Read Acts 2:1-5; 36-41
Last week we read the end of Acts 2. This week we have read the beginning so we are really doing it backwards. But today is Pentecost and so it is very appropriate to read about Pentecost.
Pentecost is called “the birthday of the church”. Prior to this there was a group of disciples who had been given a mission but were not doing it and had no power – no divine empowering – to do it. In fact, Jesus had told them not to engage in their mission – until they received the gift the Father had promised.
Then Pentecost happened and the world changed. I guess it started like any other day except that Pentecost was one of Israel’s festivals so there were masses of people in Jerusalem. The disciples were all together in one place. There were about 120 believers at that stage so maybe that group was all together. And maybe, as good Jews, they were celebrating the Pentecost festival.
But then there was the sound of a mighty wind. There was fire inside the house that seemed to settle on each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and they began to speak in tongues. Jews from all over the known world were in Jerusalem. They heard this commotion and gathered – but surprisingly, it wasn’t a commotion. Each person heard his own language being spoken. Each of them could hear the disciples proclaiming the wonders of God in his own language. They were amazed and confused. What on earth was going on? Was this a God-thing? Were they just drunk? What was this?
Peter began preaching, explaining that this was God’s promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit on His people and then preached about Jesus. He finished by accusing them of having murdered the Messiah.
We could understand it if they had been offended and become resistant, but the opposite happened. The Holy Spirit was working in them. They came under conviction and they cried out, “What shall we do?’
“Repent and be baptised,” Peter said. Three thousand people were added to their number that day. That phrase “added to their number” tells us something. We are not simply told that 3000 people became Christians that day but that they were added to their number. That suggests that there was not simply a lot of individual believers but a body of believers – something they belonged to. They were family. They were team. They were numbered; they knew how many belonged.
Can you imagine being one of the disciples and trying to get to sleep that night? This was not something they had planned. This was simply a move of God. God had used them miraculously. Extraordinary things had happened. The number of believers went from 120 to 3120 that day. Imagine the church in New Zealand growing by 2,500% in one day! Their mission had begun. The church had begun. Their lives would never be the same.
This was a stunning move of God. You cannot organise a move of God. You cannot set up a committee to plan it. You can pray for it. We know that the 120 joined together constantly in prayer prior to Pentecost and we read last week that prayer was a big part of the community that formed after Pentecost. You can pray for it but you cannot organise a move of God.
The trendy term for things that just happen is “organic” – not predictable like a machine but natural, spontaneous. The beginning of the church was incredibly organic. But, and this is the question we are looking at as we think about church membership, can it continue that way? Can the church simply be organic or does it need some organisation? And if it becomes organised, does it die?
What we immediately see is a measure of organisation. We read verses 42-47 last week but it is instructive that the amazing vitality and spontaneity of Pentecost is immediately followed by some structure. The converts were devoted to the apostles’ teaching. Even that suggests gathering people together, possibly at regular times during the week. It implies some sort of organised teaching programme. Without a doubt it also involved relationships between older Christians and these baby Christians and it involved some accountability to be does of the word, not hearers only.
Jesus’ method of discipling was relational and the apostles adopted His method. Jesus said, “Teach them to obey everything I have commanded.” The apostles were not just teaching the theory; they were teaching obedience and that requires practice and accountability and encouragement and so on. It wasn’t just, “Great to see that you are a believer. Now we will just leave it up to the Holy Spirit to teach you. It wasn’t hands-off, laisse faire, let it all be organic. Straight away, it was organised.
And it lost none of its vitality. This description of the life of the church is still hugely dynamic and exciting. The story of the Day of Pentecost ends with 3000 being added to their number that day and the passage about the life of the church ends by saying that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. It is as if God is putting His seal of approval on both – the organic and the organised.
Please don’t get me wrong. Too much organisation kills. Too much organisation squeezes out the Holy Spirit. We can rely on our organisational abilities for the results such that we don’t need God. Most great movements, over time, become institutions that lose their initial passion and vitality.
Take the church, for example. What began as a great move of God has often become an institution worried about financial security and the condition of the building and actually pretty unattractive to the world. That is a tragedy when it started with a passion for Jesus and His movement; it started led and empowered by the Holy Spirit and, far from being unattractive, people were being added daily.
On the other hand, movements that do not have some structure tend to fizzle out or blow up in some sort of crisis. Some people will tell you that any structure is ungodly. Think what your body would be like without a skeleton. You would be a blob of tissue and fat and various body fluids unable to get up off the floor. In God’s world even organic things need structure. It is a balance: enough structure to enable good things to happen but not so much that it prevents good things happening.
