Churches need to play a significant role in our community in order to save lost souls.
Photo Credit: YWAM
To serve lost souls churches must be effective, but what makes up an effective church? There are a few things that I believe the church should be and do in order to play a key role in saving souls and helping people authentically live as Christ followers. From my own personal experience of what God has done in my life, from reading the Bible, and from observing my own church, I believe there are three core elements that allow a church to be effective.
I believe a church needs to be led well, it should have solid Bible-based teaching, and it should show love to the community. These three elements of an effective church in a community can be deduced from a small passage in the book of Acts that shows us how the early church performed ministry in an effective way. Let us start by taking a look into the early Christian church in chapter six of Acts.
THE BOOK OF ACTS
In the book of Acts there is a lot happening. Jesus has died, risen from the dead, been taken up into heaven, the day of Pentecost comes and with it comes the Holy Spirit, and the apostle Peter delivers an amazing sermon that saves 3,000 souls. Then, the early apostles begin to experience some opposition from religious leaders. (Please note that when I use the word “apostles,” I am using it in the context of the 12 disciples [minus Judas] that are now the current leaders of the early church.
The result is that the religious leaders release the apostles, and we can now read what they do after being released starting in Acts 5:42:[ref]The passage of scripture we are studying is Acts 5:42 through Acts 6:7. However, for simplicity sake, throughout this paper I will refer to the passage as “chapter six of Acts.”[/ref]
And every day, in the Temple and from house to house, they continued to teach and preach this message: “Jesus is the Messiah.” But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers. They said, “We apostles should spend out time teaching the word of God, not running a food program. And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.” Everyone liked this idea, and they chose the following: Stephen (a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit), Phillip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas of Antioch (an earlier convert to the Jewish faith). These seven where presented to the apostles, who prayed for them as they laid their hands on them. So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted too. (Acts 5:42-6:7, NLT)
This passage of scripture contains massive implications for local churches today if we study it. When studying this passage it shows us
- 1) how and why the church should be led well;
- 2) how important biblical teaching is; and
- 3) how the combination of a well led church with solid teaching allows God’s love to be shown in the community.
Rather than you simply trusting me about each these three observations from Acts, let us take some time to examine each of them. The starting point of the church ministering effectively to the community is by being led well.
THE APOSTLES FOCUSED ON SPECIFIC TASKS
As we are looking at church effectiveness and comparing it to chapter six of Acts, there are some significant things the early church apostles did in order to lead the church well.
One is that these apostles knew exactly what tasks were most important for them to do and they did not deviate from those tasks. Three times in this passage we see the apostles say that their priority was to “teach” the word of God (Acts 5:42, 6:3,4).
The setting for this passage is that the church had been experiencing tremendous growth. Just before Acts 5:42, the apostles had been arrested and flogged by Jewish religious leaders because they were teaching and follow Jesus’ ways. The religious leaders let the men go after having them flogged because they believed the apostles would no longer be important and relevant to the community and the culture at that time.
However, we know that “every day, in the Temple and from house to house, they continued to teach and preach this message: ‘Jesus is the Messiah’” (Acts 5:42). Right from the beginning they knew what was most important to them, and they continued to do that.
Next in the story from Acts, the Greek-speaking believers complained because they believed their widows were being discriminated against in the food distribution compared to the Hebrew-speaking widows. The Greek-speaking believers had the attitude of “Hey, they are getting what we want/deserve, we won’t tolerate that.”
With this in mind, we see the apostles react in an interesting way by quickly calling a meeting and bringing all the believers together—not just a few, not just the core leaders, and not just the people they know will agree with them. They call all the believers together, and they announce what is going to happen by making this bold declaration: “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program. And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word” (Acts 6:2-4, NLT).
What a bold statement!
The apostles of the early church made an important executive decision. They knew what the church needed to do in order to be successful, they declared it, and they organized it. This means that if we want our church to be well led, we need to be slightly aristocratic in our leadership of the church.
The Senior Pastor should have the freedom to make key decisions and lead well. He or she has been elected to lead the church and should be given the freedom to do that well.
But what about those 12 leaders gave them the ability to be leaders? Church expert Craig Van Gelder gives us a good description of church leaders in his book, The Essence of the Church, when he writes, “First, leaders in the church must have a mature Christian character. . . .Second, the Bible assumes that leaders in the church will be selected based on their gifts and skills. The Spirit gives spiritual gifts to all in the church. Some gifts relate directly to leadership.”[ref]Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 181.[/ref] We see both of these statements from Van Gelder in relation to the leaders we have observed in chapter six of Acts.
The apostles were very mature in their faith since 11 of them had spent three years with Jesus and had already endured some persecution because of their faith. These early leaders knew they preached and taught well, so they selected seven men to do the food ministry. They knew that effective leaders focus on doing one thing well, while ineffective leaders attempt to do everything and do nothing well.
This shows church leadership, staff, and members of the church the necessity of finding their areas of strength.
