Sunday, September 29, 2013

Get a Life - Group

They were the ultimate church plant.  They started with 11, grew to 120, then to 3000.  Not bad, as a matter of fact very good.  But how did they do it?  I guess that question has to be asked by anyone who is even remotely interested in church growth.  What was the secret that they had that allowed this group to grow from a diverse gathering to a world changing movement?  We can probably find the answer in the scripture that was read for us earlier in the service. 

That was the earliest description of the Christian church.  During the past 2000 years many churches have tried to duplicate or at least replicate what they saw as the perfect church, and that really is impossible to do.  That early church existed in a completely different culture then we exist in today, it was separated from the crucifixion and resurrection by months not centuries and its leaders had spent the past three years of their lives walking side by side with Jesus. 

To duplicate it today would be impossible, and to be truthful we glamorize the early church and skip over the problems they had.  Because here is the reality: they were made up of people, just like the church today, and because of that there were times they had issues and that they had problems. 

That had to deal with sexual sin.  Did you think that was a new problem?  They had to deal with substance abuse.  Did you think that was a new problem?  There were personality clashes, and people who didn’t want to get with the program.  There were people who wanted to be Christ followers but who still wanted to live like the devil, there were folks who had weird doctrinal ideas who wanted to be in positions of leadership. 

But it was also an incredibly powerful time of miracles, prayer and God’s outpouring of his spirit.  And was no doubt the most powerful period in church history.

To bring you up to speed, Jesus has been crucified, buried and has risen from the dead.  For forty days he teaches his disciples and appears to any number of people.  After forty days he instructs his disciples to stay in Jerusalem and to wait for the Holy Spirit to come to give them power and courage.  And then he returns to his Father and they wait.  For ten days they wait.  And then it happens.  Fifty days, seven weeks after the first Easter, during a Jewish celebration, called Pentecost, which means fiftieth day.  Sometimes it was called the Feast of Weeks.  Seven days, seven weeks get it?  The city is packed with pilgrims and the Holy Spirit arrives.

This is what is written by Luke in the book of Acts:  Acts 2:1-4 On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place. Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.
And while that is really cool, it’s not what I’m talking about today. 
What we are looking at today is what happened later on that morning. 
Peter, you remember Peter he was the one who denied Christ three times.  The same Peter who wouldn’t acknowledge Jesus in the presence of a handful of people begins to preach to the crowds who had gathered for the Pentecost celebrations.  And he tells them the entire story of Jesus, you can read all about it in Acts chapter 2 and then the story climaxes with these words.   Acts 2:41 Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.
So, first thing in the morning there were 120 believers before the day was done there were 3,120 believers.  And that was the foundation of what we now refer to as “The Church”  The fact that there were 3000 converts was amazing, the fact that they appear to have kept most of those 3000 converts was miraculous. 

In 1990, the year we moved to Australia there was a church on our district that was averaging 289 in their morning service, that year they reported 541 converts as the result of a drama that had been presented in their church.  Last year, 23 years later that same church reported an average morning attendance of 263, hmmm.  Sometimes it’s easier to get em then it is to keep em.   

If you’ve been in Cornerstone over the past month or so you’ve heard us talking about our “Life Groups” and perhaps your reaction is, “Oh yeah, same old, same old.”  Or perhaps you’ve decided that we’ve just starting using a new name, but it’s more then a name it is a philosophy concerning our small group ministry. 

The thing that we discover when we look at the church in the book of Acts is that small groups have been around since the very beginning of the church. 

As a matter of fact for all purposes small groups were the early church.  They would go to the Jewish Synagogues and temples to worship corporately, but then they would meet in private homes through the week for instruction, prayer and to celebrate communion. 

So they had this concept of big church and little church.  And big church, or what happened on the Sabbath, and little church what happened through the week each served a distinct yet complimentary purpose in the life of the early church. 

