Pentecost Plus One: 3 Things The Church Did After The Day Of Pentecost

What do you do after you have experienced an unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit?

I don’t know how many reading this post have had experience of a powerful move of God. Many, perhaps most or even all, have been in meetings where God has been powerfully at work. Or even seasons when God has been powerfully at work. But what do you do next?

The early church found itself in that position on the day after the day of Pentecost. One hundred and twenty previously fearful believers had been impacted by the Spirit in a way that was as public as it was powerful. And the church had three thousand new believers.

Now it was Pentecost plus one. What was next?

Perhaps what they didn’t do is as instructive as what they did do.

They didn’t try to revisit the events of the day before. No retreat to the upper room to wait for the rushing wind and tongues of fire. They weren’t looking for a repeat performance. They didn’t turn the life that they had experienced into a liturgy – a mistake sometimes made in the Pentecostal / charismatic world. We experience the Spirit moving in a particular way and then try to revisit the experience again and again. We use particular songs and even phraseology that “gets a response”.

God, because He is gracious, does meet us. The tendency is, however, to become “stuck” in a way of doing things, impeding the church’s further progress.

So what did the church do on Pentecost plus one?

Firstly, it developed a shape of corporate life.

That’s a fancy way of saying that the church gathered together at certain times, and it gathered together to do certain things.

Acts 2 .42 explains that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Putting that in more contemporary terms, they prioritised learning (apostles’ teaching), spending meaningful time together (fellowship), worship (breaking of bread) and prayer (prayer!).

I recently attended the annual conference of a church denomination in the developing world. In its own country it has seen extraordinary growth. Miracles are not uncommon. Yet one of the major concerns was that they had seen a slight decline at their mid-week prayer gatherings.

Impressive enough was the fact that they knew how many attended mid-week prayer throughout their denomination. Their urgency in addressing the matter was even more revealing. They made the connection between maintaining the flow of the Spirit and the shape of their corporate life.

Churches that want to stay Spirit-filled must develop a Spirit-shaped corporate life that revolves around engaging with the practices of teaching, fellowship, worship and prayer.

Secondly, they were open to the Spirit moving in fresh ways.

There were no recorded miracles or healings on the day of Pentecost. The only miracles were miracles of salvation.

That changed the day after. Acts 2.43 highlights the fresh move of the Spirit:

Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.

Notice a couple of things here.

Firstly, it was different to what happened the day before. Nothing like this had happened on the day of Pentecost.

Secondly, this was not a sovereign move of God as had happened on the day of Pentecost. It was more a case of God responding to the apostles’ faith.

Pentecost plus one teaches us to be ready for different.

It is also a reminder not to be waiting passively for God to do something. We can spend all our time waiting for Him, when all the time He’s waiting for us.

Finally, this was a church that was seen.

We know that they met publicly – in the temple courts (Acts 2.46) and they enjoyed the favour of all the people (v.47). It was a high profile church, certainly not a private club.

It is so easy for the church to resemble the latter. It’s a more comfortable existence; high profile churches attract favour and criticism.

I once heard someone say that a church can be internationally famous, yet locally anonymous. That has never been more possible than it is today. Our social networks and social media can lead us to the most exotic places without us ever having to confront the challenges on our own door step.

A church that is impacted by the Spirit will be visible locally, however visible or not it is internationally.

Pentecost plus one must have been a challenge for the early church with its three thousand new believers. But they rose to the challenge. And we can too. After all, it is the same Holy Spirit, is it not?

 

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3 Reasons to bother with small groups

If you have never had the experience, spare a thought for those who have had the experience.

First up is the possibility of complete non-attendance – except for the leader(s). Or worse still, the group of two. The two least connected people in the group – that usually has eight other members – trying to “go through the programme”. Then there’s the singing. Out of tune singing to an out of tune guitar.

And the person who talks too much. And the person who doesn’t want to talk. And the person who somehow manages to bring the antichrist or the abomination of desolation into every answer to every question.  And the silences in the prayer time. And I could go on. And you could go on. Did I tell you about the time I asked someone if he would like to close in prayer and he just said “No”? I suppose he was at least being honest.

Small groups. House groups, home groups, cell groups, connect groups, interest groups – whatever you want to call them, they have the potential to be the most awkward, cringe worthy experience you can sign up for!

So why bother?

Let me give you three good reasons to bother.

Small groups give us the opportunity to give and receive encouragement. Notice I said give and receive encouragement.

