Church Growth

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Over the last 10 weeks we have been looking at a very exciting part of the Bible that describes the first ever church, which was formed in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. Tonight is the last study in this series, but do not worry at all if this is your first time here because we are going to look at the whole passage together again now. You’ll find it in Acts chapter 2 and I’ll read from vv38-47:- [Peter is one of the 12 men chosen by Jesus as his closest disciples or followers. He is speaking here to a group of Jews in Jerusalem about 50 days after Jesus was killed and came back to life.]

Peter replied, "Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call."

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Tonight we are concentrating just on that last sentence and our theme is ‘church growth’.

Some people like to make a few notes as we go along – maybe something that especially strikes you. To save you guessing I’ll tell you right now what my point is. It is this; Church Growth is God’s Plan. Again, in case you missed that: Church Growth is God’s Plan. First I’ll explain what I mean by that, and then we’ll spend some time asking what that means to us as individuals and for us as a church.

So back to the passage I have just read. This first ever church was growing. More and more people were ‘being saved’ (which means becoming Christians) and joining this family of believers that was the church. And who was in charge of this? What was the reason the church was growing? The answer in both cases is ‘the Lord’, which means God. God was in charge and he was the one adding people to the church. “The Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

Notice that the church I am talking about is NOT A BUILDING. In English, the word can refer to building, but the church here refers to PEOPLE. It’s a community of people. So when we talk about church growth we are not talking about getting a bigger building! I once went to a church in Mombasa, Kenya and their vision was to build the biggest church in the city so that it could be seen for miles. But that is not something the Bible is concerned about. The church is really the people and it is the community people, not the building, that is to grow and to be visible.

Talking of buildings, have you ever noticed that humans are BUILDERS but animals are not? I know there are a few exceptions such as birds and bees building nests and so on, but in general animals do not build. We don’t see any sheep driving 4 wheel drives around Jesmond for example. But humans! Well, we have something in us that makes us want to build.

This should not be a surprise because of course the Bible says that we are made in “the image of God”. We are made in the image of a God who, among other things, constructs and builds and creates. Genesis 1:1 (the first ever verse in the Bible) says

God created the heavens and the earth.

And after creating the world, he created men and women in his image as the climax of his world! And so it is no surprise that humans also build things!

But if God is fundamentally a builder, how could he not build anymore when he had finished creating the world?

You’ll know what I mean by that if you know anyone who has retired from a job they loved. My mum, for example, has brought up me and my 5 brothers and sisters. It was tough (as you would expect) but what do you think she did as soon as we were all grown up? She started helping out at the local school. She is a natural mother and has since “adopted” lots of kids. It is such a part of who she is. I am sure you can think of other examples such as retired managers who keep bossing people around and so on.

God is like that. After creating the heavens and the earth he moved on to a tougher, higher, more comprehensive building project. Have a look at Genesis 12. (Find a bit of paper to keep in Acts 2.)

The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.

" I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."

He is speaking here thousands of years ago to Abram (who later become Abraham) and God is saying, “I am going to build something amazing”! He was going to build a community of people who, he says, will be his people. He will give them a land to live in and they will love each other and God in a radical way. They will be a people who will become a blessing to the whole world. Genesis 12 is the day when the greatest construction project in all of history was launched. It was all about building a community, a community that we now call the church.

And while the first part of Genesis deals with the creation of the world, the rest of the Bible is about this ‘construction project’. The project of God’s to build up his church. That is what it is all about. It is the story of all that God does to form that ultimate community and the stories of the human beings included by God in that construction project.

And this passage we have just read together from Acts 2 (thousands of years later) is part of what God had been working towards. Turn back to that in your bibles.

The world then and now is described in verse 40 as a “corrupt generation” who have rejected God and who live their lives as if he does not exist. That means that they were under God’s judgement and needed to be saved. That is the reality for us all as well. The God who created the whole world has been ignored and rejected, not just by those people but by the entire world. And that is the greatest obstacle to the creation of this community called church that God was building.