One of the greatest movements in the history of the church was the Methodist Movement. John Wesley had an experience of God that led to his conversion. He had a vision for transforming the nation through biblical holiness. He travelled tens of thousands of miles on horseback. He preached far and wide. He was generally rejected by the established church (which had become institutionalised and lifeless) so he preached outdoors. People were converted amidst powerful moves of the Holy Spirit. It was a revival. By the time of Wesley’s death, in 1791, there were 71,463 Methodists in Britain and 61,811 in the USA. That is absolutely stunning if you think of the conditions of the 1700s. It changed a nation. The Wesleyan revival is sometimes credited with saving Great Britain from the equivalent of the French Revolution.
But what does it tell you that I can give you the exact number of Methodists in both Britain and the USA? It says that they were highly organised. They knew who was a member and who wasn’t. They had systems for knowing these things. They are called “Methodists” because they had highly refined methods.
George Whitefield was also a great evangelist powerfully used by God and he was a contemporary of Wesley. Two great evangelists but very different results. In 2005 there were an estimated 75 million Methodists worldwide but there is no Whitefieldian church. The difference was that Wesley was a brilliant strategist. He set up all sorts of systems for nurturing the spiritual health of his converts, for training them to live out their faith and share the gospel, for developing leaders, for holding people accountable, etc. Principle among his methods were bands, classes and societies which were all different types of small groups that people were expected to belong to. They had different purposes but essentially they were to grow people in their faith and their witness and their service.
Whitefield once noted, “My brother, Wesley, acted wisely – the souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in class, and thus preserved the fruits of his labour. This I neglected and my people are a rope of sand.” (You have to imagine how useful a rope of sand would be.)
Consider again the church immediately after Pentecost, teaching, praying, fellowshipping, meeting together daily, sharing possessions, giving to the needy and growing daily. Think also of how John Wesley created a rapidly expanding missionary movement by both experiencing the power of God and organising the people. Then we begin to get an understanding of what church membership is about.
Churches cannot operate if everybody just hangs loose and floats around the edges. There is work to be done. There is a mission to be accomplished. A church cannot be a tight, motivated, trained and equipped workforce if no one is quite sure who belongs and who doesn’t; who is committed and who isn’t; who will show up when needed and who might or might not.
A church cannot even do a good job of equipping and training its team if there is no sense of belonging. If you remember back to a sermon Fergus preached a while ago, training people requires relationships where there is example and teaching and reflection and imitation and encouragement and accountability and safety and challenge. Imagine trying to do those things if no one is really committed to it.
A church cannot even do a good job of caring for its people without knowing that Person X belongs to us and we have a responsibility to her.
Sometimes, unfortunately, discipline is required to maintain the integrity of the church. But a church has no authority to discipline someone who is not a member. Of course, that is why some people won’t to be members – no accountability – but a church cannot be strong if there are no standards and it is just an amorphous collection of people with no real commitment to one another.
The church that Jesus established was one to which people belonged and because they belonged there were the benefits of being loved and supported, of having a role to play, of iron sharpening iron and of growing together; of being co-workers with God in His mission. The things that are meant to happen in a church require that people are not just loosely associated but are members.
Churches will have different systems. Some will have a roll. Some just keep the information in their heads but either way there is awareness of who is committed to this church and who is not. No sensible organisation would put its future into the hands of people who were not committed to that organisation and willing to state and demonstrate that commitment. It would just be suicide. That is why, for example, Paul lists the qualities that should be seen in a potential elder or deacon. Don’t put inappropriate people into key positions. Know who your people are and know where they are at in their Christian walk.
Pentecost remembered the giving of the law on Mt Sinai but it was also the Jewish harvest festival. There was a great harvest of souls on that day when the Holy Spirit was poured out but without some immediate organisation that harvest would have been lost. It would have simply dissipated. Without being embraced by the church and incorporated into the church, many of the converts would have simply fallen away again. Good structure in a church is required to preserve the harvest.
But those new converts were not simply protected. They were being readied for mission. Some returned to their own nations soon after and began their own churches. Others stayed in Jerusalem but when persecution broke out, the grassroots Christians were scattered; the apostles stayed in Jerusalem.
Acts 8:4 Those who had been scattered preached the word of God wherever they went.
These ordinary Christians, by being embraced in fellowship and being committed to that fellowship, had grown and been readied to be part of God’s mission.
I believe it is still God’s strategy that His people commit to a local church both to preserve the harvest and to multiply the harvest.
- What are the dangers of too much structure (or organisation) in a church? What are the dangers of too little?
- How do you think the right balance might be maintained?
- How would you define church membership?
- Do you think membership is an appropriate aspect of organisation in a church? Why or why not?
- How would you describe the church “membership” apparent in the Acts 2 church?
- What functions of a church cannot happen well without some form of committed belonging?