"God's Way of Growing a Ministry"
(Delivered Sunday, March 7, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
We have been talking a lot over the past few months about the changes that are occurring in our church family. It's all been exciting to see! More people in our church family are being individually discipled than ever before. And more of you are stepping into areas of significant ministry than we have seen in a long time. People are excited about our church and its ministry! And our leadership team is actively evaluating how it can be structured to best facilitate our growth in "every-believer ministry."
I believe some very exciting days of ministry are ahead for us - if we act wisely and biblically with respect to the changes that are going on in our church. Personally, I have mixed feelings about change. I tend to adapt comfortably to things as they are; but I also realize that, if we're all going to grow in our ministry to the people around us, change is an absolute necessity. And so, I've felt led to a passage from the Book of Acts about how God works through change.
To whet your appetite for this passage, let me begin by reading the encouraging words in its closing verse. It's Acts 6:7; and it describes the end result of a process of change through which God brought His early Jerusalem church. The church was faced with a crisis; and this passage tells us that, after dealing with this crisis in a particular way, "Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith."
Whenever we read of how the church grew in the Book of Acts, I think its worth our while to find out why. God is giving us hints of how He works to grow His church. So, in looking at this passage together, I'd like us to simply walk through this passage and see - step-by-step - what happened. And then, at the end, I'd like us to draw up a few principles from this passage that we can apply to our church. Perhaps, with God's blessing, He will use these principles to help us grow in His service together.
* * * * * * * * * *
The first thing we find in Acts 6:1 - a very important thing in fact - was that . . .
1. A NEW MINISTRY NEED AROSE (v. 1).
It arose in the form of a complaint. The passage begins by saying, "Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint . . ." God did the great thing He did in the early church by allowing a need to arise. God used a complaint about a need to cause His church to grow.
Now what was the complaint? You notice that it speaks of "those days." The days Luke speaks of were dramatic days for the church because it was a time of rapid growth - and, along with it, change. The church became overwhelmingly large in just a short amount of time. When Pentecost occurred, there were only 120 disciples gathered together in the upper room. But when the Holy Spirit came upon the gathered believers with the sound of a mighty rushing wind, and when Peter - filled with the Holy Spirit - preached his great sermon to the Jewish people who gathered to find out what was going on, three-thousand people believed and where added to the church! Can you imagine what it must have been like to go from 120 people to three-thousand in one day? Talk about change - !!
But then, only a short time later, God performed a mighty miracle through Peter and John - using them to heal a lame man in the temple. And when the people gathered together to see what had happened, Peter preached another "Holy Spirit" sermon to them. And as a result, another two-thousand were added to their number!
And then, the church underwent persecution. The rulers of the Jewish people commanded the disciples to stop preaching about Jesus. And so, Peter preached a Spirit-filled sermon to them! (As you can see, he was beginning to do this quite a lot.) And when the authorities could do no more than simply "forbid" them from proclaiming Jesus, the believers all assembled together and prayed for boldness to keep on preaching. And God, in response poured His Holy Spirit upon them, "and they spoke the word of God with boldness" (Acts 4:31). By this time, Luke - the writer of the Book of Acts - could only refer to the numbers of believers as "the multitude of those who believed" (v. 32).
And then, God had to discipline sin in His church. A man and his wife - Ananias and Sapphira - plotted together to lie to the Holy Spirit, and pretended to make a large offering to the church that they really didn't make. God caused them to fall over dead right in the church! Luke tells us that great fear came upon all who heard of these things; but he also tells us that
. . . believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them. Also a multitude gathered from the surrounding cities to Jerusalem, bringing sick people and those who were tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all healed (5:14-16).
* * * * * * * * * *
Now I know I wasn't going to draw up any principles until the end; but I have to at least wonder out-loud about something: If the Holy Spirit is still active in the world, and if He Himself hasn't changed in the past two-thousand years since the time He came upon those early believers, then why isn't this sort of thing happening more often? Why isn't it happening here? I certainly agree with those who say that those were unique days in which the Holy Spirit was establishing the apostolic authority of the church; but I also wonder if the Holy Spirit is prepared to do a whole lot more through us than we allow Him to do! If the same Holy Spirit is among us, then church ought NEVER to be dull, and boring, and uneventful! It ought to be the most exciting place on earth!
