Imagine we are all going to be involved in a group project to build a car. We all get together and different jobs are assigned to acquire a piece of a car and bring it back to the group to assemble together. Simple enough? The roles are delegated. Soon, one person comes back saying, “I have good news. I’ve secured my piece for the car. A wonderful set of magnificent wings.” All agree the wings are wonderful – but not quite what they had in mind! Time passes, another person comes back and says, “I’ve secured a piece for the car. It’s going to be the best bit – a top of the range sail.” Again, it is wonderful but not what was wanted. As we all know, cars don’t have wings or sails. Before getting started on the project, the people should have got together to ask, ‘What is a car? How are we going to build it? Unless we establish that we won’t get very far. We need unity and clarity. It’s a simple example. The question this morning is a little bit different, more important. What is a church?
Over the years both Christians and non-Christians have needed a lot more unity and clarity when it comes to answering ‘What is a church?’ Do we have unity and clarity on this point? It is helpful to consider what a church is not. For some, church is a building, used for an hour on Sunday then left for the rest of the week. That is not the whole picture. It is a traditional picture given by some older people but it does not give the complete story. There is a younger mistake, the complete opposite of the traditional view. It is that the church is believers, no more, no less. Is that it? You get together with other believers in a coffee shop and that is church? Surfing believers gather together, then you get church on the waves? Matthew records, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them,” (Matthew 18:20). But that’s not all a church is. Let’s move from the negative to the positive and look at church characteristics.
The over-arching principles of what church is and what activities it is about:
Calvin speaks of the invisible and visible church. The invisible church is all generations, of all times, come together. We see a snapshot of this in Revelation. The visible church is visible in local collections of believers that practice certain things. What does the church do? Repent. Healthy churches hate sin, their own personal sin. That’s the life-cycle of a Christian – repentance, repentance, repentance! Is there a sin we are hating in our lives? The church is to be repentant. But is also to be baptised – full submission baptism, completely taken under water and raised. This is a visible sign, died to sin and raised to Christ. If you’re a Christian, have you been baptised? Are you a Jesus loving, born-again Christian? You need to be baptised in the name of the Lord It’s all about Him. You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is our security. The Holy Spirit seals us. Every Christian has the Holy Spirit; they are signed and sealed. And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,“ (Acts 2:38).
Who is this promise for? Everyone! “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself,” (Acts 2:39). Church groups can do very effective programmes – children’s work, work for senior citizens, but this is not the church. The church is multi-generational. Church programmes are not the church. Church is family and families are diverse. Are you building a church or church programmes? There is a difference.
“And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2: 40-41). I once went to a church where there was a gifted, intelligent, well-liked guy who was heavily involved in church. He was a holiday club leader, visited people in a pastoral role, involved in lots of activities – a deacon in everything but name. But he wasn’t a member of the church. Was he part of the church or not? For all intents and purposes yes, but actually no. Because when people get saved they join the church. Church membership tends to be unpopular these days.
What is a church? It is local, multi-generational, baptising and has members. It is all about Jesus Christ. The church is characterised by certain things. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” (Acts 2:42). They devoted themselves. Devoted is habitual. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the teaching of the scripture. Everything we do should be peppered with the Bible. We should be devoted to the Holy Bible, it is God’s word. The people of the early church devoted themselves to church fellowship. The local church knows each other and spends time with each other.
The church also devotes itself to the breaking of bread, the Lord’s Supper. Communion is central to everything we do. Why not have it every week, every Sunday? The Bible does not give us a template but ‘devoted’ implies constantly.
The teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers. Prayers make us a listening and speaking community to our heavenly Father. Your heavenly Father does indeed hear you.
“And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles,“ (Acts 2:43) This is another controversial point. I don’t know where you stand on Spiritual gifts but are we are expecting God to move? Are we prepared to see what He is doing? What is God going to do next? Is there expectancy?
“And all who believed were together and had all things in common,” (Acts 2:43). How is that worked out in practice? Do you have a statement of faith on your website? Do we declare what we believe so there is unity as a purpose within this? Our statement of faith provides clarity in a generation of confusion.
“And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need,“ (Acts 2:45). In the early church they gave as they could, sacrificially, for the church of God. Another mark of the church is giving.
Let’s encourage one another. Let’s all evaluate where we are in the light of scripture. By His strength and grace we can move forward.