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9. Changing church structure

Acts 6vs1-7. Church Growing Pains.

In our terraced house in Redruth the only bathroom and toilet we have is downstairs. When the houses were originally built, more than one hundred years ago, there would only have been a privy in the garden. When Brenda and I moved there in 1987 we were able to redevelop the back of the house creating a modern kitchen and small sitting area which provided a proper link between the bathroom and the rest of the house. We considered trying to extend the first floor as well as the ground floor so as to include at least toilet facilities near the bedroom, but we were unable to. The reason was the foundations under the old kitchen and lean-to walls. The Local Authority building regulations pronounced these foundations were inadequate for a second storey and everything would need to be demolished and rebuilt on stronger foundations if we were to extend up above the ground floor.

The growth of a church is similarly enhanced or stifled by the background church-government structures. If one man can adequately pastor fifty people his congregation may increase as people see others being helped. That one man is then stretched to breaking point trying to pastor one hundred people in the same way as he pastored fifty. Since fifty people were his full-time occupation where can he find the extra time to care for double the number? Perhaps Christian ministers should have lessons from Joshua and Hezekiah on making the sun stand still or go backwards? There have to be easier ways!

The church in Jerusalem grew rapidly. In Acts 1vs15 the believers could be counted at about 120; Acts 2vs41 adds about 3000; Acts 4vs4 reckons the number of men in the church to be 5000; by Acts 5vs14 "nevertheless more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number". Acts 6vs7 records the number of disciples living in Jerusalem increasing rapidly and including a large number of Jewish priests. With all these people in the fellowships it is no surprise there was room for complaints. In Acts 6 we are introduced to some of the growing pains of the church. "Murmurings" (KJV), "disagreements" (NEB) or "complaints" (NIV) all translate the lovely Greek word 'Gongusmos'. The implications of the word are that a lot of muttering was going on in private because the converts from a Greek background felt they were being discriminated against in favour of converts from a Hebrew background. The problem was not a sign of a lack of church growth, it was highlighted because the church was growing so fast. It had outgrown its structure. In Acts 1-5 the apostles carried almost all the burden of the church themselves. In Acts 6 they realised it could not go on that way. Perhaps one of them had read the story of Jethro visiting Moses in Exodus 18 as a quiet time reading. They certainly seemed to heed the priest of Midian's wise counsel. Jethro said to his son-in-law Moses: "What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone ... select capable men from all the people - men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain - and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens", Exodus 18vs17, 18, 21.

This problem surfaces in different ways. One church I pastored grew from a congregation of fifty to more than one hundred and fifty as God blessed the witness of the Christians in their everyday lives. Some folk who had been in the church for years were disappointed. "This fellowship used to be so friendly. We used to know everybody who came. Where did the friendliness go?" The answer was that the friendliness had not gone. It was practically more difficult for one person to get to know one hundred and forty-nine others. Some had enough problem remembering ten names correctly. In this fellowship the issue was complicated by holidaymakers who would swell the ranks. Our members did well at saying over coffee: "Welcome to Redruth Baptist today. May I ask where you come from?" Sometimes I was embarrassed, as others were, when the reply was: "Oh, I live in Redruth and have been coming regularly for the last three months!"

Growth pains are real. They are not easy to cope with. They are not, however, a sign that God has stopped working or that desperate measures need to be taken. A church that is planning to grow should prepare structures that will adequately cater for that growth, much like excited parents-to-be decorate the small bedroom and buy clothes, toys and a special bed in readiness for 'junior's' arrival.

From Acts we can learn some of the needs for change. There was an administrative need. An efficient organisation had to be set up to supervise fair distribution of the God-inspired community food programme, Acts 6vs1. Also there was a ministry need. The Twelve had to ensure they remained available for their God-given preaching and praying ministry, Acts 6vs2, 4. No-one in the church disputed it. They all knew what the apostles were called to do and they were all going to make sure the apostles were enabled to keep doing it.

