A Place to Belong
January 24, 1999
With this message I am beginning a four-part sermon series based on our 1999 theme: A Place to Belong. The pastoral staff arrived at this theme several months ago as we considered what we were hearing from many people. Our congregation has added so many new families in the last few years that, in some respects, we have become a church of friendly strangers. While it’s relatively easy to come to Calvary, it’s not so easy to make friends and feel at home here. We’re hoping to change that this year.
Perhaps you remember the theme song from the most popular TV show in America a few years ago: “You wanna be where you can see that troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everyone knows your name.” The show, set in a bar in Boston, resonated with viewers because it touched a need we all feel—to know and be known. I believe the pull of the neighborhood bar is often not the alcohol but the friendship it offers. It claims to be a place where “troubles are all the same” and “everyone knows your name.”
A few years ago the government surveyed returning prisoners of war to discover the worst part of their confinement. Was it the torture? No. Was it the attempted brainwashing? No. In the end, the worst part was the isolation for months on end, the forced separation from trusted comrades. More than anything else, that drove POWs to the brink of despair.
Deep in the Heart of Texas
We should not be surprised at that since we’ve known for a long time that God made us as social creatures. No man is an island, no one is made to live entirely alone. We were made for friendship, for family, for deep, caring relationships. And when we don’t find that, we search high and low until we do.
I’m sure you’ve heard it said that home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Last weekend Marlene and I went “home” to Midlothian, Texas, a little town about 30 miles south of Dallas. During my seminary days in the 70s, we lived there and attended the Midlothian Bible Church where I served on staff with Dave Wyrtzen as his assistant pastor. Several months ago he invited us to come back for a weekend. It was our first visit in nearly 20 years. In the last two decades the church has more than tripled in size and moved to a new location. I wondered if anyone would remember us. But all fears were removed when we entered the beautiful new building and were immediately overwhelmed with hugs. We were nearly hugged to death. The people who knew us in the 70s couldn’t have been nicer.
As I reflected on it later, it occurred to me that almost no one asked what we had been doing for the last 20 years. They didn’t ask how many books I had written or the size of the church I now pastor. That didn’t seem to matter. And no one asked about the mistakes I’ve made over the years. How refreshing to be with people and not feel you have to pull out your resume to prove your worth. That to me is what the body of Christ is supposed to be.
We find a similar truth in the New Testament. Acts 2:41-47 offers us a brief snapshot of the early church. In fact, this is the very earliest picture of what Christianity looked like in the beginning. I am impressed by the first and last verses of this passage. Verse 41 tells us the church began with 3000 conversions in one day. Can you imagine a church membership seminar for 3000 people? Verse 47 says that people were being saved daily and added to the church. The verses in between describe what happens when God breaks loose in a group of ordinary men and women. This is not religion or ritual but the reality of Christ at work in the midst of his people.
With this passage as the foundation, let’s look together at five marks of a great church.
#1 Solid Grounding in the Word of God v. 42
Luke reports that the early believers devoted themselves to the “apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). This means they put a high priority on knowing the truth. Sometimes you see churches in Chicago with names like “Apostolic Church of God in Jesus’ Name # 3,” and you wonder, “What makes a church apostolic?” I answer that a church is apostolic if it follows the teaching of the apostles found in the New Testament. To the extent that we at Calvary follow the New Testament, we are an apostolic church.
This means that the Word of God must be the objective foundation of the church. We do not depend on the latest Gallup Poll or the whims of public opinion to decide what we believe or what we will do. God still guides his church today through his inerrant, inspired, totally truthful Word.
Because the Bible is the Word of God, we must consult it whenever we face a difficult decision. When thinking about the future of the church, the elders must ask, “What does God say about this?” The same is true for the pastoral staff and for all the members of the congregation. We must seek to know what God has said in his Word and then prayerfully apply it to our own situations.
Let me illustrate. Today is Sanctity of Life Sunday. We pause to reaffirm our conviction that all life is sacred in the eyes of God and deserving of our protection. We especially wish to say we oppose legalized abortion and pray for God to lift this scourge from our land. Calvary Memorial Church is pro-life through and through. Where did that conviction come from? Certainly not from our politicians. We came to that truth by simply reading the Bible and discovering what God says about unborn human life (see Psalm 139:13-16).
Ditto for homosexuality, adultery, lying under oath, and a host of other contemporary vices that grip our nation. At Calvary we aren’t confused about any of those things because we can read the Bible. Therefore, we don’t appoint task forces to decide what we believe about abortion. We simply stand on God’s Word without regard to whether or not this makes us popular with the powers that be.
In truth, we know that it doesn’t. This very week our local newspaper commented that some churches in Oak Park don’t wish to be called “progressive.” I thought to myself, “Thank God. That’s the best news I’ve heard in years.” At Calvary we are progressive in methods but conservative in our theology. Sometimes it is said that the church is 20 years behind the times. What a terrible insult. We aim to be 2000 years behind the times! If we can do that, we’ll discover the same power that animated the early church.
