We are part of what is called the “restoration movement”, a movement seeking to restore New Testament Christianity to the modern church.
However, New Testament Christianity was not without its problems, we can’t assume that church life will ever be trouble free. The church in Corinth had problems with drunkenness, sexual immorality, divisions, even abuse of the poor.
We can despair of the modern church, despair of the history of the church across the centuries, I have often done both. We must remember the NT church was not perfect, either. We can long for the church in the UK to experience the growth of the early church, as I do. However, if we experienced that growth, it may not feel as we would expect. It may bring its own difficulties. That was the case in the New Testament church as described in Acts 6.
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
Grumbling and complaining clearly not just a 21st Century phenomenon. Part of everyday church life since the early days! Grumblings and complaints are as old as Moses – what Jews did when in slavery and then when released from slavery.
The context here is that widows needed support, part of the structure of early church life. Hellenistic Jews, those from a Greek background felt they were disadvantaged compared to widows from a Hebrew background.
Growth put strains on the church, growth pains. The tension was along racial lines, a volatile thing in a multi-cultural church.
We are seeking to build a church that embraces many cultures, like this church in Jerusalem. Which creates greater potential for grumbling, especially during periods of growth!
We should not be surprised by complaints and grumbling. We should expect them – we are growing, change is happening, we have lots of different cultures. I can’t believe there are no issues. Mention them, don’t hide them, don’t sweep them under the carpet.
So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
The leadership didn’t get defensive, they recognised there was a problem and did something about it. Although they only knew about the problem because people told them.
We expect difficulties to be doctrinal, they rarely are, they are usually very mundane and practical. Paul and Barnabus parted company not for doctrinal problems, but over whether to take John Mark with them or not.
People can feel overlooked, undervalued, under represented. This is exaggerated in times of growth, which puts pressure on structures developed when the community is smaller. Unless dealt with growth, momentum will stall.
It is not surprising that the prophetic words we have received about growth also talk about the need for change, restructuring, a change in our expectations of church.
The issue was practical, the response administrative, organisational.
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
They chose Greek people, as the issue was racial – bringing Greek believers into a multiracial leadership.
Leadership had not been representative, a real vulnerability. Dealing with these practical issues removed barriers to growth.
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
As we grow we need to change structures, how we do things. It often happens after the event! When done, growth can continue.
We have already identified some changes that need to be made –
an acceptance that no one person can know everyone in our church. We are used to knowing everyone and many have tried to do this even as we have grown. It is nearly impossible at 150, totally impossible at 200.
an acceptance that no one person can support and care for everyone. I cannot know everyone; I can’t care personally for everyone. I find that difficult and have tried and failed to do so even at 150 attending. It is impossible as we grow further. Unless I focus on identifying, releasing and supporting others to care and lead it will result in people feeling let down and me feeling I have let people down.
an acceptance that not everyone can know the church leader and have a close relationship with them.
an acceptance that many people are gifted and able to take increased responsibility. This is evident on a Sunday morning, but also at other times. I need to support and encourage this, rather than taking back things.
an acceptance that we need to do things differently and better. This is already happening in some areas such as welcome and communications. It needs to also happen in other areas.
As in the early church we need people of all cultures stepping up, taking responsibility, coming into leadership. We need to change our structures.
This links with the sermon preached on Sunday 13th November which can be found by clicking here
Written by Tony Thompson