How to be a successful church - 2/2
Acts 6:7 So the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly.
So at last to the passage. I think that this could be taken as the story of a church which was following out the priorities and which saw continuing growth. What then did they do?
COPING WITH CHANGE
The situation was one of growth in the work, and the result was that there was too much for the leaders to do. They had several leaders, even though there seems to have been one, namely Peter, who was a sort of senior pastor, but at this point the twelve apostles are in effect the elders of the church and they act as a body. Since there is now too much work for them to do, they do the practical thing, which is to increase the number of leaders or workers. There are three things I need to say about this.
First, the church has to adapt and change to meet new situations. What was effective at one time is not a pattern for all time. There has to be a willingness to do things differently, and in this case it was a fairly drastic change in the management of the church which led to the number of leaders being increased by just over half.
Second, so far as we can tell the twelve apostles determined what to do by considering the situation and then deciding what had to be done to meet it. They used their intelligence and common sense. They saw the need that had arisen, and they took appropriate measures. Now that may sound obvious enough. If there is a burst pipe in the church kitchen, you don't hold a prayer meeting and seek guidance from God as to what to do; you call the plumber. But sometimes we sit and wait for God to tell us about more serious things, like what to do about the new block of flats next door to the church or the problems of teenagers roaming the streets, instead of using the minds that God has given us to look at the possible courses of action.
Third, on this occasion the problem was due to growth. Some of our problems are due to decline, and it is equally the case that we need to change to meet the situation. For example, it is foolish for a congregation to use an excessively large building with all its costs and with all the wrong psychological effects on the congregation, when a smaller one would be more effective.
THE NEED FOR GOOD LEADERS
The worst thing that can happen to a congregation is to have ineffective or unspiritual leaders. The Jerusalem church chose to have leaders who were both effective and spiritual. They looked for seven men who were full of the Holy Spirit and faith and also full of wisdom. It is no use choosing as your church treasurer somebody who cannot add and subtract, however spiritual they may be. It is equally foolish to choose somebody who is an expert accountant but knows little of spiritual things. There has to be attention to both requirements.
Moreover, we have to recognise that people do vary in their practical abilities and in the degree to which they have advanced in spirituality. Not everybody is spiritually fit to be a leader, and we maybe ought to think much more carefully about the spiritual qualifications of those whom we call to lead.
The whole congregation was involved in the choice of its leaders. They made the choice and the apostles accepted it. In other words, the congregation themselves had the spiritual insight and the practical sense to recognise who were the people best suited to the task. But you will note that the proceedings were characterised by prayer for those who were appointed, and the apostles laid their hands on them as an outward sign that they were giving them authority and praying for the Holy Spirit to equip them for their task. Thus the appointment was a spiritual one.
MAINTAINING THE PRIORITIES
Observe what the appointment was for. Among the church's priorities were teaching and practical sharing of goods. The apostles were finding that they could not deal with both tasks. So they appointed the Seven to deal with the latter task. This teaches us that they were not prepared to abandon one task in the interests of the other. Both activities had to be prosecuted. There must be no neglect of any of the church's priorities. They must all be carried on if the church is to be balanced and complete in its work and witness.
It is not surprising, then, that both activities are referred to as 'ministry', the ministry of the Word and the ministry of tables. One is not more spiritual than the other. Both are services carried out in obedience to God and at his command for the benefit of other people.
Originally the apostles carried out both of these activities; there was no necessary separation in their ministry between the two different kinds of task. And then when the Seven are appointed, we straightaway hear how two of them in particular, Stephen and Philip, distinguished themselves by their ministry of the Word, by preaching and evangelising in innovative ways. There was no monopoly on teaching by the Twelve or on tables by the Seven. They fitted together harmoniously because they were both priorities that God had laid upon his church.
So the point I find myself drawing here is that the church acted as it did so that all its priorities would get proper attention. In all this it was dependent upon God who bestowed his Spirit upon the Seven and thereby confirmed their appointment.
It was presumably as a result of this that the Word of God spread and the number of disciples increased. There was evangelism and it was effective. As I have said, it may not always be so; the soil may be hard, as it was when Paul was in Athens and there were scarcely any converts compared with the cities from which he had just come and to which he was just going. And I have to allow that sometimes there may be successful evangelism despite the sinfulness and failures of the church: even the worst of the TV evangelists have led some people to the Lord. But in the long run, their unsavoury reputations may have done the church more harm by turning other people away from the gospel. Despite appearances to the contrary, I am sure that the church will be successful if, and only if, its leaders are the right kind of people, carrying out God's priorities for the church.
I hope that from this brief exposition you have got the three essential points, that the church will be successful in God's sight only if it is prepared to change, if it appoints good leaders, and if it sticks to all the priorities. I am sure there is more to be said, because I began by raising more questions than I have even tried to answer, but it is probably wise to direct our attention to these major issues; once we get them right, we can proceed to the others. For the moment, let me put before us all this vision of a church which was what a church ought to be, and challenge ourselves in the name of the Lord to be a church like that.