A Tale of Two Communities

Going back to the beginning brings fresh life to the stagnant Church

by Mark Buchanan

I do an exercise sometimes when I’m asked to talk with church leaders. I draw a flat line on a chalkboard or flipchart. On the left side of the line I put a letter “A.” On the right side, I put a letter “H.” I call this, inventively, the “A to H Scale.”

Then I assign Scripture verses to several people in the room. The verses are taken from the book of Acts, chapters two and four, and from various chapters in the book of Hebrews. I have the people read these verses in a prescribed and alternating sequence: first a verse or two from Acts, then a verse or two from Hebrews, and then Acts again, and then Hebrews, back and forth until we’re done.

What I’ve paired up in the alternating readings are opposed realities. The world we see in Acts is miles and miles away from the world we glimpse in Hebrews. They comprise a series of “before” and “after” photos, except moving in the wrong direction: the “before” shots are splendid, captivating, inspiring; the “after” shots are shabby, embittering, depressing.

Like this:

Acts:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).

Hebrews:

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings… Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:9, 17).

Acts:

All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need (Acts 2:44-45).

Hebrews:

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings… Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:9, 17).

Acts:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).

Hebrews:

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have… (Hebrews 13:5).

Acts:

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate
together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:46-47).

Hebrews:

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another… (Hebrews 10:25).

The journey from the community depicted in Acts to the community addressed in Hebrews follows an arc of shocking decline. The distance between the two, in only one generation, at most two, is stunningly wide. The comparison tracks a fall from a great height. It measures, like an astronomer’s redshift, the fading of a brilliant light. It gauges, like a stock broker’s accounts on a Black Monday, the sudden gutting of mass wealth. The found are nearly lost again. The children of light live in shadows. The rich have become poor, with nothing to show for it.

After we’ve read all the scriptures, I ask each person to draw the A to H Scale on their notepaper beside each set of scriptures, and then to rate on that scale where they think their church currently falls (the mid-way ranking would fall around “D” or “E” part of the scale) in that area. And then I have them rate their church overall on the same scale. The scale looks like this:

And then we talk about it.

I have never had anyone rate their church in any area higher than a “C,” and never had anyone rate their church overall higher than a “D.” Every church, at best, is fair to middling, at least in the eyes of her leaders.  A number of times I’ve done this, some leaders have ranked their church in certain areas, and sometimes overall, as “G” or “H.” They’ve bottomed out.

I usually at this point in our conversation make a little speech that goes something like this:

“Now understand, Acts 2 and 4 depict the early Church in its most pristine form. The believers were living in the very light of Christ’s resurrection: they had seen, touched, talked with, been instructed by the risen Christ. They were buoyed by an irrepressible joy and bolstered by irresistible courage. They lived in the overflow of this wild exhilaration. Everything was possible. Everything was new.

“And on top of all this, they had a sense that Jesus would return any minute, swooping down from heaven to make the kingdoms of this earth the Kingdom of our God, to set all things to right and usher in the New Jerusalem on the ruins of Rome. What did a Mercedes Benz mean in light of all that? What value did money, or status, or stuff—or even health—have in comparison with that? So this moment was not to last. It couldn’t. There had to be a coming back down to earth, digging in for the long haul. All the same, we want get as close to the world depicted in Acts as possible.”

That’s what I say. But I’m starting to regret my little speech. I’m starting to think it’s a side-step and a cop-out.

It’s funny, but the older I get and the longer I’m in ministry, the more naïve and idealistic I’ve become, at least in some areas. For sure, in other areas I’m more cynical and pessimistic now than ever: I find, for instance, most people’s reasons for leaving a church inanely self-serving, all the worse because the reasons typically come dressed in elaborate theological vestments. I have little patience left for debates about music. I have no patience anymore for people who tell me they’re “sold-out” for God, or “radical for the Kingdom,” and then find them bailing out over a minor setback.

I have a rapidly diminishing tolerance for the word “passion,” as in “I have a passion for [Fill in the blanks]: worshipping God, connecting ancient truth with beating hearts, restoring the arts to a place of honour in church, or somesuch.” All these are noble pursuits. But having a passion literally means you’ll die for the thing. I haven’t seen a whole lot of that lately, but maybe I don’t get out of town enough.