As the old hymn says, “How firm a foundation ye saints of the Lord is laid for your faith in his excellent Word. What more can he say than to you he hath said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?”
If this be true, then each person should ask this question: Am I learning more about what God says and how to apply it to my life?
(Note: When I preached this on Sunday, one couple got up and walked out of the sanctuary after this first point, evidently upset by what I had said. One of our women had spoken to this couple before the service and learned that they were visiting a number of churches. My friend commented that it is frightening in a way because it reminds us that the message of God’s truth cuts both ways—it is “life” for some and “death” for others.)
#2 Vital, Life-Transforming Worship v. 42, 46-47
Vital worship played an important role in the early church. Our text makes this clear in two ways. Verses 42 and 46 mention “breaking of bread”—probably a reference to a meal followed by the Lord’s Supper. Verse 47 adds that they were “praising God.” The whole passage seems to suggest a sustained atmosphere of praise and worship that permeated the early church. They didn’t have just one stated “worship service” but evidently gathered daily to sing, praise, and share the Lord’s Supper together.
One gets the sense that this was very active worship. Yesterday I listened to the replay of Babbie Mason’s concert at the Friday Night Sing. Commenting on the church of her childhood, she said that the folks in her home church understood that “worship is a verb.” Having preached in a number of black churches, I know what she means. When you preach, you know how you’re doing because the people in the pews talk back to you. They listen and say “Amen” or offer other comments on your words.
Our text also indicates that it was uplifting worship. Verse 43 says that people were “filled with awe” as they met together. People came with a mix of fear and excitement, wondering what God would do next.
It was also attractive worship. We learn in verse 47 that the early Christians had “favor with all the people.” Even unbelievers were amazed by the things they heard and saw and wanted to know more about it.
This is not an issue of style. After all, the worship of Acts 2 was synagogue worship brought over into the early church. If we were somehow transported back in time, we would not understand their songs or the Scripture reading or the sermon. Yet God blessed their worship and infused it with his Holy Spirit.
I take from this a simple test for worship: Does it whet your appetite for God? Biblical worship lifts you out of your own world and creates in your heart a hunger to know God better. In some ways style is almost irrelevant as long as people come into contact with the living God.
#3 Caring Relationships with Other Believers v. 42,44,46
Verse 42 tells us that the first believers were devoted to “fellowship.” The Greek word means to share something in common. The rest of the passage fleshes out this concept as we learn that they were “all together” (44), they met together in the temple courts (46), and they ate together (46).
This passage mentions three times that they ate together. One gets the idea that shared meals played an important part in the life of the early church. As I prepared this message, I remembered that I preached on this passage on May 14, 1989—my first-ever sermon at Calvary. I wasn’t even a candidate for pastor at that point—just an unknown preacher from Texas. Here’s a paragraph from that sermon:
Eating together is one mark of a united church. Sometimes we who are in the ministry like to joke that if you want to get a group out you have to have pie and coffee. If you want to get a crowd you have to have a meal or at least you need refreshments. Sometimes people grumble about it. But it’s not just a psychological fact that people like to eat together. It’s not just a gastronomic reality. It is also a biblical truth. In the earliest days of the church Christians ate together. I believe that the church that eats together will stay together, will play together, will pray together, will grow together in every sense of the word.
People laughed when I said that but those words were entirely true. Years later I coined the First Rule of Church Growth: “If you feed them, they will come.” Thousands of Wednesday night suppers have proved the wisdom of that rule.
The early believers were all together all the time. That reminds me of a statement Dr. Criswell used to make to the effect that the church should be the “social center” of the congregation. That’s why First Baptist Church of Dallas built all those buildings, including a huge youth center, bowling lanes, and much more. Thirty years ago that was a radical concept but “Dr. C” was a man ahead of his time. Today the largest churches in America do the same thing—and attract great crowds of people.
Yesterday as I drove through Oak Park, I happened to see a banner hanging from St. Giles Catholic Church proclaiming something about the Year 2000. Underneath were these words: “St. Giles Community of Faith.” I like that concept—the church as a “community of faith.” That’s entirely in keeping with the spirit of Acts 2:41-47.
This idea of togetherness is so important because we live in increasing isolation from each other. Our technology has made it easier than ever to avoid human contact. Look at the average family. We have our own cars, our own rooms, our own phones, computers, beepers, pagers, and even our own fax machines. We can work at home if we want, thus avoiding the messy problem of dealing with people face to face. Our quest for more privacy has come at the cost of enormous personal loneliness.
Here is the question to ask yourself: Who encourages me and holds me accountable in my Christian walk? God never intended that you go it alone. If you can’t answer that question, you need to reach out and start building those relationships.
