Transforming a Church — the Acts 2 Way
By L. Alton Garrison
In November 1985, Don Russell, a deacon at First Assembly of God in North Little Rock, Arkansas, called to ask if I would interview with the board. Prior to his call, some events and feelings had made me wonder if a transition from 18 years of evangelistic ministry to pastoral ministry might occur.
First Assembly had a rich heritage of capable pastors while I had absolutely no pastoral experience. I had never dedicated a baby nor baptized a believer. I had spoken at funerals but had never planned one. I had only done one wedding, but am not sure it counted since it was in a park. It did not last.
The deacons were men of faith and vision who felt it was time for out-of-the-box thinking. There had been a long interim after the resignation of my predecessor. He had been pastor for 12 months, and his predecessor had only been at the church 36 months. The church had been averaging between 450 and 600 for about 35 years. Rule of thumb is that the longer a church has plateaued, the more difficult to revitalize it.
After interviews, prayer, and discussions over my lack of pastoral experience, the board presented me as a candidate and the church elected me with about an 83 percent vote. Many pastors consider that margin below their comfort level, but I felt it was God’s will for me to accept even though it was a step of uncertainty for Johanna and me. I also assumed it was scary for those who felt they deserved a pastor who had experience.
I was comfortable relating to people, conducting services, and ministering around the altars; but it did not take me long to realize that leading a church required other skills and abilities. I had no experience with purchase orders, check requests, board agendas, and other mundane administrative tasks that pastors of any church —large or small —deal with daily. I had no experience with long-term planning, vision casting, systems thinking, or developing a process that would project into the future.
I needed a model. I knew it not only had to be biblically based but practical and simple enough to communicate and implement.
Don’t touch that dial (if you are from the radio generation).
Don’t reach for your phone and start twittering because you have already been to that seminar or read that book.
I am not advocating a simplistic, formulaic plan that requires no spiritual fervor or biblical depth, nor am I saying there is a stereotypical approach that is the answer to all church stagnation. But with denominations in decline and the evangelical world openly admitting it has been pitifully ineffective in discipling converts, one must admit that a status quo mentality will not work.
In his book, UnChristian, David Kinnaman reports that 84 percent of the people he surveyed said they personally know at least one committed Christian. Just 15 percent, however, think the lifestyles of those Christians are significantly different from the norm.1 Only 7 percent of Assemblies of God pastors are satisfied with the state of discipleship in their churches.2
People are not defaulting into becoming committed followers of Christ. Churches that are not intentional about spiritual formation are filled with baby Christians who apparently are more concerned about their personal comfort and care than they are about reaching the under-represented in their community.
To become intentional about moving from maintenance to missional requires casting vision that projects further than from one Sunday to the next; it requires a strategic faith journey.
Holy Spirit empowerment is necessary to achieve the transformational process of revitalizing a church that has been on a spiritual and numerical plateau. The transformational process also requires a biblical process —one that is both strategic and Spirit-led. If the process is flawed, the product will be flawed.
I settled on a diagram model that presented a process for church health and development that had been adapted from a baseball diamond. This process intentionally moved believers to membership, maturity, ministry, and mission.
As the church began to grow, we morphed the process to fit our culture and needs. Our goal was for everyone to connect, grow, serve, and go. Today First Assembly in North Little Rock is a healthy body of Christ-followers, reaching their community and the world.
Mission of the Church
The Bible is clear concerning the mission of the Church universal. It is not complex; it is actually quite simple. Jesus said, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19,20, NLT).3
Jesus added another dimension to serving God: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37–39, NLT).
The Great Commandment and the Great Commission need to be the mission and message of any church. Declaring the mission and the message of the church to be simple does not mean it is easy. There is a difference between simple and easy. Simple is basic, uncomplicated, and fundamental. Easy is effortless. I like the way Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger say it in Simple Church:“Ministry will never be easy. It is messy and difficult because people are messy and difficult.”4
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had made religious service complicated. Jesus dramatically simplified the mission of the Church. He took 613 commandments of the Law and reduced them to two — not abolishing the law but capturing the spirit of the Law in two statements. But uncomplicating the process may take time.
The Functions of the Church
Pursuing a simple process of church life is not an indication that divine power is unnecessary. T.S. Eliot wrote about the church’s challenges and potential in his poem, “The Rock”:
And the Church must be forever building,
And always decaying,
And always being restored.
