This sermon is part of the sermon series "Acts: The Rest of the Story". See series.
The map of global Christianity our grandparents knew has been turned upside down. At the beginning of the twentieth century, only 10 percent of the world's Christians lived in the non-Western world; nearly 90 percent of Christians worldwide lived in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. But now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, at least 70 percent of the world's Christians live in the non-Western world. More Christians worship in Anglican churches in Nigeria each week than in all the Episcopal and Anglican churches of Britain, Europe, and North America combined. There are more Baptists in the Congo than in Britain. There are more people in church every Sunday in communist China than in all of Western Europe. Nepal is the birthplace of Buddhism and the only official Hindu kingdom in the world. But several years ago, the Lord saved Lok Bhandari, a revolutionary freedom fighter and national martial arts champion, whose father had groomed him to become prime minister. Today Lok shares with crowds of 65,000 how Jesus revolutionized his life. He's been arrested more than 30 times for preaching the gospel. Christians in Nepal now number more than 700,000—an amazing number considering 50 years ago there were no known Christians in the country.
These statistics make us wonder why the Word of God spreads and grows in some places, while it remains stagnant in others. The author of Luke is deeply interested in the spread of God's word and the growth of the church. Let me show you:
"So those who received the word were baptized and there were added that day about 3,000 souls" (Acts 2:41)
"And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47)
"Many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to about 5,000" (Acts 4:4).
"More than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women" (Acts 5:14).
"And the word of the Lord spread throughout all the region" (Acts 13:49)
"So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily" (Acts 16:5).
"So the word of the Lord grew and prevailed mightily" (Acts 19:20).
Luke is concerned about growth. Interestingly, I find most of us are concerned about growth until we experience it. We pray that our numbers will increase, but we get uncomfortable as soon as the little church we love starts to grow. Growth means change, and we don't like change. Growth also brings problems, and those problems can be painful. Pretty soon we find ourselves longing for the good old days when everything was so simple and we knew everyone's name and they were all like us. Then, because of our discomfort and all these problems, we end up sabotaging the very growth we thought we wanted, and we end up back where we started.
Acts 6 relates a story from the early church that begins and ends with a statement about growth. It begins with the phrase, "the disciples were increasing in number," and it ends by reiterating: "the number of disciples continued to increase greatly." But between these phrases, there was a big problem that threatened the vitality and growth of the early church. It's a problem that has plagued the church ever since. The question is, how did they overcome it, and how can we?
The Problem: Growth threatened by division and distraction
Luke describes a two-part problem in Acts 6:1. The first part is division: there is conflict between the Hellenists (the Greek-speaking Jews) and the Hebrews (the Hebrew or Aramaic-speaking Jews). In other words, there seems to be a cultural rift in the church, resulting in discrimination against the widows of the Hellenists.
Widows were especially needy in those days. It was common for widows to move to Jerusalem toward the end of their life, because it was thought to be good to die and be buried in the Holy Land. They would normally be taken care of by the Jewish synagogue, but if the widow was a Christian, the responsibility fell to the church. Unfortunately, the benevolence system described in Acts 4 was not working for this minority group. If that were to continue, Christians would fall into disrepute, and the spread of the gospel would experience a serious setback. That's the first part of the threat to the spread of the word.
This kind of thing happens all the time in churches. It's not uncommon for one group to feel neglected. Sometimes neglect occurs along racial lines. Sometimes the older people in a congregation feel neglected, or those who are not married feel all the church's resources are directed toward couples and children. Sometimes wealthy members are given preferential treatment. Today we tend to deal with such problems by leaving: we just find another church that suits our taste better, where we get more of our needs met, or where people are all like us. For some, finding a church is like choosing which supermarket you want to shop at. We evaluate our church experience as consumers—it's all about me. It's all about what meets my needs. But the early church didn't have options; there wasn't another church down the road. Instead, they had to deal with issues head on.
The second threat to growth is what happens when the problem is solved the wrong way: distraction. Luke describes this danger in Acts 6:2. Apparently the apostles themselves had been criticized for the inequalities in food distribution, or for failing to give more hands-on time to addressing the problem. Either way, Luke identifies this threat as distracting those called to the ministry of the Word to leave their calling in order to serve tables. Such distraction is a major threat to the spread of the gospel.
In verse 2, Luke indicates that encouraging the apostles to leave the ministry of "the word of God" would be a big mistake. In verse 7, he reports the effect of their continuing in the ministry of the Word. His point is that the word of God continued to spread because the apostles didn't make the strategic mistake of neglecting it. In other words, anything that threatens the ministry of the word—even a pressing need—is distraction. At first glance, it seems like a great idea for the apostles to show their humility by serving tables and getting involved in the nitty-gritty of caring for the physical needs of widows. After all, didn't Jesus teach us to be servants? Isn't this what "servant-leadership" is all about? Wouldn't you be impressed if you went into the bathroom one Sunday morning and saw me cleaning the toilets? The trouble is, such servitude can lead to neglecting the call to leadership.
So there were two parts to the threat: 1) division as seen in the conflict that resulted in neglected widows, and 2) distraction as the apostles are tempted to move away from the ministry of the word.
