BOOKS WORTH READING MORE THAN ONCE
RRP £7.99 112pp
Fourth edition. This book is for any church exploring a building project. Principles are illustrated by stories, and it is full of practical advice.
Church members will be asking good and genuine questions like 'Why spend money on buildings when the church is people?' 'Shouldn't we give the money to mission instead?' The book seeks to engage with these questions. Any building project requires sacrificial giving. The author sets out to help people respond to that need in a thoughtful way.
The only book of its kind, to our knowledge.
What people say
'Absolutely essential for anyone becoming involved in a church building or restoration project. A church is about something far more profound than bricks and mortar.'
Joseph Kelly, Editor, Church Building magazine
'A splendid resource for anyone considering a building project of some kind at church. Completely packed with spiritual wisdom, practical advice, and worked examples.'
Lee Gatiss, Director of Church Society
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Read the address on what the church is meant to be, given by John Stott at the opening of St Nicholas Undercroft in Sevenoaks.
The following address was given by John Stott in June 1995 at the thanksgiving service at St Nicholas, Sevenoaks for its Undercroft.
I was delighted to see the fantastic St Nicholas Undercroft. Congratulations on its conclusion. I know it is already proving more than you expected it to be. It has been a great lesson to many churches around the country.
With your re-structuring and re-ordering of St Nicholas, I am sure you have been asking in recent days what the Church is intended to be, what God means it for. It is a very important question which I want to try to answer from the Bible.
What is this new community of Jesus Christ intended to look like? What should its principal distinguishing marks be? I would love us to sit down alongside one another and see what answers we could get to those questions.
It seems to me that one of the best ways to answer them is to take a fresh look at the first Christian community that came into being in Jerusalem at Pentecost. But let’s be realistic. There is a tendency to romanticise the early church. To look back at it through coloured spectacles and speak of it with bated breath, as if it had no blemishes. And we miss the hypocrisies, and the heresies, and the rivalries and the immoralities which troubled the church in those days, as they trouble the church today.
But one thing is clear. In spite of the excesses and the extravagances in the early church, it was radically moved by the Holy Spirit. So, what did that first Spirit-filled and renewed church look like? What evidence did it give of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in its life? If we can answer that question about the first church in Jerusalem, we are well on our way to finding what the marks of a renewed church would be today.
In Acts 2:42-47 we read:
‘[The Christians] devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the Apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who are being saved.’
It is an idyllic picture of that first Christian community. Luke, who was telling the story, draws out at least four major marks of a renewed, or Spirit-filled Church.
First, the renewed church is a learning church, a studying church.
‘They devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles.’ That is the very first thing he tells us about them. The Holy Spirit, we might say, opened a school in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. The Apostles were the teachers, whom Jesus had chosen and trained, and there were three thousand pupils in the kindergarten. It was a very remarkable situation.
We know that those Spirit-filled converts were not enjoying some mystical experience which led them to neglect their intellect, or to despise theology, or to stop thinking. On the contrary, they devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles. Anti-intellectualism and the fulness of the Spirit are mutually incompatible. I have no hesitation in saying that, as the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, so whenever he is in control, truth matters.
Those early Christians did not suppose that they could dispense with earthly teachers having received the Holy Spirit. They knew that Jesus had appointed the Apostles to be teachers of the church, and they submitted to the Apostles’ authority, which we see from Acts 2:43 was authenticated by miracles. And the major purpose of miracles, right through biblical history, has been to authenticate fresh stages of revelation.
So what is the application of this for today? How do we devote ourselves to the Apostles’ teaching when there are no Apostles today? There are bishops and other kinds of church leaders, and there are pioneer missionaries and church planters. Maybe we should call their work ‘apostolic ministry’ (using the adjective but reserving the noun for the twelve and Paul and James and one or two others).
If there were Apostles today, we should have to add their teaching to the New Testament and all the church would have to believe it and obey it. Of course, you know the answer to our question. The teaching of the Apostles has come down to us in its definitive form in the New Testament, and that is the apostolic succession. It is the continuity of this apostolic doctrine made possible by the New Testament.
The ministers of the Spirit-filled church expound scripture from the pulpit; its parents teach the children out of the scriptures; its members read and reflect on scripture every day to grow into maturity in Christ. The Spirit of God leads the people of God to the Word of God. So, the Spirit-filled Church is a learning Church.
Secondly, a renewed church is a caring church.
