If only we could return to the early church, then we’d have it made.
This statement, in one form or another, is one that I hear fairly regularly. The sentiment is nice, but it’s just not a notion that I can support.
This world doesn’t need the early church, it needs a modern church. The watching world today needs us to be more faithful in word and deed and more practical in our ministry.
The early church, despite what you may have been told to believe, didn’t have it all together; they weren’t perfect. They struggled with sin, just like our church does. They sometimes had bad theology, just like we do. And the early church still wondered what faithful and effective ministry looked like in a rapidly changing society, something that should sound familiar.
So the next time someone tells you about the need to be “just like the early church,” ask them: which one? The racist Galatian church? The sexually immoral Corinthian church? The unloving Ephesian church? Read the New Testament letters, the church struggles. The church, throughout history has always been a mash up of broken, struggling and sinful people.
So the beautiful thing is not that the church is perfect, but that God chooses to work in and through the church despite her imperfections.
This means that our desire should not be to return to the early, but to create markers about what an engaged, transformed and faithful church looks like. What did the early church do that made it successful, and how to we translate that in the contemporary American culture in which we find ourselves?
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and light hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
In this passage, Luke gives us the clues about the faithful church, regardless of time period.
Our devotion to three areas of faithfulness exemplified by the early church will propel us into a life of mission. In order to be a faithful church, a church that this community needs to experience and encounter the power of God’s Spirit and the love of the resurrected Jesus, we must be devoted to three things in a life of mission.
1. Apostles’ teaching
We first must see our commitment to correct teaching. The early church studied the apostles’ teaching, those that had been with Jesus. The listened to the stories, they heard of the miracles and they understood the Kingdom of God. The life of the early church was governed by how much it understood Jesus and strived to be like him.
Any faithful church must model this too. We have the stories and teachings of Jesus, the records of the miracles, and a chance to see and experience the Kingdom of God; yet far too often we neglect this. Many of us act like my friend in seminary who once quipped, “Yeah, I’m not sure about the last time I read my Bible, I always find Jesus in community.” Look, community is vitally important to a healthy church, but it can never come at the expense of diligent Bible study.
Listening once to a pastor, he compared Bible reading to the Israelites receiving manna: new food was required each day. He said, “Many of you wonder why you struggle each day and why that verse you found meaningful last week doesn’t seem as life-giving anymore. You need new manna for a new day. Bible reading is important not because it saves you, but because it provides you with daily spiritual food that nourishes your soul.”
Fellowship and the breaking of bread, for the early church, was much more than our modern idea of “going to church.” Indeed, such a concept for them would have been unthinkable. You don’t go to church, you are the church. Fellowship was an identity marker for them, a visible sign and reminder of the resurrection power of Jesus.
What about us? Here’s one key question I think we need to wrestle with: if we want our churches to grow, if we want to share our faith, if what we profess to believe is to be seen and experienced by real as others — how much time do we spend outside of Sunday morning seeing each other? How many of us are involved in a small group, prayer time, fellowship group, or voluntarily give up free time to spend it with other people? If we want to grow in our faith, and ultimately be able to share it with others, we must first live it out as a representative of God’s transformed community with other like-minded believers.
In that community of fellowship, the early church was devoted to the breaking of bread. It was communion, but it was much more than that. It was part of a larger meal, called the Agape Meal or Love Feast, where they gathered into each other’s homes to share a meal, hear the scriptures, celebrate Christ through the Eucharist, and commission each other to go and live faithfully.
Rich and poor shared a meal together. So did Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. They believed that the church brought all people together, despite what society dictated.
What about our churches? Are we willing to be characterized by who we are willing to eat with: the rejected, despited, outcasted or otherwise labeled peoples in our society?
Our churches must be dedicated to prayer. But unfortunately, I think we are too often intrigued by the idea of prayer, and not prayer itself. A serious question for us to consider: do we actually pray for the requests people share with us? Are we willing to be people who pray? It’s easy to say we like prayer, it’s much more difficult to be a people that are dedicated to prayer.
And it’s easy to offer a rather simplistic idea of how to do this. You’re convinced of my point, you know what you need to do: to study more to be more faithful in coming to church or praying and not making lame excuses. You’re convinced to actually pray for somebody instead of just saying, “I’ll pray for you.”And yet, if I offer you that conclusion, I think we have not only missed the point of this passage, but un-lovingly advanced a simplistic and individualistic version of the Gospel.
Acts 2:42-47 is not about you, it is about the church. This passage is a reminder of why we need each other. Some of us are better at Bible knowledge. Your church doesn’t need you to study the Bible more on your own, it needs you to teach us how to study the Bible together. Others are good at fellowship. Your church needs you to model how to create safe and welcoming environments that invite all people into the lordship of Jesus Christ. And there are those that have a real dedication to prayer. Every week they take notes during prayer time, and pour over it daily. You church needs you to teach them how to pray.
May we be people that seek to live on mission with God, but may we also realize that the platform is worthless without sturdy legs, without the sturdy and supportive leg of fervent study and an understanding of Scripture, without the sturdy and supportive leg of fellowship and hospitality, and without a sturdy and supportive leg to be a people dedicated in prayer.
Justin Hiebert is a Mennonite Brethren pastor in the Denver metro area. He studied Youth Ministry and Christian Leadership at Tabor College and completed his M.Div. at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He blogs at empoweringmissional.com, where this post, based on a sermon he gave, originally appeared.