“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” – John 19:25-27
The earliest expression of church is not after Pentecost but rather with Christ during his lifetime. Christ and the ones called out to him. The ones called out, or ekklesia in Greek which we have since translated as church.
Those he called include the disciples, the crowds who followed him, Israel and others compelled by his teaching and presence.
In what might arguably be called the greatest expression of Christ’s strength, the moment of his crucifixion, Christ is left with four members of his church close to him. Just four. The others – the most faithful are nowhere to be found having abandoned him in fear and hopelessness.
By today’s standards of church Christ would be considered a failure for allowing his flock to dwindle to such a degree. He would have been mocked by the faithful, Christian leadership programs, books, “real men” groups, classes etc. that seek to focus on structures, growth, manliness and womanliness and income as key signs of Godly anointment and success while missing the point entirely put best by God himself in the apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12 when he says “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” These words from this same Paul often seen as the founder of the modern church.
Many in the church have failed to recognize that faith and humility demand a church that believes Christ can do most when we set aside our human measures and attempts at strength and success.
It is not in our strength that God’s power is made perfect. It is not through odd, Christian men’s cults where real men are defined by there ability to express themselves in as testosterone driven a way as possible and real women through the power of their beauty and homemaking. It is not in these weird, very human ways that seek to build identities focused on self rather than outside of ourselves that God’s power is made perfect – it is through weakness.
God’s strength is made perfect when we let go of our own “strengths” and our measures of strength and admit that these things are simply expressions of a lack of faith and trust that the one who chose to die rather than fight knew what he was doing against all our own instincts.
Now some might point to Acts 2 and the work of the apostle Peter to suggest that numbers and growth are key metrics of success for a church. Specifically Acts 2:41 which states:
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
As well as Acts 2:47b:
And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
In these instances it is important to look at the context to understand what was going on.
First I think it important to note that those three thousand referenced were specifically responding to a sermon by Peter on Pentecost.
Also pay attention to Acts 2:42-47:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 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, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.
There is a devotion to teaching and fellowship which is focused inwardly on the community of faith. They had “all things in common” – something I fear may never occur again. They sold property and possessions – why? To give to the needy. They ate together in their homes and in a state of praise.
The work of the people, the liturgy, has an emphasis on the care and development of the faithful that the faithful may care for those in need. The answer to the question – “how should we most effectively grow our churches?” was “through a devotion to prayer, praise, teaching, and one-another that God might be most visible and evident in their lives and not their programs, their structures, and not event their growth. Growth was through a natural attraction to the things God was working amongst God’s people.