When giving a talk on this same passage of scripture, Andy Stanley, pastor of one of the largest churches in America, North Point Community Church, states that we should, “Only do what only you can do. The less you do, the more you accomplish.”[ref]Andy Stanley, “When Less is More” (lecture, Catalyst West Conference at Mariners Church, Orange County, CA, April 23, 2010).[/ref]
Say what? Less is more?
The essence of what Andy is teaching is that leaders in the church, in order to be effective, need to focus in on the few things that only they can do. These 12 apostles were clearly called to preach and teach based on the three years they spent with Jesus. These 12 men had been personally equipped by Jesus to be leaders of the early church, and no one else at that time had been as equipped or given as much authority as they had. Clearly they were called to preach and do nothing else. We see them leading the church by having the authority to make an important decision.
They stayed focused to do only what they could do, and that allowed them to lead well, which is exactly what the church in our culture needs to do: lead well.
THE APOSTLES TAUGHT OTHERS
As we have already discussed, a key element of these early church leaders doing what only they could do was teaching, which is the second of three core elements the church needs to do to be effective.
Teaching in the church is important, and we can learn about how important it is from one of the greatest Bible teachers of our time, Billy Graham, when he powerfully declares, “Church is not for pretenders and performers. Church is a place for pastors to preach principles of faith in order to prepare believers to face the storms of life on the stage of an unbelieving world.”[ref]Billy Graham, Storm Warning (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 164.[/ref]
That is a powerful statement from Billy Graham, a man who has preached in many countries and to millions of people.
Now, back to the story of our new church in Acts. We learn from this early description of the church in chapter six of Acts that teaching the word of God was so important that it was taking up all of the apostles’ time.[ref]Matthew Henry, “Acts,” in The Definitive Bible Commentary, ed. Owen Collins (London: HarperCollinsReligious, 1999), 1160.[/ref]
When a church is led well and has a pastor (or two) who is given the time and freedom to devote a large chunk of time to teaching the word of God, it will help to strengthen that church’s believers who attend regularly. To strengthen the current believers, the church needs to have strong teaching every Sunday. Church should be focused on teaching solid Biblical concepts that are addressed in the Bible, and they should be related and connected to our current culture today.
This is not easy, but it is essential to developing and equipping current believers to more effectively live out their faith and share it with others who do not have a personal relationship with Jesus.
As a church we are to teach our community what it means to live with faith. We need to teach people how to pray, read the Bible, serve the poor, and paint a picture of what it means to authentically live out our faith. Through that teaching, people should be equipped for work of sharing their faith.
Just this past week, Pastor Brian at Enclave Community Church gave us some teaching about the importance of sharing our faith with others even if we do not have all the answers to people’s difficult questions. After teaching through the story of Phillip in Acts 8:26-40, Pastor Brian gave us an outline of six verses from the book of Romans we can use to share our faith with others.
This is exactly the equipping that needs to be done for the people of the church so that they may be strengthened in their faith while also being more effective at sharing it But teaching does not have to be limited to Sunday morning sermons.
The importance of Christians participating in teaching environments can be emphasized through the church stressing the importance of being involved in a weekly Bible study. Or the church might hold conferences on specific topics or even conduct their own weekly teaching classes.
In the church I attended, Enclave Community Church, people come every week to listen to Pastor Brian teach. That might be the only Biblical teaching or Bible verses a person hears all week, which is why it is important that a church has great teaching for the people who come. If they only hear a 40 minute sermon once a week, then we need to make sure it is the best 40 minute sermon we can possibly produce.
People who come to Enclave Community Church and hear Pastor Brian preach are there to listen and learn from what he says. They readily await his teaching with a pen and his outline sitting in their Bible while turned to the passage of text he is teaching through.
A great example of this is my friend Mike who started attending Enclave in January of 2010. Mike has a rough past due to methamphetamine and alcohol addictions. After reaching a low point in his life and with the help of family, friends, and his fiancé, Mike enlisted in the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center in Stockton, CA to help him get his life on track. As a result, Mike was able to get to know Jesus Christ as his personal Savior.
Shortly after being released from the six month program in Stockton, Mike came back to live in Turlock and began attending Enclave in January of 2010. When I met Mike in March of 2010, I asked him his story and how he came to attend Enclave. (Asking questions and listening is a key part of showing love, which we will learn about later.)
He shared his story of spending time in Stockton at the Rehabilitation Center, how he was now clean of drugs and alcohol, and that he had been to Enclave every single Sunday for the past three months since coming back to Turlock. In his Bible he had every one of Pastor Brian’s outlines marked up and filled with notes. Mike, as a new Christian, faithfully attended Enclave every single week to learn as much as he could about what it means to be a Christian man following Jesus.
But the story does not end there, after attending Enclave for a year and a half, Mike has started a group he calls the “Enclave Prayer Warriors.” Mike organizes this group to meet once a week to pray for the church, each other, and the church’s members. Because of the solid Biblical teaching from Pastor Brian and the discipleship from his small group and counseling he received through Enclave, he has now gone on to do his own ministry that is reaching out to even more people. Mike’s story is exactly the reason that church must have strong teaching for its believers.
