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The Church is Not a Country Club

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Acts 8:1b-4

The Church is Not a Country Club

There arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.  Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.  But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.[1], [2]

Y

ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.  This statement summarises the task imposed upon each church that would be a New Testament congregation.  Every member must be an evangelist.  Every member shares in the great task of transforming the culture in which he or she lives.

The church doesn’t exist for Christians.  The church is designed for those who are not members.  Jesus searches for true disciples among the professed churches of this day, and I rather suspect that He is having difficulty finding many disciples.  Need evidence?  Read the headlines.  Churches are losing ground when it comes to effecting change in our culture.  Instead of a trend toward godliness, the trend of our society is toward secularism and an utter absence of anything related either to God or righteousness.  Christians have retreated from the battle for the souls of men for the hollow pursuit of self-comfort.  True disciples follow Christ into the struggle for the souls of men.

The standard for church growth, growth which necessarily results from every member evangelism, was set by the first church, the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem—the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved [Acts 2:47].  Evangelism was the mark of the first disciples and the resulting salvation of lost souls gave evidence that each member was engaged in that great work.  Consequently, those saved did not need a few years to decide whether they should be obedient to the command of Christ, but rather they were baptised immediately, just as He commanded.  Likewise, they united openly with the church instead of floating on the fringes basking in the light resulting from the labours of the saints of that particular congregation.

The people spoke of Christ and thus many of those who had heard the Word believed [Acts 4:4].  Christians were united in heart and persistent in prayer, and thus, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and continued to speak the Word of God with boldness [Acts 4:31].  Because these first saints were indelibly marked with the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women [Acts 5:14].

Several weeks back I related in a social setting of being privileged to have heard Vance Havner, a great preacher of a bygone era.  Among his many sermons, one which effected me in a powerful fashion was entitled “Is This That?”  The message was taken from Acts 2:16, as translated in the King James Version of the Bible.

In that translation, the verse reads, This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.  Havner focused on the power demonstrated among those first disciples and pointed out that Peter confessed that this (the powerful signs) was that (the prophecy) which Joel had spoken of.  Then he contrasted what was to what is, asking hearers to reflect on the current state of religious activity and ask themselves, “Is this that?”[3]

We would do well to reflect on that question, “Is this that?” as we explore one vignette from life of the early church at the first blush of Christian Faith.  Focus on the reaction of the world about that early congregation and the means by which God worked.  Ask yourself if you long for Christ to work in power among His people in this day, and if you are willing to accept His means to stir us to the service that He has commanded.

The Commission Jesus Gave — As He prepared for His exodus, following His passion, Jesus, the Son of God issued a charge which is incumbent upon each disciple.  That command has come to be known as the Great Commission.  It is provided variously throughout the Scriptures, but perhaps the best-known version is that which is found in Matthew 28:19, 20.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

God’s design for His churches is not that they exist for my comfort or for the convenience of the membership, but He instituted His churches to be equipping stations to thrust His people into the harvest for souls.  One wag has commented that contemporary Christians have transformed the Great Commission into the Great Omission.  The purpose of the church is to win the lost to faith in the Son of God, incorporating those saved into the fellowship of the assembly and instructing them so that they will grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let me speak somewhat pointedly to professed Christians who share this service.  Have you ever knowingly led someone to faith in Jesus Christ?  When did you last make the effort to obey this Great Commission?  Do you believe that charge applies to you?

Sunday School teachers who make no effort to lead their scholars to faith probably have no business teaching Sunday School.  If we are not in the business of winning souls, we have no business being in business.  Even if a teacher only tells Bible stories about Jesus, we should expect the Spirit of God to work occasionally to convict the lost during the lessons.  If lost people are absent, we need to stir up our congregation to ensure that lost sinners are present at each service.  It is our purpose as Christians to win the lost to faith.  When they are left in darkness we sin against them and against God.

Gene Veith cites an article by David Shiflett in the Wall Street Journal to demonstrate that “born again” Christians are in too many instances lost.  He cites poll data from George Barna demonstrating that “26 percent of born-agains believe all religions are essentially the same and that 50 percent believe that a life of good works will enable a person to get to heaven.”  Veith further notes that one in three “born-again” Christians do not believe that Jesus rose physically from the dead.”[4]  Could this possibly be true of members of our congregation who claim to be born from above?  I pray that such is not the case, but the evidence may indeed point in that direction.

