This sermon is part of the sermon series "Church As It Was Meant to Be". See series.
Once upon a time there was a wonderful church that suddenly found itself in trouble. After an exciting season of growth, things just didn't seem to be working as well as they once did. For one thing, many of the new people came from very different backgrounds, culturally and religiously. They didn't understand the way things had always been done in the church, and brought a whole new set of needs and ideas.
As a result, some of the members began to resent these newcomers; they felt like their church was changing, and they couldn't control it. While the newer folks, especially those from different cultural backgrounds, were feeling left out and like their needs and ideas were being overlooked.
At times, the leaders seemed so preoccupied with all this growth that they lost track of what was really important. Some folks felt the teaching ministry of the church wasn't as strong as it used to be. Others felt there should be more of an emphasis on prayer. There were stories of people "falling through the cracks"—not being cared for.
The leaders seemed to be overwhelmed at times, like they couldn't keep up and didn't know what to do next. It was a very unsettling time, and the future of the church seemed to be in peril.
You may be guessing that the church I'm describing is our church, or one you grew up in. A good guess, perhaps, but the troubled church I have in mind is the New Testament church—the church we've been reading about in these opening chapters of the Book of Acts.
For four weeks now we've been tracking with the early church. It's been a story of growth in every direction—deeper, closer, wider. We've seen a balanced commitment to discipleship, outreach, worship, and community. Just last week we learned that the believers "were one in heart and mind," and that "there were no needy persons among them." But when we come to chapter 6, things begin to unravel. We see unmet needs, overworked leaders, unsettling changes, and rifts within the congregation.
What we're going to discover now is that the problems that threatened the early church have threatened every church ever since, including Grace Chapel, and that handling those problems well determines whether a church thrives or collapses.
Let's turn to the Book of Acts:
In those days, when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them, and we will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.
The proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procurus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
Trouble in paradise
Right from the beginning of this account we learn that there is trouble in paradise. Some of the church members were "complaining" about what was going on. I know that's hard to imagine church members complaining, but it was happening even in the early church.
There were several reasons for their complaints. The first and most obvious reason was that people's needs were being overlooked. Widows, in particular, were not receiving all the help they needed. Since widows generally weren't able to provide for themselves and no longer had a men to provide for them, it was the responsibility of the faith community to care for them. But with all this growth in the church, there were so many widows that the apostles couldn't keep up with them all.
But what made the problem even more difficult was a growing rift in the congregation between the Hebraic Jews, who were steeped in Jewish culture and tradition, and the Grecian Jews, who were more secular in their practice and outlook. There was prejudice and resentment on both sides.
The situation had become so difficult that the leaders really didn't know what to do. They were trying to meet everyone's needs, but they couldn't keep up, and, in fact, were beginning to neglect their primary responsibilities as spiritual leaders. The teaching and worship life of the church was beginning to suffer. This was no small problem! If the leaders and the congregation didn't figure this out, it had the potential to split the church, or at least to derail the mission.
Every growing church ever since has encountered the same problems as these. In fact, we often refer to them as "growing pains." When a church grows, it changes. The work load increases. There's tension between the newcomers and the long-timers.
I remember this very vividly in the first church I pastored. We started with about 60 people. When we began to grow, everybody was excited. The sanctuary felt full; the singing was louder; there were more kids in the Sunday school; there was more money in the offering plate. The first Sunday that we went over 100 in attendance, everybody celebrated!
But soon it became apparent that along with these new attendees came a new set of problems. Some of them weren't believers yet and didn't really know how to act in church. They clapped when they weren't supposed to and talked during the prelude. Some of them came with serious problems or suggestions about how to do things differently. More kids in Sunday school meant the rooms were crowded, and teachers felt overwhelmed. When we took over a portion of the Fellowship Hall to expand the nursery, some of the regulars complained that there wouldn't be enough room for pot-luck dinners.
As a solo pastor, I was torn between following up on new people and making home visits to older members. I spent more time solving problems and counseling people and less time preparing sermons. We began to wonder if having 100 people was a good thing or not.
Every growing church is going to come to moments like this—when members are troubled, leaders are overwhelmed, and everything seems to be changing. How leaders and people respond to those moments determines whether the church will continue to thrive, or whether it will settle into stagnation or decline. Thankfully, at this critical moment in early church history, the apostles made a bold and innovative decision.
A new way of doing ministry
The apostles decided to give away the ministry. Look at verse 2, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables." At this critical moment, the apostles realized that they couldn't meet everyone's needs, and that, in fact, they shouldn't even try. It wasn't that people's needs weren't important. And it wasn't that the Twelve were "above" waiting on tables and distributing food. I'm sure they found it quite satisfying to be helping people in such practical and personal ways. But what they came to realize was that by trying to do it all themselves, they were not only failing to keep up, but they were neglecting their primary responsibilities and were depriving other members of the opportunity to serve.
So they decided to share the work of ministry with others: "Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word."
If you go back and read through Acts 2-5, you will see all sorts of wonderful things happening—worship, caring, teaching, and outreach. The only problem is that the apostles were doing it all! The apostles preached, they decided, they healed, they handed out the money. It's "Peter" this and "John" that in every chapter.
