They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Acts 2:42-47 CSB
One of the most striking passages in all the Bible is the description of the newborn church in Acts 2:42-47. It doesn’t necessarily stand out because of its content, though. Church characteristics like worship, evangelism, and giving are seen in many other places in the New Testament. No, Acts 2:42-47 is striking because of its context.
See, right before we get this summary statement about the church, we read that Peter preached a great sermon, the Holy Spirit moved, and 3,000 people got saved. Before that sermon, we read that those who believed were gathered together and there were “about one hundred and twenty.”
Talk about church growth! One moment, the church was running 120. The next, there’s 3,120. Talk to any church planter you know (f you don’t know any church planters, go find one) and ask them if they are prepared to grow 2500% in one day. While they’d be ecstatic to see that kind of harvest, even the most enthusiastic planter would have to admit that the feasibility of assimilating that growth would challenge the structures of their plant. There are spatial deficiencies, organizational constraints, and leadership inadequacies that make such an influx of new people nearly impossible to accommodate. Such an instantaneous, exponential increase would require rethinking and reimagining almost every aspect of the plant. And then consider that church plants are, usually, exponentially more flexible than an established church: imagine such an influx into a typical First Baptist Somewheresville! It would require radical reevaluation of almost every facet of the church’s organization. And it wouldn’t happen quickly.
Back to Acts. Unlike we would expect in our American context we don’t see any hand-wringing or panic over how the church was going to accommodate these new believers. There’s no “emergency” committee meetings or congregational summits to discuss the plan going forward. The (now much larger) church just keeps going, not missing a beat. How did the mass conversion not overwhelm the church? Why did it not immediately descend into anarchy?
Obviously, the recent gift of the Holy Spirit played an integral role. He came and sparked the revival and, our theology would assert, continued to indwell the believers. But unless we are willing to say that the same Holy Spirit is not at work in our context, we shouldn’t place the explanation for the seamless transition entirely at his feet.
Was it the technologically simpler times of the first century that account for it? If that’s the explanation, we should all probably go brush up on our Dutch and learn to sew so we can become Amish.
No, I would suggest that the reason the early church was able to assimilate 3000 people and immediately be described in the way we see at the end of Acts 2 was because the church was not defining itself the way our churches and church plants define themselves in America.
We tend to define “church” in organizational terms. Look at how we talk about church:
“The order of service is printed in your program.”
“Please review the suggested change to our church bylaws before the business meeting next Sunday.”
“Let me see if the church calendar is open on that date.”
“Only members are allowed to serve in ministry at First Baptist.”
Now, look at how the early church was described:
“Devoted to the apostle’s teaching.”
“Filled with awe.”
“Held all things in common.”
“Ate with joyful hearts, praising God.”
The early church was defined in relational terms, both vertically and horizontally.
They didn’t have trouble inviting 3,000 new souls into their fellowship because that’s what it was: fellowship. With one another and with God. No complicated structure, no organizational hoops – none of that.
Don’t get me wrong: business meetings, church calendars, and church membership are not necessarily bad; in some cases, they’re essential. And the early church wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot! But they did have something that most churches in America don’t: the ability to be transformed by an amazing movement of God without missing a beat.
Why the difference? What led the early church to this scalable, flexible, and accommodating capacity for assimilation and what makes the American model limited, rigid, and only semi-permeable?
Where they start.
An American church’s structure is largely pre-determined by its ecclesiological perspective: they start, consciously or not, by asking, “what is a church?” Then, based on how they answer that question, they seek to fill “it,” the organization called church, with “them,” people who profess to be Christians.
The early church’s structure seems to have been predicated on answering a different question: “what is a disciple?” Then, based on how they answered that question, they sought to gather “them,” those who professed to be and who looked like disciples, into an “it,” the church.
Is a church an “it” consisting of some “thems?”
Or is a church a “them” constituting an “it?”
Our answer will have radical implications for how we “do” church.
I will be thinking and writing about some of those implications here in the coming days…stay tuned. In the meantime, I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts on the matter: shoot me an email. God bless!