Making the Church Great Again

 In Church, Community, Evangelism, Faith, Fred's Blog, Scripture, Teaching, Theology

More often than not when people long for the earliest church they have in mind an ideal that never existed. Almost from the beginning, it was tested with schisms, false teaching, infighting, jealousy, greed and celebrities with fans. I say almost because there actually was a short time – a matter of days – when things went smoothly. It’s likely those few days that people have in their minds when saying they want to restore the church to its original purity.

It was the same with the disciples as Jesus was leaving them after forty days. What was their expectant question?  “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” It would have been natural to see the connection between his resurrection and the restoration of David’s kingdom. After all, Pentecost was the same day the people traditionally observed not only the giving of the Law to Moses but the anniversary of the death of David. It was the day they longed most for the glory and good times of the past.

They still had no idea what Jesus had in mind. For them, like us, we live in hope of restoring kingdoms – of making things the way they used to be. We want to live again in a world no longer there and likely never had been. It’s not just restoring good times, is it? It is restoring a kingdom when we were in charge and the majority. No one wants kingdoms restored but those who reigned in the old kingdom. No one wanted the exile of Babylon or the bondage of Egypt restored. They wanted the return of the days of heroes and victories.  They wanted what they thought had been promised -making the kingdom great again. I suspect they might not have stayed had they known what life was going to be like for them in the future. It certainly was not a restored kingdom. It was something else entirely.

But they did wait for the ten days between his leaving and Pentecost. What was the church like in the interim? In some ways, in those brief ten days, it was the ideal church. It was a church that might well be the envy of any church today.

  • It was a praying church. All of them prayed. There was no Wednesday night prayer meeting. There were no prayer warriors. The whole meeting was prayer and the prayer room was the only room. They were all together all the time and in prayer.
  • The church was of one mind. They were first-rate examples of Paul’s command to the Corinthians, “Be of one mind.” They were held together by a single purpose and a fellowship that overcame their differences. Rich and poor, skeptics and believers, men and women, dreamers and dogmatics, were all in one accord. They cared about and valued the same things.
  • The church gathered together frequently. Their attendance was not just out of loyalty or responsibility but a necessity. Many of them had no other community. They had left everything. Some, like the disciples, had left their livings completely and were supported by the church.
  • The church had the benefit of the purest form of theological training, sound doctrine, and Biblical interpretation. There were no heresies or denominations. They could still remember all the words of Jesus as he spoke them.
  • The church was well-organized. They had an active personnel committee which immediately filled a vacancy. They had members like Barnabas who made sure they had adequate financial support. They had no liabilities, nothing tied up in real estate or debt retirement. Management and member turnover were low.

But, like the rich young ruler, they were lacking one thing. For ten days while the early church functioned almost perfectly as an organization they were missing the one thing necessary to fulfill their purpose: the power to be witnesses. The power to be the church. The power to do what Christ commissioned. All the five characteristics I listed are good but with enough effort, we can do them on our own – but only God can make us witnesses.

The defining work of the church is not prayer, growth, unity, sound doctrine, preaching, or being organized. The defining work of the church is not spotless lives or sacrificial service. It is not changing the culture. These things are good but not adequate. The work of the church – to be witnesses (martyrs in Greek) – only gets done through the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit, we can do all the other except the thing to which we are called – to be his witnesses.

The perfect church lasted only ten days. But as flawed as it is now I would not want to go back to perfection with no power.  It is not a return or restoration we need.  It is the power to be witnesses for the Resurrection.

Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before joining Leadership Network, where he served as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder and President of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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  • Annette Oltmans
    Reply

    Hi Fred, Another excellent and thought provoking post.

    I spent a good few minutes in the car yesterday listening to a Christian radio show where a woman caller tried several times to ask, “Shouldn’t the church extend love and compassion to the homosexual community rather than shun or unknowingly incite hatred, at the very least to those who are in committed loving marritale relationships? She did not argue with the host against scripture but rather politely said that sex outside of marriage is sinful to heterosexuals too. The host repeatedly interrupted her, dismissed her point about compassion and did not seem to hear the intent of her question-SHOULDN’T WE LEAD PEOPLE TO CHRIST THROUGH LOVE? I am the principal founder of a non profit that cares deeply about changing church culture. We see the harm done when the church waves it’s hand and ostracizes those who are hurting. We educate pastors about what happens to traumatized individuals when they ask the church for love or help but are calously judged and Doubly Abused instead. The added cruelty often causes serious harm, isolation, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In this light, to your point about saving souls as more important than changing cultures, I struggle with how to separate the two. I’m not very good at evangelizing. I’m moderately competant at teaching pastors the importance of compassion, how to express it, particularly to victims of abuse in order to do no further harm. I hope and pray that by nudging churches to be more aware of the power in harmful words and actions that God willing, I might be playing a small part in drawing in more wounded souls.
    Thank you for your meaningful work.
    Annette Oltmans

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Dear Annette,

      Thank you for your comment – and your concern. I apologize for confusion on the point about our being witnesses. By that I don’t mean “saving souls” as I believe that is God’s work. In my opinion, we are witnesses to what God has done in the resurrection of Christ. That is different than making “saving souls” the primary work and focus of the church, I think. I like Wendell Berry’s phrase in one of his poems. “Practice resurrection”. That is different than “saving souls”. I applaud what you are doing.

  • Annette Oltmans
    Reply

    Hi Fred, You are inspiring! Thank you for clarifying!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you for what you are doing, Annette. I went to your website and then discovered through Haley something even more surprising!

  • Paula Rosed
    Reply

    Hi Fred. I am just learning about The Gathering. Have only read a little, but appreciate what I have read. Sounds like you have a rather clear understanding of the truth. Like how you clarified that we are to be witnesses of what God has done in the. resurrection of Christ, and how this only gets done through the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Paula. While we have been around for over thirty years, we are just now understanding the power of simply being a witness.

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