Two Sunday’s ago we celebrated the last 5 years of growth in our church, both numerically and spiritually. We also commissioned Sean Young as our new Associate Pastor. I ended with a message on what it looks like to be a healthy, thriving church from Acts 9:31. Here’s the content of that message:
If you were on the search for a new church, what would you go looking for? My guess is it wouldn’t be a church that is struggling, where people are discouraged and it’s in decline. No one wants to go to a church like that. You would look for a place where there is vitality and health; where people are being built up in their faith and the gospel is advancing.
In the book of Acts, we get a snapshot of such a church. From time to time Luke, the author of Acts, gives us a “progress report” of how the church is doing in terms of accomplishing its mission. In chapter 9 verse 31, we are given one of those reports and this is what it says:
“So the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (Acts 9:31)
Isn’t that a great description for a church? We see here five evidences of a thriving, healthy church in which God is at work. The first one is:
It’s a wonderful thing when God’s people are at peace with each other. That is truly a blessed thing. Nothing is worse than a church where people are tearing each other apart. That’s a terrible witness to the world. Why? Because God has called us to peace. It’s at the very heart of the gospel. We were once hostile to God. We were at enmity with God. But God in his mercy sent his Son to come and die for sin and provide a way for us to be reconciled to him. Jesus, by way of his death and resurrection, put an end to the hostility and provided direct access to God. There is now PEACE.
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)
If we have peace with God, believers should be at peace with each other. As Paul says in Colossians chapter 1 verse 15,
“And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:15)
Christian, God has called you to peace, so pray for it and pursue it in the church you are attending. Put your personal preferences and differences aside. Demonstrate to the world, along with your fellow brothers and sister in Christ, what Jesus can do when we allow him to rule and reign.
That’s one evidence of a healthy, thriving church. The second is:
2. Spiritual Maturity
“So the church… had peace and was strengthened”
The word “strengthened” comes from two Greek words – oikos, a house and domeo, to build. So literally it means, “to build a house.” So what is the “house” that God is building? It’s the people of God. And how is God building up his people? The Word of God. God gifted to the church apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers whose job it is to:
“Equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.” (Ephesians 4:12)
And what’s the result of this building up process? Paul continues:
“Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head—Christ.” (verses 12–15)
There it is. Wherever you see a church where people are being strengthened and being built up; wherever you see people becoming strong in their faith and confident what they believe and able to recognize false doctrine, wherever you see them becoming more Christlike, the Word of God will be central.
But it’s not just about teaching the Word. It’s not filling up our minds with lots of knowledge. It’s about living the Word. It’s about putting it into practice. It’s about repenting of sin and loving our neighbour and serving our fellow believers and forgiving people who’ve hurt us and caring enough about the lost to share the gospel with them and a myriad of other things. This is how a church becomes strong. This is how Christians become mature. When the Word of God is taught, and God’s people put it into practice.
If you are part of a local church, encourage others to be people of the Word. Love the Word, meditate on the Word, grow in the Word, share the Word, pray the Word, obey the Word and you will become strong and influential and an encouragement to all who are around you.
We find a third evidence of a thriving, flourishing church in this verse:
3. Godly fear
The believers, we are told were, “living (or walking) in the fear of the Lord.” That’s something that is sorely missing in the church today. There is so much joviality and light-heartedness and humour. It’s as if every effort is being made to make people feel as comfortable and relaxed as possible.
Now, I realise there’s a sense in which we want to put people at ease – especially those who are new to the faith. We don’t want to make them feel awkward and uneasy. But I think in our efforts to do this we have lost our sense of reverence and awe for the power and presence of God. He’s become all too familiar – Jesus is our best friend, the Holy Spirit is our buddy, and God is a nice old man.
Growing up, I learned about all kinds of animals – including bears. I saw bears in picture books and in movies. I read stories about how dangerous bears can be. But it wasn’t until I encountered a real bear out in the open that I realized how frightening it can be. I was exposed and there wasn’t anywhere to go.
We need to retain a holy fear of God. We want to cultivate in our places of worship a godly reverence for the things of God. He is not to be trifled with. His Word is not to be made fun of. Yes, he loves us, and we love him. He invites us to come boldly into his presence. But the only reason we can do that is because we are covered with the blood of Christ. Without that we are toast. And we need to keep reminding ourselves and our children of this fact.
So, the early church was living in the fear of God. But that’s not all, look at the next phrase: “And encouraged by the Holy Spirt.” Here we find a fourth evidence of a thriving church:
Some translations have “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.” It comes from the word paraclete which means to call alongside to comfort, to encourage and exhort, to entreat and to help. This is the work the Holy Spirit does in a believer’s life. He comforts us in our affliction, he encourages us when we are weak, and he confronts and challenges us when we disobey. He helps us in all kinds of ways. And whenever the Holy Spirit is doing this work, we are assured of God’s presence with us.
And this brings balance to walking in the fear of the Lord, doesn’t it? We live in the fear of the Lord and the comfort and encouragement of the Holy Spirit. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. The two go hand in hand. When we are brought face to face with the Almighty, when we tremble before his holiness, the Holy Spirit is right there with us, assuring us, comforting us with his love, and he whispers: “Come and draw near, you are his child, bring your concerns to him. Open your heart to him.”
That’s true spirituality. It’s not some emotional high that someone else has worked up by means of music or media or some other human means. This is the presence of God. And it’s wonderful.
There’s one last evidence that God is at work in a church:
5. Numerical Growth
“Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (Acts 9:31)
There is a reason this is placed at the end and not in the beginning. This is the outcome of the previous four. When a church is at peace and its people are being edified by God’s Word, when they are walking in the fear of the Lord and the comfort and assurance of the Holy Spirit, it will grow. It will multiply. It will act as a magnet to those who come into contact with it. Why? Because they see something supernatural is occurring; something other-worldly, something human beings cannot manufacture.
So let’s pray this for our churches. Let’s pray that God would give us continued peace. Let’s pray God would give us also a deep love for his Word and a desire to obey his Word. Let’s pray that God would give us such a sense of his presence that we live in the fear of the Lord and the comfort and assurance of the Holy Spirit. And let’s pray that God would cause our churches to grow – because that’s what thriving churches do: they grow. They multiply.
That’s what the Lord Jesus wants for your church and my church. So let’s pray and strive to that end.