But in Acts 6, the game changes. With the help of the congregation, the apostles choose seven men to take responsibility to care for the widows and other such practical needs. The word "service" doesn't appear in our English translation, but the Greek word for serving actually appears three times in the passage. And then, in a symbolic act of empowerment, they laid hands on them and commissioned them for ministry.
That decision would change forever the way God's work would be done in the world. From now on ministry would be in the hands of the people—all the people. We begin to read about all kinds of people doing ministry. Later in this chapter, Stephen begins to preach. In chapter 8, Philip becomes an evangelist. In chapter 9, an up-and-coming leader named Saul gets into the mix. And later in chapter 9, another surprising thing happens: the first woman's name is mentioned in a ministry context—Dorcas the seamstress—soon to be followed by Lydia the church planter, Priscilla the teacher, and Philip's daughters, who prophesied.
It was the beginning of a new day for the church, in which ministry would be placed in the hands of ordinary men and women who had been called and gifted by God to do his work in the world. And look at what happened as a result: "So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith." It's a vibrant, growing church once again, because the people are getting involved in ministry.
A service-based church
This leads us to our big idea for this week. So far we've learned that the church was meant to be a life-changing church that values discipleship, a mission-driven church that values outreach, a Spirit-filled church that values worship, and a life-sharing church that values community. Today we conclude the series by learning that the church was meant to be a service-based church, where everyone exercises his or her God-given heart for ministry.
As a church, if we want to "do good" in Jesus' name—to serve more people in more places—we have to get better at helping believers discover and employ the gifts God has given them to serve others. This is not just for the church's benefit, but for the benefit of the individual, because we know that one of the best ways to go deeper in your faith is to get involved in ministry, and one of the best ways to get closer to people is to serve together.
A couple of Sundays ago, I was hustling up the stairs to the balcony after services, and I bumped into a woman coming down the stairs with a gigantic smile on her face. Before I could even ask her what she was so happy about, she started telling me all about the AIDS Caregiver Kit project she was just coming from. A couple hundred people had just finished packing up over 2,000 Caregiver Kits—assembling the items, fitting them into the cases, and writing messages of love and concern for the recipients. It was one of her first serving opportunities at Grace, and she couldn't get over how satisfying it was, how much fun she had, and how many people she had gotten to know in such a short time. "I'm just sorry it's over," she said. "I can't wait for the next time I can do something like that!"
HEART for ministry
We want everyone here to experience that kind of joy and fullness and belonging, so we'd like to introduce a new tool that can help you discover your God-given heart for ministry. If you look closely at Acts 6, you'll notice that the leaders didn't just ask for volunteers or choose the first seven warm bodies they could find. They thoughtfully chose men who were uniquely suited for the particular needed ministry. These men were empowered by the Spirit, and they had practical wisdom. If you notice also, they all had Greek names, meaning they had compassion for and connections with the Grecian believers who were feeling left out.
In the same way, we'd like to help you find the particular areas of ministry for which God has equipped you, because we know that's where you'll be most effective and where you'll find the most joy. Let me show you how this tool works.
"H" stands for Heart—your personal passion for ministry. What excites you? What breaks your heart? What dream or problem keeps you awake at night? Maybe you're passionate about a particular age group—children, teenagers, young moms, or seniors. Maybe you have a concern for the poor or for people with special needs. Maybe you have a heart for prayer, missions, or sports. We want to help you find your passion for ministry.
"E" stands for Experience—positive and negative experiences that have shaped your life and faith. Nothing that's happened to you in life is wasted, if you offer it to God. For instance, if you've suffered a deep loss in life and have experienced God's comfort, you may be well-equipped to help others who are dealing with grief and loss. If you were blessed by a great youth group, you may want to help provide a similar experience to the next generation. Ask God how he wants to turn your life experiences into ministry to others.
"A" stands for Anointing—your spiritual gifts. The Bible tells us that every believer has been gifted by God in unique ways for serving the Body. Some have up-front gifts—teaching or leading. Others have behind-the-scenes gifts—administration or gifts of wisdom. Some gifts involve speaking—evangelism and encouragement. Others involve doing—gifts of mercy and hospitality. All together, there are about 20 spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament. If I were to ask you right now to identify your top three spiritual gifts, could you do that?
"R" stands for Relationship—how you are "wired" relationally. Do you like to work alone or with a team? Are you more of a leader or a follower? If you're good with strangers and connect easily with people, you might be a great greeter. If, on the other hand, you'ree better at deeper relationships with a few people, then maybe counseling or mentoring would be best for you. Knowing your relational style can help you find the right kind of ministry.
"T" stands for Talent—your natural skills, your education, your professional expertise, or even a hobby you have. God didn't give you those talents or interests just so you could make a living and serve your own good. He wants you to use them for the kingdom. Ministry isn't just about Bible teaching and evangelism. If you've got technical skills with IT or media, there are all kinds of areas to serve. If you're good at number crunching, event planning, or data entry, there's a need for that in the church.
Thinking through these five categories can help you identify your heart for ministry, and help you find a fruitful and satisfying place to serve. This is so important, not just for the church but for you, personally.
Let's not lose any time in exploring how God had created us uniquely for ministry, and then let us use those gifts for his kingdom.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.