Everything I have done since I entered vocational Christian ministry at the age of 20 has related to the work of local churches—pastor, missionary, theological educator, college professor, and international relief worker. I love the Church, and have sought to plant and strengthen local expressions on four continents. The most common visible expression of Christianity is the local church, but many are hard-pressed to define her. What is “church?” Offered automatically without thinking but with an ‘everyone knows that’ expression, many people define church as “a body of baptized believers.” But what does that mean? That so-called definition speaks more to what qualifies you to be a member of a church than it offers anything about what a church is. Tragically, some pour themselves into planting churches with only a vague understanding of what it means to be and do church. Fortunately for all of us, Scripture speaks to the nature of the church in descriptive fashion. Consider Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37.
The Book of Acts is our one book of history in the New Testament and gives us our clearest snapshot of what life was like in the earliest churches. As we read Acts, we are careful not to take any single description and make it prescriptive, but if we see the same description repeated, we may have great confidence in drawing some conclusions/principles that we can apply today. The description of the earliest church in Acts 2 and 4 help us redefine the meaning of church. More than describing what churches do, we actually see what a church is. From what we read in the Book of Acts over against the backdrop of the Old Testament, we can say that a church is a prophetic community of faith. While some may disregard this as a minimalist definition, each simple word holds profound meaning and is determinative in our approach to church planting.
1. PROPHETIC (vv., 43, 47)
“Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.” (v. 43)
“praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (v.47)
Even a cursory consideration of these verses will, at the very least, cause the reader to stumble upon the incredible impact this earliest church had on both those who were a part of the fellowship and those who were yet to be a part. Using deeply grounded biblical terminology, this may best be termed “prophetic” ministry. Widespread misunderstanding prevails concerning the biblical concept of prophecy and prophetic ministry. The Old Testament prophets were not primarily men and women who predicted the future; they were individuals who received a word from the Lord and proclaimed it with such boldness and relevance that people responded—sometimes responded in repentance; at other times they responded in anger and hostility, to the point of harming the prophet himself. But no one remained unaffected and apathetic when a prophet spoke.
The first element of being church is being prophetic—an agent of transformation in an unbelieving community, as well as within the believing community. Truly being “church” brings about transformation. A church without effect, isn’t really church.
2.. COMMUNITY (vv. 42, 44, 45).
“They devoted themselves to… the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (v. 42)
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he 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.” (vv. 44-45).
That’s community! There is a terrible misnomer today. People say they “attend church,” but if Acts is giving us an accurate portrayal of church, you cannot attend church, you can only be church! Church is not a place where strangers assemble to attend and enjoy a program; church is a living organism in which strangers become family, and family deals with the worst and brings out the best in each of us.
“The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)
3. FAITH (vv. 42a).
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” (v. 42a)
What were the apostles teaching? They were teaching Christ! They were reciting what they had heard and witnessed with their own eyes. They were describing their relationship with the Master. The early church was radically Christ-centered, and the result was radical discipleship. Relationship is everything. That means that discipleship is the expression of transformation within the believing community. This relationship with Jesus Christ is a radical one. Take a moment to read again for yourself what Jesus says about following him (Mt 10:34-39).
Theology does matter. For proof, one need look no further than the historical schism between evangelism and the so-called “social gospel.” The ebb-and-flow of this ongoing debate has infected church planting strategy and methodology. The remedy for this infection is a return to a biblical understanding of church. The “why” of holistic church planting is rooted in our understanding of “church.” When we redefine church and understand it as a prophetic community of faith, we are compelled to establish churches that are agents of transformation, both within the believing community and in addressing the needs of the surrounding context.
Dane Fowlkes, Ph.D.
Co-Founder, The Unfinished Task Network