty to be exultant about.
Every worship service should be a joyful celebration of the mighty acts of God through Jesus Christ. Yet so often we come to worship and look so grim and lifeless that you might think we had come to mourn the loss of our best friend rather than celebrate the fact that we have been made friends with God. We often see people singing songs of praise with a frown on their faces. Or they barely move their lips at all when a hymn is being sung. That should not be. The Spirit-filled person is full of joy and their worship shows it.
THE SPIRIT…FILLED CHURCH IS AN EVANGELISTIC CHURCH
The final cornerstone that is presented to us in this passage is that the Spirit-filled church is an evangelistic church. You simply cannot separate verse 42 from verse 47 in this passage. If you were to pull verse 42 out of its context and make it the blueprint of the church, you would find that you have built an introverted church. Yes, the church needs to learn, to love, and to worship, but these are all to equip us for witness. Unfortunately many of our churches are quite strong and healthy in the area of Bible teaching, fellowship and worship, but quite weak in the area of evangelism. That tends to focus our attention in upon ourselves. The results of introversion in the church are, as described by C. John Miller, “the quiet acceptance of churchly dulness as normal, and numerical stagnation or decline is inevitable.”4
Why did the first century church simply explode? Why were converts counted by the thousands rather than by ones or twos? Because the church was devoted to evangelism. Why do so many churches today seem to decline over the years, rather than increase? Because we are more concerned with internal matters, than with outreach. We have, in large part, ignored Christ’s command to “make disciples”(Matt. 28:19). Oh yes, we perhaps send a few dollars for mission work over there, but we ignore the mission field to which we are called right here.
Part of our failure in this area, may be due to the fact that we have forgotten something of which the first century church was well aware. It is not up to us to make the church grow. We do not have to know the right gospel presentation, or evangelism program to produce converts. Rather, we must trust in the right Lord. Acts 2:47 says, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (emphasis added). You see, it wasn’t the apostles’ abilities in evangelism, but their availability to be used by the Lord that produced the dramatic growth in the early church. Again, quoting C. John Miller, “Church growth that is not inspired by faith in Christ’s power to transform lives is dangerous.”5 To see growth in our churches, we must make ourselves available to Christ daily to reach those who are lost.
In order to build a Spirit-filled church, we need the cornerstones of learning, of love, of worship and of witness. The Spirit has been poured out upon the church; it is our responsibility not to quench the Spirit’s fire. We must allow Him His freedom to work in and through us. When we do, our churches will manifest the marks of the Spirit’s presence, Biblical teaching and learning, loving fellowship, living worship and ongoing, outgoing evangelism.
1. John Stott, The Spirit, the Church and the World (Downers Grove, IL Intervarsity Press, 1990), p. 82.
2. Ibid, p 84.
3. Gordon Keddie, You Are My Witnesses (Darlington, Co. Durham Evangelical Press, 1993) p. 44
4. C. John Miller, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church (Grand Rapids, MI Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), p 29.
5. Ibid, p. 18.
Rev. Daryl Kats is pastor of the Beaverdam Christian Reformed Church, Beaverdam, MI.