I think we can also see here a need for consolidation of the work. The Twelve did not want to lose their effective ministry amongst the recent Greek and Hebrew converts. Neither did they wish to hinder the expansion of their evangelistic preaching and teaching. They had to strike a balance between advancing and maintaining. Every bit of the ministry was God-initiated and so they needed to discover and implement His solution to the immediate crisis. Church leadership always needs to be governed by the needs of today, not the trust deeds or traditions of yesterday. Good foundations are to be built on. Weak foundations need to be superceded. Legitimate, but changing demands will require Holy Spirit led alterations to plans and patterns that have evolved through the centuries.

Some people argue "Just leave it to the Holy Spirit and He will sort things out. We need do nothing." What spiritual blindness! In Acts 6 it was the Holy Spirit who resolved the situation as He led the apostles to call a church meeting and as He impressed on the congregation the men He was selecting to serve in particular ways. God the Holy Spirit worked as the people addressed themselves to the problem. Paul and Barnabas brought consolidation to their later missionary work in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch when they "appointed/ordained/had elders elected for them in each church, and with prayer and fasting committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust", Acts 14vs23. They knew they could not personally remain in those towns so they initiated a basic structure under God that would enable His work to continue unhindered.

Acts 8vs1 describes an event that demanded a change in church structure. Suddenly the congregation was dispersed far and wide as a result of intense persecution. The Greek word for "scattered" comes from two other words meaning "to sow seed" and "throughout". God was helping the Christians to fulfil the Great Commission, but it stretched the mechanics of their church government. Only the small leadership group remained in Jerusalem. An army of Christians was planting Gospel seeds all over the other towns and villages.

In Acts 11vs22-26 the church had to respond to new openings God had brought about.

The leadership did not specifically tell anyone to go to Antioch and witness to every ethnic group, but some of the believers had seen a work of God drawing people to Himself as they did it. Barnabas was immediately dispatched to discover what was happening 300 miles away from the headquarters. True to his name Barnabas encouraged the things he could see had God's stamp of approval, even though they were not a pre-scheduled part of a five-year plan, nor had they ever been done anywhere before! Growth prompted change.

The young eldership of the Galatian churches appointed in Acts 14vs21-28 was entrusted with the care of new converts although they did not have much experience themselves. Paul did not leave them entirely on their own. He made several visits himself, and through his representatives, and he also wrote at least one teaching letter to them to help them combat traditional errors.

The apostles in Jerusalem did not attempt to lead the developing churches dictatorially. When Paul and Barnabas brought a delegation to their Council in Acts 15 the believers were seeking guidance over the place of Jewish rules in Christian fellowships. The clear recommendations given are an example of spiritual wisdom, tact and grace. The simple message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ never changes, but its practical application to a constantly changing world demands careful attention.

The key to success has more to do with the kind of people working within the structures than the structures themselves. Reading Acts 6 we benefit from the Twelve's stipulations over the prospective administrators of the church's feeding programme. The people who were selected and the principles of their selection make for interesting thinking and application to the church today: whether the church is looking for elders, housegroup leaders, children's work teachers, social workers or whoever. Why they chose seven we don't know, except it was obviously enough to share the responsibility without overburdening them. There were upwards of 5000 to choose from, Acts 4vs4. They did not just appoint any old person who was willing to stand for the job. The positions were not given to special friends or family members. Nor was a wealthy man given the job to keep him on side. Every man had to show these five qualities:-

1. They were local men. Acts 6vs3 begins, "Brothers, choose seven men from among you..." They had to be believers from the same environment as the congregation. They needed to be aware of the problem that had been happening and they should be in touch with the latest developments.

2. They were known men. These men must be "known to be" possessors of certain attributes we will discuss in a moment. They had to be men whose lives were open, men who were discerned to be true by the congregation. They were allowed no cupboards for skeletons to hide in. The way western news reporters and television journalists investigate public figures today verges on the criminal. In pursuit of 'the public's right to know' the individual is permitted very little privacy. People who serve in the church should have proven, attested, genuine and good characters. What they were prior to their conversion should not be held against them. The new creation in Christ is the one who is being of value in Christ's church.