Mr. Veith draws the conclusion that Christianity is “conforming to the dominant secular culture.  It is all right to be religious, according to the dictates of postmodernism, as long as your faith exists just in your head.  If you start claiming that your beliefs are more than just a private mental state that makes you feel good, asserting instead that what you believe is objectively real and valid for everybody, then you are an intolerant menace to society.”[5]

The church at Ephesus was surrounded by false religions and egocentric philosophies.  Residents of Ephesus were consumed by their sexual appetites and had given themselves up to sensuality and they were greedy to practise every kind of impurity [Ephesians 4:19].  However, those Ephesian saints were not instructed to shut themselves inside their building, close the door and lock out the evil that permeated their society.  Rather, they were commanded to walk in a manner worthy of the calling they had received [Ephesians 4:1].  The members of that congregation were taught to obey God’s commands, to stay true to the divine strategy and to be Christians right where they were.

This church is a divine institution.  The church was not an afterthought with God.  We, the congregation of the Lord, are the strategy of God, divinely designed to confront the godlessness of our culture.  When Christ says were are the lighted city on a hill, He meant that we are responsible to shine in such a way that those struggling with the turbulence of life will be able to safely navigate to the harbour of God’s grace.  When the light from our church sweeps across this culture, people see our good works and give glory to God in Heaven [see Matthew 5:16].  It is an intentional effort on our part to understand that church is not about us—it is about God.  Our church exists to promote the Kingdom of God, making His Name known among the nations [Psalm 46:10].

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the precedents for our text.  Jesus, in a final act before His ascension, iterated His command to preach the Word and to be His witnesses throughout the world. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth [Acts 1: 8].

Though the Master had given the command that those who were His people were to be witnesses throughout the entire world, the saints proved themselves disobedient.  This disobedience had continued over a period of months, if not years.  They had done an excellent job of witnessing in Jerusalem and throughout Judea.  They had carried the message to a number of Jewish communities beyond Judea.  However, Samaria was without the Gospel.  Not a single Gentile had received the message of life at this point.  In short, the first church was disobedient to the command of the Saviour.  They would need to be motivated if they were to fulfil the Great Commission.

The Disobedience of the Churches — There are multiple reasons why Christians may be disobedient to the last command Jesus gave.  Perhaps the saints feel inadequate for the task that He assigned.  Again, it is possible that people do not trust the message proclaimed at their services.  It is also possible that Christians are overly sensitive to the feelings of their friends and family.  However, I am convinced that the most prevalent reason for our disobedience is that we are consumed with a desire for self-exaltation.  We have filled our churches with half-saved people, who are in fact not saved at all.

I suggested one possibility for disobedience is that saints may feel inadequate to evangelise.  This should not be a reason, for Christ gave us the Holy Spirit to live within us.  He has given to us His divine power that enables us to do far more than we could ever expect as we deliver the message of life to those who are dead in trespasses and sins.  I suspect that few saints are convinced that there is a Holy Spirit who lives within.  Sadly, many professing saints of the Most High God have yet to see the power of the Spirit at work in their lives, and consequently, they are silent before the onslaughts of wickedness.

Far too many professing saints who claim to believe the power of the Holy Spirit appear to be more focused on manipulative techniques than they are on divine power.  They are more confident in the enthusiasm of a mixed multitude than in the proclamation of biblical truth.  They are more convinced that exciting music will convert the lost than they are in the unleashed power of the message of Christ’s love.  Listen to God’s Word.  It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe [1 Corinthians 1:21].

I also suggested that it is possible that some people do not trust the message of life.  The Apostle Paul had no such qualms, however.  I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” [Romans 1:16, 17].  Again, the Apostle has declared that The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…  We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God [1 Corinthians 1:18, 23, 24].

Let the people of God be assured that the faithful message when declared will accomplish all that God desires.  It is our puerile attempts to become culturally relevant and inoffensive which should give us pause and make us cautious instead of fearing that someone may be offended by the message of life.  Perhaps it will be through the message which affronts that your loved one will be offended into the arms of grace, whereas your silence will assuredly ensure that they will stumble blindly into hell.

You will no doubt recall that I also suggested that it is possible that Christians are overly sensitive to the feelings of their friends and family.  I suggest that this is merely an excuse for our spiritual lassitude.  It is easier to permit our children to go to hell than it is to be the parents we are supposed to be.  We console ourselves that everything is “okay,” even though they have never openly confessed Christ or been baptised.  Although they are “bored” by the things of God, we smile and say that we are certain that they will turn out all right.

If your fear of rejection keeps you from witnessing to family and friends, you need to consider the Word of God.  You need to ask whether fear of man or fear of the Lord should motivate you.  The Wise Man cautions that the fear of man lays a snare [Proverbs 29:25].  Sinners are distinguished because there is no fear of God before their eyes [Romans 3:18].  However, as Christians, each member of this church should be able to aver, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others [2 Corinthians 5:11].