We all need encouragement. 1 Thessalonians 5.11 says: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”

We need encouragement because it builds us up. But encouragement is a two way street. Verses like the one just quoted create an expectation that church is not just where we receive encouragement but also where we give encouragement. You are supposed to be an encourager as well as one who is encouraged. Connect groups enable us to operate in giving mode as well as receiving mode.

Without small groups, a church will face an encouragement deficit

Secondly, small groups provide an opportunity for us to exercise spiritual gifts in a safe environment.

In 1 Corinthians 14.26 Paul paints a picture of what church can be like:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

But how does that work, even in a smaller church of, say, twenty people? Everyone has something to share is what Paul is suggesting. Small groups are ideal for the level of participation that Paul sets out in this verse.

Finally, small groups enable us to ensure that we stay true to our calling and mission in the end times.

Hebrews 10.24-25 says:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

It is in the context of giving encouragement to and receiving encouragement from one another that we find the impetus to stick with the mission, even when there is difficulty and opposition.

Small groups are important. Not because they are another meeting to attend. They are important because they create the climate in which our faith and love can grow. I’m not sure we can’t really be church without them.

The Monday after the day of Pentecost

No matter how good Sunday is, the next day is always Monday!

It was no different for the early church. And it was no different on the first Pentecost Sunday. Monday was the next day. The Spirit might have been poured out. Three thousand people might have been saved and baptised. But eventually the day of Pentecost came to an end.

So what was the church to do? Was Pentecost now just a memory in the spiritual scrapbook of the early church? Would it become little more than something to reminisce about when the disciples grew older – “do you remember the time when the Holy Spirit came and we all spoke in tongues and three thousand people got saved?”?

Did they try to maintain the experience that they had? Can you maintain the Pentecostal experience? In short, is it possible to keep the fire? And if so, how?

I think it is. And I think Acts 2 tells us how.

Most preaching about the day of Pentecost ends at verse forty-one of Acts 2. This verse records that three thousand people were baptised and added to the church. Seldom do preachers venture into verse forty-two on Pentecost Sunday. (I am as guilty as anyone of this, so please do not hear this as a criticism of fellow preachers).

Often Acts 2.42 is presented as what the church starts doing when the Spirit stops moving.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. What happens 2.42-47 is what happened because of the Spirit moving!

So what did they do?

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Firstly, they developed a pattern of life around the Word of God, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer.

If the church wants to keep the fire it must develop a pattern of life centred around those four components. Those four things will ensure that the church is hearing what God is saying, growing in community, Jesus-focused and bringing the rule of God into every -day life through prayer.

Secondly, they devoted themselves to these things.

Devoted themselves translates a word that is used in other places of a servant waiting on his master. It’s how Luke describes the faithfulness of Cornelius servants in Acts 10.7.

In other words, this is the language of strong commitment. We might say that they made the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer their priority.

The result? Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles (v.43).

The early church kept the fire. We can too.

And they kept the fire because they developed a pattern of life and devoted themselves to it.

If we will embrace their pattern of life and devote ourselves to it, we too will keep the fire.

Perhaps the Monday after Pentecost isn’t looking so bad after all.

Reconnecting with your inner priest

Over the last couple of decades there has been a lot of discussion as to what exactly the church is never mind what it does. Such discussions often draw on the images of the church that are found in the New Testament. Some think of the church primarily as the bride of Christ. Others focus on the family image expressed in the teaching about God’s fatherhood and our new status as adopted sons and daughters. For others still the metaphor – and reality – of spiritual conflict makes them think of the church primarily as an army.

One strand of New Testament teaching that is frequently overlooked in the discussion is the presentation of the church as a spiritual priesthood.

It is both surprising and unsurprising that this aspect of revelation has been neglected.

Unsurprising, because of the complicated history of priesthood within the church and the misgivings many have about the catholic understanding of priesthood. And it is unsurprising that this aspect of revelation has been underplayed in the Western church as the alternative to Christianity until fairly recent times has been secularism; in the developing world the religious alternatives are usually some sort of religious system in which a priest or priestess is central.

It is also surprising, because in both the Old and New Testament, God reveals His intention that His people are to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19.6; Revelation 1.6). According to 1 Peter 2.5 the church is a holy priesthood and verse 9 of the same chapter describes the church as a royal priesthood.

So how does seeing ourselves as a priesthood affect the life and ministry of the church?

For a start, it directly connects us to the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus was and is our Great High Priest (Hebrews4.14). He is the priest who offered up Himself as a sacrifice for us. And according to Hebrews 7.25, He always lives to make intercession for us.

