Acts 2:42 – They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
43 – Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.
44 – All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 – Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.
46 – 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,
47 – praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
As part of our first year of ministry in the Dominican Republic, Redland sent its medical team to work in a community called KILO 16. It was named KILO 16 because of it’s location on the road—16 kilometers from town—and in my mind that sad designation says something. It’s as if there’s not enough joy in that place to make it worthy of a name—and it was indeed a sad place. In fact, in all my travels, KILO 16 was one of the most impoverished areas I have ever come across.
As you can see in these pictures, most of the homes are just ramshackle huts….many with dirt floors. The residents are a combination of Haitian refugees and Dominicans who work as common laborers in the orange plantation that encircles the village. As you can imagine, this sad little community had a long list of problems: extreme poverty, hunger, poor health among the children due to the absence of clean water…and on top of this it was a high crime area. You see—the only way to escape the sadness of that place was through alcohol…and the abuse of that—and other drugs—gave birth to: attacks on women, fights, beatings, etc.
I remember talking to one woman in Kilo 16 our second year there who asked us to pray for her son who was in prison because he had thrown another man off a bridge as part of a drunken brawl. Suffice it to say that KILO 16 was not a good place.
But, between our second and third year in the D.R. something happened to begin to change that.
Pastor Carlos and his congregation, the CENTRO CHRISTIANO SHALOM—our host church on all these trips—the members of CENTRO CHRISTIANO SHALOM built a little concrete block building and started a CHURCH at KILO 16. The little church began to grow and this new body of believers started reaching out to the people of KILO 16 with the love of Jesus.
Well, as I said, when we arrived last year I noticed a difference in Kilo 16. The atmosphere of the whole place seemed better to me. I asked Pastor Carlos about that and he explained that with the presence of the church the crime rates had dropped drastically. They still had the kinds of problems that are associated with poverty but things were much better. It was as if a dark cloud had parted. That little town began to turn around because of the presence of a church. Who knows, perhaps it won’t be long until it gets a real name!
Well, this “cloud-parting” kind of thing has happened hundreds of thousands of times over the millennia in “Kilo 16 kinds of places” all over the world. Local bodies of believers have literally changed their part of the world…in miraculous, powerful ways. Now I know—there is no perfect church and there have been times when churches have failed in their mission for various reasons.
But in spite of this history shows that there is nothing like the power of a local church. Think of it—over the centuries nothing has been able to stop the progress of the church…not wars…not tyrants…not persecution…nothing. When a group of Christians come together and get serious about doing God’s will amazing things can and do happen.
Why is that so? What is it that makes a growing church so powerful? What is it about the church—this community of love—that makes it an unstoppable force? How are churches—both big and small—able to have such an impressive impact?
(1) Well, the first reason is because the church is uniquely able to meet people’s inborn need for CONNECTEDNESS.
You see people are designed to need OTHER people. To thrive we all require healthy, life-giving relationships. In short, we need friends—REAL friends because as our Creator says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) To flourish as God intends, we need to interact with others. The New Living Translation of Proverbs 27:17 puts it this way, “As iron sharpens iron so a friend sharpens a friend.” Ortberg says: “In the same way that the body is nourished by food, the soul is nourished by people.” I guess you could say we remain “DULL and under-nourished” without healthy relationships.
An academic journal called, The Journal of Happiness Studies publishes the results of research that is done to identify what makes human life grow and develop properly. This “relationship journal” reports that when researchers look at what distinguishes very happy people from less happy people, one factor consistently separates those two groups. It is not how much money you have; it is not your health, security, attractiveness, IQ, whether or not you keep your hair, or career success. No—the thing that distinguishes consistently happier people from less happy people is the presence of rich, deep, joy-producing, life-changing RELATIONSHIPS.
And I think we see a great example of the validity of this principle in the life of Winston Churchill, Britain’s prime minister during WWII. Churchill had a wonderful marriage with his wife, was deeply connected to his family, his friends, his nation, and his work. But his health habits were terrible. His diet was awful. He smoked cigars all the time. He drank too much, had weird sleep habits, was completely sedentary—and yet he lived to be nearly ninety. Somebody asked him, “Mr. Churchill, do you ever exercise?” He replied, “The only exercise I get is serving at a pallbearer for my friends who died while they were exercising.” I think Churchill shows the life-giving benefit of fellowship—connectedness—with other people. It is as 1st John 3:14 says, “Anyone who does not love, remains in death.”
Well, the best place to satisfy our need for loving, life-giving relationships is in the church—that group of people who are bound together by the Spirit of God Himself living in each member. The church is where we find friends that stick closer than a brother…friends who divide sorrows and multiply joys. This is where burdens are shared. In short, the church is where we are best able to meet our inborn need for life-giving connectedness.
Robert Putnam made a staggering comment. He said, “As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but you decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half.” Ortberg refers to this and says, “This is why the new motto for small groups at the church where I serve is “JOIN A GROUP OR DIE!”’ And Ortberg’s church wasn’t the first to embrace this principle. The very first church did as well. They knew they needed each other. They cherished their life-giving fellowship. This is why, as we read in our text, they met together not once a week…not twice…but EVERY DAY…with glad and sincere hearts.
So, this is one reason healthy churches—can have such an impact. When communities see church-members loving one another…when they see us meeting each other’s needs for connectedness they come running…because they need connectedness as much as we do. The relational health of our fellowship pulls them like a magnet does metal. I read of a young boy who many years ago traveled all the way across Chicago EVERY Sunday to attend D. L. Moody’s church. Someone asked him why he went to so much trouble just to go to that particular church when there were several churches closer to his home and he replied, “Because they love a fellow over there.”