I've been in correspondence with a pastor in Kenya. He wrote not long ago to ask me to pray for his church. They began a series of prayer meetings. A blind man received his sight the first day; and this motivated hundreds of people to join the church. He recorded over 500 salvation; some of whom were healed of AIDS by the confirmation of doctors! Many other miracles are occurring. A witch-doctor, who had been standing in the way of the Gospel and had been threatening to kill believers, came to one of the meetings and gave his life to Christ! When I read those accounts, I find myself longing for missionaries from Kenya to come and help us!!
We have no right to dictate to the Holy Spirit how He should do things, of course. But let's not kid ourselves: If a church is "dull" and "uneventful", the problem is definitely not with Him!! May God free us from our ungodly adaptation to 'business as usual', and make us the kind of church that the Holy Spirit is free to do astonishing things through to the glory of Jesus Christ!!
* * * * * * * * * *
Anyway; those where the kind of days that Luke was speaking of when he wrote, "Now in those days . . ." The church was overwhelmed by new believers - from 120 to multiple thousands in just a short amount of time. Only the Holy Spirit can do that!
But it caused changes; and the changes made problems. Remember that "complaint" I told you about? Luke writes, "Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution."
At first, the people who had attached themselves to the growing body of believers were Jews who where accustomed to worshiping in the Temple in their native language (Aramaic). They naturally brought their Hebrew social and cultural customs with them into this new community of followers of Jesus Christ. But the Good News was spreading; and as a result, Jews who had lived in some of the Greek-speaking lands around the Mediterranean Sea also began to join this rapidly growing body of believers. And they brought with them their Greek - that is, Hellenistic - social and cultural customs.
Luke tells us earlier in the book that the multitudes of believers who gathered together no longer considered what they possessed to be their own; but if anyone among them lacked anything or had needs, everyone sold lands or houses and presented the proceeds to the apostles to be distributed to meet those needs (4:32-35). And in caring for the widows among them, it may be that the Jewish church had been concentrating so much on meeting the needs of the Jewish widows that they unintentionally neglected the Hellenistic widows. And as the church grew, the problem became more pronounced. Something in the ministry of the church was not right. Change had occurred; and the change cause problems.
* * * * * * * * * *
I've come to learn something about a church whenever the Holy Spirit is active in it: If you don't like change, it's not the place to be! Certain things, of course, never change. God's eternal character never changes. His word never changes. His way of saving people - through faith in His Son Jesus Christ - never changes. But almost everything else is going to be changing. That's because the church exists in the context of an ever-changing culture; and it is filled with redeemed people who themselves need to be changed! And even growth in number creates new changes. We need to be fixed on those things that never change in Christ's kingdom; but flexible on the things that must will change as a result of the expanse of that kingdom.
The early church was undergoing a change in its sense of ministry needs. That always shakes things up! And so, next, we find that as a result of these changing circumstances . . .
2. MINISTRY PRIORITIES WERE ESTABLISHED (v. 2-4).
Embracing Spirit-led change forces a church to re-evaluate what it's doing. It forces its leaders to define what's really important. And so, as Luke tells us, the apostles took action; "Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, 'It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables."
The phrase "it is not desirable" wasn't meant to suggest that the apostles thought that it was somehow beneath them to do the physical work of feeding the widows. The phrase actually means, as it's translated in the English Standard Version, "It's not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables"; or as the King James Version has it, "It is not reason . . ." It wasn't that they weren't willing to serve tables, if that were the right thing to do. The problem was with what they'd have to give up in order to do it - that is, the time required to teach and preach from the word of God.
I read something recently by a famous Presbyterian minister. He said that, if there are problems in the church, it can usually be attributed to a failure somehow in the ministry of the preaching the word. The preaching of God's word is a priority! Those who are commissioned by the Lord with the responsibility of handling God's word need to give it their full attention. Paul told Timothy,
Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you (1 Tim. 4:13-16).
The apostles later on also mention their need to be devoted to prayer. The preaching of the word, and prayer: these are among the greatest spiritual resources Christ has given His church. All too often, those things are not given the priority they deserve. And sadly, other things - things considered more "practical" from the world's perspective - have been given greater importance than the spiritual resources of preaching and prayer. But these things should never be given "second-rate" status!
And we see this in the experience of the apostles. Here, we see that an urgent need arose in the church! What could be more "practical" a ministry need than that of feeding the widows?!! But even then, the apostles said that it would not be right for them to neglect the preaching of God's word in order to serve tables. But this didn't mean that the widows should be neglected either! Instead, it meant that others needed to step in and cooperate with the all-important ministry of the word by taking care of the new situation brought about BY the preaching of the word! Others needed to attend to this important ministry, so that another important ministry - the ministry of the word - would not be neglected.
