Marks of a Vibrant Church

Reformed Churches generally recognise three marks of authenticity to distinguish the true local church from the false. These are: (1) True preaching of the Word of God; (2) The right administration of the sacraments; and (3) The faithful exercise of church discipline. Much may be said about how these three criteria are being ignored in many modern churches. The last criterion, for example, is frequently neglected in most churches perhaps as much due to a lack of moral courage as due to a lack of unity among the churches so that a person under discipline can easily move to another church without having to face embarrassment or having to repent of his sin. Whatever be the case, we cannot recognise as true any church that blatantly violates any of these marks.

But, having said this, we must recognise that a true church is not necessarily a vibrant church according to the New Testament standards. A vibrant church¾a vibrant Christian church¾must necessarily be a true church, but a true church, though it ought to be, need not be a vibrant church. What is a truly vibrant church according to the bible?

I believe the answer can be found in Acts 2:37-47. This passage describes the response of the people to Peter’s inaugural sermon in the wake of the Pentecostal revival recorded in Acts 2:1-13. It suggests to us that the vibrant church must have (1) an emphasis on biblical and expository preaching; (2) an emphasis on doctrine and Bible Study; (3) an emphasis on Worship (& prayer) and the Sacraments; and (4) an emphasis on Fellowship and Sharing; (5) an emphasis on evangelism and witnessing; and (6) an emphasis on the covenant families and children.


1. An Emphasis on Biblical & Expository Preaching

From Acts 2:14-36, Luke records for us the Apostle Peter’s inaugural sermon. Three things stand out very distinctly in this sermon: (1) it is eminently biblical for it is essentially an exposition of three Old Testament passages, namely Joel 2, Psalm 16 and Psalm 110; (2) it is eminently Christ-centred, for the whole sermon is about Christ; (3) it is distinctly evangelistic.

This is the kind of sermon that we must pay especial attention to. It must be expository and must point the congregation to Christ. If this sermon was the catalyst to the formation of the truly vibrant church of Acts 2, then such sermons ought to be the hallmark of a vibrant church. We are, of course, not saying that all our sermons must have the same theme and emphasis, but a church that majors only in negative themes of attacking errors in her preaching programme, for example, may appear militant and strong but cannot expect to be growing healthily and vibrantly in the Lord. 

Naturally, the responsibility to ensure this emphasis must fall largely on the shoulders of your pastor. But let us remember that the delivery of the sermon ought not to be the end of it, but the beginning of it. It would, indeed, be the end if it falls on the wayside, but otherwise, it should yield fruit some “an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold” (Mt 13:23). Such was the case in the church of Acts 2. We read:

37 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? 38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Notice that the people were not intellectually stimulated or captivated by Peter’s eloquence. Rather they were pricked in the heart. They felt that the words of Peter were like sharp arrows aimed at their heart, and as he completed each sentence, these arrows found their target in their hearts with pain that they could not contain. As the sermon was preached, they were brought into the presence of the thrice holy God and became painfully aware of their sin against the Holy One, and how they deserved eternal damnation, and so they cried out: “What must we do?”

I do not know how you respond to the sermons you hear week after week. To be fair, sometimes the fault may lie with the preacher in failing to bring out the Word clearly and urgently. But when the words preached have been aimed at some particular sins that you know you have been trifling with, what have been your responses? Brethren and children, if indictments of sin do not prick your heart at all, then it must be that your heart has calcified and hardened. And if you remain in that condition without repentance, you will prove yourself to be an apostate at the very end. Do you sense a growing hardness in your heart? May I exhort you to cry out to the Lord and weep before Him till your heart be broken and melted that you may once again hear the Master’s voice and heed it lovingly.

A vibrant local church begins not with elaborate programs and building funds; and a self-satisfied, confident and proud people, but with a people whose hearts have been touched by the glory and holiness of God that each member realises that he is nothing, has nothing and can do nothing without Christ.


2. An Emphasis on Doctrine

Peter’s sermon sparked a revival among the people, and three thousand souls were saved and added to the church by baptism that very day. We read this in v40-41. But what concerns us now is the following verse, which describes what the church was like in those early days: “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine…” (Acts 2:42a).

