What Is A Church?

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. —Acts 2:42

What is the second play in the Immanuel Church playbook? It answers another basic question. What is a church? And the answer is, a church is a gospel-spreading community. What does gospel-spreading mean? The Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes wrote, “The goodness of God is of a spreading nature.” God exudes goodness, and he never runs dry. Can you imagine what it’s like never to get tired and moody? God’s goodness is God-sized goodness, full and free to you and me today through the finished work of Christ on the cross. Every book in the Bible reveals the goodness of God flowing out toward us. What’s the most negative book in the Bible? Maybe Lamentations? Even there, “His mercies never come to an end” (Lamentations 3:22).

The goodness of God is of a spreading nature, moving our way through the church. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). That is the gospel. But the good news gets better. The church is not just the communicator of the gospel; the church is a part of the gospel. The Bible says, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). That’s the gospel too. Can you imagine a romantic movie where the final scene is a handsome man under a moonlit sky wrapping his arms around air and planting a big kiss on air and there is no girl in his arms? Something’s missing. In the romance of the gospel, there’s a girl in the arms of the hero. That girl is the church. That girl has a past. Sometimes even now she’s not very nice. But he chose her. He loves her. He died for her. And he will present her to himself in splendor (Ephesians 5:27). That’s the gospel. It’s not just about individuals coming to Jesus. It’s about individuals coming together in Jesus as the Bride of Christ.

One of the quirks of our times is a Jesus-positive but church-negative kind of Christianity. When researchers track references to church on TV and in movies and they report the negative message Hollywood puts out, we don’t like that. But listen to us Christians. Every time you hear the word “church” in Christian discourse, check it out. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being negative and 10 being positive, where does a given comment fall? Is that comment lifting the church up or putting the church down? If we do not admire the bride, the Groom takes it personally. He prizes his church. He is spreading his goodness through his church. In the book of Acts, as we follow the outpouring of the Holy Spirit moving across the Mediterranean world like a storm front, what happens under that mega-blessing of God? Churches spring up. Here is the New Testament pattern: Wherever Christians go, revival goes. Wherever revival goes, churches spring up. Wherever churches spring up, the goodness of God spreads out to more people. Churches are God’s strategy for world redemption. And he’s on the move today.

Three weeks ago I was at Together For The Gospel in Louisville with over 5000 men, many of them pastors, all focused on the gospel. Two weeks ago six of us went down to Orlando for the conference on church growth and there were 2500 people there, most of them church planters. God is at work, spreading his goodness to more people through gospel-driven churches. This is biblical Christianity reappearing in our time, and we at Immanuel are a part of it. If a church is a gospel-spreading community, what about that community part? There is a difference between a church and a crowd. A crowd comes together for an event, like a concert, and then they go their separate ways. But a church is where people build a spirtual neighborhood to live in. Everyone is known and cared for. Biblical Christianity is a team sport.

Remember in school when your science teacher assigned you a group project? You had to get with two or three other students in the class, and your grade depended on the performance of all of you together? And when the teacher announced this, everyone in class was thinking the same thing, “Oh great. There goes my grade!” But that’s what our Lord has given us – a group project called church, and we’re graded together (see, for example, Revelation 2-3). Church life requires patience and humility of everyone involved. But it’s through churches that God is creating a better world – not through events that draw a crowd but churches that build up community in the gospel. What then does a gospel-spreading community look like? We see it here in Acts 2 immediately following the greatest outpouring of the Holy Spirit thus far in history.

A new center

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. —Acts 2:42

It doesn’t say, “And they went to church.” It says, “And they devoted themselves.” That verb means “to attach oneself to, to busy oneself with, to hold fast to, to spend time in.” It’s hard to find verses in the Bible that tell us to “go to church.” Why? Because “going to church” was too small a category to match what they were doing. They devoted themselves to being a church together. They reinvented their lives around a new loyalty, a new center. What were they devoted to? What were they so excited about? Not a lot of programs. Basically, four things – simple but life-redirecting.

First, they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. They were intensely committed to educating themselves in the gospel. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit didn’t move them beyond theology; it moved them into theology. Nor did they think that, now with the Holy Spirit, they no longer needed to be taught; they devoured more teaching than ever before.

Secondly, they devoted themselves to the fellowship. They didn’t wait for fellowship to happen. They went after it. And here’s why it worked so well. They emphasized what they had in common. That’s what the word “fellowship” means – sharing, fellow feeling, commonality. There are two ways to walk into a room. One way is to walk in and think how different those people are, what you don’t have in common with them, how hard it will be to relate to them. The other way is to walk into a room and think, “We are so much alike, we have so much in common. We share Christ.” He is so great that he makes the differences small.