Jesus is Saviour, King, Redeemer, Prophet, Son of God. He is also Priest.

There are three things, amongst others, that a priest does, that have great significance for us.

Firstly, priests offer sacrifice.

What kind of sacrifice can we offer? According to Romans 12.1-2 we are to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice. In other words the sacrifice that we make is to use our bodies to glorify God. That is our sacrifice. Just as Jesus offered up His body as a sacrifice, so we offer ours as a living sacrifice.

Secondly, priests pray.

Hebrews 5.7 says that Jesus offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears.

In any religion the priest or priestess is seen as a mediator. Someone who stands between people and God. Who represents God to people and people to God.

The church is God’s representative on earth. The church is to bring the needs of the world to God in prayer. And to bring the God’s love to the world through evangelism and acts of service.

Finally, priests offer worship to God.

Hebrews 13.15 says “Let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that confess His name.”

The church is not only a praying community. God intends it to be a worshipping community.

God has placed His church in the world to represent His ways and to care for the people of the world. The teaching of the church as a priesthood captures this truth in a way that none of the other images of the church do. Perhaps it’s time we reconnected with our inner priest.

3 Things I Learnt From ELIM100 Scotland

ELIMSECC

I am finding it rather hard to believe that I am writing this blog post on the Monday after the ELIM100 Scotland event. For the first time in eighteen months I will not be sending and responding to emails associated with this event, except to say “Thank you” and tie up any loose ends.

I have learnt a lot from the experience. “Thirty things I learnt from ELIM100 Scotland” might be a more appropriate – and accurate – title than the one I have chosen. However, on this occasion, I will limit myself to three. I also hope you will take it as read that without the grace of God, ELIM100 Scotland would never have happened!

One thing that came over very powerfully on Saturday was the sense of family.

Throughout its history, Elim has seen itself as a family. In its earliest days, probably up until the 70s, the sense of family and the feeling of belonging to a wider church family, was very strong within Elim. A combination of conventions and crusades, with national rallies, most notably in the Royal Albert Hall, both reinforced and promoted the sense of family belonging that was at the core of Elim’s identity.

Society inevitably changes over time. The church has to remain true to its call and yet adapt to change at one and the same time. What brought the family together a generation ago, or almost a century ago, did not always prove to have the same cohesive power in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. However, like any family, the difficulty of getting together “the way we always did” has not meant that we have ceased to be a family.

For me, Saturday not only confirmed my impression that the Elim family is still just that, a family, but revealed a new hunger for the family to be together. In the last forty-eight hours I have heard the term “Elim family” used on more occasions than I have heard for a long, long time. And not just from leaders, but from a broad spectrum of people throughout the churches.

Perhaps, like the person who decides to research the family tree, we have discovered a new desire to interact with the wider family circle. It feels as though there is a new hunger for fellowship within the family of Elim Churches that extends beyond our own local churches.

Secondly, I was reminded of the power of making an unusual effort.

I hesitate to use the term sacrifice. When one considers the huge sacrifices that Christians in places like Syria are making for their faith, it puts into perspective anything we might be tempted to call a sacrifice. Nevertheless, many people made huge efforts to make ELIM100 Scotland a success. Too many to mention. Both volunteers on the day and churches who travelled for many hours to be there. Huge efforts were made by many people in many different ways to make the event possible.

Two comments are necessary. Firstly, the kinds of unusual efforts put into making the event on Saturday possible might not be sustainable on an ongoing basis. However, secondly, if we are more open to making unusual efforts more often, we might be more surprised by what God will do.

The third thing I learnt is that every occasion is a gospel opportunity.

It would have been very easy for our General Superintendent, John Glass, to conclude that his audience was made up of Christians and therefore ditch any evangelistic appeal. In the event, he still made an appeal and people responded. What he did not know, what most of us did not know, was that one person was there who had met some Christians from Glasgow Elim just a week before. They had invited him to the “birthday bash” at the SECC. He came along. When John made the appeal, he stood up to indicate his desire to follow Jesus.

You just never know who is in the audience. You never know when God will use a church family gathering to add a new member to His family. Every occasion is a gospel opportunity.

Those of us who were at the SECC on Saturday will, no doubt, remember that day for many years to come. Only in the life to come will we fully realise all that was accomplished as we gathered together to celebrate one hundred years of God’s faithfulness to Elim.

Connecting a disconnected world

In mid 2014 the Office for National Statistics released some research that indicated that Britain is the loneliest country in Europe. We’re less likely to know our neighbours and less likely to have strong friendships than people in other nations in the EU. Consequently, many people have no-one that they can rely on in a crisis.

