I grew up hearing about the New Testament Church. While I would never argue against using the Bible to try to discover the practices of the church in the New Testament, I would argue that too often when we speak of the New Testament church our vision is much too narrow. The discussion always seems to gravitate toward what is done, or not done, during an hour on Sunday mornings. The conversation almost always deals exclusively with what happens at the church building, rather than what it means to be the church in our communities. If our convictions about being the New Testament Church only have implications for one or two hours out of the 168 hours in the week, then perhaps it is time to broaden our thinking so that we can discover that most of what the New Testament has to say about the church has nothing to do with an hour on Sunday, and everything to do with the hours we spend in places that look nothing like church. The quest to imitate the New Testament Church has become stigmatized and bogged down to the extent that, perhaps it is time for a new vocabulary. A new vocabulary that, paradoxically, is older than the term “church”, or at least its Christian connotation. I would argue that if we want to imitate the zeal of those first Christians after Pentecost, then we need to focus less on maintaining the “church”, and more on building the kingdom of God.
What we see at the end of Acts 2 is a group of Jesus’ disciples seeking to live out God’s vision. This vision is not confined to the area of a church building, or the time-frame of a corporate worship service, but encompasses our entire world. So what exactly does that look like?
To begin with, God’s vision for us is of a world of universal praise. This is what it means to live in the kingdom of God. On Pentecost, the gospel was miraculously proclaimed because of the removal of language barriers. Today, the deeds of God are routinely praised in languages which cover the globe, an event no less miraculous considering the scorn and derision first shown toward Jesus and his disciples. Both in the event of Pentecost and in the universal praise offered to God around the world today, we see a reversal of the curse implemented at the Tower of Babel. Language is no longer a barrier to our worship of the eternal God. And if language is no longer a barrier, neither should the doors of our churches serve as a line of demarcation between the kingdom of God and the world. Ask yourself this question, when was the last time you praised God somewhere besides church? Can you remember the last time the world heard you sing or speak a word of praise to God? Too often, the church mistakenly sees its only mission as the gathering of Christians for worship, when in fact the most relevant thing we can do in today’s world is send Christians out into the world in worship. I do think that God is concerned with the hour we spend in corporate worship on Sunday, but I don’t think it’s because he wants that hour or two to be a special time that looks different than the rest of our week. I think God is concerned with our time worshiping as a church because he desperately desires it to be a continuation of how our lives have been lived in the prior week, and because he longs to see it transform how we think, speak, and act in the days to come. Our concerns over worship should be much broader than just the events of an hour. This is vitally important, because when we limit our definition of worship to just a few hours we spend at a church building each week; we limit our ability to see the ways God’s kingdom is breaking into our world all around us. If we want to more closely imitate the enthusiasm of the Christians present at Pentecost, then we must be willing to leave our church buildings more often, and tear down the wall we have erected between “worship” and the rest of the week.
God’s vision for us is also one of redemption. The earth could not hold Jesus, because in the words of G. Bertram, “The abyss can no more hold the Redeemer than a pregnant woman can hold the child in her body.” Jesus did not stay dead, and because of that fact, we should no longer be living lives characterized by death. When Peter is speaking to the crowd, his words in v. 40 are often translated “save yourselves.” This is unfortunate since the verb is passive, which would make the meaning actually “allow yourselves to be saved.” It might seem like small potatoes, but our churches are full of people who are haunted by failed attempts to “save themselves.” When we present the road to salvation as a checklist of things we do, rather than the experiencing of God’s redeeming love, we rob ourselves and others of the opportunity to rest in the sufficiency of what Christ has accomplished on our behalf. We allow ourselves to be saved precisely by ending our efforts to save ourselves, and instead trusting in the fact that Jesus Christ has already accomplished all that our redemption required. Similarly, we live lives that reflect our redemption not because we finally succeed in our efforts to become better people, but because we abandon the enterprise of ever being better on our own, and we relinquish control of our lives to the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us. For too long we have equated being New Testament Christians with doing a list of things that the first Christians did. The reality is this complicates things far more than is necessary. We don’t need to duplicate the actions of the New Testament Christians; we need to duplicate their faith. The kingdom of God comes not because we do certain things, but because we trust in the God to whom the kingdom belongs.
While I think it is a bad idea to attempt to slavishly imitate the Christians of the New Testament, I do think that there should be some similarities between their lives and ours. Namely, our lives should be oriented toward Christ just as theirs were, and there are several practices that can help us in the process of reorienting ourselves away from the world and toward Christ.
- Study Jesus: The teaching of the apostles was an important aspect of the New Testament church. This teaching almost certainly centered on the life of Christ. It’s not complicated, the apostles simply told the story of who Jesus was, what he said, and how his life, death, and resurrection was the culmination of God’s plan to redeem humanity. We could, and should, spend a lifetime studying who Jesus is and how he taught us to live.
- Live as a family: While the early Christians still had their individual identities, they were far less consumed with those identities, and seem far more willing than we often are to live as a family. If you have ever gone to church camp or been on a spiritual retreat with other Christians, you know how uplifting it is to spend several days with people who are also striving to follow Christ. The early church placed a premium on spending time together because they were living in a way that went against the grain of the world around them. Because they saw themselves as family, they also showed great willingness to bear one another’s burdens. They did not see their possessions as exclusively theirs, but sought opportunities to use those blessings for the good of the entire community. Imagine what happens when rather than competing for things, we start freely sharing them? Others cease to be competitors, and start being family instead.
- Break Bread Together- This is sometimes seen solely as a reference to Communion. While that is definitely one part of what is meant, Acts is almost certainly telling us that they shared entire meals together. There are a lot of people we might sit in a sanctuary with, but we would never share a meal with. Maybe it’s because we still harbor some prejudice in our heart, or maybe it’s just because we don’t like the person. No doubt there were some socially awkward moments because of the meals that a very diverse group of people were called to share as Christians (see I Corinthians 11). However, part of being the body of Christ is learning to work past what makes us different, learning to place ultimate importance on our shared identity in Christ. What better place to do that than around a table, sharing a meal? After all, everyone likes to eat!
- Pray- The earliest Christians still shaped the rhythm of their life around set times of prayer, just as the Jews had done for centuries. This is why we find Peter and John going up to the temple in Acts 3, because it was the “hour of prayer, the ninth hour” (Acts 3:1). Clearly, the apostles still found great value in participating in set times of prayer. As Christians we have great freedom to pray whenever we like. My own experience has taught me though, that if I don’t have some set time or routine for my prayer life, then my prayer life is likely to be minimal at best. It matters not when or where we pray, but it is imperative that we pray regularly.
If the New Testament church has taught us anything, it should be that our individual churches are but beachheads through which the kingdom of God moves into the world around us. Our mission is not to grow the church, but to expand the kingdom. Growing the church means striving to increase attendance and building bigger facilities, expanding the kingdom means transforming the world around us through the power of the Holy Spirit into the world God intended it to be all along. While growing the church and expanding the kingdom might overlap in some ways, they are not identical. I remember reading about a visit to Kessel, Germany by New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall. In the town was a bombed-out church, a testimony to the violence that the area had experience in the past. Marshall noted that one spire remained, reaching for the sky and that on the doorway was the inscription, “The Word of God abides forever.” One day, the buildings in which we worship will be but rubble, and we ourselves will have returned to the dust from whence we came. If all we care about is “the church”, then more than likely the fact that we ever existed will probably exist as a mere footnote in history. However, if our heart’s desire is to see God’s kingdom come and to see the name of Christ glorified, then surely the impact we make on the world around us will far outlast the bricks of our buildings, and our bodies in all their frailty.