THE APOSTLES SHARED THE GOSPEL
In addition to the church working hard to teach its current believers, another important role of the church is to find ways to share the gospel with others who are not currently believing or practicing Christians.
Again, let’s go back to chapter six of Acts where it shows us how the combination of a well led church with solid Bible teaching allows God’s love to be shown to the community.
This early church shows us how we are able to reach out to the community and serve when the people already in the church have been correctly taught and equipped. Because of that taking place, the 12 apostles were able to quickly chose seven men who could fill the need to feed the widows.
Since the apostles were so strongly preaching and teaching, they were able to delegate to someone else the responsibility of taking care of the Greek-speaking believers and Hebrew-speaking believers. I realize that in this passage those widows were probably already part of the church, but the principle applies more generally. Someone who has been equipped and is able to serve people within the church can just as easily do the same for someone outside the church. We can sum up this entire story with verse 7 which says, “So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too” (Acts 6:7, NLT).
Because the leaders of the early church were smart and disciplined enough to know they needed to do what only they could do, they were able to delegate the work of feeding the widows to seven other men who were just as capable (if not more than the apostles) of doing the job.
A key element of the church is to have the systems and processes in place so members have the freedom to listen to others and tell them about Jesus. The church should be structured with freedom for its members to do good works and use their gifts.
And the essence of church members showing God’s love to the community starts with a simple act of listening to lost and hurting people in our neighborhood. When writing about what it means to be an effective church in our own neighborhood, Alan Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren believe, “. . . the real work involves sitting with the people, listening to their stories, and entering their world with an open mind and heart—not bringing predetermined decisions and goals to the table.”[ref]Alan Roxburg and M. Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, Why it Matters, How to Become One (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 86.[/ref]
Listening to lost and hurting people needs to be the first thing that we do. People do not want easy answers to the difficult questions they are dealing with and confused by. People want a friend who will listen to them and know them for who they are.[ref]Ibid. 84[/ref] As we have already learned, it takes teaching and equipping church members for them to know that they cannot always walk up to a stranger in Wal-Mart, share the story of Jesus, and expect to have a confession right there.
Through solid teaching and equipping, church members will know how to become friends with others as a way to evangelize and live with them in community regardless of their differences. During or after listening to lost and hurting people, church members can show God’s love to them by offering assistance with food, free or low-cost counseling, vacation Bible school for their kids, or a health clinic for the homeless. But again, this all wraps back to our first point of the church needing to be well led to allow this to happen.
My classmate, Amy, shared a powerful story that serves as an example of how the church needs to be well led in order for that love to make it to the community.
Amy had been attending a church for several years when she decided that she wanted serve others. Instead of having the freedom for Amy to raise her hand, say she wanted to serve others, and be put to work, Amy instead had to go through an intense administrative process.
She needed to fill out pages of paperwork for the church explaining what she wanted to do and why. Then she was required to meet with an associate pastor to go over her paperwork and discuss her desire to serve. Then she was required to wait for a phone call back from church about where she would be allowed to serve.
That call never came.
As a result, Amy visited another church where she again raised her hand saying that she wanted to offer her time to serve and help others who are in need. Immediately she was informed of several projects and initiatives the church already had in place, and she was allowed to pick the one she would like to give her time to. Amy currently spends time every week at a local school tutoring elementary school kids and teaching them good values.[ref]Amy Berger, conversation with author, Fresno, CA, June 23, 2011.[/ref] Amy’s story shows the power of a well led church that has given its members the freedom to show God’s love to others.
Amy showing that love is exactly what we are called to do to our community: show Jesus’ love to others. Back to Van Gelder’s book, The Essence of the Church, where he informs us of what the church should look like to the outside the community by saying that, “The church is to demonstrate a new lifestyle before the world, one that breaks the cycle of anger, reaction, and revenge that characterizes the world’s practices.
The core of this lifestyle is to be Christian service.Christians are to serve both fellow believers and unbelievers, even when they are hostile and mistreat us.”[ref]Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 153.[/ref] Sometimes listening to others and serving them means we will have to sacrifice our time, attention, and money.
But if the church encourages us to get out and meet with people to show love, and the church equips us to do that, then it is the right thing to do in Jesus’ name. I do not know of any other activity or more important task of a member of the church than to talk with others about Jesus.
There are many people in our communities who are lost, hurting, and who do not know Jesus. It is up to us to find ways to get out there to talk with people about Jesus because if our church is going to be effective in reaching the people in our neighborhood, talking with them is the core practice in making that happen.
As we have studied what it means to be an effective church today from the book of Acts and other examples, let us wrap up our time with the story after the story. The story after the story is that the early church, led by twelve men who had no priestly training or authority, went out to spread the good news of Jesus to the entire known world at that time.
They traveled by road and boat, they taught in Temples and homes, and they fostered the growth of the early church to what it now is today: Christianity as the largest religion in the world. Because these men led their church well, focused on delivering solid Biblical teaching, and gave others ways to show God’s love, they helped to create what we now know as modern Christianity.