Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Vital Signs of a Healthy Church pt. 2

The second vital sign of a healthy church is...

Strong Preaching

Acts 4:33 says that "great power" and "great grace" was upon this church as they shared witness of Christ's resurrection. Therefore, a healthy church is one that truthfully, faithfully, clearly, and consistently proclaims the gospel. A healthy church is a place where the Bible is taught; verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book after book; teaching and preaching God’s revelation of Himself. This does not mean, however, that the "strong preaching" be restricted to the church walls.

The true, faithful, clear, and consistent message of Christ crucified must be proclaimed in our homes, our workplaces, our schools, and our neighborhoods. It must be declared with our lips and evidenced by our lives. The resurrected Christ told His follwers in Acts 1:8 that the Holy Spirit would empower them for one thing: to be witnesses!

To be witnesses where? Here, there, and everywhere, and the book of Acts is chock full of people preaching the gospel. The main message of the apostles and evangelists throughout Acts is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; “…Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and…He was buried, and…He rose again the third day according to the scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). That's the gospel message which turned the 1st century Roman Empire on its ear, and that is the same message that we have to proclaim today. It’s a powerful message, and it’s the only message worth proclaiming.

Christ has commissioned His churches to, “Go..., and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (Matt. 28:19-20) and as Mark words it, to “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel unto every nation,” Mark 16:15.

The message of the cross is not just a salvation message. Those who are lost need to humble themselves before the cross and be saved. Those who are saved need to take up their cross and follow their Savior. Church members need to be sharing their faith with the people around them. Every person in the church needs to be involved in making disciples.

A healthy church is a church that has strong preaching, where the gospel is proclaimed, not just from the preacher in the pulpit, but also from the people in the pew.

The first two vital signs of a healthy church are spiritual unity and strong preaching, the third is…

Sacrificial Giving

Reading those two words together makes some of us wince. We recoil involuntarily when the words “sacrificial” and “giving” are put together. Nevertheless, in Acts4:32b we read, “neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.” And then v. 34-35, “Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”

This same spirit is displayed in Acts 2:44-45, “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”

The loving, unselfish unity of the early church found a practical expression in the sharing of material possessions. These people did not see the things that they possessed as their own. They understood that all the “things” they had, belonged to God. Isn't that a liberating truth? We have been given possessions by God's choice, by His blessing on our life. He has given us certain resources, and now He wants us to manage them in a way that honors Him.

One of the ways we honor God with our resources is by giving sacrificially. That is the example that is set for us with this church in Jerusalem. When someone had a need, others in the church used their resources to meet that need (vv. 34-35). James, a leader in this very church, taught this same principle when he said in James 2:15-16, “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?”

This church practiced what they preached. I'm always encouraged by people who do that. Years later, Paul would collect an offering during his third missionary journey to take back to the church at Jerusalem, which was suffering financially as a result of persecution. They had provided for others, and then others had provided for them.

2 Corinthians 8:1-5:
“Moreover, brethren, we do you to wit of the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia; How that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality. For to their power, I bear record, yea, and beyond their power they were willing of themselves; Praying us with much entreaty that we would receive the gift, and take upon us the fellowship of the ministering to the saints. And this they did, not as we hoped, but first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God.”

These Macedonian churches were sacrificial givers. Notice that phrase from v. 3, “…beyond their power they were willing of themselves.” Life was difficult, they faced extreme poverty and persecution (v. 2), but despite their desperate circumstances, they joyfully, willfully, and sacrificially gave with no regard for themselves, being compelled by the needs of the even more destitute church in Jerusalem. They believed in God’s promise to supply all their needs. Philippians 4:19, “But my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” They refused to worry about their needs (Matthew 6:25-34), gladly placing themselves in dependence on God. Like David, who would not give the Lord something that cost him nothing (1 Chronicles 21:24), and the poor widow who gave all she had (Mark 12:42-44), the Macedonian churches practiced sacrificial giving; as did the Jerusalem church.

A healthy church is a giving church, and that giving is measured in two ways. First, by the offering in takes in, and, second, the offerings it's willing to send out. That's the pattern that is established in Acts 4 and from the Macedonian example in 2 Corinthians 8. The members brought their tithes and offerings to the church, and then “distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” Giving like this is a powerful testimony, not only to each other, but to the watching world, about the love of Christ within us.

Just to be clear on something, Acts4:34 is not teaching “Christian communism” or communal living. This is not a command to sell everything, pool all your assets, build a bunker on the church property, and wait for the Lord to return. Remember, this giving was voluntary not compulsory, and it was done to meet needs and aid in spreading the gospel message. Not all the Christians gave by selling their homes. Some gave by opening their homes up to others who needed a place to stay, or by holding services in their homes. The point is we need to be sacrificial givers, not sometimes givers.

Spiritual unity, strong preaching, and sacrificial giving are vital signs of a healthy church, but a church is made up of individual believers. There is no way for a church to display these types of qualities unless the individual members who comprise that church display these types of qualities.

The final two verses of Acts 4 provide a sample of the Jerusalem church's membership. Luke introduces Joseph, a Levite, who had been named Barnabas by the apostles. Barnabas means “son of consolation, or encouragement”. Barnabas gave out of pure love for God’s people, not to call attention to himself, like Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).

Barnabas represents many others who were sacrificial givers, and he is an example for us to follow, because in order to have a healthy church, a church must have healthy members. It is not possible to have one without the other.

The three vital signs of a healthy church are:

  • Spiritual Unity - “the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul.”
  • Strong Preaching - “And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.” A healthy church will be grounded in the Word of God. The Bible will be preached and practiced by the pastor and the people. A healthy church understands that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” A healthy church also understands that strong preaching should be done in a spirit of great grace.
  • Sacrificial Giving - “neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.” A real healthy church isn't measured just by the offerings it takes in, but by the offerings it’s willing to send out.

The question that must be asked and answered is this, “Does your church fit this model?” The only way to answer that question is to look at yourself. How are you in the areas of spiritual unity, strong preaching, and sacrificial giving?

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