Thirdly, they devoted themselves to the breaking of bread – probably the Lord’s Supper, because of the word “the” and because verse 46 tells us they had each other over for meals in their separate homes. So this breaking of bread would be like a church covered dish supper, everyone together, with communion at the end.

Fourthly, they devoted themselves to the prayers. You see that word “the” again. That signals to us that they set aside special times for prayer. They prayed random prayers throughout the day, of course, and personal prayers in their devotions. But they also came together for the prayers, for extraordinary prayer. What did they pray about? It’s not hard to imagine. After the outpouring of the Spirit there in Jerusalem, can you imagine these people not praying, “Lord, do it again”?They devoted themselves to kingdom-advancing prayer. No wonder they felt God’s presence.

God’s felt presence

And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done though the apostles. —Acts 2:43

The shock-and-awe of Peter’s sermon on that Pentecost Sunday didn’t fade away as a momentary feeling. Their discovery of the gospel created a new environment, a new sense of God and eternity and heaven and hell and sin and grace. They knew their only hope was God, and they could feel that he had turned his smile toward them. He was not against them but for them, and they were amazed. Whether today we should expect miraculous wonders and signs is debatable. Thoughtful Christians go both ways on that question. But the verse doesn’t say they devoted themselves to wonders and signs. They devoted themselves to being a church. And in the course of the normal ministry of the gospel in the church, awe came upon every soul because of the presence of God. And that miracle is not debatable. That is wonderful.

Notice here that the awe comes first and the wonders and signs second. They didn’t need spectacular miracles to enter into awe, because they’d come under the spell of the awe-inspiring gospel. It’s what we sing about. “Amazing love, how can it be?” “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” Christianity without amazement must insult God. But the gospel puts our hearts into a state of awe. Pray for this. Pray that a sense of God and his glory and his presence will come upon our hearts from the gospel itself. Peter says that the angels long to look into the gospel (1 Peter 1:12). They find it endlessly fascinating, and they are pretty good theologians. When we Christians are fascinated by the grace of God in Christ, it changes how we treat each other.

Care for one another

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. —Acts 2:44-45

That’s way beyond “going to church”! What do we do with it? It isn’t easy to say, for two reasons. One, other churches in the New Testament didn’t follow this example. Two, even these believers still retained ownership of their things. We know that from Acts 5:3-4. But this much is obvious. They had such a spirit of togetherness (“And all who believed were together . . .”) that they practiced mercy toward their members who found themselves struck down by life’s hardships. Even under this great outpouring of the Spirit, people still had practical problems. There was no “prosperity gospel” back then. The Holy Spirit came down, and Christians still went broke, and so forth. But here’s what the gospel teaches us: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). The gospel of God’s love for us opens our hearts. We see ourselves as so cared for by God that we can move toward need, not run away from it.

Growth by attraction

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. —Acts 2:46-47

We don’t see a lot of rules here, do we? We do see a lot of human beauty, attracting and convincing outsiders that here in the church was the answer they’d been looking for all their lives. The Lord used this church to save people. Save them from what? Back in verse 40 Peter had said, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” Peter could see that the people were not simply wrapped up in their own personal sins; they were trapped in the sinfulness of their whole generation, their whole culture. Every generation takes on its own character, and it isn’t easy to get freed from something so all-encompassing. The only escape is to forsake that generation and join another generation. You can fight a worldview only with the magnitude of another worldview.

So Peter was not simply calling these people to turn from their own personal sins. He was calling them to run from the crookedness of their whole culture over into the new culture God was creating in the church. This is why verse 47 does not say, “And the Lord was saving people.” The early church and the new converts themselves did not see their salvation in an individualistic way. Getting saved from that crooked generation meant you were added to the church. The Lord was spreading his goodness by raising up a lovely, happy church in the midst of a crooked, tragic generation. And every day people wanted in.

So here is the play in our playbook. We will be a gospel-spreading community through small groups. No one has to stand alone. Everyone should be known and cared for. That happens in small groups. Every member of Immanuel should be in a small group. If you’re not in a small group, you’re not in the church. Let’s join together in this practical way to build the model home of that wonderful new neighborhood God has promised in heaven. We are here so that unbelievers can come in among us and see the future ahead of time and buy in while there is still time. God helping us, let’s build that gospel-spreading community right here in Nashville. If we will, God will attract many to Christ through us. Are you participating in a small group? If you are not a Christian believer because the church has offended you, I apologize. And I understand. We are not what Christ commands us to be. But then he chose people he knew in advance wouldn’t be good at Christianity. He calls guilty failures, and no one else. Could that include you? Our generation works hard at keeping up appearances and measuring up and looking good. But only Christ is good. He lived the only perfect life and died the only atoning death. And he wants to be yours. Will you receive him with the empty hands of need and enter into his church, where all his promises will come true?