What should a church look like? What should the Church look like? There are no shortage of answers. Some might appeal to tradition, to the tradition of our particular church over the past 130 years, or the traditions of Baptists over the past 400 or so years, or of Protestants or beyond. Some might appeal to the experts, whether lecturers, leaders, or writers. Some might appeal to documents, such as the church constitution. While each of the above can be of benefit, there is one book we we really ought to have front and centre. Yes, the Bible. And of all the books that make up the Bible there is one that jumps to the front and centre in giving a description of what the Church looks like: Acts.
The book of Acts chronicles the highlights of Christianity up until the apostle Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. There is no good reason to not trust the earliest records which tell us that Acts was written by Luke, the same author of the Gospel of Luke. Indeed the two books belong together as a two volume work. This means Acts was written by someone who was around during those days and who was a companion to the apostle Paul. Luke was also an eyewitness himself to some of the events he narrates as we see implied in the use of “we” instead of “they” in some places. We who are Christians will appeal to the inspiration of the Scriptures, but even the non-believer should take a moment to consider that Luke is a reliable historian.
So what does the Church look like in Acts? With all that was going on what does Luke consider important enough to record for us to see? Even more importantly, reminding ourselves of the inspiration of scripture, what does God want us to see?
First let us begin with what we do not see. We do not see any mention of church constitutions, policy manuals, or even mission and vision statements. We do not see a focus on programs and programming whether for men, women, seniors, or children, or any other people group. We do not see a dress code. We do not see building programs. While we do see some mention of leaders and leadership roles, there is neither a well spelled out hierarchy nor as complete a listing of job descriptions as we might like.
So what do we see?
We see a church on fire. And by the reference to fire, I mean we see a people connected and filled with the Holy Spirit:
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-4)
We often think of the full title of Acts as being “The Acts of the Apostles.” It would seem that in the earliest of days Luke’s book was simply known as “Acts.” It has often been said that it ought to be known as “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” for when you read through you are constantly hearing about God’s Holy Spirit involved in everything that is going on. We see the Holy Spirit guiding individuals, we see the Holy Spirit guiding the leaders collectively in church meetings: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” (Acts 15:28) We see the Holy Spirit guiding the theology, direction and future of the Christian movement: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) The Church in the earliest days was a people on fire with the Holy Spirit’s presence, leadership, and activity.
After visiting our home one day my Mum and Dad drove down the hill on which we live. On stopping at the Stop sign at the bottom my Dad hit the gas pedal to get going again. The engine revved up but the car refused to move. My Dad hit the gas harder, the engine revved higher, but the car still sat motionless. After some time of revving up my Dad finally figured out the problem. The car was in neutral the whole time and Mum and Dad had simply rolled down the hill to the Stop sign thanks to gravity. This reminds me of an illustration I once heard, I forget from whom, of a church being like a car and the Holy Spirit being like the fuel or even the engine. Back in the 1950s when church and churchgoing was such a big part of the culture of Canada, you could build a “successful” church as long as you had a half decent public speaker along with half decent music. You didn’t need the Holy Spirit to operate like a church. I heard this metaphor in the 1990s when better preaching and better music could still be a big draw (especially drawing people from other churches!). But now it is 2016 and we are at a Stop sign. We are not getting anywhere without God’s Holy Spirit.
There is much more for us to notice about the Church in Acts. We see a church soaking wet. And by soaking wet, I mean we see people responding to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and professing their faith through baptism. It was not a social or service club, but a transformed people. We see a church under pressure. Though Luke tell us about many successes, it was not always smooth sailing and persecution was almost normal. We see a church that looks like the kind of crowd Jesus would welcome. The history of the church is the history of sinners and sceptics becoming saints. We see a church that looks like Jesus. To drive that point home the last words of the first martyr will sound familiar:
59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.. (Acts 7:59-60)
We see the earliest of Christians modeling their lives, not on religious duties or traditions, but on Jesus Christ.
So what should a church look like today? As the history of the Church unfolds in the Book of Acts, the focus is never on the organizations, the systems, the buildings, the hierarchies, or the programs. Instead the focus is on a God-filled people.
We can tend to hold as our primary focus things that I don’t think God is very passionate about. The church looks like a people passionate about what God is passionate about. So what is God passionate about? According to Acts: People. God is passionate about inviting people into His kingdom. God is passionate about bringing about that day spoken of in Revelation 21:3 which does not say
See, the church with the biggest steeple, the largest attendance, the most efficient budget, the most money raised, the sweetest sounding choir, the best dressed pastor, the least preachy preacher or the most preachy preacher depending on your preference, the most comprehensive constitution, or the most succinct mission statement.
Rather it says:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
God is passionate about bringing about that day. As His Church does that passion drive everything we do? Or, on the other hand, is that passion supplanted by everything else we do?
(All scripture references are from the NRSV)