In our little corner of the kingdom here at Deer Valley, we’re celebrating 35 years as a congregation. 35 years ago, Deer Valley met in a middle school cafeteria with a table for an altar, a cross set on that table for decoration, and folding chairs on a very noisy floor. Everything had to be set up and then taken down, and just about everyone had something to do. Every week. You know what else that little group of 30 people had? The Gospel, the Word of God. Today, Deer Valley Lutheran has an entire campus, two freshly-painted buildings, technology upgrades. Very few people have to do anything to get ready for worship, everything’s all set and ready to go. Most of us just show up, stay for an hour, and go home. Much has changed, but one thing hasn’t changed: we’re blessed to have the Gospel, the Word of God.
This is a good time to pause and ask, WHAT SHOULD “CHURCH” LOOK LIKE? There are a lot of opinions out there, and in here. Everything from building style to music preferences to use of technology to sermon length is debated out there, and in here. God has not set down a divinely inspired order of service or building blueprint or sermon length guidelines. But he has given us direction. The early church does offer some descriptive principles to apply today. Let’s bypass the options of so-called experts and mega-church models and consider the Holy Spirit’s point of view. After all, he created the church with explosive, unstoppable power. That power is still at work today. In light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, What Should “Church” Look Like?
As we examine the early church in Acts 2, four “Ms” guide our study. The first is Message. The Christian church in Acts was a church with a message. They didn’t send out flyers promoting their new soccer fields or announcing that bounce houses would be available the day of the Easter egg hunt. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (v. 42) They didn’t just causally take in the apostles’ teaching and say, “Maybe I’ll attend a Bible study…later.” They devoted themselves to it, literally, they constantly attached themselves to the Word of God. They took it in as if their very life depended on it. And it did.
What was the apostles’ teaching? The teaching of Jesus which he himself gave to the apostles and the teaching about Jesus – the Gospel. Earlier in the chapter, on the great day of Pentecost, Peter preached a sermon in which he detailed Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection using Old Testament prophecy to show that he was in fact the promised Savior. He summarized with these words: “Be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (v. 36)
“You.” You crucified Jesus, You have sinned. This is rather personal, even harsh. Necessary? There were some Jewish leaders there, but to put this on all the people, to put the death of Jesus on you and me – isn’t this going just a bit too far? Not in the least! Whose sins were on Jesus’ shoulders? The world’s, of course, but the ones that concern you and me most are your and my own: impatience, harsh words, selfishness, lack of attention to spiritual priorities/Word, doubt, fear, worry. It’s a list impressive in both length and depth, breathtaking in its creativity, eternally damning in reality.
When someone realizes the true nature and impact of sin/rebellion against God, what’s the reaction? “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, Brothers, what shall we do?’” (v. 37) Regret, despair. The answer? Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (v. 38,39) The Gospel is not a message of self-improvement or a bunch of nauseating platitudes, “You can do it, hang in there, God don’t make no junk.” It’s a message of grace, pure grace – God’s undeserved love and mercy for you. God has saved you in Christ, given you the free gifts of forgiveness and life through faith. Jesus Christ lived for you/died for you/rose again for you. He did it, not only for you, but for all. This was the message proclaimed 2000 years ago. This was the message proclaimed 35 years ago at Deer Valley’s first service. 1,820 weeks later, the same message is proclaimed. Law and Gospel, sin and grace, Christ crucified and risen again…for you.
Next up: Mood, which is determined by the message. One word expresses the mood of the early church, and the ideal for the church of every age: κοινωνία. This is a Greek word that means “fellowship, unity, participation, sharing.” “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” This fellowship/togetherness had two deeply embedded qualities: 1) Joy – expressed by “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” (v. 46b,47a) 2) Compassion – “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (vv. 44,45)
κοινωνία/Fellowship was more than coffee and rolls after worship. They enjoyed one another’s company, prayed for one another, looked out for each other. Now the church has always struggled with this. Even churches described later in Acts and throughout the New Testament had significant challenges/conflicts; the apostle Paul had to write letters and make visits to tend to those problems. What’s here in chapter 2 is the Holy Spirit’s ideal for us.
35 years ago, Deer Valley had this, no question. Not perfectly, of course, but there was κοινωνία/fellowship/joy/compassion. There weren’t as many people to look after back then. But they cared about each other, looked after one another. The church today should have that too. Make no mistake – we do, but we can use more of this: more joy, more compassion – which comes from spending more time together in the Word, more time centered on Christ.
The third characteristic of church from the Holy Spirit’s point of view: Mission. Jesus very clearly stated the church’s mission just before he ascended into heaven. Luke’s version: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Matthew’s version is also quite familiar: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19,20a)
Deer Valley family, do you recall our church’s mission statement? Preach God’s Truth, Teach God’s Love, Reach All People. Preach, Teach, and Reach. May I be honest? We’ve got preach and teach down. This is what we do. Worship, Bible study, Law & Gospel preaching and teaching. I don’t mean we’re perfect, or that we can’t offer more opportunities. This isn’t a prideful thing, it’s a “we’re thankful for God’s mercy and grace” thing.
