There are many good New Testament passages one can explore to envision what the church should be and do: Romans 12-15, 1 Corinthians 12-14, and Ephesians 4-5 are all good options, among others. Still, when I think about the church there’s one specific verse that always seems to come to mind first:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)
To me this description of the first Jesus followers on the day of Pentecost nicely sums up what it means for us as Christians to “be the church,” to “do church” together.
As the church we are “devoted” to certain things. These are the things that we commit ourselves to, that we are centred on as a church—which is a way of saying that there are lots of other things, maybe even some good things, that aren’t so central, that we’re not as devoted to. There are lots of things we can be and do as a church, but these things are at the heart of them all.
First and foremost, we are devoted to learning and living the way of Jesus as taught by his Apostles: “the apostles’ teaching.” This means we commit ourselves to studying the Christian Scriptures, and in particular the New Testament where we find “the apostles’ teaching,” in order to learn about Jesus and his way of love. As we faithfully follow Jesus in his way of love, God’s justice and peace and flourishing life (“God’s kingdom,” or “salvation”) is manifest in and among and through us.
We are also devoted to the community of fellow Jesus followers, the common life we share together: “the fellowship.” This means we commit ourselves to one another within the church, to each other’s wellbeing, to caring for one another and helping to meet one another’s needs. At bottom this is because, in the midst of our diversity, we hold the absolute essentials in common: everything we are and do centres around Jesus and his way of love.
We are devoted to gathering together in worship and hospitality: “the breaking of bread.” This means we commit ourselves to “breaking bread” together around the Lord’s Table, along with other acts of worship (symbols, stories, songs) that likewise orient us around the central story of Jesus. This also means we commit ourselves to “breaking bread” together in our homes, following Jesus’ example of radical hospitality for all—not only friends and family, but also sinners and strangers, outcasts and enemies.
And we are devoted to regular times of prayer together: “the prayers.” This means we not only pray as individuals as an act of private devotion, but we also gather together regularly to pray: to meditate on who God is and what God has done for us, to praise and thank God for these good gifts, to confess our sins to God and accept God’s forgiveness, and to entreat God to move among us and through us in the world.
For many Christians, this is not the church they envision. Or, perhaps more accurately, they might nod in agreement with this vision of church in theory, but in practice they are either not fully devoted to these things, or they are devoted to other things above these things.
Many Christians envision a church that has lots of programs—especially programs aimed at their particular demographic. These programs are not bad in themselves, of course, and they can in fact be wonderful ways of expressing and nurturing the devotion Acts 2:42 describes.
The problem comes when people want programs that have little if anything to do with that fourfold devotion—they really want a social club with a religious veneer, which they can participate in at their convenience and for their pleasure. Fine, but that’s not a church.
Many Christians envision a church filled with people, often recalling a bygone era of buzzing foyers and bursting sanctuaries. There’s nothing wrong this either—Acts 2 itself describes large numbers of people joining the Jesus movement and participating in new Jesus communities. However, a preoccupation with numbers can be problematic for at least a couple of reasons.
First, many Christians want the large numbers without having to devote themselves to studying the Scriptures and learning the way of Jesus, gathering together regularly for Jesus-centred worship and prayer, and showing radical hospitality in the way of Jesus. It’s ironic—though not terribly surprising—that the Christians who are most critical of “the way things are being done” at church are often the ones who don’t attend Bible studies and prayer meetings and only show up for Sunday worship once or twice a month.
Second, many Christians have bought into a “free market” notion of church. We are competing with other churches for “market share.” We need to produce a good church “product” in order to attract Christians, our “buyers.” If people don’t like our product they’ll go find another “seller,” another church with a better product: high quality music in a style they enjoy, interesting preaching that increases their happiness through moderate self-improvement, vibrant programs catering to their particular demographic, et cetera. So, if we want to increase our market share (i.e. “grow our church”) we need to produce a better product.
Not only is this view of the church thoroughly unbiblical, it’s also unethical—it’s church growth through sheep-stealing, not sheep-finding.
Programs and numbers, then, while being potentially good things, are not central to being and doing church. What is central is this: devotion to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Lest anyone think I’m being too idealistic, raising a bar too high for the church in the real world, let me add this: Jesus welcomes all to his table, whatever the level of their devotion. Jesus in his way of love stands at the centre of the church like a bonfire on a cold night, drawing people in by its warmth and light. Some gather close around the fire, freely sharing their songs and stories, bread and wine. Others stay back in the shadows, content to listen and observe. Some drift in and out.
However, while the level of devotion varies among Christians and even changes throughout our lives, the things we are devoted to remain the same: not programs and numbers, not pleasurable music or comfortable teaching or enjoyable socializing, not even correct doctrine or proper behaviour or rituals done right, but learning and living the way of Jesus together, gathering in worship and prayer, in radical hospitality and mutual care, all of this in love.
Anything less—and anything else—is simply not church.
But a church that looks like this? It’s what the world—and we ourselves—desperately need: a living embodiment of God’s kingdom vision of justice, peace, and flourishing life for all.