Its people love one another and support one another and care for another. The word for fellowship here is koinonia. It expresses two complementary truths:
· What we share in together. That is of course the grace of God. The John begins his first letter ‘Our fellowship is with the father and with his Son and Paul adds ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’. So authentic fellowship is Trinitarian fellowship.
· What we share out together. So, it is not only what we are receive together but what we give together. Koinonia is the word Paul used for a collection of money he was organising. The adjective from this word means generous.
All believers were together, and they had everything in common. They sold their possessions and their goods and gave to everyone as he had need.
This is very disturbing. These are verses we trip over rather quickly in order to get on. Does it mean that every Spirit-filled believer should follow this example literally? Did Jesus call his disciples to sell everything and share their goods with others? Some have thought so, and some have done so. I do not doubt that Jesus still calls a small minority of his followers to voluntary poverty. That was his calling of the rich young ruler, and of Francis of Assisi in the Middle Ages, and of Mother Theresa and her sisters of Charity in our lifetime. But it is not the calling of everybody.
The prohibition of private property is a Marxist and not a Christian doctrine. It is worth noting that even in Jerusalem the selling and the giving were voluntary. We see in verse 46 that they broke bread in their homes. So they had not all sold their homes and the furniture. When we come to the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, their sin was not in keeping back part of the proceeds from the property they had sold. Their sin was in pretending to give the whole. It was deceit not greed. As if to underline this the Peter said to them, ‘Before you sold it, was it not your own? After you sold it, was it not at your disposal?
Every Christian has to make a conscientious decision before God as to what to do with their property and with their money. Perhaps that brings a sigh of relief! Nevertheless, we must not avoid the challenges of these verses.
Those early Christians truly loved one another. That is not surprising as love is the first fruit of the Spirit. They cared for their poor sisters and brothers and they shared with them their goods and their homes. This principle of generous and voluntary sharing is one of permanent validity. The Christian community should be the first community in the world in which poverty has been completely abolished. You may be aware of the statistics made public a few years ago in the Brandt Commission Report. The number of destitute people in the world lacking the necessities for survival is about one thousand million - a fifth of the world’s population. And the number of those who die of starvation every day is ten thousand. How can we live with these statistics? The Holy Spirit gives his people a tender social conscience. So those who live in affluent situations, as we in the west do, must simplify our economic lifestyle to some degree, not because we think it will solve the macro-economic problems of the world, but out of solidarity with the poor.
The Spirit-filled church is a generous church. Generosity is a mark of God himself. Grace is another word for generosity. Our God is a generous God. So his people must be generous too.
Thirdly, a renewed church is a worshipping church
As we reflect on the worship of the early Church, notice how balanced it is. It was both formal and informal. It met both in the temple and in homes. The Christians did not immediately abandon the institutional church. I have no doubt they were anxious to reform it according to the gospel, and already they knew that its sacrifices have been fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ, but they continued to attend the prayer services of the temple, which certainly had a measure of liturgy and formality.
They also met in one another’s homes, in which they let their hair down and had a music group and so on. There is an important lesson for us here. Young people are understandably impatient with the inherited structure of the church. And some churches are too conservative and resistant to any change. They are stuck in mud, and the mud is set like concrete. Their favourite quotation is from the liturgy: ‘As it was beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.’ We need to listen to the young. Every church council and committee should have representative young people on it. We should listen to them respectfully, but that doesn’t mean we should always agree with them. Sometimes we must remind them that the Holy Spirit’s way with the institution of the Church is more the way of patient reform than of impatient rejection.
The early Church had formal and informal, and we must not polarise between structured and the unstructured, or between the traditional and the spontaneous, or between the more formal dignified services in church and the informal, liberated meetings in one another’s homes. Why must we always polarise? We need them both. I know St Nick’s has its home groups as well as its dignified services in the church.
The early church’s worship was both formal and informal. It was also both joyful and reverent. There is no doubt about their joy. The Greek word in verse 46 means an exuberant form of joy. God has sent his Son into the world. God has sent his Spirit into their hearts. How could they not be joyful! The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy and peace. When I have been to some services in other parts of the world, I think I have come to a funeral by mistake. Everybody is dressed in black. Nobody smiles. Nobody talks. Nobody laughs. The hymns are played at a snail’s pace and whole atmosphere is lugubrious. If I could overcome my Anglo-Saxon reserve, I would want to shout out, ‘Cheer up!’
