I was not the first, nor will I be the last, young man to read through the book of Acts have questions. As a high school student I remember meeting almost nightly with a group of friends and working our way through Paul’s missionary journey, the model of the early church, and the challenges to this new community of believers. I often had this nagging questions: why does the church of Acts seem so different from my own church? There are several important reasons that the church today and the early church look so different.
There are both good reasons and bad reasons that the early church and the modern church look so different. Among the good reasons, we should consider both theological and sociological reasons for these differences.
From a theological perspective the book of Acts represents a unique point in history. The birth of the church at Pentecost is even that was never to be repeated. Pentecost serves as the fulfillment of prophecy and the launching of the New Covenant people of God in the historical-redemptive narrative. Thus, some of what we see happening in key moments in the book of Acts represent the fulfillment of God’s promise to create a new covenant people. As the starting place of this momentous change, the early church does not so much represent the pattern as the origination of what follows. This is not to suggest that Acts holds no influence over our corporate life together. The book should inform our practice as churches, and yet we must carefully discern what is prescriptive and what is descriptive in the book (for help on developing this discernment, I commend the principles outlined here). We need to recognize the unique place in redemptive history that the book of Acts holds and not attempt to minimize that uniqueness.
In addition, we should note that a good reading of the whole book of Acts presents us with a church that was full of problems, challenges, and misguided efforts. The book does not present a uniform model of church, but rather a group of believers who are continuing to figure things out as they are guided by God’s Spirit. So, for example, conflict between Jews and Gentiles was a regular struggle, especially as it related to the role of the Old Covenant law. They were continuing to iron these issues out as a community. The intent of Luke’s writing was not to give us a specific model of church organization, but to detail the development of the church as a model for our own boldness in spreading the gospel. A simple reading of the book should note key differences between the church then and today because many of the issues they were struggling with we have seen more clear revelation on through the rest of the New Testament.
At the same time, there are also sociological reasons why the church might look different. At the birth of the church there was excitement, boldness, and rapid growth. Because the Spirit was birthing a new movement He was pleased to add to their numbers “daily” (Acts 2:47), and even to add 3,000 people at one time (Acts 2:41). This is not the norm for any church at this point in history. It was not even the norm for the church as it progressed throughout the early stages of development. Rapid growth is often a part of the initial launch of a movement, and when guided by the theological agenda of the Spirit of God it increases even more. As the church comes to be established and organized those numbers often start to be more gradual and steady, not these bursts of dramatic volume. This is still true even of church plants today, which may experience intense growth initially and plateau soon after. We should not expect that the church today would look exactly like these dramatic displays of growth.
Furthermore, the early church had unique circumstances that created some of its growth and practice. Pentecost occurred, for example, during one of the major celebrations of the Jewish community. Jerusalem was flooded with people who had massive theological and Biblical foundations for understanding the gospel. The environment was ripe for mass conversions. And, once converted, the need to care for these new brothers and sisters who were far from home without provisions, was huge. The practice of selling their possessions to care for those in need was born out of an actual crisis. The daily gathering together for meals was a result of real-life need.
The modern church should naturally look different from the early church. Theologically and sociologically we are at different points. These are a few of the good reasons the our churches and the church in Acts should not perfectly parallel one another. There are, however, also bad reasons the two diverge.
The bad reasons tend to reflect both cultural influence and personal selfishness. Much of Western, specifically American, culture has created an emphasis on personal autonomy and mobility, both of which minimize our investment and need of one another. The modern church is often blind to its own adoption of cultural values, but we are often as isolated and selfish as the modern world. So, why do we fail to reflect the early church? One reason is that we are too consumed with our own selfish agendas, personal freedoms, and independence to build community like the other church. If being part of the church means sacrificing Johnny’s soccer tournament then church takes a back seat. If being part of the church means inviting people into my home, then we will just attend a service once a week. If being part of the church means spending less on my home renovations and giving more to the church, then we will be attenders instead of members. We are not like the church in Acts because we have accepted values that diverge from the early church. I hope in weeks ahead to outline these distinctions more clearly and point out ways we can begin to recover something of the Biblical values on community.
The modern church does not look very much like the church of acts. The reasons for this difference are diverse. There are good and natural reasons we don’t look like the church, both theological and historical/sociological. There are also poor reasons, reasons that reflect sickness in our corporate life and belief. So, that means that there are some things that won’t change and some things that should. In the coming weeks I want to think about the nature of Biblical community and evaluate our practices afresh. It’s worth our time because Biblical community is vital to our lives.