Following the coming of the Holy Spirit and Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 we are told, “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42, NASB95) In those simple actions are strong threads of relationships that bind us to one another and to God.
Growth in the early church was not an accident. All the members were intentionally and persistently perusing these things. This was not like a five-minute daily devotion but a consuming desire. In many ways, it is like being in love with someone, there is a passion to be with them and to hear their voice. For those first followers of Christ, this passion was expressed in four ways, all of which required time, vulnerability, and relationships.
Those first followers devoted themselves to the Apostle’s teachings. Teaching, the exposition and application of God’s word, is an integral part of church. When a church loses the centrality of teaching and applying God’s Word, they have become less than what God intends. And yet, teaching takes many forms. The exposition of the Word, the modeling of our lives, the humble attitude of mutually searching and desiring God in open-hearted discussion are all forms of teaching.
Those first followers also devoted themselves to fellowship. They enjoyed connecting with each other and grew cords of relationships. If there is one aspect lacking in the modern church, it is true and deep fellowship. We may connect with a few on Sunday morning, but how many do we really know at a personal level. If we left that church, how many would remain connected with us? Or is our only link of relationship those few moments we share on Sunday Morning? Mia Culpa, I’m not any better at developing fellowship than the next person and sometimes feel kind of unconnected after church. I wonder how many others feel that way?
Fellowship, however, requires time. It thrives on transparency and allowing love to cover a multitude of offenses. In my experience, small groups are great for growing this kind of fellowship. But not the kind of small group where one person does all the talking but those where each voice is heard and welcome. Where each person is cared for and cares for others. That is fertile soil for deep fellowship. Small group involvement costs us the two things we hold most dear – our time and our heart.
Those first followers devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. It is unclear if Luke means Communion or table fellowship over a meal. Let’s go with both since both build relationship and connectedness. Communion keeps our relationship centered on Christ instead of any other commonalities two people may share. Table fellowship encourages relationship. Simply enjoying a meal with someone breaks down walls and builds bridges. It’s special when someone invites you to go out or when they come over for dinner.
Lastly, the first followers devoted themselves to prayer. We don’t know exactly what kind of prayer, so let’s just agree that it was all kinds. Prayers of thanksgiving, of petition, of repentance, of asking for the Kingdom to break in (thy kingdom come), of comfort, of worship, and so many others. But I also believe this also includes personal prayer for each other. Those caring prayers for one another also build meaningful relationships. Especially when the prayer is offered with the person at that moment.
Perhaps these are the marks of a healthy, vibrant, growing gathering of followers of Jesus. That devotion, persistently striving to learn from God’s word, a deep fellowship which transcends a Sunday morning greeting, breaking bread with one another (even those outside our usual clique) and praying to God and for each other bind us to Jesus and one another. There are other marks of a healthy church, but they all flow from these four in some way.
And here is where things become challenging. We are acclimated to going places and passively receiving an experience. But that only goes so far when the church gathers. If everyone sits around waiting for someone else, then none of these will happen. It is incumbent on each one of us to initiate, to start the ball rolling (easier for some, harder for others). All of these require participation – applying the teaching of God’s Word to our lives, reaching out to fellowship, inviting someone to join in a meal, and praying for each other. They all take time, effort, transparency, vulnerability, and humility. But the reward of relationship, spiritual growth, and extending the Kingdom is worth it all.