NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–What would a Kingdom-centered church look like? How could we describe its character?
Who wouldn’t want to see the church of the 21st century impact its world the way the church of the first century did theirs? Wouldn’t you love to pastor or belong to a church that your community would describe like this: “Now all the believers were together and had everything in common. So they sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. And every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were bring saved” (Acts 2:44-47).
We must be both candid and honest. This description is a far cry from what we see in many churches today. Many churches are riddled with dissension and crippled by apathy. Offerings through the church barely pay the bills. The idea of meeting the needs of church and community seem foreign to our experience. It is difficult to think about taking the world when you are struggling to keep the doors of the church open. I think we can all admit this is not how God designed His triumphant church. So let’s look together at the first-century model and pray that God will begin a process of transformation in our hearts and in our churches.
It may be helpful if we first pause to get an overview of the Kingdom-centered church. The overarching concern of the Kingdom-centered church is to disciple the nations. This is the imperative in the Great Commission. Thus it is not too simplistic to say that the Kingdom-centered church is a disciple-making community. So here is the first question we must consider: Is our church making disciples?
We have so often been guilty of first judging the quality of churches by asking about various issues related to numerical growth. Very candidly, some of these numerical issues are related to the location of the church and the density of the population. Now, hear me carefully, I am not suggesting that we ignore issues such as baptismal and numerical growth. I am, however, saying that we must first be obedient to the command to make disciples. I am just biblically naïve enough to believe that if we will follow God’s command and His directions for His church, He will give the growth. The Lord begins by developing the character of His church so that He may build His church. So let’s look at the eight characteristics of the church.
UNITED IN PRAYER
When we read the Acts account, we are bombarded by the dependence on prayer and the power of the Spirit. I have linked these two together in a single characteristic because they are linked in the Book of Acts and in our own experience. For those of us who are activity oriented -— who want to do something to see our church grow -— the first command to “wait” takes us by surprise. Why wait? Let’s do something! Organize the Sunday School, change the style of worship, begin to canvass our community -— something, anything! Waiting seems like doing nothing to us. According to Acts 1:14, the period of waiting was not simply idle time. They knew that empowering came through prayer and, thus, all these were continually united in prayer. The word “continually” not only denotes the duration of their prayer, but it also indicates their devotion to prayer. Their praying was both persistent and passionate. Do these words describe the prayer life of your church?
TEACHES SOUND DOCTRINE
We remember the dramatic beginning of the church in Jerusalem as 3,000 persons were baptized and added to them. The very next phrase tells us they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. Their first concern was to establish these new believers in the faith through sound doctrinal teaching. As I read the book of Acts, I see this commitment to doctrinal teaching as a central aspect of the disciple-making community.
The church at Antioch was the great mission-sending church of the first century. The Lord gave it a large ingathering of persons (Acts 11:24). Once again the very next verse tells us for a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers, and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch (11:25). In Acts 14:21-22, Luke tells us that after Paul and Barnabas had evangelized Derbe, they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the hearts of the disciples by encouraging them to continue in the faith.
Sometimes church growth proponents suggest we may need to downplay doctrine to reach “boomers” or “busters.” This is not only bad advice; it is patently unbiblical. We may draw a crowd by preaching messages that please the ear yet do not challenge the head and change the heart, but that will not grow His church.
The description of the church in Acts 2 makes it abundantly clear that the early Christians experienced great joy as they met together to praise the Lord. Their worship was not simply the joy that characterized their fellowship; it was the passion that ignited their mission concern. It is not insignificant that the beginning of the Apostle Paul’s first missionary journey is placed in the context of worship and prayer. The phrase “as they were ministering to the Lord” actually translates the Greek word from which we get the English word “liturgy.” The Lord communicated His passion for the world as the church gathered to worship Him. Worship is not about us; it is about Him. As we worship, Christ is exalted and thus draws people to Himself.
IS INTENTIONALLY EVANGELISTIC
The Book of Acts begins with the promise: “But 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.” Throughout the Book of Acts we see both the passion and intentionality of the early disciples to evangelize the world.
Listen to what Luke tells us about the ministry of Philip: Philip went down to a city in Samaria and preached the Messiah to them (Acts 8:5) and Philip appeared in Azotus, and passing through, he was evangelizing all the towns until he came to Caesarea (8:40). In the middle of this account of Philip’s ministry, we are told that Peter and John traveled back to Jerusalem, evangelizing many villages of the Samaritans (8:25). Does your church manifest passion for the lost? Does it have an intentional strategy for reaching the community entrusted to you by the Father?
NURTURES BIBLICAL FELLOWSHIP
As we read the New Testament, it becomes abundantly clear that the New Testament church enjoyed a unique sense of fellowship. We are told that they met from house to house and that they enjoyed taking their meals together. But their fellowship did not end when the meal was over. Acts 4:32-35 indicates that they were of “one heart and soul.” This unity led members of the early church to assist in meeting the needs of fellow members.
Luke notes that there was not a needy person among them (4:34). This announcement is all the more significant when we remember that many of the early converts to Christianity would have been disenfranchised by their own Jewish families when they became Christians. Some may have lost their ability to earn a living because of the hostility they encountered from fellow Jews. If the early church and its members were to survive, it was necessary that they truly become family.
PRACTICES GENEROUS STEWARDSHIP
We have already noted the willingness of various members to sell their own possessions to provide for the needs of fellow members. This generosity of the majority of members described in chapter 4 is contrasted with the stingy spirit of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, who pledge a piece of land and then keep a portion of the proceeds. Luke wants us to fully comprehend that generosity should be a natural consequence of responding to the Gospel.
The church at Antioch manifests generosity as they send a love offering for the saints in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30). They make this gift even though they are told that the famine will be severe throughout the Roman world. Great churches are always marked by great stewardship.
IS GLOBALLY FOCUSED
The commission in Acts 1:8 and the very pattern of Acts itself indicates that the early believers understood that the heartbeat of God was for the nations. The Book of Acts demonstrates the work of the Spirit enabling the church to evangelize Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.
I have always been enamored by the church at Antioch. I especially love their vision for a global local church. In Acts 13:1-3, we see them sending Paul and Barnabas, their best-known leaders, to begin the first missionary journey. Notice that it is the local church that is at the heart of God’s plan for reaching the nations. Every church must target the entire world if it is to be faithful to God’s design and purpose.
The global nature of the mission task of the church necessitates that the church work cooperatively with likeminded churches for Kingdom advance. We have already noted one evidence of cooperative ministry in the offering that the church at Antioch sends to the saints in Jerusalem. As we study the Pauline letters, we will find that this offering becomes a passion for Paul as he challenges the churches in Achaia and Macedonia to abound in this generous work. The very existence of the Pauline letters indicates that the early churches found it absolutely essential to bind themselves to one another for the sake of the Gospel.
We have discovered the same truth today. No single church has the ability or resources to reach their own Jerusalem, much less the world. If we are serious about Kingdom advance, we must rediscover our cooperative spirit and become committed to a cooperative strategy.
Kenneth S. Hemphill is the national strategist strategist for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Empowering Kingdom Growth emphasis, on the Web at www.empoweringkingdomgrowth.net.