When Jesus left the earth, He made it pretty clear what His intentions were for His followers and the church. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). When the story picks up again in the book of Acts, we get a picture of what the early church looked like.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Over the past ten or twenty years, there have been numerous books and discussions about these verses and what sort of impact they should have on the contemporary American church. Many people have thought through the ways in which the American church has ventured away from what Jesus intended for it to be and the ways in which the church should move back towards the early church model. I have read a number of these books and been a part of churches that are striving to replicate an early church model, but I still see trends in the American church that bring us away from this model.
Obviously not every church in America is doing church wrong. That is certainly not true. Nor is it true that the implementation of these verses in Acts can only look one certain way. I don’t believe that. I simply am challenged by the state of the American church when looked at as a whole, especially as it relates to the impact that the church has on the lost world and especially the churches that seem to get the most attention. More specifically, churches that grow at an exponential rate and are attracting the majority of newcomers seem to be following models that are numbers-centered rather than Christ-centered. This year of 2020 has certainly been a year to examine this, and if our desire is to truly be the church, we can only benefit from at least taking inventory every so often.
2020 has definitely revealed the many ways that technology and the internet have indeed been a blessing to the church. With the entire country shut down, church has been able to “continue” via the world wide web, and it has likely given more access to hearing the Bible and truth than has ever happened before. Social media is full of opinions on this matter, but I find myself examining these verses in Acts as they pertain to virtual church. There is a key word that stands out to me in the Acts passage. Devoted. The believers in the early church were “devoted” to several things. The apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers. Devotion is a weighty word. It pertains to a strong attachment and profound dedication. The early church members were profoundly dedicated and strongly attached to teaching, to fellowship, to breaking bread, and to prayers. What virtual church has taught me is that it is much easier for Americans to simply pick and choose which aspects of which churches they like better and have access to them all. I have been guilty of it myself. Even after going to my local church, I find myself browsing YouTube on Sundays to watch the worship time that my friends are leading, the pastors that I like and miss, and even a selection of random churches just to see what and how other churches are doing. Virtual church may have heightened this practice for some, but I believe many people were already approaching church this way prior to the pandemic shutdown.
I think part of the problem, and I am certainly not the first person to say this, is that many churches have moved in a direction that seeks to please people and attract people with entertainment rather than the gospel. What virtual church and YouTube also allows us to see is how many churches actually seem to be competing with each other. Instead of looking to Jesus, Scripture, and the early church to determine our methods and priorities, we seek out other churches that seem to be getting more people and follow their models. From service order, to worship, to small groups, churches are functioning and competing like businesses. Our churches are looking more and more like each other, but are they also looking less and less like the early church in the process?
The second issue that strikes me in this Acts passage is the fact that the community had all things in common and the amount of time they spent together. I’ve read several great books on church community, and again, have been a part of churches that seek to do this really well. At the same time, I have also been a part of large churches that struggle with true community and gather people from every end of the economic spectrum without them ever truly mixing. This is not a new concept or struggle in the church; it is simply one that I see is ongoing. There is no real standard or rule that dictates a proper church size, but my own personal experience has always found community to be more difficult in larger churches. Larger numbers usually means a greater variety of people and social classes. Unfortunately, this sometimes also leads to groups forming around these divides. The result is not communities having all things in common but communities that mimic the American society we live in.
While the church should truly be a visible difference from the ways of the world, what happens with the American church more often than not is it replicates the society it lives in. The same standards and goals and organization seen in American society has bled into the American church. Churches are built around business models, worship is becoming similar to the mainstream music industry in its competitiveness and even fanbase, small groups are built around common worldly interests rather than a Bible and true fellowship. In some ways, our churches compare more to country clubs more than the early church model.
Though it seems like I am ranting, I am really just processing, including processing the very ways that I fall into these traps. One of the areas in church that I have recently struggled the most in is worship. I left a church several months back that I was blessed to flourish in musically. I am a jack of all trades and master of none when it comes to music. I am blessed to be able to play several instruments and have often been used as a clutch man on worship teams. I’m the person that fills in on whichever instrument is missing for the week, and I have been playing for worship almost every single Sunday for over ten years. The last six or seven months have been a struggle for me as I have tried to process what a new season looks like for me and how God is calling me to use my gifts or not. The worst part of this struggle, though, is that I find myself missing my playing experience just because I got to play. The style of worship and the venues of worship that I was playing in were fun and fed my soul. I just don’t think God intends for my gifts to be used for fun. I’m admitting that I am struggling with and am convicted by my own thoughts here. Everything that I have just written, I find myself to be guilty of at times.
One of the most difficult aspects of being American and Christian is that the American way of life simply seems to contradict the gospel and the way of life Jesus modeled for us. It is incredibly difficult to be surrounded by the attraction and entertainment that pervades our culture and not want it for ourselves at times. As a musician, having played music in some of the best worship settings in my area, I am guilty of wanting the fun experience again rather than being satisfied with any style of worship that is done in spirit and truth. Maybe you struggle with other areas. Some people seek out just the right style of preaching or teaching that satisfies them rather than being devoted to any style that preaches the gospel truth. Some people seek out small groups that have more fun or are more likely to have similar people that are easy to get along with rather than seeking and being devoted to true fellowship that requires difference and vulnerability. I think if we are honest with ourselves, we all probably struggle in one area or another. It’s hard not to when we are surrounded by it, and the internet does not help.
I’m not trying to bash the church or make anyone think they need to leave wherever they are. I would challenge everyone to simply take a good look at their own hearts though. It is good for us to do a little spiritual inventory on a regular basis. Even if we are part of churches that seem to be falling into the trap of the American way of life, we can do some heartwork individually. You can be the difference right where you are without having to change the system from the top down. Afterall, we are responsible for ourselves.
This passage in Acts is a great place for us to reflect, especially during this pandemic shutdown where YouTube temptation is running high. Take some time to reflect on your devotions. Are you devoted to true biblical teaching, or simply the sermon that makes you laugh the most or feel the best? Are you seeking out the worship with the best light show and most LED walls? Or can you worship in spirit and truth despite the style and presentation of music? Are you devoted to prayer and fellowship or do you find yourself just doing church and events to check off a box and call it done? Are you mixing with people of different economic standings and willing to share your home and possessions with each other? This is a tough one, especially in America, but the blessings in doing so abound. Are you aware of how your church measures on any of the standards set out by Jesus or practiced by the early church? Take a good look around and let God speak to your heart on these matters. Again, I’m not saying we need to necessarily leave where we are or condemn a church, but we can begin to align our own hearts and lives to these Biblical models and lead by example.