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healthy church growth

4 Factors that Contribute to Healthy Church Growth

Introduction - The Lake Zwerner Spillway

One of the most noticeable features of the Lake Zwerner reservoir in Dahlonega is the spillway.

As the water in the lake rises, it is sent cascading down from the lake through the spillway into Yahoola Creek below, which eventually flows into the Chestatee River.

The outflow of the lake is obvious. The inflow is practically unnoticeable unless you hike the trail around the reservoir. About half-way around, you come to a small bridge that crosses over the upper section of Yahoola Creek, which is the inflow that keeps the lake full.

I walked the trail yesterday and took this photo of the reservoir inlet.

When we study the early church, we see both of these dynamics taking place: outflow and inflow. Just like in a healthy lake or reservoir.

Yet if we do the math, we discover that healthy outflow is dependent on healthy inflow

We can say it like this: receiving makes sending possible.

The question for the church is this: What does it take to receive a slow but steady inflow of new life into a local church so that the healthy receiving church may continue to be a healthy sending church?

Acts 2:42-47 describes 4 factors that create an environment in which healthy growth can take place.

Acts 2:42-47

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who 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.

1. A HEALTHY CHURCH EMPHASIZES THE BASICS OF SPIRITUAL GROWTH.

We see this in verse 42, where the early church was a simple church that emphasized the importance of the Word, sacrament, and prayer all experienced in community. 

A Simple Diet

Theologians call this triad of word, sacrament, and prayer “the ordinary means of grace,” recognizing that the way believers mature spiritually is not primarily through a single dramatic, emotional event but through partaking of a regular diet of word, sacrament, and prayer.  

And it really is a simple diet.

Like the five food groups: meats, grains, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. If we eat an unbalanced diet or neglect certain foods altogether, our bodies fail to grow and function properly. And if we add in excessive saturated fat, simple carbs, excess sugar and salt, we set ourselves up for a variety of diseases.

It is no mystery that the primary factor in physical health is diet.

The same is true spiritually.

What does this mean for us?

This means that the Sunday worship gathering is not just a meeting to attend because we are supposed to. Sundays are not when we “go to church,” but when we “go to feast.” Sundays are like family reunions where we expect a smorgasbord of home cookin’ that will fill us up with the good stuff.

We don’t attend on Sundays because we are supposed to but because we need to.

We understand that just like the body processes nutrients as we eat, the “means of grace” that we consume by faith do the same thing in our souls. We usually don’t feel our bodies digesting our food. The same is true with digesting spiritual food. But if we went without physical nourishment, we’d feel it. The same is true with spiritual nourishment. If we neglect the Sunday feast, eventually we will feel it. Our kids will feel it. Our marriages will feel it.

This is why some folks I know vacation in places with a like-minded congregation nearby, so that they can attend a gathering of the wider church family and be well fed with the gospel. Their attendance on Sunday during a vacation isn’t because of a law or rule, but because they know that the need the means of grace in the context of God’s community, the church. They are going to eat meals to fuel their bodies on vacation, why not fuel their souls on vacation, too?

What about TV, Internet, Podcasts and Books?

Some might say, I can’t watch a service on the computer or listen to podcasts and read books. Yes, praise God for bonus resources. But according to Scripture, there is something unique about the communal element of worship centering on the actual preached word that makes it different from self-study or even a small group gathering like a K-Group. We need group life. We need the skill to self-feed just like a child learns to self-feed. But even though a child learns to get his own cereal in the morning or make his own sandwich for lunch, we expect that they will attend dinner with the family in order to get property nourished in the context of family relationships. Eating chips in their room while watching YouTube in not a quality substitute for the family dinner.

This also means that the benefit of our large group Sunday gatherings are dependent on how we feel about the food. It may not be our favorite meal this week. It may not be presented with gourmet trimmings. The music may not be what we prefer or the sermon on a topic that I’m interested in. But I still need it. My soul needs it like my body needs a well balanced diet.

Key Take-Away

Here is the take-away. As we prepare for Sundays together, don’t just show up. Show up hungry to feast on the promises of God in Jesus!

A healthy church emphasizes the basics of spiritual growth. 

Second...

2. A HEALTHY CHURCH EXPECTS THE MIRACULOUS.

We see this in verse 43, where we read that “many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.” 

Granted, the apostles had a unique ministry which included what are called “signs,” which were miracles that attested to their “capital A” Apostleship as ambassadors of Jesus. With the Apostles around, miracles were to be expected.

The Presence of the Holy Spirit

We may be tempted to think that, because the apostles are no longer among us, neither is the miraculous power of God. However, even with the absence of the Apostles, we have the presence of the Holy Spirit, the One who enabled the miracles in the first place.

Theologically, we realize that we should not expect “sign” miracles as the early church, because we do not need them to attest the already written and preserved Scriptures. Nonetheless, we should expect the miraculous work of God to be present among us.

Have you ever noticed that when car shopping, you begin to see the make and model of the car you are looking for everywhere. I never noticed the types of frames people with eyeglasses wore until I needed them. It seemed like everyone wore glasses. I had never noticed that before. From what they tell me, pregnant women start seeing other pregnant women everywhere. 

It is the same way with the supernatural, miraculous work of God. When we begin to look for it, we begin to see it in ways we didn’t before.

