So those who welcomed [Peter’s] message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
When people find out I’m a Lutheran pastor, the comment I hear most often is some variation of, “Oh! I used to be Lutheran.” That opens up the door for some interesting conversation. Because when I ask why they no longer are Lutheran, the responses go all over the place, with the bottom line being that church didn’t really matter—didn’t make much difference for them. Church wasn’t important enough for them to stick around. We’ll come back to that.
Do you know what the most common question I get asked as a pastor is? Any idea? The most common question I get as a pastor by far is, “How big is your church?” My answer generally varies from “about 30,000 square feet” to “Well, we have room for one more. Interested?” Which, of course, isn’t what they want to know.
Numbers are our default setting for how well something’s going. We cannot ignore numbers, but they don’t always tell the whole story, either. Albert Einstein is thought to have said, “Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything we measure matters.”
Yet no matter how often I talk about the fact that numerical church growth can’t be our primary measure of success, and no matter how often people say they agree, we still kinda all look at the numbers, don’t we? If the church has more people, we feel good about it and think we must be doing some things right. If our worship numbers are down, we beat ourselves up trying to figure out what we’re doing wrong.
Then there’s the book of Acts. 3000 members were added in one day, Luke writes. Granted, he’s likely painting an optimistic picture of the earliest days of the church, but he still puts that out there. What a huge success story, we think! Why isn’t that happening now? Here? With us?
Since we usually end up talking about numbers, let’s talk about numbers. Why aren’t there enthusiastic people clamoring to be part of churches in the US? Probably because of the next 5 verses.
All the disciples, Luke writes—3000 plus—devoted themselves to learning, to being community, to living generously, to growing as disciples. Day after day after day. Devoted to the way of Jesus. Committed to revealing and living God’s priorities in the world.
I’m not sure how many of us today feel that way about the church. I asked a friend and colleague what she thought the purpose of the church was. She answered, “To make the world a better place.”
I think that’s basically true. I would add that we make the world a better place as defined by God. And God’s vision is shown to us in the person of Jesus. Through the life and ministry of Christ we have insight into God’s ways of making a better world.
And that, I believe, is what this earliest group of followers in the book of Acts was doing. Gaining greater clarity about what it is that God is doing, understanding more precisely God’s priorities, seeing more clearly God’s vision, and then committing themselves to being part of that in the world. And isn’t that exactly what the church is really about?
Knowing Bible stories matters, but why? Because we can gain insight into God’s vision for justice, forgiveness, and inclusivity.
Growing numerically is wonderful, but why? Because we then have more gifts with which to do God’s work of making the world a better place.
Sunday worship attendance is super, but why? Because as we gather in God’s name we are reminded of who we are and why we are here. It is here that we are nourished at Christ’s table and equipped with God’s Word. It’s from here that we are sent out to make the world a better place.
How are we doing with that?
In some ways, actually pretty well! We are committed to compassion, and virtually every opportunity that comes to our attention receives our generous compassion and mercy in some way. We actually do reveal the heart and the grace of God in ways that matter. E.g., I have recent letters of thanks from 2nd Wind, LIRS, Habitat for Humanity, Family Tree, World Hunger. Solar panels eliminated our carbon footprint. We generously support for our youth, and continuously offer our building to the community for scouts, support groups, community meetings. These things make a difference. To be honest, in some ways we really are amazing.
In other ways there’s room for growth. There are reasons why our compassion needs to continue to be poured out. There’s nothing we can do about natural disasters, for instance. But there are more effective things we can do about poverty, homelessness, disease, racism, homophobia, any form of intolerance or exclusion. Those things are on us. We’ve made the church more about convenience and comfort than devotion to Christ.
Most of us consider the church to be yet another volunteer organization in our culture. But I don’t think God sees it that way. I believe God considers the followers of Jesus to be the best hope for changing the world. If we aren’t on the leading edge of understanding, revealing, and living out the heart of God, who else can be?
As Frank Davis of Zion Baptist told me, changing the world won’t come from the white house, it won’t come from the state house, changing the world will come from the church house.
That takes devotion. It takes a commitment to learning, to being community, to living generously, to growing as disciples. Day after day after day. Devoted to the way of Jesus. Committed to revealing and living God’s priorities in the world.
We do that, and we’ll stop hearing, “Oh, I used to be Lutheran.” Instead we’ll begin hearing, “Wow! How do I become a Lutheran?” Church is meant to be important enough for them to stick around. Disciples of Jesus: we’ll change the world.