Characteristics of a Living Church

43Now awe came upon every person, because many miracles and signs were accomplished through the ministry of the apostles. 44All the believers were in unity and had there possessions in common. 45They sold their possessions and assets and divided among all those who needed them. 46Every day they went faithfully to the temple, they broke bread in their various houses, receiving their food with rejoicing and simplicity of heart, 47praising God and being gracious to all the people. And the Lord added daily those who were being saved  (Acts 2:43-47, from the TFBV project). 

When Paul says, “You are the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27) he introduces a powerful metaphor for use all around the church.  One of these applications is the question of life.  A live body has breath, blood flow, and most importantly doesn’t have substantial dead pieces falling off of it.  (I’m aware of dead skin and hair cells.)  Visitors to a church will often say something like, “This congregation is really alive,” or “This congregation is totally dead.”  They don’t mean, of course, that the members of the one are physically alive and of the other physically dead.  They mean that there is a spiritual life of the whole body, collectively, that can be seen, felt, and experienced.

So what makes a church alive?

I find the definition in the passage from Acts that I quoted above.  I’m not one of those people who want us to closely imitate the early church in every detail.  I believe that there can be a wide variety of ways in which a church can work in a community.  I live in Pensacola, FL, and I don’t expect every little detail of the church in 1st century Jerusalem to be the same as it is for my church in 21st century Florida.  But I do think the principles will be the same.

From this passage about the early church, I see several principles:

  1. Continuing “power” ministry
  2. Unity and mutual support
  3. Faithful common worship
  4. Worship that extends beyond the worship center (homes, small groups)
  5. Continuing “God-powered” outreach

I believe I can summarize these points with the word “discipleship.”  It’s important to note that discipleship is closely related to mission.  In fact, one cannot exist without the other.  A church may have different specific missions, and various emphases, but at some point in all churches there must be the two elements of following Jesus (discipleship) and mission (reaching out to others).  Try operating without the element of mission, and you get an ethical club.  Without the element of discipleship, you have a simple social service organization.  (Either option may be alright under appropriate circumstances, but they do not constitute a church.)

Now let’s look at individual points.

First, the necessary elements of “power” ministry are the infilling of the congregation, as a group, with the Holy Spirit, the empowering of the members with the gifts of the Spirit, and releasing all the membership to do ministry.  Not all of these elements are specified in Acts, but they can be supported scripturally through 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4:9-16, and Romans 12:3-8.  But they can also be established logically.  If only the pastor or a small leadership group carry out the ministry, very little can be accomplished.  The goal clearly must be to have everyone acting together.

Logically, the need for unity and common support follows.  If the entire body is to work together, it must be healthy.  Too often we work with numbers and percentages, assuming that if a portion of the body is in good shape, we can just ignore the rest.  I would add a note on the church owning everything in common.  That seems to me something that was practical and appropriate in Jerusalem, but not so practical now.  But there is a principle that should be applied today.  We should be ashamed that there are people in our churches who are in need and are not taken care of.  The resources exist for us to make sure people are properly taken care of, and we should consider this a responsibility of the church, not just an option.

Faithful common worship is an essential of maintaining unity.  Our common times of worship must offer us the opportunity to worship, but also an opportunity to fellowship–to worship together and to bond as the body of Christ.  This fellowship involves encouragement and accountability.  We encourage one another in our discipleship and ministry, and we hold one another accountable for what God expects of us.

At the same time, the larger the church, the less of the encouragment and accountability can take place in a large, common worship service.  We have the need of smaller groups to provide this additional needed fellowship.  Such small groups also provide additional opportunities for mission.

This fellowship will include at least the following elements:

  1. Bible study
    In a living congregation the members knows why they are doing what they are doing.  They will be aware of their basic doctrines, and they will be able to study these things for themselves.  This does not mean that “doctrinal purity” is a primary essential of a living church.  It does mean that Biblical and doctrinal awareness is important so that members know why they are doing what they are doing  (see Acts 2:42 and 17:11).  There are some basic essentials that are important, and we should learn to distinguish the essential from the non-essential.  (See the Participatory Study Series pamphlet Understanding Christian Apologetics.)
  2. Prayer
    Prayer is communion or conversation with God.  This is an essential part of keeping the body breathing.  The Holy Spirit is the breath in the body of Christ, and we receive it in communion with God.  (See I Want to Pray! pamphlet and book.)
  3. Grace
    We are recipients of God’s grace, and if we understand that, it will motivate us to have grace ourselves. Many people believe that having more rules and better enforcement is the way to go, but people don’t come to church to find out what the rules are.  Most people know the basics of behavior.  What they are looking for is the motivation and the ability to put that knowledge into action.
  4. Action
    If a new member does not find a way to get active, they will not remain in the church.  Some may continue to attend out of habit, but they become dead weight.  It may be risky to have everyone active–some of them will make mistakes, but it’s the only way to go.

God-powered outreach brings us full circle.  We are not called to do what we can do; we are called to do what God can do–through us.


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