In The American Church in Crisis, David Olson wrote that in Eliot’s poem, “always decaying” indicates that every organic entity diminishes and decays over time. “Forever building” depicts the pattern of creative initiatives that promote life and vitality. “Always being restored” describes a spiritual and supernatural act of God. Restoration takes place when God acts through the power of the gospel and the movement of the Holy Spirit, breathing new life into His church.”5
After the Day of Pentecost and the formation of the Early Church, God tells us exactly what the functions or purposes of the church should be: “They joined with the other believers and devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship sharing in the Lord’s Supper and in prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together constantly and shared everything they had. They sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with those in need. 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 — all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42–47, NLT).
From those verses come five functions the church needs to perform:
- Worship Acts 2:47
- Ministry Acts 2:45
- Evangelism Acts 2:41
- Fellowship Acts 2:46
- Discipleship Acts 2:42
James Emery White said, “These five activities … constitute the business, or purpose, of the church. It is what a biblically functioning community looks like. It is what the church does.”6
The Acts 2 Process
Once the biblical functions of the church are identified, the church needs to implement a process to ensure a healthy balance is maintained. Rainer said: “While God never changes, He has chosen to work through a divine process. … God chose to create the universe in a sequential and orderly process. He also designed His creation’s maturation, including man, to occur in process.”7
The Acts 2 process of church life is the implementation of the functions of the Acts 2 church. It creates an intentional journey for every church regardless of size. There are five steps in the process: worship, connect, grow, serve, and go.
Foundational to the entire process is worship. God must be the center of attention in every church. He must be the church’s highest priority. A church’s view of God will determine how it approaches every other activity of church life.
The church and its members need to believe and practice God’s Word. They need to cherish His manifested presence. His children need to be growing in grace. They need to seek His will.
Jesus said, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (Matthew 4:10, NIV).
Some only view worship as the time assigned to singing. Worship is much more than that. Worship is viewing God correctly and expressing our love to Him.
Expressions of worship involve:
- Singing Ephesians 5:19
- Commitment Romans 12:1,2
- Praying Psalm 95:6
- Hearing the Word John 17:17
- Giving 1 Corinthians 16:1,2
- Baptism Romans 6:3,4
- Meditating Habakkuk 2:20
- Communion 1 Corinthians 11:23–26
The five greatest needs of the human personality are significance, support, stability, stimulation, and self-expression. Getting connected to a church family best satisfies these needs. God has wired us for connection.
We need something to believe in, somewhere to belong, a way to behave, and something to become. Regardless of how they are prioritized, they are all necessary. We all need to connect to Jesus and to others.
Connecting to others through relationships creates opportunities for evangelism, fellowship, and ministry, thus fulfilling three of the functions of the church as outlined in Acts 2.
Most people who start attending a church and then drop out do so because they do not feel wanted. Often they cannot get connected even though the church they visited claims they are the friendliest church in town. It is not how friendly they are to those already in the church, but how easy it is for newcomers to make friends.
Those who are seeking a place to worship are asking: “Can I make new friends here? Will I fit in? Does this church need me?”
Churches can facilitate relational connecting through a caring, friendly atmosphere; effective follow-up and assimilation; introduction events and classes; and small groups and Sunday School.
The writer of Hebrews exhorted: “Let us go on … and become mature in our understanding, as strong Christians ought to be” (Hebrews 6:1, TLB, emphasis added).8
In spiritual development, growthis a Christian lifestyle enhanced by learning the principles of Christ and practicing them through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
Scripture is clear that there is a basic starting point to the Christian faith: admitting we need Jesus and then accepting Him as Savior. Do not misunderstand; salvation is imperative. The experience of salvation, however, does not preclude the need for Christian discipleship. Intentionally or not, we have promoted the idea that being a Christ-follower is primarily about the mere choice to convert. “In a get-saved culture, too many of the conversions become either ‘aborted’ believers or casual Christians.”9
John Perkins said, “We have over-evangelized the world too lightly.” When asked what that meant, he said “evangelism actually becomes counterproductive to God’s purpose for the church when it is not partnered with discipleship. Evangelism and discipleship should be an inseparable pair.”10
In my book, The 360Â° Disciple, I discuss many facets of discipleship. While this cannot be an exhaustive study on the subject, I do list five important habits of a disciple:
- Bible reading
- Connecting to a church family
A.B. Bruce in his classic book, The Training of the Twelve, divides the discipleship-making process into three categories.