#4 Seeing the Power of God through Prayer v. 42-43
The final item of verse 42 is “prayer.” The early church was devoted to prayer. But don’t skip past the next verse because there may be an important connection. “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles” (Acts 2:43). I wonder if those three things shouldn’t go together: Prayer … Awe … Wonders and Signs. Is it possible that miracles happened precisely because the believers prayed so fervently that an atmosphere of awe made such things possible? Matthew tells us that Jesus was not able to work many miracles in some cities because of their unbelief (Matthew 13:58). Could such a thing be true today? I know it’s possible to go off on a tangent about “signs and wonders,” but I also think it’s possible to go off on a tangent in an unbelieving direction as well.
I will leave you to ponder the matter yourself. But let us recall the words of Jesus as he cleansed the temple: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17). Christ intended that his people would pray and that as they prayed, they would pray for the nations, and people from all the nations would come and pray with them. It is no exaggeration to say that the Christian church was conceived in a prayer meeting (see Acts 1:12-14).
By the way, do you know how to get rid of your enemies? Pray for them! That’s what Jesus said in Matthew 5:44-45. It may or may not change them, but it will certainly change your heart attitude. You can hate your enemies or you can pray for them, but you can’t do both at the same time. (After the first service, a man commented that the Lord spoke to him through this statement. If it applies to you, let the words take root in your heart.)
A great church devotes itself to prayer. And while a church may be large and active without prayer, it cannot be truly great without prayer. The question is very simple: Where have I seen God at work in my life in answer to my prayers?
#5 Practical ways to Minister to Others v. 44-45
The final mark of a great church comes from verses 44-45: All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Some writers have suggested this was an early form of communism. That’s misleading because communism to us suggests a malevolent 20th-century ideology that enslaved millions of people. However, these verses do suggest a “commune-ism” of sorts in the early church. Evidently the believers lived together—or perhaps in close proximity to each other. Certainly they combined their resources to meet the needs of the poor in their midst.
I find it most interesting that as far as we can tell, no one told them to do this. They evidently did it on their own. Such a concept seems foreign to modern Christians—especially those in the West who value their personal possessions as part of our birthright. Why give up your hard-earned dollars for the sake of the poor? In Acts 2 the answer is simple: They valued people over possessions. They must have taken Jesus seriously when he spoke about not laying up treasures on the earth. This teaching is very threatening to many people today so it is easier to find a way around it than to deal with it. While I agree with those who say that we are not commanded to do exactly as they did, I also think we shouldn’t ignore their example either.
So the question is this: How are you using your gifts to help others in a practical way?
An Attractive Church Without the “Stuff”
It’s time to wrap up this message. As I do so, allow me one observation: Acts 2 paints the picture of an attractive church. Here is a church with no building, no paid staff, no programs, no choir, no organ, no parking lots, no buses, no contemporary worship, and most amazingly, no Internet web site. And yet they seemed to get along pretty well. In verse 41 we learn that 3000 people joined the church in one day; verse 47 adds that people were being saved by the Lord and added to their number daily. That’s not bad, is it? Wouldn’t you like to be part of a church like that?
They had none of the “stuff” we Americans consider so crucial—yet they reached people by the thousands. I’m not arguing that the “stuff” is bad, only that their “stuff” (the five points I mentioned) is better than our “stuff.” Ours is external—theirs touches the realm of the spirit. When I visited Nigeria several months ago, I never saw a church with the “stuff” we’ve got at Calvary, yet I saw many churches with faith and zeal reaching people for Christ. Perhaps this explains why the church is growing fastest in so-called “third world” countries where they aren’t encumbered by the “stuff” we have. (I’m not arguing that these external items aren’t useful for the gospel. They are, but they don’t constitute the heart of a great church.)
So I ask, What made the early church so attractive? It comes down to one thing and one thing only: They shared a common faith in Jesus Christ. On the Day of Pentecost, people gathered in Jerusalem from all points of the compass—Rome, Egypt, Crete, Cappadocia, Arabia, and many other places (Acts 2:1-11). That means the early church sprang from a “mixed multitude” of differing ethnic groups, skin colors, cultures, and languages. Their shared faith in Christ drew people to them.
Here are three key words that reveal the “secret” of the early church: Unified … Magnified … Multiplied. The believers were unified, Christ was magnified, and the church was multiplied. The world has nothing like that. It can counterfeit that reality, but it can’t duplicate it.
What does a great church look like? Here is the answer from our text:
1) Founded on the Word of God
2) Practicing vital Worship
3) Promoting caring Relationships
4) Devoted to Prayer
5) Ministering to those in Need
Where those things are present, these five results are sure to follow:
1) Healthy on the inside
2) Attractive on the outside
3) Filled with joy
4) Continual conversions
5) Presence of God everywhere
What happened in Acts 2 is not unique. It is possible whenever the church is the body of Christ and not simply an institution. This is God’s plan. It still works today.
Our Father, we pray to be this kind of church and this kind of people. We read these ancient words and our hearts cry out for this kind of reality. Show us anything in our midst that hinders your work. Open our hearts to one another and to you. Make us of one mind and one heart. May unbelievers be attracted to Jesus by what they see in us. Amen.