I love the book of Acts. As a church planter and pastor, it’s the stuff dreams are made of. It recounts the incredible growth of the early church. Bible scholars estimate the church in Jerusalem alone grew to 60,000-100,000 people. As hero of the faith Charles Swindoll puts it, “In only three decades, a small group of frightened believers in Jerusalem transformed into an empire-wide movement of people who had committed their lives to Jesus Christ, ending on a high note with Paul on the verge of taking the gospel to the highest government official in the land—the Emperor of Rome.”1 The very first church, birthed on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) was the first mega church.
And of course, everyone wants to know: What’s the secret to such amazing growth? While we don’t find a magic formula for us to follow (how we wish), as we read through the book of Acts, we can identify some specific principles and characteristics of the early church and its leadership that contributed to their growth. One specific verse that stands out is Acts 9:31:
“Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (NIV)
Let’s be honest: as pastors and church planters, that’s what we all want–for our church to “increase in numbers.” And that’s ok! In fact, your church should be growing numerically, because healthy things grow. It shouldn’t ever be “all about the numbers” but numbers are important because they represent lives being transformed. But how did the early church get there? I think we find some of the necessary “ingredients” that position our churches for growth right here in Acts 9:31. Let’s unpack this verse and take a look at 4 specific phrases.
Here’s the first phrase: “the church…enjoyed a time of peace…”
1. The Power of Peace
This one is a little tough to explain, but it’s vitally important for long-term health and growth for both you and your church. I’m not talking about peaceful circumstances. As we see in the book of Acts, the early church faced great persecution, and yet it continued to grow and thrive in spite of it. The kind of peace I’m talking about deals with the state of your heart and soul. Peaceful circumstances aren’t always possible, but a peaceful heart is–even in the most turbulent seasons.
When we operate from a place of peace and rest, it flows into everything we do. If you’re a senior pastor, a healthy, peaceful church environment starts with you. It spills over into the core leadership team, then into staff and then flows into the congregation.
Let me ask you: are you at peace? It’s essential that you find peace and keep it. As a senior pastor, the state of your heart will ultimately impact your church more than almost any other factor.
Think about David. He had a vision in his heart to build a magnificent temple to honor God and give the Israelites a permanent place to worship. But David was a man of war, and because of this, God gave the task to his son Solomon, “a man of peace” (1 Chronicles 22:7-10). Men of peace build the house, not men of war. A lack of peace and Godly rest will ultimately hinder our ability to build something significant for God.
The truth is, in the early days of our church, I was so wound up. I was so uptight I wasn’t enjoying the journey. I can remember a season in church life when I just decided I was going to relax and enjoy the journey and everything that comes with it. You need to make a decision to enjoy THIS SEASON. It is a part of your story. Be on guard against anything that would steal your peace–comparison, impatience, unforgiveness, fear and doubt, sin and the list goes on. Don’t give the enemy an opportunity to sabotage the health and growth of your church.
Let’s look at the next phrase we find in Acts 9:31: “…the church…enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened…”
2. The Strength of Fresh Strategy
In Luke 5, Jesus told a parable about new wine and new wineskins. He said, “No one pours new wine into old wineskins…” (Luke 5:37) The new wine represents the presence of God and the freshness the Holy Spirit brings. The new wine is supernatural, but the wineskins represent something man-made. I think this has to do with strategies. The early church was “strengthened” meaning it held the harvest that had come. There are some “new wineskins,” or strategies, that have come into the church over the years and produced significant fruit. There are several we could talk about, but let’s look at these three:
Serving: Twenty-five years ago, there wasn’t a strong emphasis on serving or creating a serving culture in church. Ministry responsibilities were carried primarily by the senior pastor and staff. Now, we see large, healthy churches have big, thriving teams of people sharing the responsibilities of making church happen and ministering to people. A serving culture is a win/win: it shares the load and empowers more people to be an active part of ministry.
Ministry Collaboration: In the last two decades, we’ve seen churches across the nation realize this powerful truth: we’re better together. ARC is an incredible testament to the benefit of ministry collaboration. Ministry used to be much more independent, even territorial. Now, we recognize the strength we stand to gain by linking arms and doing ministry together. We’re sharing ideas, learning from each other, even pooling resources and working together toward the common goal of bringing lost sons and daughters home.
Diversity: This is a HUGE topic. As recent events show, racism is still very much alive in our country. We as the church must be a voice and lead the way in cultivating racial diversity and harmony. I believe God has given all of us a mandate to build diverse churches. Find the demographic of your city and build a church that reflects that demographic. The US Census Bureau has predicted that by the year 2043, no single race or ethnic group will make up a majority of the US population.2 The face of America is changing! An interesting study was released a few years ago called, “The American Church in Crisis.” It was a comprehensive study of 200,000 churches and it identified 3 major shifts that will affect the church in America in the 21st century. One of the key shifts will be the shift from a homogenous church to a multi-ethnic church. In the next 20 years the largest churches in cities across the US will be churches that reflect the multicultural mix of their cities.
Let’s keep going in Acts 9:31 and pull out the next phrase, “…Living in the fear of the Lord…”
3. The Honor of Respectful Relevance
The early church was growing like wildfire AND they were living in the fear of the Lord. I love this picture, and this is a dynamic we have to achieve. I’m so glad we have these relevant, cool environments in church, but at the same time, we must maintain a hunger, respect and awe for the presence of God and the Word of God. The reality is, as we value the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, that’s what brings changed lives–and that will always be attractive. Never sacrifice the power and presence of God for the latest trend (or even strategy) that is moving through the body of Christ.
And finally, the fourth phrase we find in Acts 9:31: “…encouraged by the Holy Spirit…”
4. The Encouragement of the Holy Spirit
For some of you, this is the thing you need right now. Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in the strategies to implement, the decisions to be made, the initiatives to launch, and the goals to meet. We need those things to build healthy, thriving churches, but what we need the most is the power, encouragement and demonstration of the Holy Spirit. We need it in our own lives and in our services. And we need it daily.
In Matthew 6:11, Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread…” He wants to provide us with the things we need for our daily lives. But Jesus also said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). We simply cannot sustain our lives and ministry without the spiritual nourishment that comes from the words of our Father. And He’s given us the Holy Spirit to speak to us, to lead us, to comfort and encourage us. What an incredible gift! But we have to make sure that we’re leaning in and making room for that still, small voice in our lives.
I think the Holy Spirit is constantly calling to us, saying, “Come to me. Bring me your troubles…your worries…your questions…your ambitions…your fears. Let me fill you and encourage you. You don’t have to do this on your own.” Nothing can compare to the encouragement of the Holy Spirit. The power and presence of God is the greatest church growth strategy there ever was and ever will be!
I encourage you to take these four principles and think about them in the context of your own life and church. It just may spark some God-breathed ideas. As we embrace the power of peace, the strength of fresh strategy, the honor of respectful relevance, and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, I believe these Biblical ingredients for growth will position us for spiritual and numerical growth in our churches.