I need to be pointed and direct just at this point, so that none of us will surrender to error.  If one fears the feelings expressed by another—whether spouse, or child, or parent, or friend—more than he fears the displeasure of the Lord, it is doubtful that he knows anything of the grace of God.  Such a craven excuse for the failure to obey the command of God exposes the darkness of one’s heart, for had one known the power of Christ’s love, he would be compelled to speak to lost friends and family.

I stand by my earlier statement, that by far the most prevalent reason for disobedience to Christ is that we are consumed with a desire for self-exaltation.  Churches are filled with half-saved people, and you know very well that to be half-saved is to be fully lost.  I fear by the evidence of lives displayed before the watching world that even within our own congregation are individuals who know the words, but who have never learned the music.  Too many come to Christ asking what He can do for them, instead of seeking how they may serve Him.

We become ineffective when we turn inward and our culture has no visible measure of eternal truth.  There is no incarnational witness of the Saviour.  We rob hope from individuals who are on a collision course with eternal separation from God when we focus our energy on ourselves.  If we are not reaching out to the lost, we are condemning them to eternal torment.  It is sadly true that many professed Christians shout with their mouths, “Praise the Lord,” even as they cry, “Go to hell,” through their uncaring lives.

I was invited by an ethnic congregation on one occasion to assist in developing an outreach program.  They wished to grow, and they knew from their study of the Word that the way in which the Saviour intended to grow a church is through reaching out, through visiting in the homes of those about them, presenting the Good News.

When I asked the deacons of that congregation how they were reaching out, they described their efforts.  Something in their answer disturbed me.  I asked them how they responded if, as they visited door-to-door, they encountered a home where Caucasians lived.  They replied that they excused themselves, saying that they had the wrong house, and they then went to the next home.  Asking them how they responded if a Korean family occupied the home, I received the same answer.  They responded the same way if a family of their race that happened to speak a different dialect occupied the home.

I berated those deacons, pointing out that they were racist and cultural elitists.  Since they would not reach out to all people, they could be certain that God would not permit them to win their own people.  Similarly, until we make the effort to win all whom God brings into our lives, we will not see those we love come to faith.  Perhaps this is one reason so many of our family members are lost.  We are disobedient, attempting to coerce God into doing our will instead of surrendering to do His will.

The Means by which Jesus Stirred the Church to Obedience — The first church was in a similar situation, seeking to win Jews to Jesus even as they condemned Gentiles to hell.  It was not that the first Christians decided to condemn Gentiles to hell, but because of their failure to break out of their own narrow vision of who should be a part of the community of faith, they consigned almost the entire world to perdition.  Whether they had processed the thought or not, they exalted culture over Christ.  Similarly, when we fail to reach out to any people, we are exalting culture or class over Christ.

I am still astonished at the words of a former pastor in our community.  He is reported to have asserted that the church he pastored was not “an entry level church.”  One must assume that he meant that families from the lower economic strata of society were unwelcome in that congregation.  Other churches, though perhaps not so crass as to voice such thoughts openly, nevertheless become exclusive and make people of particular races or social status unwelcome.  I pray such attitudes will never be permitted to reside in this church, though the failure to witness to the lost would condemn us as holding views that must be deemed exclusive, if not utterly disobedient to Him we call Master.

God used persecution to stir the early church to obedience.  Stephen was martyred.  Saul, apparently a leader in the Synagogue of the Freedmen, incited a lynch mob to kill the godly deacon.  One can only wonder whether it will be necessary for a godly deacon to be slain because of his faith in Dawson Creek to make the churches obedient to the call of Christ.  Perhaps it will be necessary that some pastor must be jailed, or beaten, or murdered, in order to compel obedience to the command of Christ.

When this man Saul had concluded overseeing the murder of Stephen, he became intent on one thing—he would extirpate the people known as The Way.  Our text states that Saul was ravaging the church.  The word translated ravaging occurs only here in the New Testament.  By his choice of this word, Luke is drawing attention to the peril of the community of the Faith.  This is perhaps the strongest word he could have employed to speak of Saul’s actions.  The persecution was fierce and relentless, and Saul was determined to utterly destroy the Faith so that not a single proponent would be found.  Both men and women were dragged away to prison, and that was not the worst of what he was capable of doing.  Those incarcerated knew quite well that this enraged zealot was prepared to murder if the occasion should arise.

