32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Last week, I was with about 40 relatives in Michigan. We were celebrating my grandmother’s 90th birthday. In a gathering like that, the usual conversations come up about job, life, kids, and the Detroit Tigers. I am always, always, asked the same question. How big is your congregation? We have somewhere around 200 members and anywhere from 125-200 in attendance on a Sunday. Oh, that’s a good number. I am not sure what a bad number would be.
The same conversation happens when pastors get together. We muse about churches that are growing. Someone in the group will say, “Wow that church in Charlotte is up to 5ooo members and three campuses and 7 services on a Sunday.” Then the name of the pastor will be mentioned, and someone will, with both admiration and envy say, “He is really getting it done.”
But wait a minute! Don’t we think that when someone comes to faith in Jesus it is the Holy Spirit “getting it done?” The individual who decides to become a Christ-follower is responding to the prompting of the third member of the Trinity. If we agree that someone making the move from lost to saved is God at work, then why do exalt pastors and church leaders of large churches? Why are they given credit for Jesus’ accomplishment?
The truth is I do want the church to grow but not for the sake of getting bigger. I want the growth to be an indication that we – the HillSong family – are telling people about Jesus and people are responding by turning to Him. In Acts 2 we read, “So those who welcomed [Peter’s] message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added” (v.41). Also, “And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (v.47b).
Clearly numbers indicating growth were quoted. But numeric growth was never the stated goal either of the early church or of the great commission. The goal of the great commission is the make disciple of Jesus in all nations. The numeric growth reported in Acts was celebrated. It was not the goal, but it was a cause of great joy. And credit was given to the Lord.
In today’s passage we see the goal. Acts 4:33, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” We are called together to announce to the world that in Jesus, God has come to earth. He came out of love. He came to forgive all sin. He came that we might, believing in Him and following and worshiping Him, be adopted as sons and daughters of God. He came to establish the Kingdom of God. The powers of the world at the time of his coming tried to stop him. The religious establishment, the greed of local government, and the lust for power that rested in the empire – these forces conspired together to crucify Jesus.
But, as the early church announced and continued proclaiming even when doing so cost them their lives, Jesus rose from death to claim victory over death, sin, and Satan. All who come to Him will also rise from death to eternal life with God. This is the gospel and our mission is to share it will the entire world.
Within this statement of good news, we see in Acts a very specific feature of the first church that ought to be present in our church: unity. “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (v.32a). They were perfectly joined together. Their priorities, goals, and values were uniform. The text goes on to say that they shared all possessions. They had common ownership and no one among them went lacking for the essentials of life. No one was in need.
We really don’t know exactly what that looked like. As you follow the story throughout Acts, we see plenty of Christ-followers who had possessions and were doing quite well. Acts 4 is not prescribing a specific system. What we see here is a story that reveals crucial doctrine of church. The form of Christianity changes from culture to culture. The core doctrine does not.
Jesus rose from death. His church is united. None go in need. The doctrine of resurrection; the practice of unity; the compassionate response to poverty – these are core Christian doctrines for churches large and small, churches in all places. When we strive for proclaiming and living out these doctrines, God takes care of the growth and expansion.
The second of these three doctrine, unity, leads us to another principle of evangelism as we continue looking at how we can share Jesus with a lost world in a way that looks to advance the kingdom of God rather than just boost our own church’s attendance. Just as the early church was “of one heart and soul,” we need to approach church life and specifically evangelism in a unified way. We need to take a group approach to evangelism.
The early church is an outstanding example of this. The main personalities of course were Peter and then Paul. But, where would Peter be without the meeting he had with Cornelius, a Roman soldier? Peter did not understand the extent of the Gospel until the Holy Spirit sent him to a gentile, a person he previously would have avoided completely. That seeker’s eagerness expanded Peter’s vision. Evangelism requires a vision that goes beyond one person’s capability.
Where would Paul be without Ananias? The only time we read about this early believer is when he was at prayer and the Holy Spirit told him to go and lay hands on Saul. Saul, at that time had arrest warrants. He could lock up those proclaiming Jesus as Messiah. Ananias knew this and he was afraid, but he went. He proclaimed the gospel to Paul. Then, he’s no longer in the story. Barnabas then vouched for Paul before the church that was still unwilling to trust the man who cheered as believers were stoned to death. Evangelism requires people to overcome their fears and it requires guides to lead people into church.
Barnabas also played the role of encourage. When young John Mark failed on a mission, Paul kicked him off the team. But Barnabas parted from Paul so he could continue encouraging the young man. Would we have a Gospel of Mark without the early encouragement Barnabas gave?
Church is a group effort that does not encourage putting anyone on a pedestal but rather requires the contributions of all. And this applies to evangelism as well. Paul always traveled in teams. Even his letters are not just from him, but also from Silas, from Timothy, and many others.
In church history, one of the great example of the group approach to evangelism is seen in the man who took the gospel to the Pagan Celts of Ireland the early part of the 5th century AD. St. Patrick was raised in England, spent six years as a slave in Ireland, escaped and then trained as a Catholic priest. It is unclear whether his training happened in England, Gual, or Rome. Wherever it happened, he became greatly educated in the scriptures and the way of the church. At the same time, he had developed a deep love for the Celts who had enslaved him.
