When I read the book of Acts, I really want to be a believer, a lover, a follower of Christ. I’m glad to be. I’m proud to be. When I go to church, I often feel like there’s something very important missing and I can be left feeling like I do when I occasionally go to KFC for some fried chicken – i.e. I’ve just eaten a bucket of it but I want to eat something else to combat that slightly empty, greasy feeling that it leaves me with. (Not that I’ve ever been to a church that I would describe as being greasy, or ‘chickeny’).
I’ve been ‘in church’ all my life so I’m not talking about looking for the mythological ‘perfect church’. (It’ll be our wedding day when we are ‘perfect’). And I absolutely agree that church certainly isn’t all, or even mainly, about our consumption and ‘being fed’. But it is a bit, isn’t it? Even when we’re ‘self-feeders’. Believers need the gospel as much as unbelievers, surely? Pastors need discipling as much as anyone else, right?
What I am talking about is the frustrating and inadequate compromise that there seems to often be in churches who excel in one major area of ecclesiology but then struggle in others. Let me give you some examples:- a church that excels in reaching the poor but that struggles in spiritual leadership development and discipleship; or a church that excels in leading worship but fails to teach the bible as it should be. (I can imagine folk at this point saying, ‘as it should be according to you, Franks?!’ – to which I would reply, ‘Nope, according to how I see Jesus and the early church teaching it!’).
I had a conversation with a friend recently who pointed out that Jesus didn’t teach in an expository style but that He taught through stories and parables about farmers and sheep and fields and crops and beggars and unmerciful servants. I like this a lot, of course I do, it is Jesus! As long as our stories and parables and teachings, packaged as they may be, are coming from rich culture of prolonged prayerful meditation, theological study, learning, enquiry and discussion.
Suffice to say for now, I love the church, but want to love her much, much more because I know there is no plan B. (Paul loved her to the point of overflowing, probably slightly-embarrassing, tears. Maybe I would be better qualified to write this when I am mainly crying rather than mainly frustrated. But then maybe the tears will come more once I’ve written this).
Do or Die
When I read the New Testament, especially the book of Acts, I see a beautiful blend of different human societies, world-views and cultures (e.g. Roman, Greek and Jewish), and an exploding Apostolic church with an array of historical characters and events bursting onto the scenes of my faith-primed imagination. What I see more clearly than anything else though is a kingdom-of-heaven-culture triumphantly transcending the human, man-made cultures and systems of the time: blind eyes opening, malformed arms growing out healed; private and corporate times of prayer and worship drenched in the presence of God; believers using the gifts Holy Spirit had given them to the glory of God; hard hearts softening; dead people being brought back to life; men walking through walls; angels and demons and visions and persecutions; men memorising entire books of the Pentateuch and preaching so powerfully that the earth shook and hearts were cut; Kings and Queens trembling though they knew not why; lame men walking and leaping; legalistic leaders making fists to punch, flog and break and then repenting, relaxing and lifting them in surrendered adoring praise of the Man they beheld…the book of Acts, the acts of Jesus Christ, the early Apostolic church, seems to have everything – The Spirit of God and the Word of God.
At the catalysing centre of this cultural and spiritual collision were two things: The Word of God (the Bible) and the Holy Spirit (God Himself, the Holy Ghost of Christ, present and all-powerful). Grace and truth; Truth and Grace. You could say, Spirit-filled biblical communication and Spirit-filled charismatic worship…with corresponding acts of justice and faith.
Why Do We Do It?
I have visited churches, been a ‘plugged in part’ of churches for 35 years, and even worked for churches in this time, which, in some areas, are like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s back and chest, and maybe biceps, but are more like Mr Bean’s uncoordinated and atrophied quads in others.
What I don’t get about this ludicrous picture I have just painted, is why would anyone go to a gym like Arnie and only work on their upper body? So why do some churches neglect major areas of ministry, or major muscle groups, if you like? I don’t know; I can’t answer that, I really don’t know how we’ve got here – hence writing this piece. Maybe fear of man?
It strikes me that some churches will excel in, for example, creating worshipful cultures of growing attendance, but then not teach the compelling, awe-inspiring, life-changing depths of the Bible as a centre of their discipleship. Other churches will excel in teaching the Bible in a way that is helpful, true, thorough and appropriately ‘packaged’ but not believe in the gift of the Holy Spirit enough for Him to be able to shake off their rigor mortis during praise and worship.
The church that I see in the book of Acts is one in which the power of Holy Spirit is manifest in ways that thoroughly shook and empowered and comforted the church and the community it was in. The church that I see in the Bible is one in which the Scriptures shaped discipleship and ecclesiology and theology more than the culture of the age or the latest progressive, seeker-sensitive fad. The church I see in the Bible is one in which the weighty Kabod, the glory of God, pulsated throughout the church in its entirety, including its social mission and all of its communication.
If you imagine the church again as a body, this time a more normal body, lying on a bed supine, face up. When the body majors on the Bible to the neglect of the Spirit, or vice versa, the Holy Spirit, mission or seeker-sensitivity to the neglect of the Bible, we drift into unconsciousness, impotence and, ultimately, irrelevance. We fail to be the church we should be, the lovers of God we should be and the disciple-making missional followers we’re commanded to be.
I am sure that Jesus was not a reformed Calvinist, or a Hillsong-addict, or an emergent church leader of any kind. He was, and is, simply and yet mysteriously, a Bible-believing, Spirit-filled worshipper of Yahweh. What is it about this that we fail to understand when it comes to how we ‘do church’, lop-sided as is often the case?
And so we need, the church needs, I believe, an injection of gracious, ancient adrenaline to kick-start us again, to resuscitate us into ‘normal’ sinus rhythm of genuine Word and Spirit: into a community of Jesus lovers who are equally captivated by the anti-cultural, anti-intuitive, non-political, unpopular, cross-every-day, sure-to-be-persecuted message of the Spirit-filled Bible (Acts 2:24) and compelled, therefore, into Spirit-led worship and mission, that is not meant to be diluted in any part.
That is my prayer when I pray, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – and all of this to the hallowing of His awesome Name.