But to do that (and this is the bit of the story that comes between Genesis 12 and Acts 2) God had to send his son Jesus Christ to come to the earth, and though he was perfect he died for us. He took on himself the punishment we deserved and died for us on the cross. That is what we remember when we take the bread and drink the wine as we will do later. Those who repent and accept this message are saved and taken out of this corrupt community of the world and added to the community of the church. God solves that greatest problem of our rejection of him and builds his church. You see that in verses 38-41:-

Peter replied, "Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call."

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

If you are not a Christian, then there is a special invitation for you here. Do you want to be a part of the church, the radical community of love and life, rather than the corrupt community of the world heading for disaster? You cannot do this by trying harder or being better or by doing anything to save yourselves. You do not need to be ‘good enough’ to become a part of it. Unless you understand that you will never understand what the church is all about. In order to become a part of the church all you have to do is accept God’s invitation to wipe clean your sins because of what Jesus has done. God does demand of us total holiness but what he demands from us he provides for us. We come able to offer nothing. All we can do to save ourselves is accept his invitation. That is what verse 40 means when it talks about saving yourself.

So how do we accept his invitation? Talk to him. That is what prayer is. Just talk to him. In normal language – you don’t need long words or anything. It doesn’t even have to be in English! Tell him you believe he is the creator God, Tell him you are sorry you have ignored him and lived your life as if he did not exist. Thank him for providing a way you can be forgiven. Not because you deserve it. Not because you are good. But because Jesus died for you. Ask him to make you a part of his community.

If you do that he will forgive you and you will become a member of the church. Maybe you need to do that tonight. If you do, please tell someone else so help can help you grow in your faith, as you join the group of believers that God has been building.

So God’s plan has always been that the church would grow. That is his plan. And the rest of the book of Acts is full of examples of how the church does grow. In number, in maturity and across the world it grows. And it is ALL God’s work. Church Growth is God’s Plan. Acts is full of exciting stories. If you haven’t read it then I would encourage you to sit down soon and read it. You will see how GOD made sure the church grew. Verse 47 does give a good summary of Acts, “And the Lord added to their number those who were being saved”.

But Church Growth was not just God’s plan in the time of Acts. We too live in exciting times! We do need to be realistic about the state of our world, but we should be realistic optimists. Do we really believe that God is in charge of everything in the world? We live in a time of globalisation and extraordinary migration across the world. What is God doing? Remember his plan? He is growing his church.

Part of this vast movement of people around the world at the moment is so that they can encounter the gospel even if they could not in their home countries. Go to Beijing in China. It is fascinating. Who is being converted? Any guesses? Chinese! Yes, but even more amazingly – North African Muslims (sent by their government because it is ‘safe’), and Christians from sub-Saharan Africa are going to China because it is cheap. Maybe they’d prefer not to have gone. But they are radiant evangelists and converting North Africans who were shut to the gospel in their own country and God has moved them so they could hear the Gospel, so they could hear that invitation so he could grow his church.

It is exactly the same with asylum seekers and International Students in Newcastle and across the country. What is God doing? It is exciting! We are at the sharp end of God’s plan to grow his church. These people are in our country for all sorts of reasons. But God is in charge. He is growing his church. Some are here because they will not get a chance to hear about God in their own country. They may become Christians here and go back to tell their own people about how they too can be saved. Some who come are Christians. Why is God sending them here? Because the church in England and England itself desperately needs them. God is building his church.

So you see Church Growth is God’s Plan. He has always been about building for himself a community called the church. That is his building project.

There are a huge number of applications from this truth. As a church, as individuals, we need to take it on board see how it affects our plans and our prayers and how we do all that we do. I’m going to draw out just a few of the implications.