How are we doing with the Reach? As a congregation, are we going and making disciples by baptizing and teaching? Are we serving as witnesses wherever the Lord leads us, especially right here in our church’s community? What do you think would cause the Holy Spirit to be excited, if we can speak of the Spirit in this way? A meeting, a couple of meetings, a whole bunch of meetings? Or moving, as in moving with the Gospel, going out to people rather than just waiting for them to come here? Deer Valley Lutheran church family, are we meeting or are we moving?
• Jesus never said, “Location, location, location” is what matters in regard to the Gospel and ministry activity. He said, “Go! Witness! Reach out!”
• Like many churches all across denominational lines, we have struggled with finances in years past quite possibly because we have struggled with our mission/purpose. Churches that build buildings for ministry often allow their ministry to be consumed by buildings.
• When seeking to reach younger generations – I’m thinking, people who are 35 and under, together with their kids – technology isn’t the answer. Oh, screens, phone apps, blog posts and twitter hashtags can certainly help connect socially, but to reach them we have to do just that, reach out and go, rather than expect people to come here on our terms, when our doors are open.
Meeting or moving? Sitting and waiting for something to happen or going and making disciples? Everything our church does – in the view of the Holy Spirit – should serve the Gospel, serve people with the Gospel. May God enable us to continue to faithfully preach and teach that we may aggressively reach as many people as possible as often as possible in as many ways as possible while there still is time.
Last of the M’s, last of the principles we glean from this picture of the early church: Means, how the church grows. The early church grew – 3000 in one day, the day of Pentecost. We’re not guaranteed that kind of growth, we’re not even guaranteed any kind of visible growth that can be seen. But we do have the Spirit’s guarantee that the Word works and that God grants faith and increase in his Kingdom as he sees fits. It’s his doing.
The very last verse here: “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (v. 47) We can do a lot of things – paint the buildings, upgrade audio/video, reseal the parking lot, put a nice sign out by the road, even add more staff – but here’s the bottom line: God is the one who adds people to his church. God is the one who causes a church to grow by means of his Word, and we’re right back where we started, on the message of Christ crucified and risen again.
The apostle Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthians 3 – “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” (vv. 6,7) That’s the Means, God’s power, the Spirit’s work. Then he says “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (vv. 10,11) It starts with Message
Message, Mood, Mission, Means. The early church had it in abundance. Deer Valley had all of these in abundance in our early days. And we have them all right now, to varying degrees, 35 years into our congregation’s history. But consider this: What does a typical 35 year old’s life look like? A typical 35 year old tends to find himself/herself settling down some: Married, a couple of kids, a mortgage that could choke a horse, increasing responsibilities and obligations, the simple life long gone.
Deer Valley Lutheran is 35 now, and we’ve picked up some of that typical baggage: debt, a mid-life spare tire of apathy, a loss of focus and enthusiasm for mission that younger churches typically have. Let’s reverse this, beginning now. Not just leaders, everyone. When I arrived here 17 years ago, I came from a young mission church in northwestern WI that was only six years young; I’d been there the entire six years, and it was my first congregation. That church had put up a building and seemed to be set for ministering in a county that had 14,000 people; about 5,000 within a five mile radius of the church.
The numbers and opportunities are a bit different here. How many people to you think live within a five mile radius of Deer Valley? Close to 200,000 people…and many of us live more than five miles away. Consider also that only 38% of people in Maricopa County actually attend church on a regular basis. The field is ripe for the harvest. When I arrived, we had this building and a double wide trailer for Sunday School where our Ministry Center is now. At that time, I thought of Deer Valley as a mission church with all kinds of bells and whistles. Now, our bells have bells and our whistles have whistles. We are so blessed with facilities and people and resources and gifts and talents and, most importantly, the Gospel.
Preach and teach? We’ve got that. We’re doing it. Reach? Let’s go. Let’s reach out. Souls are at stake. Seize opportunities. Friendship Sunday a month from now, each one bring one, or why wait – bring someone next weekend. Trunk or Treat, then the Living Nativity in December. How about the next round of Bible studies in January? Got unchurched friends you want to invite but think that going to a church building might be too intimidating for them? Offer to host, invite your friends, and we’ll send someone to lead the study (Deacon, myself, or another leader).
35 years of amazing blessings are now in the rearview mirror, and ahead of us – if we are willing and ready – are incredible ministry opportunities to be seized and acted upon. What should church, this church, look like? Blessed by the Spirit with message, mood, mission, and means – Deer Valley’s next 35 years will be a whirlwind of reaching precious souls with Jesus’ love and forgiveness.
Pastor Stephen Luchterhand, Deer Valley Ev. Lutheran Church (WELS), Phoenix, AZ