The Thriving Church

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:

1. Unity

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:

4. Encouragement

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. 

Conclusion

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. 

Something you WON’T hear on the news about Israel

We hear a lot about Israel on the news these days, and it’s almost always about politics and war. Rarely do we hear anything good or edifying. I heard some good news about Israel the other day, and it’s from an insider. And I thought it should be shared.

David Zadok is a native Israeli and pastors Grace and Truth Christian Assembly not far from Ashdod, near the Gaza Strip (and yes, that does mean a few challenges!). He drove out to see us in Nazareth, where we were for the International Directors Summit for SGA. The reason we were meeting in Israel is because of a new Bible College based there for Russian-speaking Jews. David gave an address on the growth of the church in Israel over his 30 years of ministry there.

It all began in 1948 when the modern state of Israel came into being. At that time there were only 21 (Jewish) Christians in the entire state. The church as a church for Jewish people was basically non-existent. Twenty years later, in 1968, the number of Jewish believers was less than 50. In 1988, they number less than 500. Today, there are approximately 30,000. That is remarkable. So, what were some of the conditions that led to such phenomenal growth?

Let me give you a little history.

The expulsion of Jews from their homeland by both Assyria and Babylon in the 7th century B.C., followed by the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. sent Jewish people into all corners of the world. This is known as the Jewish diaspora. Outside of Israel, their native language – Hebrew, was used only in the synagogues and the reading of the Torah. Then in the late 19th century, a Lithuanian named Eliezer Ben Yehuda decided Hebrew should become a spoken language spoken by common people. He settled in Jerusalem and dedicated his life to the realization of this dream.

After 1948, you now had restoration of the land and the language. This paved the way for the restoration of the people. Jewish people started turning up from around the world in their droves (and they are still coming). Some of the biggest immigration came from Russian and Ukraine – almost 20%. Today, there is no church in Israel without a Russian-speaking immigrant, and some are made up of entirely Russian-speaking immigrants (I could hardly believe the number of Russian speaking people I heard while in Israel). Christianity is on the rise in Israel. Orthodox Jews, for the most part, are very resistant to the gospel. But many secular Jews are not. They are intrigued by it.

David gave an example from his own family. His daughter, Hadassah told her teacher at school one day that she was a Christian. Her teacher asked, “what is that?” Hadassah explained by telling her who Jesus was and how he came to fulfill prophecy, take away sin and grant the gift of eternal life. Her teacher was intrigued – so intrigued in fact, that she asked Hadassah to give a presentation of her Christian faith to her entire class.

Christianity has even made its way into the military. Jewish military training is compulsory in Israel for every citizen once they turn 18 (for both sexes). Many young Christians wind up there. It didn’t take long for the military leaders to see that the Christians stood out from the rest. They are reliable, loyal and always tell the truth. As a result, they are putting believers into their crack units. They also allow every Jewish Christian 40 minutes every day for a Quiet Time. And they often ask the Jewish Christians to explain their faith to the other soldiers. How I’d love 20/20 or 60 minutes to run a story on that one!

At his own church, David has a team that put together special little boxes that they give to all young soldiers. Inside there are useful items and treats, as well as a New Testament and a gospel tract in Hebrew. The soldiers are reading them. It’s making an impact.

I was so encouraged hearing this report. I always had the impression that Israel would be a very difficult place to be a Christian, as the greater majority of Jews are hostile to the gospel. Perhaps that is true for religious (orthodox) Jews, but not for everyone else. They are open. And they are finding out the answer to their future is not political stability or military power or economic success. It’s Jesus, their very own Messiah.

The House that God Built

When I was a new Christian, I only cared about one thing and that was Jesus. That’s a natural thing. When you experience new life for the very first time; when you discover that someone loves you enough to die for you so that your sins can be forgiven and have a place in heaven, you’ll go to the ends of the earth for that person. That was me. I walked away from an engineering career, sold my house, said goodbye to all my friends and family and said, “Lord I’ll go anywhere and do anything for you.” I wound up in seminary and it was there God said to me, “You’ll do anything for me? Give yourself to my church. Shepherd my people. Love them like you love me.”

My reaction was, “…except that.”

I wanted to do something important and heroic like go on the mission field to some remote place where people have never heard. I had no intention of being a pastor. But God’s word changed me. Spend time reading and studying God’s Word and you’ll discover something wonderful and that’s God’s deep love and unfailing commitment to his church – his fledging people, the ones who fail him continually, fight with each other and flirt with the world – the ones he gave his Son for; the church. When God revealed this to me, it changed my heart.

