Does anyone know what WWW stands for? [obvious answer] Not today it doesn't. It means something different, and these three W's are the key in the distinction between a successful church and a great church.
We all know what a successful church is. Lots of people. Big building. Plenty of parking. Family life center. Great worship band. Talented drama team. Thriving youth group. Tons of kids. Dynamic preacher. And last but not least, a championship caliber softball team. This is what you will find in a successful church—and there's nothing wrong with wanting any of these things—but there are two very important things to remember.
• These things do not, in and of themselves, make a church a great church.
• There are tens of thousands of great churches throughout the world that will never have most of the items I mentioned on the successful church list.
We have a tendency to equate successful churches with great churches, and that simply isn't the case. Having a lot of money, or a lot of people, or a good location, or a good marketing strategy is not going to make a church great. There are other elements involved. Three W's, to be exact. This is what we'll look at today. To the extent that we attend to these W's, we will attain greatness as a church.
This is week three of the series Vintage Church: As It Was In The Beginning. We're looking at the early church and asking ourselves, "What do we need to do to be more like them?" In week one we talked about the mindset of the early church. If we want to be like them we need to immerse ourselves in the Spirit of God, we need to make an effort to include everyone from all walks of life, and we need to make a habit of calling on the name of God, inviting him to move among us in his power and glory. In week two we looked at the message of the early church. If we want to be like them we need to talk about Jesus, we need to talk about salvation, and we need to talk about the promises of God. Now, here we are at week three; we will talk about the methods of the early church. If we're going to be like them, we need to establish three key priorities, and we need to stick to them like glue. What are these three areas of priority? They all start with a W. First of all, we need to be mindful of:
1. WHAT MATTERS
In verse 42 Luke defines the priorities of the early church. He tells us what really mattered to them. Listen.
(v. 42) And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Four items. Let's look at how these apply to our church today.
a. The Apostles' Teaching . Remember, they didn't have the New Testament yet—most of the books wouldn't be written for a number of years—but they did have the teaching of the Apostles. These were men who had spent years at the feet of Jesus, learning all that he had to teach them. The apostles' teaching was authoritative; it was the word of God for the men and women of the early church. Their teaching eventually found its way into the books of the New Testament, and this is our authority. We need to devote ourselves to the apostles' teaching—which is the Word of God. If we want to be a great church, we need to be a church of the Word.
One of the goals of my ministry is to encourage those within my sphere of influence to make it a lifelong habit to spend time in the Word every day of their lives. God's Word is wisdom for those who need wisdom, it's power for those who are weak, it's encouragement for those who are discouraged, it is hope for those on the brink of despair, it is life for those who are facing death. There is power in the Word of God; if we want to be a great church we must become a church of God's Word. We need to devote ourselves to it. We need to preach it from the pulpit, we need to teach in our Sunday School classes and home Bible studies, we need to sing it in our worship songs, we need to memorize it word for word and hide it in our hearts so that we might not sin against God, and we need to learn to live it every day of our lives. What matters? The apostles' teaching—the Word of God.
b. Fellowship . I'll have more to say about this in a minute, so right now I will just say that the time we spend together is crucial in our development as a body of believers. Being with one another is a priority. Fellowship. The time we spent together talking, and eating, and laughing, and playing. These are important. What matters? Fellowship.
c. The breaking of bread . Luke is specifically referring to the communion service. Communion was important to the early church because it kept them connected to the death of Christ; it kept them mindful of his sacrifice. Jesus said:
"This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me. …This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." (1 Corinthians 11:24-25)
Every time the early believers came together for worship, they took communion. You want my opinion? I think it's a great idea. It's not always feasible in every church situation, so we can't allow ourselves to become legalistic about it, but it's crucial for the health of our congregation that we make the remembrance of his death a vital part of our worship. That's the key—it's not just the ritual of the wine and bread, it's remembering what it stands for. When we worship together — even on those Sundays when we are not able to partake of the communion ritual — we need to be careful to remember the significance of Jesus' death. It is because of his death that we live, that we can know God's forgiveness and taste God's mercy and experience God's power. The disciples were devoted to the breaking of bread so that they could remember the death of Jesus, and this matters to us, too. A fourth priority of the early church was:
d. Prayer . For the last few months I have been meeting as often as possible with a group of believers for a prayer meeting that is different than anything I have ever experienced. Do you know why? Because all we do is pray. We don't sing, we don't preach, we don't prophesy. We pray—and most of the time we pray silently, because not all of us speak English. There's no sense of performance in our prayers, no efforts at one-upmanship, we're not praying thinly veiled three-point sermons, or trying to impress one another with big words. We're just praying. This was difficult for me at first. I kept thinking, "We should sing a song. I should exhort everyone. Someone should pray out loud." But in silence, we discovered the presence of God among us, and we learned more about his power in our lives. That's why God said:
Be still and know that I am God...(Psalm 46:10)
My challenge to the church today is that we will get into the habit of devoting ourselves to prayer. Let's make it a priority.
The Word, fellowship, remembering the death of Jesus, spending time in prayer. These are things which take place on Sunday morning—or, at least, they should. These are, of course, seven-day-a-week priorities, and we need to be especially careful to implement them in each worship service. When we come together, we need to take time to open the Word of God and let it speak to us. We need to spend time in fellowship with one another, enjoying one another's company. We need to take time to reflect on the death and resurrection of Jesus—we do this not only when we take communion, but also when we sing hymns. And we need to take time to pray. Not long, drawn-out stained glass churchy prayers, but simple and earnest prayers about the needs of the church and the needs of one another and our desire for God to move among us.