The only reasonable response to such an inexorable onslaught was to flee.  This is the reason the text states, they were all scattered…  The church was scattered!  At least, all except the Apostles were scattered.  In effect, the leaders of the disobedient church were left without a congregation.  The congregation was scattered.

Do you imagine that this happened without the Lord’s knowledge?  Do you suppose that God was surprised by this turn of events?  Do you think that the Lord gasped and immediately began to think of how He might salvage some good from the situation?  God is not surprised by the events that come into the lives of His people.  You may be assured that God does not have a “Plan B” to institute when matters go awry.  I love the poet’s thought that captures the reality of life for the Child of God.

Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne—

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.[6]

God was not surprised, nor is God surprised at what occurs in the life of this congregation.  He knows what is best for us.  He designs our circumstances so that they will redound to the praise of His glory.  He knows those who are wheat and He knows those who are weeds.  According to His will, He will take whatever action is required to accomplish His will for this congregation.  If we are obedient, He will empower us to accomplish His will.  If we disobey Him, He will permit us to experience defeat and perhaps send a destroyer to stir us up so that we will begin to obey Him.

Notice that when the church was scattered, when the leadership was no longer available to work in the place of the congregation, others began to obey the call of God.  Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.  At last, God’s power will be demonstrated among those who had seen the light, but to this point were excluded from the light.  We can only wonder how many people about us have perhaps seen our light, but feel themselves excluded from that light.

A Call to Action — With all my heart, I am convinced that God has placed us here at this particular time to accomplish some great thing to the praise of His glory.  If I did not believe that, I would have left before now.  God means for us to be more than just a comfortable place where friends meet once a week.  God means for us to be the lighted city that draws the lost to Christ the Lord.  God intends that we should grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, but part of our growth will mean that we must develop the compassionate heart of Christ which brings the lost to faith.

Last week, Lynda and I were privileged to attend the service of a congregation that was reeling from blows that left them breathless.  The church had recently experienced a split, with a number of leaders simply leaving the church for other places.  After a brief period of trying to salvage the situation, their young pastor, obviously discouraged, sought out another church to pastor and resigned unexpectedly.  Not more than twenty people were in attendance, and they were clearly in distress.

A young church planter travelled from Red Deer to address the congregation.  He was concerned for their continued existence, and he clearly stated his concern for them.  His own congregation is a recent start, and he has no intention of leaving his work to assist them.  He did, however, state that he was committing his nascent church to help in any way possible to assist this sister church to overcome their daunting situation.

The reason I say that Lynda and I were privileged is because of the message that this young preacher delivered to the discouraged saints.  He reminded them that their great need was not to find a pastor, but it was to fulfil the will of God for their church.  You see, the people, reeling from multiple blows, imagined that they needed to find a pastor, even if it meant being consumed with that need for coming months or even years.  The man of God reminded them that God had not called them to search for a pastor, but rather He appointed them to win the lost.  Now that is a message we all need!

Wow!  I thought that perhaps I should invite that young preacher to address our own congregation!  Our great need is not to appoint elders.  We must not be consumed with seeking out a youth worker.  Our total focus must not be on moving to two services.  All these are real needs, but they are incidental and not central!  Our great need is to ensure that each member of this congregation will first be obedient to the call of God.

What value is there is having multiple elders if we fail to win the lost?  Can we really say that we will benefit from a youth worker if we do not win lost youth to faith in the Living Son of God?  We can have a dozen services, each with a different worship team and each with a different worship style, but if we are not obedient to the clear command of Christ, we are just another religious society.

We need first to confess that we have sinned—as a congregation and individually.  As a congregation, we have been content to witness individuals saved from time-to-time.  We tolerate forceful preaching of the Word, but we do not enjoy it.  Preaching requires that we invest time and we are a people in a hurry.  If the Spirit of God should visit our services and they run longer then we anticipated, we are agitated because we have plans.  We need to pray that God will meet us each week.  We must begin to pray throughout the week, asking that the Spirit of God break through our Canadian reserve and surprise us with joy.  We must seek the power of God through the preaching of the Word, in the singing of the praises of God, in the reading of the Scriptures, and upon our assemblies week-by-week.  We must confess that we have sinned and ask that God now bless us.

As individuals, each of us must begin to pray for those who are lost—beginning with our own family members and continuing outward to include those who are beloved friends.  We must begin to speak of the grace of God, believing that God will work powerfully through each of us as we speak.  Invite your loved ones to join you in worship.  More pertinent, invite your loved ones to look to Christ as Master and Saviour.  Begin with those nearest to you, but always be prepared to reach beyond the moment to seize the opportunity to bring those whom God sends into your life.