The impact that loneliness can have on mental health is serious. A study by the University of Chicago suggests that it is twice as harmful for the elderly as obesity and  almost as great a cause of premature death as poverty.

It would be a mistake however to think that loneliness only affects the elderly. In 2010 the Mental Health Foundation discovered that loneliness was of far greater concern to 18-34 year olds than over 55’s.

If you are analysing the figures you might be thinking the obvious solution is to be aged 35-54 as that age group is clearly the most connected! I suppose that is one way to look at it! However, the hard fact remains that we live in a society that has more means of communication than any in history and yet less of a sense of community.

Sadly, people can be lonely in church as well. They can feel disconnected and isolated. There can be all sorts of reasons for that and there is no quick fix cure for the problem. Loneliness is a challenge for the church as well. And a church that is serious about reaching a society in which, according to research, loneliness has reached epidemic proportions, will be forced to think about how it connects people, how it builds a real sense of community. Otherwise we are just reflecting what is going on in the world instead of transforming relationships within the life of the kingdom.

I would suggest that part of the response of the church is not simply in developing new strategies for connecting people, though some sort of strategic thinking is required. It really goes much deeper than that. The solution lies in rediscovering the true nature of the church, the church as Jesus intended it to be.

So what sort of church did Jesus – and does Jesus – want to build?

Clearly there are many answers to that question. Just as a building is more than a wall or a foundation or a roof, so there are many different facets to the church.

However, right at the heart of church is relationship. Jesus’ command to His disciples A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13.34) is a statement that should shape the whole of church life. These few words reveal so much about what Jesus had in mind for His church.

Firstly, as noted above, church is essentially about relationship. Relationship with God. And relationship with people. It’s about one another.

Secondly, love is the quality that is brought to that relationship. Church is not meant to be a loose connection of people. More a strongly connected company of people who have genuine care, concern and respect for each other.

Thirdly, that love has the love of Jesus for its example: “as I have loved you”.

Paul clearly grasped what Jesus was after and it shaped not only the churches he established but the way he ministered as well:

Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. 1 Thessalonians 2.7-8

God is looking for a church that will live in His love and manifest his love. Society is crying out for true community. Rediscovering church as Jesus intended it to be might just be one important key to reaching a lonely society and helping it to discover true acceptance and belonging.

Bowling Alone

Over twenty years ago an American sociologist, Robert Putnam, wrote an article entitled Bowling Alone. In it he sketched out the decline of community life in America one expression of which was found in the rise of the number of people going bowling alone.

The kind of lonely individualism that Putnam described is well documented on both sides of the Atlantic, both in academic studies and in the kind of news stories one finds in tabloid newspapers.

Unfortunately, what’s happening out there always affects the church. Family breakdown, families dispersing to live in different parts of the country or the world, plus the growth of social media, has left us with the bizarre reality of a world that has better means of communication than at any time in history and yet is more disconnected and lonely than ever. It is really a bit weird that you can have a smart phone, a tablet, landline and a laptop, and yet still live in a social desert.

Of course it was never meant to be that way. We were created for community. It was not good, said God, for man to be alone. God Himself is no lone ranger, existing eternally as a holy community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And the church is called as a body of people. We are called to gather for worship, prayer, mutual encouragement and the word. Something like fifty-nine one anothers in the New Testament might just be an indication of the essence of the church.

There really is no substitute for gathering. We can use social media and television to good effect, but it is no substitute for flesh and blood contact: love one another doesn’t really apply if your whole experience of God and church is sitting in front of a screen watching a preacher – however gifted or famous he or she is.

At best – best – it is one third or even one quarter of church. In fact it is just the bit out of which you get something. God doesn’t receive anything from you as there is no worship (or offering – unless the preacher asks you to donate online). There is no interaction with others. And what about that practice that Jesus instituted for His church, communion? If anything demonstrates that we are supposed to be people meeting together it must be the Lord’s supper. It just doesn’t work in virtual church.

If we are honest, however, our challenge isn’t simply one of logistics. It is sometimes priorities. When you look at the church in the East, especially in places like North Korea or the Islamic nations, it is often the case that Christians are prepared to give up their lives in order to meet. Whereas in the West, Christians are prepared give up meeting in order to do life.

Let’s push through the mindset of individualism that our society has foisted upon us and live up to our calling to be God’s holy, gathered, identifiable community.

I’ll leave you with the words of Hebrews 10.24-25, as translated in The Message:

” Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.”