If we want to be a great church, we need to define what matters, and we need to design our worship services around it. The second W is:
2. WHO MATTERS
We touched briefly on this when we talked about fellowship being a priority. Let's look now at...
(v. 44) And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing with them all, as anyone might have need.
These verses answer the question, "Who matters?" You know the answer? It's not you and it's not me. It's we. We matter. The early church took community seriously. They spent time together in fellowship. They spent time together in each other's homes. They ate together. They shared with one another. They sacrificed for one another. They took care of each other. They understood the concept of community, and we have much to learn from their example.
This is where small churches today have an advantage. Everything we do, we do as a family. When we come together, we know who's here and who isn't. It's not like that in big churches. I've been in some large churches more than a dozen times and never met the same people twice. You can be anonymous in a large church, and some people like that, but that's not the life that God has called us to. He has called us to a life of community, a life of commitment to one another. Every pastor of every megachurch understands this and is constantly striving to build community within the congregation through Bible studies and Sunday school classes and other types of small groups.
As our church continues to grow, we need to remember that we will never get past the community phase. We are, permanently, a community. A family. This will never change. We have to look out for each other. Paul said:
Bear one another's burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:3)
He also said:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interest of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)
Who matters? We matter. All of us, together, as a group. Jesus said:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you...(John 13:34)
Do you want to know something I like about this church? It's sometimes hard to get you quiet. It's time for the service to begin, the band is ready to start playing, and you're still chatting it up with one another. Do you know what else I like about this church? It's hard to get you out of here. Even 30 minutes after the service has ended, people are still hanging around talking, laughing, spending time with one another. You like each other, and I like that about you. I want you to know that other people notice it, too—just like Jesus said they would:
By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)
I've been in churches where this wasn't the case. I used to play in a bluegrass group and when we played in churches during one of the songs we would invite people to stand up and shake hands with one another. There were a few times when no one did it. No one spoke, no one shook hands, no one moved. They just sat there and glared at us. Maybe it was because they didn't like our music, but I also got the impression that they didn't really like each other, either.
The early church spent time together. They worshiped together. They went from house to house breaking bread together and sharing meals with one another. And they also took care of each other. They had the attitude that, "Your needs are more important than my wants. I'll sacrifice my extras if it will provide you with some of the basics." And the Bible says that they sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with one another. This did not become standard practice in all churches, and it didn't occur in Jerusalem as a result of heavy-handed legalism. No one was forced to give up their belongings—nothing like that. This sharing of resources happened as a result of love. Many of the early believers were extremely poor. It wasn't that they didn't have enough money to upgrade to digital cable—they didn't have enough money to buy food. And so some of the affluent believers sold some of their possessions and contributed the proceeds to be used to meet the needs of those who had nothing. The point here is not socialism but compassion. We don't live in a socialist society, but God has called us, the church, to be compassionate with one another and look out for one another. If we want to be a great church, then we need to nail down the question of who matters. We matter. The community of believers here. We're called to love one another—that's what a great church does. The third W is...
3. WHEN MATTERS
I want you to notice the references to time in this passage.
(v. 42) And they were continually devoting themselves...
(v. 43) And everyone kept feeling a sense of awe...
(v. 46) And day by day, continuing with one mind...
In the New Living Translation, 44 says...
(v. 44) And all the believers met together constantly ... [NLT]
This was not just an occasional thing for the early Christians. Church was not a one-day-a-week event for them. It was a constant, continuous, day-by-day experience.
Do you know what I've discovered about great churches? They don't just do church one day a week. Their people are involved in ministry and involved in fellowship almost every day. I'm not talking about long, boring meetings that drain the energy out of everyone in attendance. I'm talking about life-giving ministry and fellowship that is infused with the presence of God. I'm saying that if we want to be a great church, we need to spend time together and we need to do it often.
I love to see when the couples of our church spend time together, when our kids play together, when the men golf together, and on and on. Fellowship—us being together, enjoying one another's company, loving one another—this is a crucial aspect of the life of this church. If the only time we see each other is on Sunday morning, we don't have time to cultivate the sense of community that God wants to see developed among his people. Here's the bottom line: We're doing life together. The easy parts and the hard parts, the happy parts and the sad parts, the part where we work and the part we play—we're all in this together. Russ Martin once gave me a four-word formula for discipling new believers: spend time with them. We need to use this same formula to build community among the members of this church. We need to spend time together and we need to do it often. As Luke later wrote:
And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (Acts 5:42)
If we're going to be a great church then we must understand: it's an everyday thing.
There are great churches and there are successful churches. Frankly, I don't know what the limits of our success will be. Maybe someday we'll have the big buildings and big budgets that are associated with success—who knows? Much more important, however, is that we achieve greatness. We need to be great in the way that the early church was great. We need to adopt their priorities as our priorities. What matters? The Word of God, fellowship, worship, and prayer. Who matters? It's not just me and it's not just you. It's we. We matter—as the body of Christ, our life together matters. And "when" matters as well, because the Christian life is a seven-day-a-week event. We're doing life together, folks, day after day, meeting together, eating together, working together, playing together. We are a community and we're in this for the long haul.
Now, if I can sneak in one final point. We need to remember always that we are not a closed community. Listen to how Luke completed this passage.
(v. 47) And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
If our priorities our straight—if we're committed to the Word of God, and worship, and prayer, and one another—then growth is inevitable. People will come. God will add to our number. We're a community, and we're called to love one another, but there's always room in this family for more. As God's people, as his church, we will receive with open arms everyone who comes our way, because we just don't want to be successful, we want to be great—for the glory of Jesus Christ.