The Free Methodist Church plans on planting many new groups and churches over the next few years. Our plans come from the story of church we find in the book of Acts. At the least, we urge every church to pray for and contribute to this, and learn how to be part of God’s work to flood our world with good news, hope and life in Jesus.
The church, birthed on Pentecost, grew explosively, expansively and exponentially. Immediately 3,000 were added to the nucleus of disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 2:41). Their fellowship left onlookers awestruck and so attractive that the Lord regularly added others who were being saved (2:47). Early in the story, though Peter and John ended up in jail, still “many who heard the word believed … about 5,000” (4:4).
Far from perfect, the first church encountered hypocrisy and deceit among members, but responded to the sin in ways that actually grew the church. Thus, believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women (5:14). Even in conflict situations, such explosive expansion could not be hidden nor stopped. On several occasions, the authorities arrested the apostles. Then, when Herod tried to curry favor with the religious establishment by eliminating apostles, he ended up dead, while “the word of God grew and multiplied” (12:24 KJV). Even with the church’s inner struggle and conflict, “the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly” (6:7).
Whether near or far, when the young church gained a foothold, soon the church and the word of the Lord multiplied and grew mightily (9:31; 13:49; 19:20). Remarkably, within a few generations, there were communities of Christ-followers throughout the vast Roman Empire (Colossians 1:6, 23).
What does this picture of the expanding, multiplying church imply for us today? Well, to begin, do not expect to discover a formula or secret for being a multiplying church. That is because the church of Jesus represents a continuation of the movement that began with the ministry of Jesus himself. It is a movement alive with God’s Spirit, and like anything truly alive, the movement resists reduction to a recipe.
That does not mean we are left clueless. Here are five qualities that stand at the center of the church’s remarkable multiplication.
First, Jesus and His word are central. Indeed, the first to be church devoted themselves to Jesus, their living Lord. As promised, Jesus was in their midst literally, though not materially. When others observed them, they explained what they saw by noting that the disciples had been companions of Jesus (Acts 4:13). Attention to the person of Jesus — as we encounter Him in the gospels — will be critical for a would-be multiplying church. Gospel encounters with the living Lord Jesus attract and enliven Jesus’ own. They also generate deep passion and love for Jesus and confidence that true life is found only in the words and deeds of Jesus.
Second, the church is filled with God’s Spirit, who enlivens and empowers the church to follow the Lord as He continues His mission in the world. We tend to hyper-individualize Pentecost, understanding Spirit-filling exclusively in terms of each disciple’s experience. In Acts, however, the Spirit falls upon and fills groups of people — each one but also all of them together. The church must come alive and be empowered corporately to share in Jesus’ mission.
Third, the church lives and serves in an atmosphere of prayer. God’s Spirit came originally after expectant communal prayer. Then, the mission of Jesus developed and multiplied in concert with the community at prayer. Jesus claimed that His words were what He heard the Father speaking and His deeds what He saw the Father doing. No doubt Jesus’ “seeing and hearing” came through prayerful dialogue with God. If the church yearns to speak and act as Jesus did, prayerful seeking and then obeying corporately is essential.
Fourth, by the power of the Spirit, the church formed a kind of fellowship, or sharing, that stunned observers. “Church” designated a family that eventually transcended all others ways of “doing family.” Together they became a different kind of household welcoming all who were drawn to a new way of living, sharing life with God and others.
Fifth, the church learned to recognize, resist and reject other ways of being family that conflict with God’s way (see, for example, 1:8; 10:15, 34-35; 11:1-4, 18). Racial, cultural, political, social, economic and other “natural” affinities must never rival the Spirit-generated family ties among followers of Jesus.
Here again are the clues: pay primary attention to Jesus, seek corporate Spirit-filling, prayerfully wait to hear from Jesus and obey, and share deeply with one another in the Spirit. In the process, the church turns toward the world, disarms sinful preferences for one’s own kind, and collapses the barriers that hinder others from joining the family.
We urge the church: Align with God’s Word; cultivate these qualities; see what happens.
Bishop David Kendall is an ordained elder in the Great Plains Conference who was first elected to the office of Free Methodist bishop in 2005.