How did they manage it? When life was naturally difficult, how were they able to avoid being overwhelmed and remained focused on the main thing?
As I finished reading Acts this morning, these were my questions. At the beginning of Acts, we are told there were about 120 believers, including the eleven Apostles. Then a few short weeks later, 3000 more joined their number. Then after some time passed, believers numbered more than 5000. By the end of Acts, the gospel has been preached over much of the known world. In Paul’s journey from Jerusalem under Roman escort, he encountered a number of believers along the way and several were waiting for him upon his arrival in Rome. Earlier, the Lord tells Paul while he is in Corinth that he has many people there (Acts 18:10).
The Church went from eleven in Jerusalem to likely tens of thousands across the known world in a mere 30 years, and this happened under often harsh conditions. And except for perhaps a few dozen, this happened without full-time missionaries or pastors. There were no elaborate church programs other than those that took care of the needs of the poor among them. There was continuous persecution from the society at-large. So, with all of the obstacles these believers faced, how was their community so vibrant that it just kept on growing and spreading?
From some of my earliest days in campus ministry, I used what I describe as the Pie Illustration to help students understand what it looks like to follow Jesus. Imagine a pie sliced into five pieces (or fewer if you are a pie-lover like me!). Now imagine that pie represented your life and the slices its contents. Most of us would identify the various slices as: family life; work/school; social life; spiritual/church life; and leisure/hobbies. Likely, these slices would be different sizes depending on the individual, but this is how we often view our lives—divided up. And, by default, constantly competing for our time. In working with students, they always describe their spiritual slice as the smallest because there are so many other demands on their time. Moving into full adulthood, that struggle typically remains.
Countless books have been written on how to devote more time to one’s spiritual life—through time management and prioritizing. It seems, however, no matter how many books are written, workshops held, and sermons preached, this continues to be the major struggle for adult believers. So perhaps it would be good to re-examine the 1st Century Church. How were they so effective in spiritual growth and evangelism?
Going back to my illustration of the pie, our problem (mine, too) I believe is that we see our relationship with the Lord as one slice of our lives. Sure, theoretically we would likely disagree with this, but practically it appears to be true, doesn’t it? The key I think to the vibrancy of the early Church is that it was Jesus who held the various aspects (slices) of their lives together. He was the foundation (the crust) for everything else. They were Christians 24/7. They were Christians who happened to be tentmakers, fishermen, sellers of various goods, politicians, etc. They were passionate about Jesus so that conversations about him were natural, not forced, whether it be with family, fellow believers, or people they met in the course of their daily lives. This passion compelled them to love others well, to be kind to one another and to strangers alike. This included hospitality, having people into their homes for meals regardless of their backgrounds or economic status. They attempted to love as Jesus loved. They weren’t perfect by any stretch, but the expansion of the Church remains a testimony to all of us as to what Christian community should look like.
On the year anniversary of the start of the pandemic, I remember what I wrote a year ago of my hope for a deeper, more intimate community of believers meeting in homes. A year later, that desire is all the more intense. While I have failed over and over again to put this into practice in the pre-pandemic past, I am committing to try once again. I don’t want to settle for shallow fellowship where believers come together and talk about the weather, sports, how busy we are, etc. I, like so many, fall easily into this. No, what I want to talk about are things of the Lord. I want to gather with believers and find out what the Lord is teaching them, how they are experiencing him, and in what ways they are encouraged by him. I also would want to know how I can pray for them and what needs they have. And I would want to share the same.
I want life to revolve not around my marriage, my ministry, or my activities. No, I want it to revolve around my relationship with Jesus, and I want to share it with fellow believers and with those who do not believe. I want everything that I do day-to-day to have Jesus written all over it. I want casual conversations to wind their way to talking about the Lord in some form or other. I want prayer to be a spontaneous feature in those conversations—“let me pray about that with you.” I want more spiritually rich conversations with my wife and close friends. I want to share hospitality. I want what I believe the believers in Acts had as an integral part of their day-to-day lives. And I believe this is why the Church grew exponentially.
As we slowly emerge from this pandemic, let’s not go back to normal. I don’t think it has truly been very satisfying. Yes, it is what we know; it is what we are comfortable with. But is it truly satisfying our deepest longings for purpose, for intimacy, for experiencing the abundant life promised to us? Satan steals and kills that by emphasizing the normality of our current lives and the temporary comfort it brings us. In other words, we settle for much, much less than what the Lord has promised us. My goal is not to settle any longer. I want more, a lot more. And my hope and prayer is that a lot of my brothers and sisters will want more, too. It is this day-to-day living for Jesus that will be the most satisfying and the greatest witness to the world.
© Jim Musser 2021 All Scripture references are from the New International Version, 2011.