3. They were spiritual men. If they were "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom", they probably did not mention those facts themselves. A person who has to state his own attributes possesses them inadequately. One who is spiritually mature, or quickly maturing, is quite obvious to those around him. To be full of the Holy Spirit entails being emptied of selfish ambition, pride in position, lordliness and authoritarianism. Peter wrote later on, "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen". 1 Peter 4vs10 and 11. To be absolutely full of something means to be liable to overflow when moved! These men were to be overflowing with spiritual wisdom, discernment, counsel and grace.

4. They were responsible men. Acts 6vs3 continues "...we will turn this responsibility over to them". The apostles were appointing these men to an important position of authority. J.B. Philips paraphrases their task as "to look after the accounts". The men were trustworthy in every respect. The apostles and the people had confidence in them. Because the Twelve were hoping to give them the job and leave it completely to them to manage, they had to choose men who would grasp any arising nettles. If they had to keep checking what their 'deacons' were doing the Twelve would still have had little time for prayer and Bible study.

5. They were men suited to this particular task. "this responsibility". Their appointment had a clear job description. Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas are all names indicating the men came from Gentile backgrounds. They were ideal for dealing with the Grecian Jews and their complaints. There was no cover up. They were humanly qualified, as well as spiritually qualified, for the job.

We all need to be where God wants us to be, doing what God wants us to do in the way He wants us to do. When we know we are doing what we are called to do, we know we can accomplish all that the task demands because He who calls also equips.

When God initiates change He will bring it about through men and women who are totally about His business. The apostles gave themselves sacrificially to prayer and the ministry of the word, Acts 6vs4. They would allow no other priorities. The church of Jesus Christ would always have first call on their time. In united prayer they went to God on behalf of the people and then to the people on behalf of God. They engaged in spiritual warfare on their knees. The word of God was given quality time as they learned in their studies and taught their Bible classes. Paul and Barnabas did similarly at Antioch in Acts 11vs26. And to enable them to keep to these goals, the Twelve commissioned others to different vital ministries within the church, Acts 6vs6. They had quickly taken the initiative in vs2 and they were not slow in seeing it through to completion. Had they procrastinated the problem would have spread and they would have lost much more of their own precious time. The results of such leadership are thrilling. Acts 6vs7 "So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith". Stephen, whom God was to use in such a special way among synagogue members and even the Sanhedrin, came into the ministry through this change in structure, Acts 6vs8 and 9. Philip the evangelist who went to Samaria and was instrumental in starting the African church was given his first recognition, and opportunities. God works out His purpose as we are willing to change ourselves and our ways to conform to what He requires of us for today.

Just one more thought on this - what situations should motivate thinking about changing structures? In many conversations with non-Christians as I have missioned in England from house to house or in busy public places, I have discovered that a significant majority of people have rejected the church but they have not rejected God. If some of our church traditions and structures are barriers to the lost hearing the Gospel it is time we ventured out of our safety zones, sacrificed our own preferences, and shared Jesus Christ in His reality and relevance. Is there anything else in your community, other than church, that starts at 6pm? How many children are with the other half of their family only on Sundays? Is it therefore better to invite them for Christian instruction on a different day? How much time does our church diary of events allow our members to simply befriend the lost folk round and about them? If people reject church it is not too serious. If people reject God because of church, something desperately needs changing.

Discussion questions

  • Share together some statistics:

How many people are there in your fellowship?

How many people are you acquainted with?

How many people do you really know well?

Would small caring groups within the whole be beneficial?

  • How many leaders are there in your fellowship?

  • How many jobs are you expecting each of them to do?

  • Is there a difference of status or only of role between administrative and ministry jobs?

  • Is 'survival' a sufficient motive for change or does Jesus give us another motive?


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