Acts4vs32-37; 11vs27-30. Church Growing Pains.
In the familiar passage at the end of the day of Pentecost several characteristics of a church on the move with God are highlighted. The people who made up the Jerusalem congregations were a teaching and learning people, a worshipping and praying people, and a giving and receiving people. This all happened as they frequently met together and responsibly put their Christian beliefs into practice. In a materialistic world like ours today the recapturing of a Christian faith that helps every individual Christian use his money and his possessions in a way that will always please God is of paramount importance. The witness of a person so securely gripped by God that he willingly loosens his own grasp of all other things is dramatic. It is outstandingly different from the spirit of our age.
There are extremes to be avoided on either side of a healthy attitude. Some Christians try to argue that God is far above money and materialism and they say that God is not even remotely interested in how we use what we ourselves have earned. This piously ignorant attitude only shows that these Christians have not carefully read the accounts of Jesus Christ's own life and teachings. Money appears on so many Gospel pages.
Jesus taught his disciples to give secretly to the needy, Matthew 6vs2-4, and to invest far more in heavenly treasures than earthly ones, Matthew 6vs19-21. When he sent the twelve disciples out to preach the kingdom of heaven, he promised to supply their material needs through the people ministered to, Matthew 10vs9 and 10. When a multitude needed feeding and the disciples had no resources of their own, Jesus used a little boy's freely donated lunch to feed everyone satisfactorily, Mark 6vs35-44. He miraculously provided for the temple tax when it was due, even though he could have argued for exemption, Matthew 17vs24-27; and he urged all citizens to pay due taxes to the government of the day, Mark 12vs13-17. He warned a rich young man that continuing selfishness over his great wealth was a serious obstacle to his desire of following Christ, Matthew 19vs16-22. Jesus also told parables about wages and investments, contracts and trusts, Matthew 20vs1-16, 25vs14-30. He was certainly interested in the attitude of the giver more than the monetary value of the gift, Luke 21vs1-4.
The other extreme to be avoided is a fraudulent teaching of western Christianity which says that God wants his children to enjoy the best of salaries and the most luxurious homes and cars, the prosperity of materialism being a sign of spiritual blessing. There are some authors I have read that I would love to accompany me to the flourishing churches in Sudan's camps for displaced tribal people. I would challenge them to teach their distortions of truth in that context. How can they explain Scriptures like 1 Timothy 6vs6? Godliness is not a means to financial gain, "but godliness with contentment is great gain". Paul's own testimony in Philippians 4vs12 says "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want". There is no doubt at all that "my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus", Philippians 4vs19. But if Christians ignore God's advice about the slavery of debt, the deceitfulness of riches, the results of loving money and ignoring the desperate plight of others, then the church will not be a New Testament church.
Acts 4vs32 shows us that the resources of the Jerusalem church consisted simply of the total resources of every member of it. "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No-one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had". Just like in Acts 2vs44 and 45 here again the Christians demonstrate that people are more important than possessions. The needs of some were met with the money raised by others selling surplus property to meet immediate requirements. Acts 4vs36 and 37 helps us to see that the church that shares everything is made up of individuals who have learned to share. The Authorised version: "they had all things in common" translates the Greek 'koinos' and Latin 'communis'. Everybody shared everything because everything belonged to the community in any case! For the church to be strong every person needed to be strong. Any weakness made the whole church vulnerable. Collectively they all ensured individual needs were satisfied. When problems developed in the mechanics of sharing top priority was given by the whole church to an acceptable resolution of the crisis, Acts 6vs1-7.
Because the needs around us today are so great, the growing church needs to balance realism against rashness. Ten years ago a rat ran over a startled lady's foot in our mid-week prayer meeting at Redruth. There was a damp problem in the building which was built, over a small stream, more than a hundred years before. How could 60-70 people possibly raise thousands of pounds to effectively solve the problem once and for all, and in doing so, create a pleasant and functional building for church activities? Development and renovation plans were drawn up and costed. The church prayed together. The leadership invited every member to make an intelligent guess as to how much extra money they could give during the next two years towards this work. To many people this was a step of faith in deciding before God a financial commitment: their part in the overall church project. We discovered that approximately half of what was needed could be raised in this way. The church prayed again. We had done our part individually, could we now trust God to provide the balance? Perhaps as a sensible steward (or perhaps lacking in faith!) I arranged with our church's bank an overdraft facility to enable the contractors to be paid as the work was completed stage by stage. Just over two years later the new concrete floor was completed, the four classrooms and re-equipped kitchen were carpetted. new chairs and tables, a gas central heating system, a suspended ceiling were installed to reduce ongoing costs, and all the workmen were paid in full on or before the due dates. The overdraft facility had not been used. Some capital from church members and friends had been borrowed interest-free for a half-roof replacement which unexpectedly became essential as the other work progressed, but other offered monies did not have to be utilised. More people were joining the church as they were converted. The resource base grew as the congregation increased. Our missionary commitments and evangelistic commitments were not curtailed in any way, and in fact increased as the months rolled by. There were times when God's supply was at the last moment and other occasions when we expected the bills to arise because we had so much on hand. In a limited way we had tried to follow Paul's guidance from 2 Corinthians 9vs7, "Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver". We had certainly proved verse 8 to be true: "And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work". We tried not to be penny-pinching nor to use pounds unnecessarily. We trusted God and took our own responsibilities seriously. It was an experience in giving that ran parallel with a time of growing both spiritually and numerically. People grew in Christian maturity as they put biblical principles on money into practice. The congregation grew in numbers as the Lord graciously added every week (not every day!) those who were being saved. The whole exercise was such an encouragement to everyone involved.
