Acts 2:42-47 gives as a window into the early days of the Church, after Jesus’s ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The passage clearly shows five movements and behaviors that helped the followers of Jesus add members to their number every day. Those five marks remain incredibly relevant for us, and I want to challenge us at Saint Dunstan’s to apply them every day as we interact with God, each other, and new comers.
A Church with a Rich Life in Community: The passage starts with “Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Evangelism, through the preaching of the apostles and disciples, had done its job well and many had been baptized. Bringing people in was only half of the challenge, however. The next challenge was to provide an environment rich with learning (discipleship,) fellowship, prayer, and the breaking of bread (Both literally, as in Agape or communal meals, and liturgy, as in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist.) Like that first community, we too must provide a church-life that feeds our souls and enriches our lives, through prayer, fellowship, and learning. We must celebrate the sacraments and have fun together at coffee hours, banquets, concerts, and various celebrations. Faith is better lived and easier to manage when we have a Spirit-filled and loving community.
A Far Reaching Church: The passage continues, “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” The members of the church, especially its leaders, loved and cared for their own parishioners and for the outsiders who were showing an interest of the church. This care and concern was often manifested in prayer for those in need. Through that prayer, many were experiencing physical and spiritual healing, a deep sense of forgiveness, incredible divine love and acceptance, and conversion. A healthy church is a praying church and a power-filled church. We often become unnecessarily weary and cautious about asking for miracles, praying for healing, and imposing hands on others. These are all marks of a church where the Holy Spirit is taken seriously and where the faithful still believe in God’s ability to break into our lives and change us from within. We become religious practitioners of rites and rituals, rather than people in love with Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Christ, and open to the gifts God gives us through the Holy Spirit. The early church teaches us to be more open to God’s Spirit and to open our selves to the wonders the Spirit does through us.
A Generous Church: The passage continues, “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.” Many lived in community, but many lived in their own homes. What’s important is that this church cared for those in need. They generously contributed to the ministry of the church by providing the resources necessary to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the infirm, attend to the widows and orphans, and welcome the stranger. An “alive church” is a church that is constantly thinking about and doing something for those in need. The moment churches become insular, self-preoccupied, and separated from the real needs of their community those churches begin to die out. People want to help and churches must give them opportunities to minister and feel included in the work of the Gospel. My goal for Saint Dunstan’s is to have a ministry for anyone who wants one. I pray that you will consider joining one of our existing ministries, or that you might have ideas for new ministries you want to lead. When you place your gifts at the service of others, soon you find your life enriched, and you begin to feel more gratitude for the blessings you have in your life. Churches that have a deep concern for the poor are churches that embody Christ’s love for the world.
A Praying and Evangelizing Church: The passage goes on to say, “Day by day, they spent much time together in the temple.” The purpose for their daily visits to the temple was to pray and to befriend others who might be interested in joining them. Both prayer and evangelism were at the heart of these Temple visits, and we know of several successful sermons at the temple that added great numbers to the church. Churches that grow show members who love the church and who become involved during the week. Many of us “do Church” on Sunday mornings, but there are others who connect deeply during the week. They attend discipleship programs, Bible studies, and various ministries. They volunteer to help around the office, clean our kitchen, replant our gardens, wind-blow our parking lots, etc. These daily “Temple Visits” feed them spiritually and make them feel more connected to this amazing place. In terms of evangelism, the early church never stopped preaching the Gospel of Jesus and welcoming newcomers to their number. This is best done on a one-to-one basis, and with the people you already know. From here you move to the people you meet in various social environments. Churches grow because their members want them to grow. It is my fervent prayer that members of Saint Dunstan’s will invite friends and acquaintances to join us. National statistics show that 3 of every 5 people who visit churches come because they were invited by a friend. 4 out of every 5 return a second time because of the hospitality and love they received from members when they visited the first time. We would love to get to know your friends and acquaintances. And we would love to add them to the family.
A Hospitable Church: The passage tells us, “They broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” Not only did the church celebrate the Agape meal often, but they invited each other for various meals at their homes. They opened their hearts and their homes to each other and to others who were joining the church daily. This type of hospitality has biblical roots and is one of the best ways to grow churches. There are many people in our communities who live in isolation from god and others. Any church that offers opportunities for connection, and who welcome newcomers to join peer groups, will attract new members. Hospitality also includes the welcoming of newcomers at Sunday Church. We can’t underestimate the importance of a friendly greeting, an introduction, a shaking of hands, and an invitation to coffee hour. Our behavior can attract others in the same way that the behavior of the early church attracted others. We hear that “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Church growth is up to all of us!
I pray we will continue to show these five marks of a healthy church and that we will one day become the most welcoming, loving, and hospitable church we can be.