- Come and see — where people become interested in Christ.
- Come and follow Me — where training begins.
- Come and be with Me — where disciples are released to begin their ministry.11
As district superintendent of Arkansas, I surveyed our pastors and learned their greatest need was “getting laypeople to become involved in ministry.” Pastors were continually asking how to get good Christians to transition from spectator to participant.
“We pay the preacher to do the work of the ministry” is one attitude that will quickly stall a church and turn its focus inward. Paul writes that the responsibility of the pastor “is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church” (Ephesians 4:12, NLT). The more people involved in serving, the healthier the church.
Another survey we conducted revealed some startling facts:
- If people were not involved in serving, only 47 percent attended Sunday evening service. If they were involved in ministry, that number increased to 89 percent.
- If people were not involved in serving, only 46 percent attended Wednesday evening. If they were involved in ministry, that number increased to 84 percent.
- If people were not involved in serving, only 49 percent attended Sunday School or small groups. If they were involved in ministry, that number increased to 85 percent.
- If people were not involved in serving, only 58 percent tithed. If they were involved in ministry, that number increased to 89 percent.
The more people served, the more faithful they were in attendance and stewardship.
Serving God and the church is one of the key ingredients to transforming a church that needs new spiritual life. “There are different kinds of service. … Now all of you together are Christ’s body, and each one of you is a separate and necessary part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:5,27, NLT).
An Acts 2 church is one where people are eager to serve.
According to the survey on the State of Discipleship in the Assemblies of God, 93 percent agree that their congregations understand it is every Christian’s responsibility to share the gospel with non-Christians. However, only 17 percent strongly agreed and 44 percent somewhat agreed that their people can comfortably share their belief in Christ effectively with someone else.
An Acts 2 church must understand its culture. It must effectively train its people to balance all forms of evangelism methodologies to reach the lost for Jesus. Compassion ministries, friendship evangelism, relationship building with a redemptive purpose, proclamational and incarnational evangelism, personal evangelism, preaching, teaching, and lifestyle examples are all necessary to impact this cynical and apathetic society with a message of repentance and redemption. May God help us understand the urgency of going.
God loves people. “The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise to return, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to perish, so he is giving more time for everyone to repent” (2 Peter 3:9, NLT).
God demonstrated His priority for reaching lost people in the parables of Jesus about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (Luke 15). God commands us to “go out into the country lanes and behind the hedges and urge anyone you find to come, so that the house will be full” (Luke 14:23, NLT). God equipped us with power to win the lost. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NIV).
An Acts 2 church will perform the functions of the church outlined by Luke in the Book of Acts. As the process moves forward, a new believer will find a place to belong (connect), be transformed through Holy Spirit discipleship (grow), express adoration to God (worship), develop its ministry to God and the church (serve), and fulfill its personal responsibility by forming redemptive relationships (go).
An Acts 2 church is the hope of the world. However, unless we dedicate ourselves to a biblical transformational process and seek Holy Spirit empowerment, we will lose this generation for Christ.
One of the great scholars of the Renaissance, Erasmus, told a mythical tale about Jesus’ return to heaven after His time on earth. The angels gathered around Him to learn what had happened. Jesus told them of His miracles, His teaching, and then of His death and resurrection. When He finished, Michael the archangel asked, “But Lord, what happens now?”
Jesus answered, “I have left behind 11 faithful men who will declare My message and express My love. These faithful men will establish and build My church.”
“But,” responded Michael, “what if these men fail? What then?”
And Jesus answered, “I have no other plan.”12
The church must not fail.
1. David Kinnaman, UnChristian (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 48.
2. Survey conducted for the Assemblies of God by Lifeway Christian Resources, Nashville, Tenn., 2008.
3. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright Â© 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Ill. 60189. All rights reserved.
4. Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 16.
5. David Olson, The American Church in Crisis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 17).
6. James Emery White, Rethinking the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 31.
7. Rainer and Geiger, 15,16.
8. Scripture quotations marked TLB are taken from The Living Bible Â© 1971. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Ill. 60189. All rights reserved.
9. Kinnaman, 79.
10. Olson, 137.
11. Bill Hull, The Disciple Making Pastor (Old Tappan, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1988), 214.
12. White, 161,162.