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There is a quality of life in the church that is the secret of its prosperity. This was true in the early church:
"And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved." Acts 2:42-47
Though obviously there are differences in the church after 2000 years, this is a model for us. The activities of the church remain the same: teaching, fellowship, hospitality, prayer, generous giving, giving praise to God.
But it wasn’t just their activities which distinguished them. It was also the feelings they experienced together and the qualities of their life together: devotion to one another, awe, gladness, thankfulness, a sense of community (having all things in common), a spirit of generosity. The Lord adding to their number was directly connected to the dynamic of their life together.
Activities aren’t enough. They are the form but not the content. You can have the activities without the experiences and it’s not at all the same. Church experience can easily become drudgery. Growth takes place primarily as a result of a certain dynamic in a group that others want to be a part of. "There’s something here that I want!" If we’re burdened down and fear-driven, why would anyone want to be with us?
Ultimately, this quality of life which is key to the church’s prosperity is the thrill of worshiping Christ. Worshiping Christ is the alpha and omega of the church’s existence. It is the thing that draws believers together. It is the grand activity of our eternal destiny. When we see Him for who He is, when we taste of the ecstasy of knowing Him, that’s when we truly worship.
A church is held together by worship. When worship dies, the church dies. The farther a church gets from the thrill of the grace of Christ, the farther it gets from being a dynamic place of intimate fellowship and unity.
There are, of course, many obstacles to this joyful life of worship. There is the temptation to get disillusioned and cynical as you grow older: you see enough stuff in the church and you lose your joy. It reminds me of the old rhyme: "To dwell in love with the saints above, oh! that will be glory. To dwell below with the saints I know, that's a different story." It is good to grow more realistic as you age. Youthful idealism isn’t all good. But it is not good to grow cynical. Storms come and go. But the question is, Do those storms take something away from us? Is Christ less appealing, less fulfilling after the storm than before it? Do the harsh realities of life in the church erode our joy? Is the good news not quite as good when we view it in the context of the sinful church? John Killinger said, "Open the door of any church and there they are: sinners! But also Christ!"
We must remember that we have this treasure in earthen vessels (2Cor.4:7). Just as each one of us is a very imperfect, common, non-spectacular clay pot, so is the church. They had problems in the church in Acts too. How quickly problems arose in the early church (e.g. Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, the neglect of the Greek-speaking widows in Acts 6)! But Christ resides in it, and that’s what makes the difference. That what gives the church its glory.
Ultimately, this joyful, loving, compelling quality of life is something God does and gives. And yet, it is also something the members of a church must fight for and strive after. In Acts 2:42 and 46 it says they "continued steadfastly" in their life together. Ephesians 4:2-3 says "With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bear with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." Unity is not self-maintaining. It must be maintained, not just enjoyed. And we must be eager to maintain it.
And then there’s the instructions of Hebrews 10:24-25: "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." Why does the author of Hebrews have to give this instruction? There must be a temptation that Christians experience to give up on the gathering, to give up on the church. Why neglect meeting together? Jesus is saying, ‘Keep being devoted to the program that I gave you, whereby believers gather together for worship and teaching and mutual encouragement. It may become tiresome. It may become discouraging. It may feel like it’s getting old. But don’t ever give up on it.’
It is very possible for a church to have this compelling quality of life and then lose it. This is what Jesus says to the church at Laodicea in Rev.2:4: "I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first." But still He urges them on: "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent." (Revelation 2:5)
O Lord, help us to thrive in the thrill of Your great love for us, and in the awe of the grace which You have lavished upon us in Christ, that others might inquire as to the source of our hope.