Building a Radically Normal Church
Topic: Church Life Passage: Matthew 28:18–28:20
Building a Radically Normal Church
What do you think of when you think of a normal church? Depending on your religious background there are probably a lot of different images that can come to mind but for most Americans the concept of the normal church would probably look like this:
• They meet weekly (Sunday mornings) in a small church building.
• The service consists of two hymns, maybe one or two contemporary choruses and a 20 minute homily from the pastor after which the congregation stands for a closing hymn.
• The faithful then come back for the Sunday evening service, and the really committed show up for the Wednesday night prayer meeting.
• Not a whole lot more is expected of them, and there really isn’t a whole lot more opportunity beyond that for them to do, and they are pretty good with that.
• Their plan for evangelism often goes no further than inviting the lost to come in through signs that say things like, “Got Jesus?” and “ch—ch, what’s missing?” And the person driving by realizes the church is reminding them that “u r” missing.
If normal means average, here are some troubling statistics:
• The average size of American churches is 75 members.
• 80-85% of American churches are either plateaued or in decline
• Of the 15% of churches that are growing, 14% are growing as a result of transfer growth (Christians transferring from other churches) rather than people born into the kingdom of God.
• In the 40’s and 50’s we lived in a “churched culture”, which means that most people in America went to church whether they were a Christian or not, which meant that signs inviting them in and then preaching the gospel to them was fairly effective.
• But today we live in an unchurched culture. People aren’t anti-church, they just don’t see it as relevant or helpful to their lives, and so when they see a sign about what’s missing from church they think to themselves, “u r, u bet”.
I don’t say this to be critical or to sound superior. We really aren’t so very different than the normal church I’ve described, and no one is more positive about the church and confident in God’s commitment to the church than I am. My point is that the normal church today is in trouble and yet we can be ok with this normal – it’s the only normal a lot of Christians have ever known. But when we look at the early church in the NT we see a very different normal – a normal that the church today should be praying for and pursuing after. So as we close the series we’ve been in, a series entitled building, we’re closing with a message titled:
Title: Building a Radically Normal Church
The church as we see it in Acts is, in many ways, meant to be the norm for the church, and what we see in the scriptures is pretty radical! For the first century church it was normal to be radical.
• I don’t mean radical in some wild-eyed, freakish way. There’s nothing holy about just being weird.
• I’m not saying that everything in the books of Acts is meant to be normative experience. The apostles had authority and power bestowed on them by the risen Christ that is not going to be the normative experience for the believer. The Bible says that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles – that is not true for you and me!
• But there are many ways that the church in Acts and the NT is our example and we could look at so many aspects, but I’m going to limit it to three ways that we are to follow their example and build a radically normal church.
We’ll be spending most of our time in Acts but first I want us to read the Great Commission one more time – this will be our springboard this morning. Matt. 28:18-20 (let’s pray)
I. A radically normal church is Christ-centered and Spirit-filled
That the church is to be Christ-centered might seem so obvious it doesn’t need to be said, but there’s a lot of pressure today to drift away from radical Christ-centeredness. To adjust the message to make it more palatable to people – downplay that sin stuff, that cross stuff, that die to self and follow me stuff, and focus on how you will live your best life ever with Christ.
Instead of Christ being a great Savior for great sinners, Christ becomes the best life-enhancing product possible. Things go better with Christ.
Peter’s message on the day of Pentecost is our message still today:
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified." 37Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" 38And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." 40And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, "Save yourselves from this crooked generation." 41So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. Acts 2:36-41 (ESV)
The message of Christ crucified may not always be popular, but it is always powerful. As Peter will later declare, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Jesus when he gave the Great Commission told them all authority in heaven and earth was his. His is the only name that can save. The radically normal church will be radically Christ-centered.
And it will be Spirit-filled. Jesus told the disciples they needed to wait for power from the Spirit and on the day of Pentecost that power was poured out as the Spirit was given to the church. The book of Acts isn’t a testimony of what people can do when they get fired up and motivated. It is a testimony of what normal men and women can do when filled with the Spirit. I’ve heard people debate whether the book should be called the book of the Acts of the Apostles or the Acts of the Spirit. In reality it is both. The apostles couldn’t have accomplished anything apart from the power of the Spirit, and there is little the Spirit does apart from the apostles and disciples.
So Acts is really the testimony of an unstoppable message of Christ being proclaimed in the unconquerable power of the Spirit – and that’s why over and over again in the face of serious opposition we read statements like but the word of God increased and multiplied. Men are trying to stop it, but the message of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit is unstoppable. In fact, the Spirit ministered the presence of Christ powerfully to the church and world. The greatest evidence of a Spirit-filled church is the same today as it was then: He will manifest the presence of Christ to the church and the world.
That’s why prayer is so vitally important to the life of the church, because prayer expresses our dependence on the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Prayer meeting on Wednesday night, March 24th. Important time for us to gather together as a congregation and call upon the Lord.
II. A radically normal church has a Great Commission vision
I love this picture of the early church! There is so much that could be said about these verses, but I want to call your attention to one thing. This is the early church, they are full of the joy and power of the risen Christ, and they’ve seen 3000 souls come to saving faith in Christ from just one message. Clearly what’s going on is supernatural and we see this in these verses – the power of God is doing incredible things and they are filled with awe.
In verse 42 we see that they are devoted to the apostle’s teaching, to fellowship, to breaking bread and to prayer – the stuff that makes them grow as disciples. They are radically committed to growing as Christians.
