Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35
Where’s the one place you can completely be yourself – without any masks or pretensions – without worrying what anybody thinks about you? For most people it isn’t church. In fact, for most people, the one place they put on their most artificial mask and worry more about what others think is church.
And with good reason. I know that many churches are critical and judgmental – they are impersonal and uncaring. I’ve been to some churches where no one dared admit sin because they would be the topic of discussion at water coolers around town the next week if they did. So churches don’t always have the best reputation of being a safe, caring, accepting place. But that’s not the way God intended it. When God imagined the church – when Jesus established the church – it was a family – a family where you were loved and cared for and accepted for you are. And if the church isn’t that, it isn’t the church.
Let’s look at two very familiar passages that talk about the very beginning of the church. The Holy Spirit has come, Peter has preached his sermon on the day of Pentecost, three thousand have been baptized and now what? Luke writes:
Acts 2:42-47 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he 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 sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
4:32-35 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
“Together…have all things in common.” That’s family language. This isn’t an institution with by-laws – this is a family with a heart for each other. 3000 strangers from everywhere in the known world, suddenly thrown together and molded together in one enormous family. Hard to imagine the logistics of it all – 3000 people – where did they stay, where did they meet, how did they provide food for that many? But what we do know is that a bond was formed, and an attitude was established that whatever they faced, they faced it together because they were family.
There is a word in those passages that started ringing in my ears, and I realized it was echoing from nearly every other book in the NT. I started looking around to see if I could find a common thread or a pattern. It is the word, “together” and I found it connected to nearly everything the church is and does – “together” –come, meet, eat, yoked, joined, built, heirs, members, refreshed, share, held, bound, live, caught up, work, chosen – 45 times the NT writers describe something about how the church functions – it is “together.”
And the church’s focus? Another common phrase in the NT – “One another” – devoted to, honor, live in harmony with, love, accept, instruct, greet, agree, serve, bear with, forgive, kind and compassionate to, speak to, submit to, admonish, encourage, build up.
Somebody recently asked me what the big deal was about the church. Can’t you just believe in God and live a good life and that be enough? And the answer literally jumps out of the pages of the NT – No! Your relationship with God may be personal, but God never intended it to be private. When we become a child of God, we automatically and simultaneously become a member of his family, and we are connected to every other member of the family and belong to each other. Our lives are intertwined and bound up together in a common goal, a common life, a common Lord, a common destiny.
Paul says it is like a body, where every member of the body works together and functions together and every part is dependent on every other part. And when Paul uses the imagery of the body, he paints a picture for us: Romans 12:4-5 – “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Listen to how Peterson’s Message words it – “Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we?”
You remember the song that became so familiar a few years ago as it introduced a popular TV show:
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
and they’re always glad you came
You want to be where you can see
Our troubles are all the same
You want to be where everybody knows your name
What a shame it was written about a bar. It should have been written about a church. Because that’s what God wants the church to be – a place where you’re known and loved – where you share your troubles and nobody’s judgmental – where everybody’s glad you came, and everybody knows your name.
People aren’t just looking for a place to go to church, they’re looking for a family where they can belong.
Church ought not to be a puzzle you have to figure out, or an unfamiliar place where you have to be cautious about being yourself. When you step into this building, you ought to be stepping into the one place where you know you will be accepted for who you are and loved unconditionally.
Our kids should be able to run up and down these halls and play in this building like they own the place. We want church to be a place where our kids beg to come because this is where they come to be with their friends and enjoy learning about God.
We want every one of you to feel like you have a vested interest in the life of this church because this is such an important part of your life. We want every visitor who steps through our doors to feel like they are finally coming home, because they are welcomed so warmly and valued so completely they hunger for more.
Does that describe church for you? Some of you are thinking, “Yeah, that’s what church is for me.” Others are thinking, “Yeah, right.” And still others of you are thinking, “I wish.”
What makes the difference? How do people have such different experiences? Several years ago when Flavil Yeakley was doing a study of why some people stay in the church and some people leave, he found some fascinating common denominators that say a lot about what connects us.
