When VitalChurch Ministry has the opportunity to come alongside a church, one of the things we almost always do is conduct a series of all-church workshops to help a church reaffirm their values, mission, and vision. In the last several years we have also seen the need for a church to clarify their theological stances, particularly on secondary issues. The workshops generally seek to accomplish three things:
- To help a church look back and ask, what have we done well? As well as ask what could we have done better?
- To help a church embrace their current reality. Think of Revelation 2-3, where Jesus addresses seven churches. There is both affirmation and rebuke in His diagnostic of each church. Churches need to ask, what would Jesus affirm at this church? What would He rebuke?
- To look forward. I would say that for the vast majority of churches, their best days are ahead of them IF they’re honest, humble, and open to God’s leading.
Every family has dysfunctions. Social scientists tell us that approximately 96% of all families suffer from mild to severe dysfunction. Churches are extended families and suffer from various dysfunctions as well. Will a church be able to “fix” all of their dysfunctions? Heavens no. But once we’re aware of them we can make adjustments more quickly. For instance, one of my dysfunctions is that I am a reactor on a lifelong journey to become a responder. I know I need accountability in this area and I have grown enough to understand when I’m more prone to react.
A few years ago I began to ask the question, “What were the core values of the first church that launched in the Book of Acts? What are the underlying concepts, or principles that fostered this NT Church to be successfully launched and to flourish?” That is what I’d like to consider in this article.
They had a nice little church of about 120 people then in one day 3,000 people were added to their church and everything changed overnight! I uncovered seven implicit core values that helped to shape the first church ever launched. I will name the values, identify the applicable verse/s, and make a few comments:
1. They were Kingdom Focused: Acts 1:3 – To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.
Jesus was arrested, He was abandoned, He was scourged, He was crucified, He was buried, and He was resurrected. Then before His ascension into heaven, He spent 40-days teaching His disciples about the KOG.
It’s important for us to notice and acknowledge that Jesus did not teach them about how to start a church – but to focus on expanding the KOG. We could actually say that church is not the goal – but focusing on expanding the KOG is the goal. So, church would be the fruit of a kingdom focus and ministry. Many churches lose sight of this.
There are two perspectives for us to consider here. The first is theological and the second is sociological:
Theological — What is the KOG? Simply stated the KOG is the rule and reign of God – seen through the eyes of faith. And it has been spreading like leaven throughout the whole earth for 2,000 years now. Here’s what we need to see: When Jesus came the first time He established the KOG on the earth and when He comes again He will consummate the KOG. What does that mean? Think of it this way, during WW-2 when the Allied troops successfully landed on Normandy Beach the back of Hitler’s Army was broken and the end of the war was inevitable. But, as you probably know, it was another 11-months before the Allied Troops marched on Berlin. And some of the fiercest fighting of the was occurred during those 11-months – the Battle of the Bulge for instance…
It is the same with the KOG – when Jesus came the first time He established the KOG and the back of Satan’s army was broken and the end of the war is inevitable. But, we’re still in a fierce battle. Here’s how one theologian says it: “We live in the presence of the future.” We live in the tension of the already and the not yet.  The most important concept regarding the present reality of the KOG is that we now have confident access to the presence and power of God – as we bow our knee to Christ’s kingship.
The sociological point that needs to be considered is the tendency to become institutionalized. Every successful church, actually any organization, can have a great initial run – and then slowly begin to turn inward focusing more on preservation than on pioneering. This often happens around the 20-year mark. The question is not if a church will move toward institutionalization (it will), but the degree to which a church or organization gives into the tendencies. Tim Keller makes a distinction between an institution and a movement. Churches tend to become institutionalized when they lose sight of the KOG being of primary importance. It’s essential for churches to strike a balance between being a freewheeling organism and a disciplined organization, which is the essence of vitality. A fundamental question that every church needs be continually asking is: How do we need to change and adapt in order to make more and better disciples?
2. They were People of Humble and Prayerful Patience: Acts 1:4 – Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised… Acts 1:13-14 – When they had entered the city, they went up to the upper room where they were staying… 14These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.
First of all it’s always hard to wait, especially if we’re not sure what we’re waiting for. V. 15 tells us there were about 120 people gathered in the upper room. (It’s commonly thought that it was the same room where the Last Supper was held.) I’ve been in what they think is the room and it’s not that big. What if you invited 120 people into your home to have a prayer meeting that might last for several days? What would that look like? What about the basic logistics – let alone how to organize the prayer times? If we were to engage in some sanctified conjecture – based on what we already know about the personalities of the 11 disciples, we might acknowledge that there were most likely some ongoing tensions, relational struggles, and ongoing misunderstandings among the faithful 120 disciples. It’s not a huge stretch to assume that there was likely some forgiveness and reconciliation needed.
For instance, I can picture Peter, a tell-it-like-it-is former small business owner, saying to Matthew, a former tax collector, “I never liked you…I have held anger, frustration, and unforgiveness toward you for the last three years. Will you forgive me?” Others may have noticed this and then realized they needed to engage in some of their own forgiveness and reconciliation. Then someone picks up a lyre and begins to strum it. Then people begin to sing and the singing eventually turns into praise and the praise eventually turns into worship and something beautiful and profound engulfs the room. We then we see in v. 14…“These all with one mind…” (Acts 1:14).