So I’m jaded.

But in some things, the trajectory is going the other direction. Here’s one of them: More and more I believe that the Church can look and sound and believe and act like the Church did 2,000 years ago, when the Spirit first fell like fire and came like a hurricane, and everyone liked everyone else, and shared as anyone had need, and bystanders rushed to become participants. I not only believe this is possible: I believe it’s normative. It’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Why else would the writer of Hebrews plead with and scold believers to return to what they once knew, if there was no way back?

I love Zechariah 8. It’s a vision of what a community looks like when God returns to and dwells at its center. It ends with this:

In those days 10 people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, “Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.”

Question: Could this be your church?

Yes.

And Acts 2 and 4 provide the beginning an answer. Let’s tease out a few things that would help us find the way back.

Here are the two passages spliced together:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved…. All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

A number of things leap out here, more than we’ll take the time to examine. The first most obvious thing is how it opens: “They devoted themselves.” That devotion describes a mindful, soulful, unwavering commitment to be something, to do something, to know something. It is a deeply felt, fiercely resolved, strenuously disciplined, and highly focussed commitment to a particular teaching, a distinct community, and a specific practice. Steadfastness in truth, family, and ritual. In sound doctrine, time with brothers and sisters, and simple but deep spiritual practices. These things, from the beginning, have been the heart of the Church’s life together. They will remain so until the end.

And there is worship, too, unceasing, unrehearsed, flowing spontaneously out of hearts thunderstruck with thankfulness.

And there is awe. There is a continual sense of wonder at what God is doing in and through ordinary people. Yes, they witness unmistakable supernatural miracles: the lame walk, the blind see, the sick are made well. Even the shadow of an apostle is a balm of healing. But just as much—maybe more so, more unmistakably supernatural – they’re in awe because generosity breaks forth every which way. The Church erupts in an extravaganza of giving, so sweeping it would be foolhardy if it weren’t Spirit-driven. People act like their stuff is everyone’s: their house, their horse, their food, their money. A What’s Mine is Yours virus infected the whole lot. Listen again to the litany of wildcat, runaway acts of generosity:

“All the believers… had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need…. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had… God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”

This just might be the greater miracle. This might be the critical factor in the Church “enjoying the favour of all the people” and the Lord adding “to their number daily those who were being saved.”

As I said, I’m cynical about a few things. One of them is the word vision. I know people who leave churches, or refuse to give to them, because there’s not enough vision, or not one that captures their imagination and inflames their heart. Unless the leadership— though democratically—casts and casts and casts again a vision that is exciting, compelling, exotic, yet also manageable and affordable, able to be accomplished in less than two hours of personal commitment a week, these kind of people quickly get bored, sour up, cease contributing, and often leave.

It’s worth noting that the leaders and the people depicted in Acts 2 and 4 aren’t casting a vision: they’re living a life. Their vision is already happened, is already fulfilled: they have become children of God, invited into the Kingdom of God. This is the unspeakable privilege. After that, it’s enough—it’s grace upon grace—to be together, to learn together, to grow together. To have good teaching, and deep fellowship, and share the
sacraments. It’s enough to worship alongside each other. It’s enough to know that, should I need anything, someone here will help.

This is what every faithful church looks like, with or without some big hairy scary vision. When we do this right—when we devote ourselves to these things—vision is a natural consequence: we can’t help but have impact on the community around us, and then dream ways to do even more.

The way ahead is the way back, and the way back is the way ahead.

I have modest but subversive proposal. I suggest your church puts a moratorium on vision-casting for the foreseeable future. Instead, I suggest you recover the vision that has already been fulfilled, that you are God’s people, chosen and blessed and dearly loved. And then rally your church around simply being the Church—devote yourselves to teaching, fellowship, sacraments, worship, and stewardship.

Do that, I promise God will give you more vision than you can chase in a lifetime.

Mark Buchanan is an author and pastor living on Vancouver Island. The author of several best-selling books, including Spiritual Rhythm.


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