But first - time for a breather. Imagine you have just been given 10 million pounds. What would you do with it? Now of course we are all in church and good people so we would give some of it to church and then make sure our families were all taken care of and give some to the poor and so on - all very worthwhile and good things to do. But then what? I imagine most of would think something like this. “Ahh, now I finally have the resources I need to build something”. If you could build anything you like, what would it be? What would you build? Turn to the person next to you and tell them what you would build …

I’m not sure what things you came up with, but after you’ve built that, after you have ridden or lived in it? What then? I guess those of us who are Christians would still want to build, to build something more substantial and longer lasting and less material, because you were born to be a builders. God created us in his image to be builders. And he made us to build with more than with bricks and mortar and with metal and plastic. When you became a Christian you were born to have an interest in his eternal radical community that was launched in Genesis 12 and that we have caught a glimpse of in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit does that work in us and puts that desire in us.

Everyone here is busy building something. It may be a business or our education; it may be a client base or a financial empire or that dream house. You are building something. The big question both for us as individuals and as a church together is this:-

Is our best energy and effort going into building what matters most?

Since Jesus has left the earth he has been building his church. That is God’s plan and has always been God’s plan. There is nothing that is more important than that. He is committed to building his church. The question for us is, “Is that we are committed to?”

This is not meant to make us feel guilty but to help us to stop and think about this again. How do you tell if this is what we are committed to? I think the answer is obvious. We all know what commitment looks like. But I have 3 questions to help us think it through:-

1. Have you ever formally told God that you would give him your best energy, efforts and creative talents to building that community, his church?

That does not mean that you will not work in the business world or doing other things. But are we as serious about this? Serious enough to formally declare our intentions to God to give our best to build his church? Nothing else is more important. When did you do that? Do you remember when? Maybe like me, you can remember several times - we do have that desire and we need to keep declaring our intentions, but I remember two times. Firstly when I was very young, about 15 or 16, I went to hear a missionary talking about the work they’d been doing in the Congo. Then I realised that the people who he had been working with at that period would have been lost without the Gospel, and the challenge went out ‘Do you want to be part of what God is doing - to tell the whole world about him?’ I remember in my heart thinking, ‘Yes! Yes! I want to do that.’ and I remember him saying, ‘Be very careful about doing this - you don’t know where you might end up.’ I thought I’d go abroad but God had other plans; he is sovereign. Another time was when I was at university and I was thinking about what I should do next and I had a choice of continuing my academic work or doing a year as a parish assistant. I was trying to decide what I should do. I remember Ian dragging me off to a thing called 9:38 (which is an opportunity to think about full-time Christian work). During the conference I remember being struck by the fact that actually it didn’t matter whether I worked for a church or whether I worked doing a PhD investigating rotten carrots (which is what it would be). The point was ‘Am I committed to extending God’s kingdom?’ Because I could just as easily be working in a church and not committed to that as I could be working for a PhD and working for that. The question was ‘Am I committed?’ I’d never been asked that question quite like that before I remember thinking about it and thinking ‘Yes.’ They were just 2 times for me. Maybe today is the time when you need to do that. Are you ready to sign up? Say it to God, ‘Yes, I believe I was born to be a builder.’ Do you want to be a part of building something eternal, something that will last forever? That doesn’t mean all becoming church workers, or working hard to pay for the church workers to do the ‘ministry’. It means you being involved in what God is doing and finding your role in the church. It’s about every single one of us who are believers tonight being a part of building that church. One of our roles on the staff is to support and help and encourage you to do that, not for us to ‘do the ministry’, but to all do it together.

Maybe you have already done this, but you need to keep asking yourself: ‘Am I willing to give my best to building his church?’ There will a huge cost. For example: if you have children how would you feel if they came home and announced they were not going to university but instead had decided to go to Kazakhstan as a missionary. After making sure they were not acting rashly or unwisely, how would you feel? Would you be willing to pay the cost? I wonder how popular the youth work at this church would be if year after year our young people ended up as missionaries.