Modern-Day Miracles

Consider when someone professes faith in Jesus for the first time. What has taken place? Jesus called it being “born again,” where someone who was spiritually dead in sin is given new life - a new heart, new eyes, new ears.  We call this regeneration. Another word is resurrection. 

What about the humility required to repent to someone for a way we have sinned against them? 

How about the enabling grace to freely forgive? 

This is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is supernatural. It is miraculous!

What about generosity?

Generosity actually is the third factor that creates an environment for healthy church growth As we focus on the basics and expect the miraculous.

3. A HEALTHY CHURCH DEMONSTRATES UNCOMMON GENEROSITY.

In verses 44-45, we read that these early Christians were unusually open-handed with their money and possessions, “giving to any as he had need.” 

Not loaning their stuff but giving it. Not selling to get but selling possessions in order to give.

And notice that their giving was to any. The qualification for receiving was not some standard of worthiness. The standard for receiving was simply to be in need. 

Gospel Giving

This is a direct reflection of the gospel. You see, the standard for being a Christian as one who has received the generosity of God is not our worthiness. The standard is our need.

By reflecting this kind of gospel giving “to any as they had need,” the early church became known for an uncommon generosity.

For example, Chick-Fil-A is not only known for inventing the chicken sandwich, it is known for prompt, incredibly courteous service. If you say thank you, you know exactly what the host or hostess will say. “My pleasure!” Nike is known for creating sporting apparel. Microsoft is known for developing computer software.

What is the church known for today? 

What if we were known as the most generous people on the planet, or at least in town?

Generosity was a huge part of the environment that prepared the community to receive more and more people into the fellowship. There would be many needs. How would they be met? Through the liberality of generosity.

But how do we become generous? It is a simple 3-step process.

  1. First, see yourself as a recipient of God’s generosity/charity. 
  1. Second, embrace that all you have belongs to God. We are not owners of our possessions. We are just stewards.
  1. Third, trust that God resupplies what we distribute.

Whether that distribution is tithing our income to support the preaching of the gospel, or sharing our possessions, or even purging our homes of excess and donating the items to charitable organizations.

That God resupplies what we distribute.

The best way to get started cultivating a heart of generosity may be just to see a need and meet it -- just like God saw our need and met it.

When we are devoted to the basics of spiritual growth, as we begin to expect the miraculous and demonstrate generosity, what we see as a fourth and final factor in creating an environment for growth is that...

4. A HEALTHY CHURCH MANIFESTS A PALPABLE JOY.

In verses 46-47 we see a community of believers that is overflowing with joy -- a contagious joy, as these believers “enjoyed the favor of all the people.” “All people” being those who were not Christians.

Living the Dream

On Wednesday, I officed on a park bench under a shade tree by Yahoola Creek across from the playground. There were families with kids and dogs splashing in the creek, fishing, enjoying picnics and throwing Frisbees. It was barely warm with low humidity. The perfect day.

One couple walked by and asked what I was doing. I was preparing this message and said, “I’m working.”  

The husband responded, “Man, you are living the dream!”

I guess I am.

Truth be told, regardless of whether or not we get to work by the creek on the perfect day, every disciple of Jesus is living the dream.

  • We dream of being forgiven. We are.
  • We dream of being accepted. We are.
  • We dream of being loved. We are.
  • We dream of immortality. It is ours.
  • We dream of immeasurable riches. That is ours, too.

In the midst of suffering, setbacks, loss, and heartache there is a thread woven into our reality that is a dream realized, on one end connected to a cross and to the other, the fullness of joy in the presence of the risen Christ.

A Great Contrast

This is especially true when we consider the contrast between what could be vs what is and what will be.

  • Condemnation for sin is what could be.
  • Justification and adoption by grace is what is.
  • Glorification unto the fullness of joy is what will be.

This gospel reality is what fuels joy. Not a pleasant day by the creek. That is nice. But it is the grace of God in the person of Jesus expressed in the cross that provides the fuel for the kind of magnetic joy that compels sinners to come and find the fulfillment of their dreams is not in the lottery.

It is in the gospel.

In 1 Peter 1:3-8, in view of present grace and future glory, Peter writes, 

rocket

1 Peter 1:3-8

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.

It is a shadow of the emotion expressed by Jesus himself who, as Hebrews 12:2 tells us, “For the joy set before him, he endured the cross.”

Maybe the church today lacks joy because our true hope is in wealth, or health, or comfort, or toys, or lesser joys.

Conclusion - A Worn Out Quote

It is a worn out quote but one that bears repeating as we close.

In his essay, The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis writes about human desire, saying,

“It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition (and wealth and health and toys) when infinite joy is offered to us. [We are] like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Infinite joy?!

This is the deep longing of every human. Haven't you ever said, “I just want to be happy?”

This is what you really want that nothing else can provide, except the promise of the gospel.

The promise of infinite joy is offered to those who look to the cross of Jesus and...

  • confess their sinfulness and need for a Savior and
  • receive God’s mercy with empty hands.

Will you do that today? Will you just confess your need and receive Jesus as your Savior, as your Lord, and as your Great Joy? If we will, I believe that our lives will be so contagious and our community so healthy, that the Lord will continue to add to our number those who are being saved.

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