They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
A wise man once taught me; "this passage in Acts is descriptive, not prescriptive". In other words it is simply describing how the early church behaved. It does not necessarily imply that this is exactly how Christians, everywhere, at all times, should run church. Yes there have been many movements that have tried, with varying success, to reproduce the dynamics described above. I am not criticizing attempts at copying this described community. It is certainly a beautiful and blessed early church community.
Are modern church gatherings less beautiful, less loving, less sharing, less devoted?
How long did this early pattern of church behaviour last? Why did it change? Is this the “secret” to “successful” church growth?
What motivates us and why, regarding church growth?
I am not going to answer all these questions.
I will point out that although this passage of Acts is truly a wonderful picture of Christians living out their faith, even within the pages of the New Testament, which was fully written within the lifetimes of those early Christians, their are many, many passages of exhortation and correction. The one that comes quickest to mind is Paul's chastisement of the Corinthian church for the way in which they shared the Lords Supper. (1Corinthians 11)
And even in the very next chapter of Acts, a husband and wife, members of the early church, die prematurely under God’s judgement when they half-give money they received from selling goods, somehow attempting to deceive the Holy Spirit. A shocking event for those of us that are honest about our own misguided/divided motives.
So the early church also struggled.
But I don’t want to concentrate on the negatives.
Looking at the passage above, certain words stand out.
“They devoted themselves”
Over the years, I have missed the beauty of this word, “devotion”.
Why is it that we can make such a word sound like hard work?
My answer is that today, our attitude of working hard at, for example, a menial task, for years on end, with a view to a goal or reward at the end, is our interpretation of devotion.
Think of the many hours of training of an athlete, or hours of voice or instrument practice for a performer, or simply those hard workers that turn up day by day at their jobs which involve physical or mental strain, slowly saving money or paying off a mortgage. This is a form of devotion. An application to a means for an end.
But this is not the devotion described above in the early church.
The early Church, did not devote themselves to prayer and fellowship and listening to long sermons, and having communion, so that their church would grow and they would be the pride of Jerusalem, with stadium meetings spreading across the world…
What we see here is more of the devotion of a mother to a newborn child, or a love struck couple for each other, or even the devotion of a diehard music fan, who lines up on a sidewalk on a cold winters evening to wait endlessly for a chance to buy a ticket to see their idol.
This type of devotion does not feel like hard work, rather the opposite. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it would be impossible for these original believers not to pursue the tasks involved in their devotion, and that they received great joy simply in the process of practicing their devotion.
I believe it was this type of devotion, deep, heartfelt joyful devotion, that compelled these early Christians to live as described above, devoted to the Apostles teaching, prayer, breaking the bread and fellowship. In other words, It wasn’t forced, it came naturally.
Because Jesus, not only was the most amazing, powerful and morally perfect teacher of all things good and right, he had actually risen from death. Not only had he risen from death and by so doing declared and proved that he is truly the Christ, The Messiah, God’s chosen one to redeem the world and rule it. Not only had he risen from the dead, but he had appeared to the disciples. And out of all of this there was now true forgiveness of sins. All early believers cherished an understanding that they were now at peace with God, despite their past, their failing, their broken relationships, their greed and selfishness. All was forgiven in a powerful and permanent way, and the forgiver was alive, immortal, resurrected and all powerful with a guaranteed promise to appear again and to bring all of creation to it’s beautiful goal.
Because they cherished this understanding in their joyful hearts, they practiced the logical behaviour evoked by this understanding.
Devotion to hearing from the chosen eyewitnesses of Jesus, devotion to doing what Jesus told us to do to remember him, devotion to meeting with those we now love as brothers and sisters, and presenting our needs and expressing our gratitude to and through the one we know is alive powerfully at God’s right hand, the King of kings and Lord of Lords, our Lord and God, Jesus Christ.
And what of church growth?
Verse 47 says it clearly; their program of strict daily prayer, fellowship and sermons led to exponential consumer interest…
God added to their number. God is the one who makes things happen, and we recognize and rejoice at His work in our lives.