But in verse 47 we see them out among the people, declaring the praises of God and having favor with people – and the Lord was using them to bring many to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
In other words, there is this cycle of life that I believe is essential to the health and dynamic of the radically normal church: they grow to go and they go to grow. They’re not just growing to personally benefit from a deeper knowledge of God or to get blessed real good. They’re growing so they can go and make disciples for the risen Christ.
And as they go, there is a flow of life through them as they share their faith and see people coming to faith in Christ, getting saved, new births in the kingdom, and that is causing them to grow as well. As we grow as disciples we will go, and as we go as disciples, we will grow.
Pastoral application: Talking with with someone about revivals recently and something clicked in me – revivals are about the church experiencing new life (revived), but they are always accompanied by tons of people getting saved. I remember the tail end of the Jesus people movement in the 60’s and 70’s when tons of young, long-haired hippy freaks were coming to faith in Christ, coming to church in torn jeans and barefeet, and getting baptized in lakes and rivers all over the country.
If the church is to be alive, it needs to be alive with evangelism. We can’t save anyone, but we can pray hard and work hard – and by the grace of God we’re going to take this to a new level. See, if the church isn’t seeing people get saved and growing as disciples, the church gets petty. Long time pastor Thom Rainer puts it well in his book, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched:
I have seen church members focus their energies on some of the most insignificant issues. Some members demand their brand of music; others get irritated when the order of worship is changed. Some members will complain when a minister does not make every telephone call he is expected to make; others fuss when the sermon goes five minutes too long (it’s longer in this church! And you’re great about not complaining – at least to our faces). Some members seem to worship their buildings and location; others seem to have forgotten how to worship God. And in the meantime, tens of thousands die to face a Christ-less eternity, and so few church members seem to care.
That doesn’t describe this church, but it’s a good reminder to us that if we aren’t busy doing what God has called us to do, we are tempted to major on the minors and churches can get pretty petty.
I’ve communicated to Matt that, along with the building campaign, we are going to refocus our attention and prayers and hard work on evangelism – starting right away. And they’re really one thing, cause one of the primary purposes in getting a building is as a tool to better reach the community.
Look at starting Alpha-type outreach in the summer. Look at summer outreach. We’ve got the Easter egg hunt coming up in April – tell you more about that next week.
It’s no accident that the bookends of this description of the early church is that they are devoted to growing and passionate about going. We are called to grow and go. The radically normal church has a Great Commission vision.
III. A radically normal church exercises risk-taking faith
When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the first disciples they were gathered in a small upper room. That was right, for the Lord instructed them to wait until they had received the Holy Spirit, but it is significant that as soon as they received the Spirit they broke out of the upper room into the crowded streets below with the unstoppable message of Christ. The history is one of risk-taking faith – believing God for great things and then stepping out to attempt great things for the Lord. There is a temptation in life for us to stay in the upper room where it’s safe. We know each other, we know our surroundings, it’s comfortable.
But in that place, that comfortable place, faith dries up. I’m not encouraging us to do stupid things in the name of faith, either as individuals or as a church. But there is a danger from the opposite side where we become fearful of risk and play it safe.
Faith in the early church translated into a wonderful explosion of the life of God and people getting saved and Christians growing in love and faith and joy. But it didn’t come without a cost. In purely natural terms, there was a risk.
• Peter and John were arrested for healing a man in the name of Jesus. When they reported to the church that they all were threatened to stop talking in the name of Jesus, they gathered together and prayed, grant your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus. (Acts 4:29-30)
• The apostles were arrested and beaten – they counted it an honor to suffer for the name.
• Stephen was arrested and stoned.
• Riots were created by the preaching of the gospel
• Paul suffered beatings, being shipwrecked, hungry, in danger of wild animals, and on and on.
In other words, outside the upper room might not be safe from risk, but it’s where the Lord promises to be with us. Jesus’ promise to be with us even to the end of the age in the Great Commission isn’t given in a vacuum, it’s given as we go and make disciples.
Our Savior calls us to a life worth risking for – and faith embraces that risk with God in full view. Ultimately what we risk isn’t much, for we are held secure in His hands. But there is some element of risk.
• Outreaches to the community risk failure. Jesus is worth risking failure for.
• Planting churches – believe that is in our future. It will mean risk.
• Other possibilities – to further the gospel of Jesus Christ in our community and beyond – all involve risk, which means all involve faith. That’s good, necessary.
John Henry Jowett, a great English preacher, likewise pointed out the temptation of self-preservation and its result in faithless lives:
It is possible to evade a multitude of sorrows through the cultivation of an insignificant life. Indeed, if a man's ambition is to avoid the troubles of life, the recipe is simple: shed your ambitions in every direction, cut the wings of every soaring purpose, and seek a life with the fewest contacts and relations. If you want to get through the world with the smallest trouble, you must reduce yourself to the smallest compass. Tiny souls can dodge through life; bigger souls are blocked on every side. As soon as a man begins to enlarge his life, his resistances are multiplied. Let a man remove his petty selfish purposes and enthrone Christ, and his sufferings will be increased on every side.
That's not a great marketing slogan. But I believe that in every man and woman in this room, there stirs inside your heart a desire to live for something bigger than yourself. Deep inside you don't want to reduce your life to the smallest compass or cut the wings of every soaring purpose. You want to live for Christ - even if that means suffering and risk.
Christ doesn’t call us to reduce our lives to the smallest compass, but to the largest compass – that which points us to His eternal, glorious kingdom, and that which uses us to lead others there.