As I read through the scriptures, I think often of the dramatic, radical faith of the early believers. Then, I spend a lot of time in churches in North America whose faith, frankly, seems weak. I wonder if the early church might ask us these questions today:
- Where is Jesus in your preaching? Church historian Michael Green has written that the early church “preached a person.”[i] I’m not sure the same can be said of much of contemporary preaching.
- Why do you tolerate sin? The early church sometimes did this, too (see 1 Cor. 5, for example), but they learned the importance of holiness. I suspect they’d be surprised by a church that looks much like the world.
- Do you really believe Jesus is coming back? Knowing that Jesus could come back at any moment, the early believers lived with a sense of urgency that marked all their life. Now, centuries closer to His return, we seem to have lost that urgency.
- What is your faith costing you? The early church knew the reality of persecution, and they came to understand it to be part of Christianity. They would have little framework for understanding complaints about, for example, . . . the church building being too hot or too cold . . . .
- Why do your pastors do most of the work? Again, Michael Green captures the picture of the early church: “This [spreading the Good News] must often have been not formal preaching, but the informal chattering to friends and chance acquaintances, in homes and wine shops, on walks, and around market stalls. They went everywhere where gossiping the gospel.”[ii] My hunch is that these early believers would not see much “gossiping the gospel” among laypersons today.
- Do you believe in the powers? When Paul warned them about principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12), they understood his words. I grant that our Western worldview is different from theirs, but they would have little room for denying that such powers exist.
- Why do baptism and the Lord’s Supper mean so little to you? These identifying acts were pivotal for the early church; in fact, they were sometimes even dangerous. Simply treating baptism and the Lord’s Supper as an add-on to the service would make little sense to them.
- Why aren’t your churches growing? Multiple times the book of Acts describes the growth of the early church (e.g., 2:41, 2:47, 4:4, 5:14, 6:1, 6:7, 8:12). The statements are so recurrent, in fact, that it seems the church just expected people to respond to the gospel. I’m not sure what they’d think about churches where the majority are plateaued or in decline.
So, what do we do? We must not get discouraged and give up; rather, we begin to pray, “God, make us the church You want us to be. Use us to turn cities upside down.”
I don’t think they will ask the last question, “why aren’t your churches growing?” They would know the reason. The answers to the other questions are the reasons why our churches aren’t growing!
Good, thought-providing material! Thank you!