I recommend strongly to any fellowship of Christians who are put off from enhancing their ministry because of the cost of men or materials in the development programme, consider carefully the cost of not going ahead. It is possible to say "We cannot afford to do this" when we should be saying "We cannot afford not to do this". When we stop actively trusting God and only do what we can manage ourselves, church becomes just another local social club, hardly demonstrating at all the living presence of Jesus Christ.
When I have been teaching Christian stewardship in our pastors' and evangelists' conferences in other countries objections have sometimes been made on the grounds of poverty. "It's all very well for you affluent British Christians to live this way, but we have barely enough to feed ourselves and our families. We must rely on western aid to help us". This statement is wrong on at least two counts. Firstly, all trust must be in God alone and not in any other better-off Christian. Our needs are for God to supply however He chooses. Secondly, the Macedonian churches set a precedent for all poor Christians to follow, 2 Corinthians 8vs1-4. Notice the adjectives in verse 2: "Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity". God's grace enabled these believers to give sacrificially beyond their own abilities. Since Jesus Christ used five bread sticks and two fish to feed five thousand people, dare we say "my little contribution makes no difference to God's work today"? Paul tells the Corinthians in verse 12 "For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have". In Indonesia and in the Sudan I have accepted very small gifts of money given to me after my teaching. To me the cash value was practically nil, although to the villagers who donated it was costly. I have accepted these gifts because it showed that these believers were beginning to live by the Bible's financial principles. In each case the Christian community has received clothes, books, medicines etc. when I have left. Their giving brought an indirect reward in kind (which would have happened anyway!). But the spiritual lessons learned in practice could prove of immense value as the churches realise that as they share their own resources, they can support their own ministries and they are blessed as they give.
In Acts 11vs27-30 the one year old church at Antioch is made aware of impending famine disaster for believers elsewhere. "The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul". The Macedonian Christians facilitated Paul's ministry at Corinth, 2 Corinthians 11vs9, and elsewhere, Philippians 4vs15. At other times Paul worked with his own hands to meet the needs of himself and his team, Acts 18vs3, 20vs34.
The pooling of resources involves more than money. Giving was an attitude of life cultivated by the early Christians. In Acts 2vs45 and 4vs34 and 35 they gave cash to meet daily needs. In Acts 6vs1 a daily food distribution was underway. In Acts 9vs19-28 some in the churches of Damascus and Jerusalem gave hospitality to a new convert, Saul, and this involved considerable risk to themselves. There are several countries of the world today where this is a vital ministry God calls some to engage in. Hospitality was given to God's servants, Acts 10vs6, and to those who came seeking spiritual help, vs 23. An open heart for God led to Lydia's home being opened for His work at Philippi in Acts 16vs14 and 15. Aquila and Priscilla shared their home and job with Paul at Corinth in Acts 18vs2 and 3 and they used their home as a training centre for Apollos, vs26. Christian workers gave as well as received hospitality, Acts 21vs8-10, where Philip and his family entertained Paul's preaching team.
A simple poem I wrote in August 1969, just before I started my ministry with Ambassadors For Christ, still sums up for me the attitude I try to keep year by year towards God and His work.
MY PRAYER August 1969
What Gifts have I to offer, Lord,
To One so great as You?
How can my thoughts, and deeds, and words
Do anything for You?
It is beyond my feeble mind
To comprehend this need:
That God in heaven, all powerful, kind,
For His work relies on me!
What right have I to withhold from you
All that You've given to me,
When I consider all You've done
By dying on Calvary?
O Lord, You've every right to judge
If I misuse my time.
Help me to let my actions, all
Be governed, Lord, by Thine.
Where can I go? What can I do?
Christ conquered sin for me.
Surely I must tell all the world
That they can now be free.
God, grant that I may give my all
For the task I'm given to do;
Lord, give me grace to heed Your call
To reach the world for You. Amen
Paul told the Corinthian Christians, "Just as you excel in everything - in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us - see that you also excel in this grace of giving." 2 Corinthians 8vs7. Don't be concerned about what other people do. If you do what God wants you to do you will be successful in His eyes.
Share in your group the things Jesus gave up to come to earth.
Now share the things Christians find hard to give up or are unwilling to place at Jesus' disposal.
"My church gives to overseas missionaries and I give to help feed the starving". How would you help someone think through the Christian attitude to giving.