We need to more than just agree with the concept of the growth of the church. We need to decide that we will make this the priority of our lives.

Maybe you have done that, but your energy is now dissipated or diverted. You’re involved in so many things that you have lost your focus. Maybe you need to make that commitment again. To give your best energy and efforts to building God’s church.

2. Are we following God’s plans?

Like a builder needs to follow the plans drawn up by the architect, we need to work to God’s plans. That means making sure we constantly come back to the Bible to see what God’s plans are and how we are to be a part of building his church. In the Bible we find all that we need.

And that is why we have been looking at Acts 2 these past few weeks. It is a vision of the church that God is building. Do we have that vision printed on our hearts and minds? Are we working creatively to live that out in our church? Yes, we need to adjust it to our culture. Yes, we must be careful not to make it promise things that it does not promise. But why can there not be such a community again today? Does it not leave you with a longing to see that happen to us? Does it not excite you? Then pray that God would do that with us, and then work hard at building that community in his strength. Work at reaching out to all we have contact with as a church with the invitation to be saved. Work at welcoming and loving newcomers, even when it means life is not as cosy as it once was.

But it should also spur us on to get to know his plans more and more and to saturate our life together with God’s word so that we follow God’s plans.

3. Are we willing to deal with problems?

Can you imagine what it was like when that church suddenly grew over night to 3,000 people and with new people being added EVERY DAY! Acts records for us some of the problems and struggles that faced a huge church growing fast with young, excited but immature believers.

Church Growth is God’s plan. We should expect growth. We have no promised of how or when that would happen, but God will grow his church. We need to anticipate that. We need to plan now for growth in the future.

We also need to be willing to call a problem a problem when it arises and deal with it. This needs to happen both on a personal level with hurts and frustrations that may arise between us, and on a whole church level. When we face growing pains we must be willing to deal with them and not act as if we have no problems. ALL churches have problems. ALL relationships face conflict, but not all churches and people have the courage to deal with them. For the sake of growth – we must.

4. Are we wiling to keep working at it until we die?

Building God’s church lasts to eternity. There is nothing more important than that. Are you willing to keep working at it for the rest of your life? There is nothing more important to do, and there is no such thing as retirement.

I’ve recently been able to enjoy a holiday. One of the things that I’ve been reading is a biography of Charles Simeon who was a pastor in a church in Cambridge in the 19th century. It tells of this remarkable incident in his life. When he was 47 he was struck down with an illness that meant it was very difficult for him to speak and very difficult for him to do the things he needed to do. For 13 years he endured this difficult situation and then one day, when he was 60, he was going to Scotland and, just like that, he was better. He got his voice back and he could speak again and he recovered his health completely. As he wrote, reflected, mulled over this situation, he remembered that before he was 47 he said to God, “When I’m 60 I’ll retire. I’ll work hard, I’ll commit myself to you until I’m 60 and then I’ll have a well-earned break.” And he felt that God was saying to him, “No. You will not retire when you’re 60. You’ll retire in my time.” And from the age of 60 until 82 - for the rest of his life - he preached, he carried on working for God. There was a lesson for him there, and maybe a lesson for us.

Will you make building God’s church your lifetime’s work. Will you work towards that wonderful vision at the end of the bible when God finally has built his church and in that church will be people from every nation and tongue and tribe in the whole world gathered together worshipping God because that is what he deserves? Will you work towards that goal when Jesus will meet you with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and give you the keys to your eternal home with him in heaven? That is our destiny. That is what we have to look forward to.

We looked at church growth being God’s plan, then at 4 questions -

Have you ever formally told God that you would give him your best energy, efforts and creative talents to building that community, his church? Are we following God’s plans? Are we willing to deal with problems? Are we wiling to keep working at it until we die?

May we take a minute or two to think over some of the things that we’ve talked about, a chance for you in your own time and words and space to respond to God.

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