Charles Spurgeon, pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London said this:

“The church is not an institution for perfect people. It is a sanctuary for sinners saved by the grace of God. The church is a nursery for God’s weak children to be nurtured and grow strong. It is the fold for Christ sheep, the home for Christ family. The church is the dearest place on earth.”

I love the last part of that statement. I know for some, the church is not the dearest place on earth. It’s the most disappointing place on earth – a place of hurt and pain and frustration. But that’s not what God envisioned for his church. He had something very different in mind – a place of beauty and healing and hope.

The book of Ephesians we find God’s plan and purpose for his church unfolded in all its glory. In chapter 2, verses 19-22 the Apostle says this:

“So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole building, being put together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you are also being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit.”

There are three terms Paul uses here to emphasize the importance of the local church. The church is God’s household, the church is God’s family and the church is God’s temple.

1. The church is God’s household

The word “household” is the Greek word oikos. Oikos can either mean a dwelling (a place) or it can mean a household or a family (a people). Paul is saying, “You are God’s household. You are part of God’s family. You are privileged to call God “Father.”

Notice there are two important components to this “oikos” of God. First, there’s the foundation. The foundation is the apostles and prophets. They are the ones who first proclaimed the Word of God to the people of God. They set the pattern for how things would run. They gave us a solid platform to build on.

But there’s another component here – the cornerstone. When buildings were constructed in ancient times, they didn’t have architects’ plans and modern building instruments. They started with a cornerstone – a massive rectangular stone that was perfectly cut. It was laid down first and all the other stones were laid on top of it and the builders set their angles from it. If the cornerstone was right, the building would be right. If the cornerstone was off the building would be off.

Jesus Christ is the cornerstone who holds God’s household together. Without Jesus, the whole building – God’s household, falls to pieces.

Now what is it about Jesus that holds it together? “Well,” you say, “he is the way, the truth and the life.” Good answer. “Jesus is perfect – without sin.” Another good answer. But let me give a better one: only in Christ, do we experience the transforming grace of God, and that and only that enables us to walk with one another in a way that is distinctly Christian. Only by the grace of God are you able to understand the depth of your sin and your hostility toward God so that you turn to his Son in repentance and experience forgiveness. Only grace enables you to see and understand the treasures in God’s word that makes your heart sing for joy. Only grace enables you to forgive those who have wronged and hurt you.

That’s how the cornerstone works. Jesus is not simply a set of doctrines. He is a person. When you experience his grace, you’ll want to extend grace. If you haven’t experienced grace, you’re not going to extend it.

2. The church is God’s family

“You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household.” (Eph 2:19)

You were once foreigners and strangers, Paul says. You had no spiritual family and no home. Now you have both. God is your Father and your fellow Christians are your brothers and sisters. Some come from hard backgrounds. Some have been wounded. Some are hurting. Some are in the process of healing. Some are powerful in the Spirit. Others are weak. They are all gifted by God to do a special work in this family – for your benefit and spiritual upbuilding. It’s a great privilege being part of the family of God. I hope you see it that way.

The church is God’s household. The church is God’s family. And thirdly, we see from this passage:

3. The church is God’s temple

“In him the whole building, being put together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you are also being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit.” (Eph 2:21–22)

God desire, after creating people, was always to dwell with them. That has always been his purpose, and his purpose has never changed.

  • That is why he came to the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day
  • That is why he commanded the tabernacle to be built and to be carried through the wilderness
  • That is why he commanded the temple to be built in Jerusalem
  • That is why Christ became flesh and dwelt among us
  • That is why the Holy Spirit was sent to live inside every believer
  • That is why, when Christ returns, in the new Jerusalem it is said that God’s dwelling will be with humanity, “and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and will be their God.” (Revelation 21:3)

It will be a permanent dwelling place for both God and his people. Until Christ comes again and we enjoy fellowship with God permanently in the new Jerusalem, we enjoy fellowship with him and others who are part of the church on earth.

Conclusion

Living in community in the church can be a hassle. It’s not always convenient. It takes a lot of patience and love and tolerance and sometimes tears and hard work. But I hope you’ll see that it’s worth it. I hope you’ll also see that something Jesus would give his life for is worth giving our life to.

Later in Ephesians, after his powerful portrait of the church and all that God calls it to be, he prays for the church, and says in verses 20-21 of chapter 3:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…

It is a tall order. We can’t do it, but He can. He can do immeasurably more abundantly than all that we ask or think – according to His power at work in us.

This post was based on a sermon of the same title.  It is part of a series called “Life in the Father’s House.”  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.