(2) A second reason the church can have such an impact is because it meets our need for ACCEPTANCE.
Powerful churches—are churches that welcome sinners and love them unconditionally. Don’t get me wrong—healthy churches hate sin—but in spite of the sin—ANY SIN—they reach out in love to the sinner. They do this because they know all people—them included—are sinners so they welcome other fallen humans with a sincerity of heart. They respond like beggars telling another beggar where to find bread. Powerful churches are places you can come just as you are and feel God’s love flowing through the people who welcome you.
In chapter 17 Ortberg shares this story that explains the meaning of our word, “sincere.” Apparently the ancient Romans used to prize Greek sculptures for their beauty. But the statues were hundreds of years old and some of them had cracks or gaps where a piece of the marble had chipped off. Vendors discovered that if they put wax in the sculptures, these figures looked great—for a season. I mean, for a while the wax looked like real marble, but over time, the wax would yellow and harden until it became apparent that the stature was not totally flawless. So if vendors wanted to sell a statue and it was all marble—the real deal through and through—they would mark it with two words: “sine,” the Latin word for “without,” and then “cera,” the Latin word for “wax.” “Sine cera” — “without wax.” This same principle of health is seen in that first church in Jerusalem that we read about earlier. Those Christ-followers met together in their homes with glad and SINCERE hearts. I mean, it was a church that SINCERELY welcomed other sinners—and they were glad to do so. They learned to “accept one another, just as Christ accepted them, in order to bring praise to God.” (Romans 15:7) Ortberg writes, “Jesus accepts us just the way we are. And, when someone knows the embarrassing, humiliating truth about me and still accepts me, I come alive.” The truth is we can’t become the individuals God calls us to be—the person we long to be, without sincere friends—people who love us flaws and all…and encourage us to grow toward Christlikeness.
I guess my best friend in all the world, other than Sue, is Bill Ratliff. We met our first day in seminary and have been fast friends ever since. I remember one time during our second year I was driving home from church and steam started pouring from under the hood. By the time I was able to pull over I was sure the engine had burned up. I didn’t know how Sue and I were going to be able to afford to replace it and I was in an obvious panic when I went to Bill for help. He calmed me down…and rolled up his sleeves and helped me fix the hose…and prayed with me…and the car was fine. I remember another time—Bill’s last semester—and he was so tired of writing papers that he just wanted to quit…and forget all about seminary. Bill suffers from a mild form of dyslexia and he had one more paper to do to graduate and he told me he just could not do it. So I made some coffee and we got out his books and his notes and we worked most of the night and together we got that paper done. I could share other examples but the fact is Bill and I have seen each other at our worst. And that’s ok. It only deepens our friendship. We both cherish the fact that our friendship is not based on our having to be perfect. We can be real with each other…completely honest. That acceptance…that unconditional love…makes our friendship into one that helps both of us to grow spiritually. And all people hunger for that kind of friendship.
I like how Ortberg puts it, “When I am in superficial relationships, I can forget my brokenness. But when I am with people who know me deeply and accept me fully…their acceptance touches my brokenness as a doctor touches the injured place on a patient’s body. Their very touch begins to heal and through the mystery of the fellowship of acceptance, God’s Spirit flows.”
And of course he’s right. To be fully known and still fully loved is the most healing gift one human being can give another. James 5:16 says: “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another that you may be healed.”
Listen! Churches that accept people as they are and love people as they are—are crowded churches—powerful churches.
(3) One more factor behind the potential impact of a local church is this: it is a place where people can experience God’s FORGIVENESS.
You see, inside all people know they are fallen. They know they are sinners. They know their mess ups and their tendency to keep on messing up separates them from the one relationship they need and want the most…a relationship with their Creator.
On our Ocean City Mission trip every year we host a dinner for the LIFE GUARDS who work there all summer. And, as I’ve told you before, after that dinner we invite any life guard who wants to stick around for a Bible Study where they can ask any question they want about Christianity. Our first year one of the guards asked why there were so many religions in the world and I said that it was proof of the fact that all people know there is a God….and they hunger to relate to Him. All people do indeed have a God-shaped hole in their heart. They long to have a relationship with Him but sin get’s in the way. Well, the local church has the answer for that problem. You see it is filled with disciples of Jesus who have been commissioned to tell others how their sins can be forgiven—wiped out. The local church proclaims the message that forgiveness has been made possible through Jesus’ death on the cross. That message, proclaimed by believers for the past twenty centuries has impacted people groups all over the world.
I want to show you a clip from our study where Ortberg shares a powerful illustration of this fact.
CLIP — Sessions — THREE: “Redeeming My Time” 08:29:00 – 11:29:00 (starts with him saying, “Not too long ago…”
This message that we have to share, “You can be forgiven! Your sin debt has been paid—paid in full!” …this explains the impact churches can have. Our message of GRACE is what turns communities like Kilo 16 upside down. This wonderful message of grace is why we say we “CELEBRATE” communion…because that’s what it is—a CELEBRATION. We partake of this ordinance as a way of rejoicing over the fact that Jesus died for sinners like you and me and in so doing made our forgiveness possible. This morning as we celebrate in this way, we invite all Christians present to partake with us because even if you are not a member of this church…If you are a Christian…if you are His, this is Yours.
ORDINANCE OF COMMUNION
If you are here today and don’t know God personally, I hope you have heard our message. You can be forgiven. You can have your debt paid. You don’t have to clean yourself up to come to God—you come just as you are—so DO! Come and talk with me or Bobby or Kevin and we’ll tell you how you can be forgiven and come to know Jesus personally. If you are looking for friends—REAL friends—come ask to join our church family. Redland is a place where you can find the connectedness you long for so come. Come in any way that God leads as we stand and sing.