The apostles didn't apologize for this. They simply stated it as the way things had to be. And so, they said, "Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word."
If it's true that the health, and ministry effectiveness, of a church is dependent upon the faithful and accurate preaching of God's word, then there's no other way around it - other people have to do the other stuff so that those commissioned with the preaching of God's word can give themselves fully to the task! That way, everyone is involved in the cooperative ministry of the spread of the gospel and the expanse of Christ's kingdom!
* * * * * * * * * *
I think it's fascinating that the apostles didn't just say, "Find somebody! After all, anybody can serve tables!" Instead, they treated the task as what it truly was - a ministry unto the Lord; and they specified that whoever fulfilled this ministry needed to be spiritually qualified. They needed to be "from among" the believers - that is, they needed to be Christians themselves. But they also needed to be recognized in a positive way among both those who are inside and those who are outside the community of faith; that is, they needed to have a "good reputation." They also needed to be "full of the Holy Spirit"; that is, controlled and empowered by Him in a prevailing, pervasive way. And they needed to be characterized by "wisdom"; every ministry in the church - even the serving of tables - needs to be led by those who operate with wisdom.
The apostles turned the task of finding these men over to the believers; and so, next, we find that . . .
3. NEW MINISTERS WERE APPOINTED (vv. 5-6).
Luke goes on to tell us, "And the saying pleased the whole multitude." The believers didn't receive this as if the apostles considered the serving of tables beneath them. Rather, they received it as if it were truly the right thing to do; and that it kept the apostles free to fulfill their crucial work in the word and in prayer. It pleased them to do as the apostles said.
And so, they selected qualified ministers for the task. A couple of them have gone down in Scriptural history as truly outstanding men. Luke says, "And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit . . ." Stephen, as we're told in verse 8, was "full of faith and power", and "did great wonders and signs among the people." We're told that, when some arose to oppose the gospel message and disputed with Stephen, "...they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke" (v. 10). His bold stand for Christ is told to us in chapter 7. He gave his life for the Savior, and has gone down in history as the church's first martyr.
Then, we're told that they chose a man named Philip. Philip stands out in Bible history as a great evangelist and preacher. He's the one whose story is mentioned later in the Book of Acts. He was the first to preach the gospel to the people of Samaria (8:4-8); and who later preached the gospel to the high-ranking official from Ethiopia (8:26-40). In Acts 21:8, he's referred to as "Philip the evangelist."
One man stands out in particular. His name was Nicolas; and Luke describes him as "a prostylite from Antioch." This is important, because it identifies him as a Gentile who came under the Jewish law, became circumcised, and was incorporated into the Jewish community. He was a man who was uniquely suited to identify with the Hellenistic Jews who first raised the concern about the widows.
And so, here's the list of the seven outstanding men that the church selected: "...They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Porchorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them."
* * * * * * * * * *
Now let's review. A change in the circumstances occurred (that is, an increase in the number of disciples) so that a serious new ministry need arose (the management of the care of the Hellenistic widows). The leaders could not meet this practical need without, at the same time, neglecting the important tasks of preaching the word and prayer. So, they delegated. They proposed that the church select spiritually qualified men to see to this need. This idea pleased the church; and when the men were selected, they were presented to the apostles who gave approval to the selection by laying hands on them and commissioning them to the work. And they did the work that had been delegated to them.
And that leads us to the result of it all; that . . .
4. THE MINISTRY PROSPERS (v. 7).
Luke tells us, "Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith."
Many churches have been split over needs like the one that the early church faced. But because it was handled in a prudent manner, not only was the need successfully met, but the cause of the gospel was advanced, and the church grew, and many - even from among the temple priesthood - became believers!
God allowed a need in His church to occur; and He used that need to cause the church to grow.
* * * * * * * * * *
Now, in closing, let's consider a few of the principles that this story can teach us.
First, we saw that a new ministry need in the church arose as a result of changing circumstances. And this teaches us a very important principle about our church's ministry: Our ministry should continually based on meeting people's needs in Christ under the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes, a ministry can begin by meeting needs that were legitimate needs at one point in history. But as sometimes happens, those ministries become "institutionalized"; and the institutionalized ministry still remain long after the the particular "need" ceased to be a relevant one. Great effort is often expended toward keeping such ministries going. Sometimes a church can have a fabulous "needs-meeting" ministry that's thirty to forty years out of date; meeting the needs of a generation that has long since gone home to glory!