The Greek word for “one mind” is, HOMOTHUMADON. Our English translations don’t even begin to convey the strength and the passion of the word. We’re familiar with the prefix HOMO, which means “at the same place or time; together.” THUMOS comes from the same word we get the word “thermos” from and it signifies passion, often with a fierceness and indignation. So a more literal translation might be: “To be together with a passion, a fierceness, and an indignation.” Churches have an “upper room opportunity” presented to them during a transition season. To come together and to prayerfully wait on what God has for them in the next chapter of their ministry. There often needs to be some honest dialogue and perhaps some difficult conversations regarding various misunderstandings and some failures that will require forgiveness and reconciliation. That is how the church actively “waits.”
3. They were Unified and Empowered by the Holy Spirit: Acts 2:1, 4: And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place…4And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.
I would like to suggest that when Dr. Luke says, “they were all together in one place,” he is talking about the fruit of these 120 people having spent time in prayer with humility and whatever else was needed to be in right relationship with one another and with God.
“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” –2 Chronicles 7:14
Humility, and prayer, and right relationships act like magnets that the Holy Spirit is drawn to.
4. They were Cross (or Gospel) Shaped: Acts 2:23 – [Peter’s preaching now] This Man [Jesus], delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men [Romans] and put Him to death. Acts 2:36 – Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.
Notice that twice in the portion of Peter’s sermon that we have access to he tells his audience that they killed Christ. This becomes the fundamental question of life for every human being on the planet: “Are my sins sufficient to send Jesus to the cross?” God demands holy perfection to be in His presence. Do you realize that to miss the mark by even a millimeter is still to have missed the mark? The essence of being Cross (or Gospel) Shaped is the initial realization and then a lifetime of unfolding understanding that we are more sinful than he ever dared believe and simultaneously we are more loved than we ever dared imagine. To be Cross (or Gospel) Shaped means that we spend our lives being more focused on what Jesus Christ has done rather than on what we should do. This is what distinguishes Christianity from every other religion or philosophy of life. The eyes of our hearts are continually awakened to what Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross.
5. They were Outward Focused (Missional): Acts 2:41 – Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
Again, a church of 120 people became a church of 3,120 in one day. Many years ago I had the opportunity to be part of a launch team with a church plant that begin with 3,200 people attending on the first day. It was both immeasurably exhilarating and profoundly challenging. Can you imagine the organizational undertaking that was necessary? Here’s what we know – they made room for complete strangers in their lives. They opened their lives and their homes to be shaped and molded into a new family.
6. They were Intentional About Discipleship: Acts 2:42 – [contains a summary statement of their discipleship process] And they were continually devoting themselves to [four things:] the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
This verse identifies the essential elements needed in Christian discipleship. Every church needs to develop its own discipleship pathway that consists of some variation of these four elements:
- Today, we would identify the apostles teaching with reading and studying the Bible. We not only want to read the Bible but we want the Bible to read us. This happens individually and corporately.
- Fellowship is a deep and honest sharing of ourselves. The Greek word is KOINONIA and after many years of study I define it as, “Breaking off a piece of yourself, the REAL you (with the good, the bad, and the ugly, including our flaws, fears, and failures) and sharing it, with the hope and expectation that we will be loved, accepted, and forgiven. It is also committing to be in loving and accountable relationships with people who are not intimidated by us and who are not afraid to speak the truth to us in love (see Ephesians 4:15).
- The breaking of bread almost certainly has a double meaning…They shared meals together. In this 1st century church the small groups met in homes and it was an opportunity for broken sinners to find connection and belonging. Breaking bread together also indicates they celebrated the Lord’s Supper together often. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of the gospel – remembering what Jesus Christ had accomplished on the cross and in the resurrection.
- Praying together in the ways that Jesus had both modeled for them and taught them. Years ago Eugene Peterson wrote a book entitled Answering God. He makes a strong case that we only pray well if we are immersed in Scripture. He says we learn our prayer vocabulary the way children learn their vocabulary — by being immersed in language and then speaking it back.
7. They were Immersed In Authentic Community: Acts 2:43-47 [We see the fruit of their intentional discipleship process] — And everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. 44And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; 45and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46And 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, 47praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
V. 43: There was a strong sense of awe that engulfed both the fellowship and the city. Let’s not forget that there are two ends of the awe continuum: One is exceeding joy, comfort, and gratitude that the gospel provides. The other end is a holy fear, respect, and reverence for God that the gospel also provides. It’s not either/or but both/and.
V. 43: Wonders and signs were taking place. In other words, the supernatural life and power of God was being poured out regularly in their midst.
Vs. 44-47: We see the activity of authentic biblical community in action, including…
- Equality of social classes and ethnicities
- Enthusiastic joy
- Praise and adoration
- Favor among the unconverted (“You don’t have to advertise a fire!” — Leonard Ravenhill)
- 47: Salvations
Here’s what the Dictionary of New Testament Theology says about Dr. Luke’s description of the early church: “From Luke’s description of the early Christian community, ‘The educated reader would have got the impression that the Greek ideal of society had been realized.’”
That is what we’ve always desired and longed for – and it’s happening… And it’s still happening today…
A church in transition would do well to ask what’s next? Perhaps you have an, “Upper Room Opportunity”? Continue to wait, and pray, and worship, and study Scripture, and continue to forgive one another and reconcile every strained and broken relationship. Here’s what I often say to a church in transition: Church wide renewal begins with individual renewal, and individual renewal begins with each person owning his or her own issues (see Matthew 7:3-5). I’ll leave you with this verse:
“Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” –Acts 3:19
It is counter intuitive to think that refreshing will come from repentance. It’s been said that repentance is the unlikely road to joy.
 Oscar Cullman, Christ In Time.
 George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel and the Kingdom.
 Timothy Keller, Center Church, Zondervan 2012.
 Tim Keller.
 HarperOne, Reprint edition 1991.
 Zondervan, Abridged ed. 2003.
 Dan Allender, Wounded Heart.