As we project the Gospel outward from our church, we must follow the leadership of God.  God does not overlook people’s sin.  He extends grace and forgiveness in spite of sin.  We must be accepting of individuals without condoning their lifestyles.  Have you listened to the words of the song, This must be the Place?  Steve Amerson co-authored the song, and he also aings it.

Souls on the street, addicted to sin,

Selling themselves to survive,

Not understanding the hope they can find,

In a place where God's love is alive,

They doubt that they could meet

The standards necessary,

And fear that they'd find judgement

Rather than a sanctuary.

The neighbour next door keeps the house looking good,

But the home is collapsing within.

Pressures of life pull the family apart

And temptation's destruction begins.

They doubt the church could have

The answers necessary,

And fear they'd find rejection

Rather than a sanctuary.

This must be the place where a broken heart can mend.

This must be the place where the outcast finds a friend.

For we cannot lift the fallen if our hand still holds a stone,

And their sin that seems so great to us

Is no greater than our own.

There must be a point where sin meets grace,

And the church must be the arms of God,

Reaching out to bring them in,

To a place where they can find God's love,

Regardless of their sin.

There must be a point where sin meets grace,

And this must be the place.[7]

That is the church I want to belong to.  That is the church I want us to become.  Who joins me in this desire?  Who says, “That is what I want”?  The invitation today is nothing less than a call for Christians to commit themselves to changing the way we have done business.  All about us, throughout our neighbourhoods and throughout our town, lost men and women, boys and girls, live under condemnation.  We have a message that will set them free.  Will they hear that message?  Will we be the ones to deliver the message?  If we go, they will come and many will be saved.

I am asking that those who will commit themselves to be obedient to Christ’s call to this day stand in demonstration of that desire for obedience.  I do not ask that you do anything less than publicly admit your sin of disobedience and this day assert that you will obey the command of Christ to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone to win others to the Faith.  If you will do this, join me in standing as we seek His blessing.  Amen.


Gene Veith cites an article by David Shiflett in the Wall Street Journal to demonstrate that “born again” Christians are in too many instances lost.  He cites poll data from George Barna that “26 percent of born-agains believe all religions are essentially the same and that 50 percent believe that a life of good works will enable a person to get to heaven.”  He continues by noting that one in three “born-again” Christians do not believe that Jesus rose physically from the dead.”[8]  Is that possibly true of those who share our services and also claim to be born from above?  I pray not, but the evidence may indeed point in that direction.

Mr. Veith draws the conclusion that Christianity is “conforming to the dominant secular culture.  It is all right to be religious, according to the dictates of postmodernism, as long as your faith exists just in your head.  If you start claiming that your beliefs are more than just a private mental state that makes you feel good, asserting instead that what you believe is objectively real and valid for everybody, then you are an intolerant menace to society.”[9]


 

Souls on the street, addicted to sin,

Selling themselves to survive,

Not understanding the hope they can find,

In a place where God's love is alive,

They doubt that they could meet

The standards necessary,

And fear that they'd find judgement

Rather than a sanctuary.

The neighbour next door keeps the house looking good,

But the home is collapsing within.

Pressures of life pull the family apart

And temptation's destruction begins.

They doubt the church could have

The answers necessary,

And fear they'd find rejection

Rather than a sanctuary.

This must be the place where a broken heart can mend.

This must be the place where the outcast finds a friend.

For we cannot lift the fallen if our hand still holds a stone,

And their sin that seems so great to us

Is no greater than our own.

There must be a point where sin meets grace,

And the church must be the arms of God,

Reaching out to bring them in,

To a place where they can find God's love,

Regardless of their sin.

There must be a point where sin meets grace,

And this must be the place.[10]


----

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Ó 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] I am indebted to James T. Draper, Jr., for the concept of this message as presented in an article, Country Club or Change Agent: Which is Your Church? published in the LifeWay@Heart e-newsletter, 12 November, 2003

[3] See Vance Havner, “Is This That,” in  In Times Like These (Fleming H. Revell Co., Old Tappan, NJ 1969) 77-87

[4] Gene Edward Veith, Unbelieving ‘born-agains,’ World, December 6, 2003, page 33

[5] Veith, op. cit.

[6] James Russell Lowell, The Present Crisis [1844], stanza 8

[7] Steve Amerson, This Must be the Place, © 1998, Steve Amerson Music (BMI) and Centergy Music (BMI)

[8] Gene Edward Veith, Unbelieving ‘born-agains,’ World, December 6, 2003, page 33

[9] Veith, op. cit.

[10] Steve Amerson, This Must be the Place, © 1998, Steve Amerson Music (BMI) and Centergy Music (BMI)

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