Or sometimes, a church can make the mistake of copying the effective "needs-meeting" ministry of another congregation. Its leaders can become impressed with how a legitimate need in a completely different context and set of circumstances was met; and then try to replicate that same ministry in their own situation. The only problem is that no one in their own situation really has that same need in that same way. Some churches have a fabulous "needs-meeting" ministry that really belongs in some other church!
One of the great lessons we can learn from this story is that we need to make sure that our church's ministry is based on meeting the needs that God has given us to meet - and never on trying to make people's needs conform to the ministry we want to have. If we stay fixed on the things that never change, and remain flexible on the things that are always changing, the Holy Spirit can lead us into a wonderful adventure of meeting people's real needs.
* * * * * * * * * *
Second, we saw that, when this need arose, ministry priorities were established. The leaders kept faithful to the things that they were called to do, and did so by carefully delegating ministry over to the people of God. And this teaches us another important principle about our church's ministry: Our church's ministry should be seen as the privilege and responsibility of every believer in the church.
As I've confessed to you before, this has always been a struggle for me. I struggle with delegating. And I believe that, in many ways, I've robbed the individual members of the church family of ministry opportunities that truly belong to them. But if the leaders and I delegate more of the ministry to all the believers in our church, and if everyone seeks before God to faithfully do what God has gifted them to do, then it sets all of us free to serve the church better.
I believe that we're learning to do this more and more; and I'm very excited about the way it will cause everyone in our church to grow.
* * * * * * * * * *
Third, we saw that, to meet the needs of a new ministry, qualified ministers were appointed. They were carefully selected for their spiritual qualifications - even though it was the ministry serving of food. And this teaches us yet another important principle in our church's ministry: The ministries in our church need to be served by spiritual believers.
Ministry in the church isn't like anything else on earth. Someone can be a doctor, or an executive, or a coach, or a politician, or just about anything else, and be somewhat effective in it whether they had a relationship with God or not - doing it all in their own power. But no one can serve in the church of Jesus Christ in any effective or fruitful way without being a man or woman who is spiritually dependent upon Christ. Jesus said, "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me" (John 15:4).
Jesus is nowhere near as concerned about what we can do for Him as He is about our having a deep relationship of love with Him. It certainly isn't a matter of our being perfect; because we'll never be perfect until we're in heaven. But it IS a matter of being "spiritual." Jesus wants His servants in the church to be united to Him by faith in His death on the cross. He wants them to be under the guiding power of the Holy Spirit, and in obedience to His word. He wants them to have confessed their sins and to have turned from them in repentance. He wants them to be walking in love with others who are His servants in the church.
He doesn't want our ministry if He doesn't have us. But if He truly has us, then there's no limit to what He can do through us in ministry.
* * * * * * * * * *
And finally, we saw that the gospel spread as a result of the church's needs-meeting ministry. The church grew, and many came to believe on Christ. And this teaches us a final principle for our church's ministry: All our church's ministries must have a "Great Commission" focus. They must be aimed toward spreading the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
"Needs-meeting" ministries are not to become ends in and of themselves. They need to have, as their ultimate purpose, the fulfillment of our call to win people to Jesus Christ and help them grow as His devoted followers. Ministries in Jesus' church that lose that focus are probably better called "monstrosities" rather than ministries; because they no longer serve the primary task that Jesus called His church to fulfill.
That doesn't mean, of course, that the only things our church should do is directly connected to evangelism and discipleship. The daily feeding of widows certainly didn't have an immediate connection to evangelism and discipleship. But it's clear that it ultimately served those causes; because failing to take care of the problem would have hindered the ministry of the church in these areas. And as we saw; when the need was met, more evangelism and discipleship happened!
This is why we have felt led to choose Colossians 1:28 as our guiding verse in ministry - "Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus." It keeps all that we seek to do focused on serving the Great Commission of our Master - the commission to make disciples for Him out of every nation.
* * * * * * * * * *
Things are changing for us as a church. And God is at work in those changes. Let's embrace those changes. Let's encourage one another to step out and embrace significant roles of ministry as the Holy Spirit leads us. Let's keep praying for our leaders, as they seek to delegate more of the ministry over to the people of God and train them for service. Let's be sensitive to the ways that God allows needs to challenge us and change us and direct us.
And as a result, may the word of God spread more through us; and may Jesus' disciples multiply in number; and may many more become obedient to the faith.
Missed a message? Check the Archives!
Copyright © 2004 Bethany Bible Church, All Rights ReservedPrintable Version
Bethany Bible Church, 18245 NW Germantown Road, Portland, OR 97231 / 503.645.1436