How Do You Recognize a Good Church?

A sermon preached at First Baptist Church based on Acts 4:32-35.

Introduction

Sometimes we have preconceived ideas about what something looks like. I remember the first time I met Mike Allen, the former padre in Meaford. He had read Unmasking the Pagan Christ before we met. The first thing he said to me was that he thought I was going to be a lot older. Interestingly, I met the author of a book I had read and I thought he was a really young and yet when I met him he was far older than I expected. Some people dress poor even though they are rich. Some people dress rich even though they are poor. Some people purchase a house that looks beautiful and then find out it was built very poorly. How many people felt confident in the car they were buying and later found out that it was a lemon? Unfortunately, I have also heard of this with relationships as well. Two people are madly in love and soon as the wedding ceremony is over, one of the spouses has a complete personality change. I see this difficulty in understanding very much with Logan. They see Logan playing with a sock, moaning or scripting movie lines and they assume he is very low functioning. The truth is that Logan can speak as well as you or me. He chooses not to but he can. He reads and he is very good at it. He is extremely good with computers. He has tremendous problem solving skills as anyone who has tried to prevent him from running off has found. But no one would know that just by meeting him. Why do I talk about all this?

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Let us assume that we want to be able to recognize a good church when we see one. If we don’t, we will never know if change or lack of change is good or bad. You need a target to aim at. So what is a good church? A large building that is both worshipful and practical. A professional worship team with all the latest songs. A large pastoral staff covering every area of ministry. Every conceivable outreach and program that covers every generation. When we see those kinds of churches, we think that is a successful church. But are we seeing clearly? It may surprise you that the early church did not look anything like that. Let us take a look.

Acts

Luke gives us one of a number of descriptions of the early church. What we find is something we do not expect from the modern church. The beginning is unity. They were one heart and soul. This does not mean that they were clones. It means that they were so committed to serving Jesus that their differences came under the Lordship of Christ. Now it is easy to say that a church is united, but it would be nice to see this in practice. We do. We are told that that they kept all their possessions in common so that no one went without. We want to gloss over this for two reasons. One is that it sounds too communist and the second is that we do not want to lose our stuff. Our first instinct is to prove why we do not need to do this today. Our first instinct should be finding out what this means in our context. What I want you to see is that this mutual support was not thing imposed on the church, it was something they chose to do. We are also told that the apostle witnessed powerfully of the resurrection. This may surprise some people. We would expect them to witness to the cross. After all, the symbol of Christianity is the cross and not the empty tomb. If you were to ask the average Christian the basics of the Gospel, they would probably say something like, “If you believe Jesus died for you on the cross, you can go to heaven.” This is not just on a popular level. Much of the discussion of theologians is about what happened at the cross. There are various theories of atonement and these are debated endlessly. For a long time I thought that the resurrection of Jesus was something tacked on so that Easter wouldn’t be so depressing. There are even some so-called Christians that believe in the cross but not in the resurrection. I do not mean to sound harsh but Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 said that if Jesus was not raised then our faith is meaningless.

So why is the resurrection important? It is important for how we understand Jesus and how we understand ourselves. First Jesus. If you go through Acts and Paul’s letters, you will find that Paul puts far more emphasis on the resurrection than the cross. The reason for this was that thousands of people at that time were being crucified. No one thought they were anything special. They were more to be pitied than to be worshipped. It happened all the time and it was humiliating. But the resurrection was different. This did not happen everyday. No one looked at an empty tomb and thought, oh look another resurrection. It is true that Jesus raised others, but with Jesus there was no healer involved. It was just God. It was the resurrection that confirmed all that went before it. How do we know Jesus was the Son of God? Jesus was raised and God would not have raised him if he was lying. How do we know the cross was anything other than a pointless death? Jesus was raised, showing that his death actually meant something. The resurrection is our proof that Christianity is true. The resurrection is also our pattern of Christian life. Resurrection is life from death, light from darkness, hope from despair. The resurrection is the reason we believe that there is something great in our future no matter what difficulties we might face. This was the standard set by the early church: a healthy fellowship and a solid theological foundation.

The Church Today

As much as I love studying the Bible, I also love the church today. Having seen the standard set in Acts, how do we recognize a good church? From what I have seen in studying churches, the goal is often just one of the two standards set in Acts. They either want to be a healthy fellowship or theologically orthodox. Yet we have seen that the early church, with none of the resources we have, was able to achieve both. Let us start with fellowship. This is an interesting concept. People assume that the largest churches are the best and yet it is difficult to experience true fellowship there. Yes small groups and Bible studies help but it is not the same. This is actually an area that smaller churches have an advantage. But what is this fellowship? It is not just shaking hands on a Sunday morning. It is about sharing the good and the bad. It is about knowing what is happening in each other’s lives and being ready to help in the necessary way. It is about prayer, emotional support and providing physical needs. It could be taking someone out for coffee. It could be a quick phone call to see how they are doing. It could be contacting someone who has not been at church in a while. I still get upset when I think about my mom’s funeral and noticing that no one came from her church. That is wrong. I think about the time a few years ago when our family was having a rough time and people from here brought me the kids meals. The same thing happened last year in Cambridge when I was sick. I understand that seems like a high standard it seems impossible to achieve that in once step. So don’t. Do it in a hundred steps.

What about our theological foundation? It is not enough to be a group of friendly people. A service club can do that. We have something deeper that binds us than just liking one another. This is our theological foundation. That sounds very complicated so lets do what the early Christians did and focus on the resurrection. What does it mean if we really believe in the resurrection of Jesus? First it means that we believe in a supernatural world. A resurrection does not happen by itself. This means we can pray and expect something to happen. A resurrection means that we believe that Jesus is the Son of God. God would not have raised a liar. If Jesus is the Son of God, then Christianity is not just one among many religions. Jesus is the only way, no matter how politically incorrect it may be. Believing in the resurrection means that something actually happened on the cross. Not just the death of an innocent man but a payment that results in God’s forgiveness of all of our sins. And if that is true, we are relieved of the burden of condemnation so that we can live with all joy. If the resurrection is true, Jesus will share that resurrection with us and when he returns, we will get a body just like his. That is good news! This means that all that suffering that we are going through right now will come to an end.

Conclusion

So how do we recognize a good church? Well it certainly is not by modern standards of success. It is not about how big, how rich or how popular a church is. The early church had none of those things. The early church had two standards of success. One was being united in love. They were one church under Christ, loving one another, Not just an emotion, this love meant active involvement in caring for one another. The second standard was that of witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without the resurrection of Jesus we are just another religion. With the resurrection of Jesus, Christianity is the most radical movement ever. How well is this church doing? Don’t look at the other churches in town. Don’t look at the preachers and congregations on television. Look to the church in Acts and set your goals high.

 

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