How to be a successful church - 1/2
Acts 6:7 So the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly.
In our previous two articles in this series I set myself the very easy task of asking what ought to be the priorities in the life of the church: what ought a congregation to be doing if it is to be true to the divine pattern for the church? It was comparatively simple to turn to scripture and find a model that we should follow. Now we have an immeasurably more difficult task. The question this time is: how can we follow that pattern successfully? I mean, of course, successfully in the sight of God, not of people. How do we get the Master's verdict of 'Well done, good and faithful servants'? I'm not at all sure that I can answer this question in a clear way. Nevertheless, here is a text from a passage which suggests that the church was successful in getting things right.
In this instalment I shall do nothing more than make some preliminary remarks before we look at the passage more closely in the following instalment.
In the previous studies I listed six things that churches should do. Accordingly the marks of success would be:
- The gospel is being communicated to non-believers in such a way that they are responding to it and becoming believers so that the number of converts increases, and hopefully so that the congregation becomes larger or new congregations are planted.
- Christian teaching is given faithfully and well so that the believers learn from it and become sound in doctrine and practice.
- The level of fellowship is high as people find joy and delight in encouraging one another and helping the needy world.
- Everybody shares in the Lord's Supper and it is a real experience of remembering the Lord's death and having communion with him.
- People meet to pray and learn how to talk to God.
- In all of this and in the whole of their lives the believers praise God and serve him and so increase his glory and bring him delight and satisfaction.
That then is what success means. In some cases there would be visible signs, even things that could be counted like converts and collections. In other cases there would be spiritual growth that cannot so easily be measured but which would have various visible signs; and as for God's pleasure in his church, that is beyond measurement. So how do we achieve such success?
LOOKING FOR SUCCESS
Let me first deal with one danger. The danger is that of looking for success, even for signs of God's favour, and so being no different from worldly people who look for reward. Somebody once tried to sum up what Jesus says about divine rewards in the paradoxical statement: 'Jesus promises reward to those who are faithful without looking for a reward'. We are not in the business of looking for success and reward for what we do for the Lord. His service is its own reward; For Paul, living and serving Christ was reward in itself; he looked for nothing more than to know Christ more and more. So there is a reward, but you lose it by looking for it. There may be success, but perhaps you don't get it by trying to be successful.
Second, let me mention the thing that makes success so elusive. Essentially what we are looking for and hoping to achieve is victory over sin and the devil. We want to enter more and more into the victory which Christ has won and to see it spread. To use a famous picture: the victory has been won and the enemy has been scattered, but we still have to round up the fleeing soldiers who still have some fight left in them and capture them so that the victory that has been won becomes a reality everywhere. Sometimes the opposition may be so great that we must wonder whether the victory really has been won. And the experience of Christians at different times and places makes us wonder what is happening. During the first three hundred years or so the Christian church grew from a handful of people in Palestine to become the accepted religion of the western world. During the present century, the church has grown in some parts of the world in phenomenal ways, notably in South America, in Africa and in some parts of Asia. But there have been centuries of weak or declining Christianity; in general the church has declined in western Europe especially in the last two centuries, and at the same time we have seen the phenomenal growth of other religions or of atheism, whether Islam or Communism. There are areas where once the church was strong where now it scarcely exists. What sort of explanation can we offer for these contradictory stories of advance and decline? Why is it that some missionaries, faithful people, toil and see converts, while others, equally faithful, have little or nothing to show for their labours? And why do some congregations respond to faithful ministry and develop spiritually while others are hard and resistant to the influence of the Holy Spirit?
THE QUESTION OF REVIVAL
Third, there is also the puzzling happening that is known as revival. There have been occasions when the church has known usually short and localised periods of spiritual intensity when people have been converted in extraordinary numbers and ways and when believers have experienced dramatic times of spiritual renewal. There is no way of explaining how and why these events have taken place. It is commonly said that they are in response to prayer, but it is not clear why some prayers for revival have been answered with revival and others have apparently not been answered. There have been attempts to study history and to see if there are 'conditions' to be fulfilled for revival, but it seems to remain something that is in the mysterious control of God. It cannot be commanded or worked for.
TWO TYPES OF SUCCESS?
So what are we to do? It is clear that there is no recipe or program which, if we follow it exactly, will lead to success. I think that there are probably two types of success. There is, first, the situation in which the congregation itself is faithful to the Lord's commands and it earns his commendation. It is sometimes said that all we have to do is to be faithful, whether or not we are successful. I'm not sure that that is the whole of the truth, but it is partly true. Then, second, there is the situation in which the congregation does make inroads into the enemy territory and records its successes, and how effective we are in that area may well depend upon the strength of the opposition which is very varied.
With all these preliminaries behind us, we are now ready to look next time at what Luke has to say to us.