If you are a student of the Bible then you know that the modern Evangelical Church in America looks little like the first church described in Acts 2:42-47. That church was characterized by devotion to the study of God’s Word, meals together and prayers. The writer of Acts said that “awe came upon every soul and many signs and wonders were being done through the apostles” (Acts 2:43). “All who believed were together and had all things in common” (v. 44). They even sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with those who were in need (v.45). Generosity and gladness filled their hearts and they praised God and found favor among the people (v46-47).
Today’s church looks more like a typical American entertainment enterprise. Large amphitheaters surround a big dais backed by video screens. Sophisticated amplification systems control the sound. Bands play contemporary music that sways the emotions but has little theological content. Preachers roam the stage looking chic in their jeans and open-collared shirts. They preach a non-threatening, therapeutic gospel designed to appeal to seekers who might be offended by the notion of a righteous God who judges sin. God has become a celestial benefactor instead of Someone worthy of our praise and awe. In fact, reverence is a concept so alien to our culture that the word ‘awesome’ has been dumbed down to mean anything that is simply pleasing or impressive.
The aim of Bible study is to meet needs rather than to know Christ. The study of scripture is selective rather than systematic. Rather than doing the Christian life together, spiritual life and growth has been completely individualized. Christian community has been relegated to small groups to allow for the growth of mega-staffs that can support mega-ministries. People have become disconnected from the larger life of the church. Miss a service and no one knows. Miss a month and no one calls. Suffer a loss or hardship and bear the burden alone.
Because the demands of the faith have been softened, giving has dropped to an average of 4% of income. Rather than save so they can share their wealth with fellow believers who are less fortunate, many members have gone so deep in debt that they cannot even afford to pay their own bills. Financial management franchises run by Christian entrepreneurs have sprung up to help people get a grip on their money. And where meals together were a common practice in the first church, congregations rarely share a meal today. In fact, hospitality has become such a lost art that folks don’t drop in on each other unannounced anymore. If they do, they are seldom invited inside the home. Instead the homeowner steps outside to meet them.
After years of searching the spiritual wasteland of the evangelical mecca in which I live (home to some sixty churches and numerous Christian organizations), my wife and I finally found a church that breaks the mold. But we had to go outside our own American culture to do so. The church is a Chinese church belonging to the Christian and Missionary Alliance. My wife is from Hong Kong and many of her Cantonese friends attend services there. Although the church is less than a mile from our home, we had never considered attending because services are in Cantonese. But they do have interpretation. So we gave it a try after we had exhausted all other options. We are so glad we did.
I was stunned when the pastor asked to visit our home shortly after we had begun attending. No pastor had ever visited our home before. The entire congregation shares a meal together after Sunday service once a month. If we miss a Sunday for some reason, people notice. When our daughter became pregnant with our first grandchild, people took turns preparing meals for her even though she never attended the church. Recently a former member contracted cancer. Even though she had not attended services for years, the women organized meals for her and her family. When the relative of another member was seriously injured in a hit and run car accident, the church immediately dispatched an interpreter to the hospital. Others arranged transportation for the spouse, who did not have a driver’s license. Still others organized meals.
Ministry in this church is not packaged into programs that require the participant to attend a meeting. Rather the members bring the ministry to those in need. It is not targeted at groups of people who share a common need, but tailored to the needs of individuals who find themselves in crisis. Both the man involved in the hit and run accident and his wife came to Christ because of the love shown by so many people. The church is filled with unapologetic evangelists who team up to reach family members, friends and others who cross their paths. They show the love of Christ not just as individual believers but together as members of the larger family of Christ.
What about your church? Would anyone miss you if you did not show up on a Sunday? What if you missed several weeks? Do you fellowship together around meals? Do folks bring ministry to those in need or expect them to come to church for help? Is preaching based on a systematic study of the Word of God or are Bible passages selected to meet the needs and aspirations of the individual? Do people give generously and sacrificially? Is worship characterized by reverence and awe for a holy God or do folks come with the expectation that God is going to make life easier and more comfortable for them? These are the questions that will be explored in days ahead. Please feel free to add your two cents worth.