Rome had a method for evangelizing. It was very colonial and imperialistic. A people group was required to become Latin and Roman before they could be Christianized. This sounds foreign to our ears and it is. The thought that Christianity can be forced on people does not make much sense, not to me anyway. But Rome was still an empire in the 5th century and as Rome’s glory as a world power faded, the power centers shifted from politics to a religious-political blend. Constantine Christianized Rome and thereafter Rome would Christianize those they conquered.
Patrick was a Roman Catholic, but his approach was drastically different. He did not care if the Celts of Ireland became Romans. He wanted them to become Christ followers. From his years of slavery, he knew intimately the culture and language of Ireland. And he taught the gospel of Jesus Christ using images the Celts would understand. He knew his evangelistic methods would be well received because he knew the people.
Two specific approaches Patrick used are ones I think we apply directly here. First he practiced belonging before believing. The Roman approach was that one had to confess the faith before one could practice the faith. But Patrick invited Celts into the Christianity communities he established while they were unbelieving pagans.
We do the same thing. One of the core principles of our church is that it is a safe place. That means we want HillSong church to be a safe place where people can explore Christianity. We don’t expect guests to dress a certain way or act in a way that is appropriate for church. We know they are guests! They don’t know what is expected in church. We invite, we welcome, we love, and we guide. If a guest sits where you normally sit, don’t worry about it. You sit next to him or find another place to sit.
If you see someone who appears lost during the Sunday school hour, you don’t ignore him. You introduce yourself and say, “Hey, offer coffee. Come, let me show you.” You get to know that person a little bit and then say, “Can I help you find a small group?” In little ways, we try to let all who come know that Jesus is welcoming and we are welcoming. This is a safe place to investigate Christianity and seek for God. People belong even before they believe.
A second practice of St. Patrick of Ireland, and we see that Paul the Apostle also did this, is the group approach. When he arrived in a community, he brought 100 people with him – tanners, priests, nuns, blacksmiths, educators. He had already trained them on the Celtic culture. They, as a group, met the tribe in the area where they settled. They stayed for years. They won the trust of the locals. And over time, people came to know Jesus through Patrick’s evangelistic team.
How does it work in our context? We all work together to help someone find his way to Jesus. Maybe you have a friend who doesn’t attend church at all. She did a few times as a kid. But for years she has felt uninterested in what she calls “organized religion.” Now though, she has found in you a friend who is a Christian. You have listened compassionately and she knows she can trust you. You have prayed for her. You have devoted yourself to knowing the gospel and a longing for Jesus is growing in you. You want your friend to have that desire for God because as you have grown in your knowledge of faith and deepened your love for God, you has also been filled with love for this person Jesus misses. But you don’t know what do to next.
Try something social. You invited your friend to a movie you both have been wanting to see. And you invite a few pals from your small group who are also interested in the movie. You do this a few times. Go out for coffee. Have people over. Now, your unchurched friend is getting to know a few people in the church. It is all over social meetings. You don’t avoid talking about faith, but you don’t force it either.
Finally, recognizing the moment, you invite your friend to church. Better yet, you volunteer to bring your friend, and you do it on a Sunday when you know the others she has met will also be there. All four of your sit together.
A lot of times here at HillSong I hear people pretty energetically say they want to sit with certain friend at a meal or in small group. That’s not thinking evangelistically. That’s kind of selfish. We have to be ready to say, “Today I am not going to sit with my spouse or my best church friend. I enjoy sitting with him and have done so 100 times. Today, for the sake of welcome, I am sitting with someone knew.”
So, your unchurched friend has come to trust you. Through you, that unchurched friend has met others in the church. Then this person Jesus misses attends worship and sits with you and with others she has met. The next time to get together socially, ask what she thought. Be a bit probative. Get her reaction and find out if she would come again. Introduce her to people in the church that share common interests with her.
I do this on a Sunday morning. If I meet a first time visitor that is a student, I try to introduce him to one of the Encounter members. If I meet someone at church who works in a particular field, I might try to get a member who also works in that field to talk to that person. None of this is a secret strategy. How many of you have been grabbed by me on a Sunday and heard me say, “Hey, you’ve got to come talk to this person.” How many of you, the first time you came here had me introducing you to someone who has something in common with you.
My approach to evangelism is not that I lead anybody to Jesus. I participate with my church family in presenting the love of Jesus. In this context, I pray that God will work through us as we work together, as we share one heart and soul for the Kingdom. As we work together and the Spirit works through us, people who had previously not known God come and discover new life in Christ.
This process happens here on Sunday morning and throughout the week. Every single one of us should be praying for those outside of Christianity and extending ourselves in relationship to specific individuals who don’t know Jesus. As do this, team up! If one of your church friends calls to say, “Hey, I am trying to share Christ with a friend and I think you could help. Could you get together with us for coffee?” Make that meeting a priority and pray over it. When you are reaching out to someone think of church friends who could help encourage that unbeliever to consider the claims of Jesus.
In this way, unchurched persons in Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsboro will come to know Jesus, which as we know causes great rejoicing in Heaven. And a result of this is that God will add to our number daily as happened in the days of the early church.