The Solution: Growth enhanced by good leadership
Luke offers a solution to this problem in verses 2-6. First of all, leaders must listen. The apostles diffused the threat by strong leadership that began with listening; they took the complaint seriously.
There were plenty of things they could have done besides listen. They could have thrown the complainers out or ignored them. That's a favorite of leaders—just don't respond at all. Another thing they could have done was to pass the problem off to a committee. But the apostles didn't do any of those things. It's clear that they listened; they took this complaint seriously. Bill Gates writes:
You have to be constantly receptive to bad news, and then you have to act on it. Sometimes I think my most important job as CEO is to listen for bad news. If you don't act on it, your people will eventually stop bringing bad news to your attention. And that's the beginning of the end. The willingness to hear hard truth is vital not only for heads of big corporations but also for anyone who loves the truth. Sometimes the truth sounds like bad news, but it is just what we need."
While the apostles took the problem seriously, they didn't get sucked in by the temptation to fix the problem themselves. Instead, they stayed focused on their calling: to be devoted to prayer and the ministry of the word. It's not as if one responsibility was better than the other. Rather, the point is that Jesus called them to be apostles, and that meant being devoted to prayer and to the word.
The apostles used an interesting wordplay in their response to this threat. They used the verb "to serve"—diaconeo—twice. The first time they used it was in referencing to serving tables in verse 4. But they again in verse 4, they talked about the ministry (literally "service") of the word. In essence, what they were saying was: Instead of serving tables, we're called to serve the word. In both cases, they were serving. The issue is simply a matter of what they were called to serve.
Someone once paid a compliment to Lee Iacocca, the former Chairman of Chrysler Corporation. "Mr. Iacocca," the man said, "I want to tell you how much I enjoy your television commercials advertising Chrysler." Iacocca replied, "Sir, I couldn't care less what you think of my commercials. What I want to know is what kind of car do you drive?" He stayed focused on what his purpose was. Similarly, the apostles were not interested in making people like them by serving tables; they wanted to see that people were responding to the Word of God.
This brings us to yet another thing the apostles did as leaders: they learned to delegate. They oversaw a process in which others were given the important responsibility of serving tables. They told the congregation to select seven men to oversee this work. I wonder if that was a little scary for the apostles, because all of a sudden they're really having to let go of something. What if these guys messed it up? What if they made things worse? Worse yet, what if they were better at it than the apostles? That would really make them look bad! But notice how careful the apostles were to ensure the job got done well. They established three criteria: they had to be men of good reputation, men who were full of the Spirit, and men who were wise. Let me put it another way: they had to be men of character, men of spiritual maturity, and men with practical common sense. So they weren't looking for men who were wealthy or good looking or influential, but men who had proven their worth in the grind of life.
Finally, leaders must be team players. Here we see these leaders willing to team up with the people of God to get the work of the church done. They teamed up with the congregation by letting them select the men. Then they confirmed the ones chosen by prayer and laying on of hands. There is a lot of wisdom in this. They got the congregation involved in making a decision, but they also established the ground rules and perhaps even retained the right of veto.
Then they teamed up with these seven new leaders. It's interesting that most of the men on this list we know nothing about, but two of them will come to play prominent roles in the book of Acts. If you thought of these guys as silent, quiet, behind-the-scenes type of guys then you're wrong. At least two of them became powerful spokesmen for the Christian faith. Stephen is described in verse 8 as "full of grace and power … performing great wonders and signs among the people." All of chapter 7 is about his preaching and becoming the first martyr. Philip became a great evangelist, leading the church in its first great mission outside of Jerusalem. So these men weren't limited to setting up chairs and making coffee for the rest of their lives.
Luke shows us a picture of the people of God—both servers of the word and servers of tables—teamed up in serving God. I want to challenge you this morning: are you willing to step up and become involved in serving the Lord? I know that there are so many different ways to do that, and it doesn't only have to be in the context of church. But if this is your church, if this is where you get fed the Word of God, if this is where you come for your kids to get dedicated and married, if this is where you worship Sunday after Sunday, then you need to find a way to serve here. Every week there are opportunities. There are Sunday school classes, youth ministries, small groups, ushers, greeters, prayer warriors, coffee makers, flower arrangers, hospital visits, meals to make for hurting families. I could go on and on. Maybe you don't feel qualified. Maybe you don't have a good reputation, or aren't filled with spiritual maturity or practical wisdom. If that's the case, then what are you doing to grow?
When the people of God are teamed up in the service of God, the Word of God will spread. In verse 7, Luke celebrates the apostles' solution to this in-house problem. The word of God continued spreading. The number of disciples kept increasing. In fact, the solution resulted in a breakthrough in evangelistic power. Priests who had been hostile to the gospel were responding to the word of God. The church had been tested. She had passed the test by caring for the widows and guarding the word. God honored this triumph with new power and fruitfulness. When the people of God are teamed up in the service of God then the Word of God will spread.
We want to make a difference for Christ. If we really do that, we will grow, and growth means change. It means we will have to deal with new problems and new threats. Are you willing to deal with the uncomfortable realties of growth? Are you, the people of God, willing to team up in the service of God so the Word of God will spread?
Mark Mitchell is the lead pastor of Central Peninsula Church in Foster City, California.