The first factor he found was that growing churches tend to have preaching and an environment that is positive and non-manipulative. And that made me think of different kinds of families. Families that are filled with negative criticism, where children are motivated by guilt and shame and made to obey by force, tend to be pretty dysfunctional. But families that are positive and nurturing, where everyone sees themselves as a part of the team and are motivated by love and example, tend to be healthy and secure.
And I see some pretty powerful parallels with churches. If we are a family, then we need to provide a positive, encouraging environment where people can grow in Christ. The worship and preaching needs to be inviting and uplifting and Bible centered. When we come together, we come to be built up, not torn down. Does that mean sin can’t be addressed and ungodly thinking and behavior can’t be challenged? Not at all – that’s not loving and healthy. But there is a difference (and I think we know when we hear it) between challenging sin and condemning sinners. One gives hope, the other hopelessness.
It’s like caring for a yard or a garden. You plant the seed, you water, you fertilize. But occasionally you have to pull some weeds out, occasionally you have to prune the plants back to make them grow stronger and produce more fruit.
Church needs to be a place where we are filled with hope and encouraged to live our faith with joy – a place where we can grow.
Secondly, Yeakley found that people get connected and stay connected when they develop friendships in a church. And you’re thinking, “Well, duh!” But I’ve seen so many people come and go, who came and went, because either a) they came hoping to find the friendships that they were looking for, but never found them, or b) they came thinking of church as a spiritual pit stop which required no personal interaction with people.
And either can be devastating – when you come looking and don’t find it, or you come not realizing how important it is and avoiding it. I’ve said it many times – people don’t come looking for a friendly church, they come looking for friends.
But when you come late, leave early, don’t get involved in a Bible class, don’t participate in the fellowship opportunities, don’t do anything but come, to sit, to listen, to leave, you’ve robbed yourself of one of God’s richest blessings – a family. Imagine a member of your family closing themselves off in their room, watching TV, playing video games, talking on the telephone, leaving the room only to run down at meal time, wolf down a plate of food and then rush back to the privacy of their room. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be, and some Christians need to realize that’s not the way Christians are supposed to live – we cannot isolate ourselves from the family of God and live healthy Christian lives – we need each other. And that’s more than the few brief minutes we have here in the assembly. If all you get is one hour a week, filled with superficial conversation, you will grow spiritually anemic and malnourished. We spend time during the week with each other, we talk to each other and encourage each other – and then we bring those relationships with us to the assembly.
The passage in Heb. 10:25 where the writer says, “don’t forsake the assembly” isn’t a club to beat people into going to church. Listen to the context: vs. 24-25 “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” What he is saying is, this is where we get our encouragement and strength for the week. We spend time all week long thinking about each other and how to spur each other on to love and good deeds and then we get together and it is a spiritual feast of fellowship. We can’t live without it.
A third thing that Yeakley found was that the person who connects is one who finds a place of service in the church – they get involved in the life of the family. You got to have a place where you feel like you belong and make a difference. Just like a family – we all have responsibilities and chores. In the church you need to know you’re needed. And the quicker we connect people with a job to do, a ministry to call their own – the more a part of the family they will feel.
And that’s why the hardest part of being a deacon isn’t doing the work, it’s getting people to help you do the work. Delegating work isn’t shirking responsibility – it is your responsibility. In Ephesians 4:11-12, Paul says that the work of leadership in the church is to “equip God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…” People need a place to practice taking up Jesus’ basin and towel and serving others. We need to give them a place to do it.
You see, families don’t just happen – they take a lot of intentionality and work. You don’t just tag the same last name on a bunch of people and call it a family. You spend time with each other and do things together and invest yourself in each other. You make it a priority, and sacrifice some other things because it’s more important.
And the thing about a family is that it sticks together because we need each other. We enjoy being together, but even when there are tough times we hang in there with each other because we’re committed to being a family.
So, what does it take to be the family of God? What is the glue that holds us together? Well, obviously the blood of Jesus Christ is the bond, and the Holy Spirit unites us and empowers us. But even then, some find their place in the family and feel the closeness I’ve been talking about, while others float in and out of the assembly without seeming to have any kind of connection. What is the difference?
Three simple things seem to make the difference in whether people come and stay, or come and go. A positive environment where they can grow, friends with whom they can connect, and a job where they make a difference. God calls that his family.