The first church building wasn’t even constructed until 200 years after the death and resurrection of Christ.  And so this morning we are going to take a look at our life groups using Acts chapter 2:41-47 to put them into a historical and biblical perspective.

To make things easier we are going to use the word “life” as an acronym.  I don’t know if I’ve ever used an acronym for a sermon outline before.  In this case the acronym stands for Love, Interaction, Friendships and Edification, and if we look into the record of the very first small groups we see each of the four characteristics evident there as well.

Let’s start with Acts 2:44-45 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. The first thing I want to look at this morning is LOVE.   Probably one of the great attributes of the early church was the love that they exhibited for one another.  And that was no accident, in the last days before Jesus was executed he made this statement to his followers John 13:35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
That statement holds true 2000 years after it was made.  Nothing, and I mean nothing will attract people to this church quicker then a visible display of his love. 

If Cornerstone could only be known for one thing it shouldn’t be the quality of our service or our music or the preaching it should be for our love. 

Listen to what the Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.

And then after Paul defines what love is he makes this finishing statement, 1 Corinthians 13:8 Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever!

Way back in the beginning when we were deciding exactly what Cornerstone would be we set down and wrote out what we called our core values.  They were 7 statements that we felt were crucial to what we were trying to achieve here and one of those values stated:  Cornerstone is committed to showing Christ’s love to those who attend in practical and tangible ways.

And we certainly aim to do that.  We have done some neat things like providing meals for families when someone has been really sick, or when a couple bring home a new baby.  But within the structure of the church itself it is difficult to know exactly where and how those things need to be done. 

Part of loving one another is helping to carry one another’s burdens, but we can’t do that unless we know what those burdens are and as much as I enjoy our Sunday Worship Celebrations they aren’t the best place for sharing those burdens.  Instead that happens best in small group settings where people can open up and honestly talk about their concerns.  Where we can wrap our arms around one another and say “Let me pray for you” or to have someone say “Please pray for me”.

Spencer W. Kimball said “God does notice us, and He watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs.”

If we continue on in the story we read Acts 2:44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. And so the next thing here is Interaction     
It’s easy to think this scripture applies simply to money but they shared everything they had, their money, their talents and their availability. 

On any given Sunday Morning we have close to fifty people involved in the service at Cornerstone.  They include the people who greet you at the door, who are on the worship team and band, who read scripture and pray or teach your children in Nursery, Children’s Church or Junior Church and ignite.  And that’s good, but it means that we have another two hundred and fifty people who aren’t involved in making it happen.  And that’s just the way it is. 

Time constraints alone make it impossible for me to open up the service and ask, “Does anyone have any questions?” and then to allow people to discuss what we had just dealt with.  Not going to happen.  But in a small group we can do that, we can discuss a topic, we can ask questions we can offer opinions.  The first question that is asked in our life groups is, or is supposed to be, Looking back at your notes from this week’s teaching, was there anything that particularly caught your attention, challenged or confused you?  In other words we can learn from each other.  Ralph Waldo Emerson “In every man there is something wherein I may learn of him, and in that I am his pupil.”

In the small group discussion should not all come from the leader, nor should it all be directed at the leader instead it should involve interaction by all the members.

Acts 2:46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—
But it was more than simply serving together, the next thing we see are Friendships So the question that begs to be asked is why is the quality of friendship so different from the first quality of Love?  Good question and one that I beat around while putting this message together.    

In John 15:12 Jesus makes this statement John 15:12 This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you.
So what is Christ commanding us to do?  Is He commanding us to demonstrate an emotional response of love to all believers?  I don’t think so.  If we were to feel an emotional love for everyone who professes to be a Christian our emotional reserve would soon be depleted.  Instead I think he’s telling us that we have to exhibit an attitude of love, that we need to demonstrate the attributes of love to one another and you can find those in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
And one of the ways the early church did that as we mentioned earlier by helping with the physical needs of one another.  But there was more then that in some of the relationships described in this passage.  Let’s go back to what we read earlier  Acts 2:46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—
This is a description of people sitting around enjoying each other’s company.

