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Sunday, July 24, 2011

What if ... ?

"What if what happened then, happened now?"

It was the slogan that spurred one of the greatest churches of the 20th century, Willow Creek Community Church just northwest of Chicago, to spend their resources and their money for the single purpose of developing completely devoted disciples of Jesus Christ. They read the accounts in the book of Acts and said, What if what happened then, happened now?

It's such a simple idea. But think how far we've drifted from that simple idea. We think there's no way. Our lives are so much more complex. Our technology has come so far. Our understanding of the natural world is so far beyond theirs. Life is just different today.

Yes, but not in the important ways. In the important ways, you and I are no different from Nicodemus or Priscilla or Mary Magdalene or Peter. We love, we hurt, we worship, we grow, we develop wisdom, we make stupid mistakes, we yearn for something beyond ourselves.

So why not try to build a church based on the idea that what God did in Acts, he could do again?

I am not a simplistic person. I don't leap to easy answers. But so often churches are guilty of, number one, selling God short and not believing he's capable of giving us more than we now have; and number two, we complicate things far more than they need to be complicated and in doing so, prevent ourselves from experiencing the simple truths of God's presence, his love, and his power in our lives.

So the portrait of the church in the book of Acts contains a few very simple characteristics. We could go on at length about each of these, but for the moment let's just list them:

  1. The church was centered, focused, laser-like, on Jesus Christ, because they believed Jesus was God's plan for the world.
  2. The church was led by those who knew Jesus personally. Initially this meant those who had physically eaten and talked with him after his resurrection; later it meant those who had experienced his presence and his power, and who spoke and taught and led in concord with those who had been eyewitnesses.
  3. The church met primarily in two places: first in people's homes, and second in the temple courts. From other evidence we also see that there were tiny clusters of three or four people who worked together, held each other accountable, and built depth in to their relationships. The church existed in these three ways -- temple, home, and cluster.
  4. The church was good news. Not just that they talked about good news, but they did good news to the people around them.
  5. People within the church were held accountable for their actions. This was a community with accountability, and people's character and conduct mattered. Not that everyone was perfect, but stuff didn't just get swept under the rug either.
  6. The believers met together to center themselves in the Bible's teachings.
  7. The believers met together to pray for each other and for God's mission in the world.
  8. The believers were bold in the face of danger and persecution and resistance.
  9. These believers described themselves as "followers of the Way" by which they meant that their faith in Jesus moved them to action.
  10. The church believed, taught, and acted on the idea that Jesus was still at work, and that by the power of his Spirit working among them and giving them strength and guidance, they had to be a part of that work because that's where abundant life happens.
Not too complicated. That's a beginning of what it might look like for the church today to be what it was in the book of Acts. For all we know, Peter painted a big sign that said, "Our Savior's Lutheran Church" and hung it above the doorway to the upper room in Jerusalem. What we do know is this: if such a sign existed, it did not define what this church was about or who was welcome. Jesus had already determined that.

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