Acts 2vs42-47. Church Growing Pains.
I recently worked out the number of meetings the averagely committed person would attend in our church during one year. Every week there would be three Sunday services, prayer meeting and Bible study mid-week or a home fellowship. If he or she was in the leadership team for one of the departments - youth, witness, music or eldership, that would mean at least one more meeting a week, maybe two. Totting up the number over a year, the staggering total is revealed, 312. Not many days left over are there? And that figure does not include any 'one off' meetings or special events!
Why do we have so many meetings? Perhaps an even more basic question would be, why do we meet at all? There are several dangerous myths that have developed in Christian circles about meetings. Have you heard the one that says "the more meetings you attend the more spiritual you are"? A variation is "if he doesn't go to the prayer meeting every week, he can't be spiritual enough to be a Sunday School teacher". This is a serious problem in many churches because we have subconsciously been schooled to 'judge' spirituality by outward appearances. Jesus Christ had some very hard words for the people he met who did that exact thing: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." Matthew 23vs27 and 28.
The skeleton of a church may be its programme, its structure of meetings and activities, but the life of that church is not automatically shown by 100 per cent slavish commitment to that skeleton. The life is in the spirit, the movement, the action, the heartbeat, the flesh and blood of born again people.
Studying Acts we can see easily that the early Christians did have meetings and, what's more, they had lots of them. Meetings themselves are not 'evil' as some believe! We have already seen that the first thing the early church did when Jesus had ascended into heaven was to meet together in Jerusalem's upper room, Acts 1vs13 and 14. Also we have noted in Acts 2vs1 the disciples were all together in one place. After Pentecost, more than 3000 people joined the new church, and we are told in Acts 2vs42-47 what they did. Two phrases demand our attention at this point. In verse 44 "all the believers were together". The meaning is that they were all for the same things. They all wanted teaching. They all needed fellowship. They all desired to break bread, to pray, and to share together. Their common interest, common needs and common purpose made it convenient for them to be together. Hence vs46 "every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread and ate together..." Those of the same mind met for their mutual benefit.
Just like anyone born again today, these early believers were being called out from a normal life in the world. It was reading Watchman Nee that helped me to see that the other side of separating ourselves from the world is joining the church. When people are born again out of life in the world, they are born into the family of the church. They are given to other Christians on trust for the Lord, and other Christians are given to them as a gift from the Lord to protect, encourage, feed and develop into maturity.
Just from reading the book of Acts we can see many reasons for the early Christian meetings. In Acts 3vs1 there were set times for praying together. In Acts 4vs24 there was a prayer meeting called to pray protection on those who were being hounded by the authorities. It was also a time of testimony and another occasion when they were filled together with the Holy Spirit. In Acts 5vs12 we read that "...all the believers used to meet together in Solomon's Colonnade." From the immediate context it would seem to show that this meeting included the receiving of gifts like those recorded from Joseph Barnabas, and the deceitful Ananias and Sapphira. These gifts were stewarded faithfully to meet seen needs among other believers. Also it would appear that the latest testimonies to God's activity among the young church, the "miraculous signs and wonders" were shared with everyone.
Something frequently forgotten is that even this church had its problems! Acts 6vs2 says that an additional meeting was called by the apostles and elders as a result. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss and decide effective action to combat immediately the problem of apparent unfairness in the distribution of food to the needy.
In Acts 11vs26 we are told that the new church at Antioch met for Bible teaching from Barnabas and Saul. The exposition of Scripture and the explanation of Christian living was so effective that the people around the believers called them 'Christians'. It was probably at these class meetings that the prophecy of famine was given and as a response an offering made to help relieve the suffering of the Christians in Judea. In Acts 12v12 Peter knew where to find a prayer meeting, in the home of Mary, mother of John Mark. Luke records "many people had gathered and were praying". A missionary testimony meeting was held at Antioch according to Acts 14vs27 and also in Jerusalem, Acts 15vs4. Later in that same chapter there was a meeting of "the apostles and elders" vs6, and subsequently "the whole church" vs22, to resolve the debate over circumcision. Should this Jewish rite be compulsory for all members of the Christian church? In Lydia's house in Philippi, Acts 16vs40, Paul and Silas held a meeting to encourage the believers following recent persecution and the conversions of the slave girl, and the jailor. At Troas, the believers met to break bread, Acts 20vs7.
From these examples we can see the New Testament church had meetings! The purposes varied. They met to praise God, to pray together, to interpret events of the day in the light of Scripture and to receive the Holy Spirit. They met for teaching, for fellowship, for Breaking Bread, to share meals, to distribute gifts to the needy, and to report miracles of God's grace. They met to decide priorities and to sort out problems that arose between them. They received offerings when they met, they heard prophecy, missionary testimony, and they sought to encourage one another to be Christians in a non-Christian world.
Sometimes they met in the temple and sometimes they met in people's homes. Aquila and Priscilla had church meetings in their home, Romans 16vs5, 1 Corinthians 16vs19, and they were not the only ones.
In a local church, perhaps especially in a small church, meetings may cause problems. There will be those mentioned before who judge spirituality by attendance at meetings. If there are only a few people in the fellowship then there will be pressure to support every meeting. The church itself may also be criticised if all its members do not support various interdenominational gatherings or special events at other places. The other side of the problem is that for all of us there are only seven evenings a week! It is all too easy to be so busy attending this meeting or that meeting that our home life and family life suffer. The church may become inadvertently responsible for breaking up families! As more and more secular jobs demand more and more of men and women's evening time, the church has to make sure it is a useful support in times of pressure rather than an extra pressure itself. The balance is very hard to draw because for different members of the congregation the needs are different. Some of the lonely singles, and perhaps couples with grown up children, would quite happily come to a meeting every evening if there was one. Other people with highly demanding jobs, like a doctor with a demanding surgery not finishing until late and then being on call for emergencies, need to be allowed to spend some time at home by themselves or with their families without feeling guilty that they are letting the side down at church. And the doctor should not be penalised, nor his gifts wasted, just because he is not always at the mid-week meeting.
Besides these examples, all Christians need to have time to be Christians with their non-Christian neighbours, or work colleagues, or wider family. I know in our church there have been some special evangelistic efforts when I have encouraged people to bring their non-Christian contacts to hear the gospel. On more than one occasion the reply has come back, "I don't have time to have any non-Christian friends, because I spend every evening at church!"
The writer to Hebrews does warn of the danger of trying to be a Christian on your own without any meetings. Hebrews 10vs24 and 25, "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching." It is a good habit to meet with the church for worship, for prayer, for study and for sharing. The local Body of Christ needs its every part to fulfil its collective purpose.
But let us not become legalistic. The spiritual life that flows through the living church does give freedom for individuals to be ministered to in their specific needs and situations. The custom of our Lord and the early apostles was to go to the synagogue, but within that general framework Philip was free to be Spirit-led to Samaria and the Ethiopian. Peter was free to be called in a vision to Cornelius. And the believers scattered by Stephen's persecution were free to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ to anyone anywhere at anytime. There was no pressure put on people to attend meetings. Those who went did so because they were moved by the Holy Spirit to do so. Their desire was set on things above the earthly life. When our meetings are similarly peopled - be the number large or small - God will be delighted, and He will show it.
Write a list together of the meetings available to members of your fellowship in a week.
What is each one designed to accomplish?
How could this be achieved better?
Why do you go to the church meetings you go to?
How should you apportion time between meetings, being alone with God and investing in building meaningful relationships with non-Christians?