A reality of life is that friendships will not happen between 9 and 10 or 10:30 and 11:30 on Sunday mornings.  You might make acquaintances and they may evolve into friendships but if you are counting on that one hour a week to make new friends, you are going to be disappointed.  It would be nice if they did, but that isn’t going to happen. George Washington said “True friendship is a plant of slow growth.”  And an hour on Sunday morning just isn’t going to do it. 

But when you spend time together learning from one another and praying for one another, and yes eating with one another the possibility becomes a lot more likely and we need friends.  We need them in order to be everything we are supposed to be.  It was Henry Ford who said “My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.”  And we need friends to be there when times get tough, fair weather friends aren’t friends at all they’re just people you know.  Jim Baker “When I went to prison I didn’t lose any friends, I just found out who my friends really were.”

And sometimes those friendships don’t last forever and they don’t have to.  In 1983 Angela and I took our first full time position in the ministry as a staff pastor in Upstate New York.  And it wasn’t a good year, that might be an understatement.  What was it that Queen Elizabeth said about 1992,  “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an Annus Horribilis.”  Well, 1983 was the Annus Horribilis  for Denn and Angela, and into our lives came Al and Nancy Vardy, a couple whom we had been acquaintances with in college, if that.  As a matter of fact Al and I didn’t even like each other in College. Al and Nancy were pastoring a small church about ½ an hour away from us and for a period of 10 months we became best of friends.  Our friendship could be best defined in the words of Solomon in Proverbs 18:24 There are “friends” who destroy each other, but a real friend sticks closer than a brother.
Angela and Nancy were pregnant with their first child at the same time and both were far from home.  Al and I were going through problems in our churches and we were together every chance we could get.  We laughed together; we cried together, we dreamed of the future together.  And then we didn’t see each other from October 1985 until we spent a couple of hours together at our daughter’s graduation service in 2010.    Does that negate our friendship, no not at all, each one us needed somebody right then, and God provided someone for us.  But that relationship could not have developed in a Sunday morning setting. 

If you stop and think about it you realize that I’m right, friendships only happen when you spend time together and time learning together and that is another vital part of the life groups.

Acts 2:42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. The last letter in life is e and that stands for Edification So, what is edification? I was tempted to call it education but it is so much more than that.   It is the personal and spiritual growth that occurs in individuals. And growth is essential in our spiritual journey.  In nature things are either growing or dying, there is no middle ground, and it’s the same with our spiritual life.  And when you stop learning you start dying and the minute a man ceases to grow, no matter what his years, that minute he begins to be old.  Remember the words “They can’t call you an old dog as long as you are learning new tricks.”   
And I know that some of you are thinking “well why can’t I grow spiritually by myself” Cause, it’s not going to happen and that’s why the bible, God’s word says things like
Proverbs 27:17 As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.
 And Hebrews 10:25 And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.
If we are going to grow it will be with other people, Albert Schweitzer made this statement “In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”

But there is also the education component to it.  Alexander McLaren writes “An earnest desire after fuller knowledge is the basis of all healthy Christian life. We cannot realise, without a great effort, the ignorance of these new converts. 'Parthians and Medes and Elamites,' and Jews gathered from every corner of the Roman world, they had come up to Jerusalem, and the bulk of them knew no more about Christ and Christianity than what they picked up out of Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost.”

Small group learning keeps us from going off the tracks, and keeps the preacher from going off the tracks.  We read our bibles and come to a conclusion about a passage, happens all the time.  It’s when we sit down with other believers in a small group setting and they can either affirm that conclusion or they say “You know, that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” Either way, it keeps us centered.

And it’s not just the learning that helps us to grow, therapist Virginia Satir made this comment “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”  And that’s a lot more comfortable in a small group than the lobby after Church.

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