Christianity is a joyful religion, and every service should be a celebration of the mighty acts of God in Christ. I am so thankful that Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher said, shortly before he died, ‘The longer I live, the more convinced I am that Christianity is one long shout of joy.’ That’s good, isn’t it! Not bad for an Archbishop. And he was right.
Although the worship of the early church was joyful, it was never irreverent. And if some church services today are funereal, others are flippant. Verse 43 tells us that everyone was filled with awe. The living and holy God had visited Jerusalem. He was in their midst, and they bowed down before him in that mixture of wonder and humility, that we call worship. So don’t let us imagine that worship excludes rejoicing, or that rejoicing excludes reverence. We need to recover the balance of the early church’s worship in these ways.
Fourthly, a renewed church is an evangelising church
Luke says they devoted themselves to study, fellowship and worship. These three are all marks of the interior life of the church. They tell us nothing about its compassion and outreach into the community. This illustrates the danger of isolating a text from its context. Millions of sermons have been preached from Acts 2:42. It is a favourite verse with preachers who want to talk about the Church. I venture to say that every one of them has been unbalanced. That verse on its own does not give a balanced picture. It depicts only the interior of the church. What about the world outside in its colossal material and spiritual needs? Surely the church is concerned about the lonely, the lost, the oppressed, and not preoccupied only with its worship, its study and its fellowship? It is not until we come down to Acts 2:47 that we read, ‘the Lord added to the number day by day those who were being saved.’
There are some important lessons we can learn about evangelism.
1) The Lord Jesus himself did it. It was Jesus who added to the number. Now he delegates to the clergy the task of welcoming people into the visible church by baptism. But he reserved for himself the prerogative of welcoming people into the invisible church when they exercise faith in him. Only he can do that. Only he can open the eyes of the blind, unstop the ears of the deaf, and give life to dead souls. And in this very self-confident age in which people write books about evangelism as if world evangelisation is going to be the ultimate triumph of human technology, we need to get back to the simplicity of this verse - that it was the Lord who added to their number.
Of course, he did it through the preaching of the Apostles, through the witness of the ordinary church members and through their life of love. But he did it. Nobody else can do it. I think the major lesson we need to learn in evangelism is to humble ourselves before the sovereignty of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2) He added to the church those who were being saved. These things went together. He did not add them to the church without saving them, and he did not save them without adding them to the church.
3) He did it daily. The Lord added to the number ‘day by day’. We need to go back to that expectation. They did not regard evangelism as an occasional or sporadic activity. It was as continuous as their worship. I know churches that have not had a convert for ten years. They would not know what to do with one if they got one. We should be expecting the church to grow. We should be expecting the church to be continuously reaching out into the community for Christ.
These four marks of the renewed church apply to four relationships.
First, these questions were related to the Apostles, as we need to be across the centuries, to sit at the Apostles’ feet, as they did in the New Testament. A renewed church is an apostolic church.
Secondly, they were related to each other. They loved each other. They cared for each other. They supported each other.
Thirdly, they were related to God. They worshipped God in the temple and in the home with joy and reference. They were a worshipping community.
Fourthly, they were related to the world outside. They were reaching out into the community.
Some years ago I visited one of the countries of Latin America, and I heard of a group of students who had visited every church in a certain city to try to find what they were looking for, and they had been unable to find it, so had dropped out. Naturally I pricked up my ears and asked, ‘What were they looking for and unable to find?’ You will be astonished, as I was, that they had gone right through these four points without realising what they were doing. They were looking for biblical, contemporary preaching that relates the word of God to the contemporary world; for a living, loving fellowship; for worship in which we bow down to the living God; for a compassionate outreach into the community. Amazing isn’t it! That’s the New Testament Church, and just what these young people were looking for today.
We don’t need to wait for the Holy Spirit to come. The Holy Spirit did come, at Pentecost, and he has never left the Church. Indeed, there is a sense in which Pentecost cannot be repeated any more than Christmas, Good Friday, Easter or Ascension Day. Jesus was born once, died once, rose once, ascended once, and sent his Holy Spirit once. And he is still here, in the Church, which is his temple.
One more thing more must be said. We need to acknowledge Christ’s Lordship and his rightful possession. We need to submit to his sovereignty, his direction. Then our churches will become more like this church in Jerusalem in their biblical doctrine, loving fellowship, living worship, and ongoing evangelism.
May God keep this vision before us.