The people had heard the Gospel, they were soundly converted, but they were not complacent. They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine or teaching. They devoted themselves to learning from the apostles. Apparently the apostles did not only preach evangelistic or gospel-invitation messages, but spent time to instruct the new believers. There are many churches today that try to de-emphasise doctrine: “doctrine divides love unites,” and doctrine is hard stuff only for the Bible students, why do we want to emphasise on doctrine? Well, according to the scriptures, we must emphasise on doctrine.

The apostle to the Hebrews is rebuking his readers for their apathetic attitude towards doctrine when he says:

“For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.” (Heb 5:12)

What the apostle intimates here is that there is no excuse for us who have been Christians for a while not to make progress in doctrine. And yes, did not Jude exhort us  to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” (Jude 3) How do you earnestly contend for the faith unless you know your theology? And just in case anyone should think that this verse must refer to the ministers and leaders of the church, let us realise that Jude addresses his letter to “them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called” (Jude 1), which must certainly mean every believer. So yes, there is a scriptural injunction to study beyond the ABC’s of the faith.               

In this regard, may I urge you to read and study the Confession of our church, namely, the Westminster Confession of Faith. This confession, written from 1642-9, is, I believe, still the most sublime and accurate distillation of Christian truth available. Let us therefore be acquainted with it. Many in Presbyterian Churches today are neither Presbyterian nor Reformed, and worse still they miss out on a great opportunity for sound instruction in doctrine by failing to study the Confession. Such will pay lip-service to the Confession, but their practice of Christianity testifies of their ignorance and neglect of the means of grace the Lord has placed at their disposal.

Do read and study our Confessions and Catechisms. Make use of commentaries such as Robert Shaw’s for the Confession and Thomas Vincent’s for the Shorter Catechism and Thomas Ridgeley for the Larger Catechism. In fact, may I urge you also to memorise the Shorter Catechism so that a system of doctrine may be retained in your mind as false doctrines more and more are flooding the church of God. This, by the way, is a biblical instruction, for this is what Paul means when he exhorts Timothy to “Hold fast the form of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13). The word translated “form” refers to a schema, outline or summary. So Paul is exhorting Timothy to retain an outline system of doctrine in his mind. The catechism was designed for this very purpose.


3. An Emphasis on Worship & Sacraments

41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized.… 42 And they continued stedfastly…. in breaking of bread, and in prayers. 46 And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple….

The Protestant church recognises only 2 sacraments, and it is interesting that both of these should be mentioned in these two verses. Breaking of bread in verse 42 refers to the Lord’s Supper unlike in verse 46 where it probably refers to fellowship meals. 

Since sacraments and prayers are part of worship, and since it is probable that the Christians met in the courts of the temple for corporate worship, we may rightly say that the vibrant church must have an emphasis on worship. Yet a vibrant worship does not mean that we may admit any human innovations which are not permitted in the Word of God. Thus the WSC 50 says, “The Second Commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in His Word” (Dt 32:46; Mt 28:20; Acts 2:42).

We must never impose our human understanding of worship on the Scripture. God is sovereign and holy, He has the absolute right to determine how His creatures should worship Him. We must not imagine that worship is vibrant only if it is lively according to cultural and traditional norms. Worship with uplifting contemporary songs augmented with choreographed dances may appear to some to be full of vibrancy, but such worship would, I believe, be will-worship and displeasing to God.  Even in human life, when we seek to honour someone, we will attempt to do something that the person is pleased with, not what we imagine to be fitting for such an occasion of celebration. But strangely, in the area of worship, this principle is frequently ignored.

Our worship must, rather, be vibrant, whole-hearted, and in spirit as well as in truth. The author of Hebrews, paraphrasing or expounding Deuteronomy 4:23-24, in which Moses enjoined the keeping of the Second Commandment said:

“Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve [i.e. ‘worship’: Grk. latreō] God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire. ” (Heb 12:28-29).

In other words, our worship must be acceptable to God, and it must be attended with reverence and godly fear. Though we ought to enjoy worship, we must never gauge a worship service by the enjoyment we derive from it, but by whether it is according to God’s prescription and so redounds unto His glory.


4. An Emphasis on Fellowship & Sharing

And they continued stedfastly… in (the) fellowship… And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.  And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people” (v. 42-47).

It is interesting that although Luke mentions the other aspects and emphases of the New Testament Church, it is on the subject of fellowship that he dwells on the most. This, I submit to you is to be expected because the local church, after all, is comprised of people; a people who are all redeemed by the blood of Christ and placed as a part of the body of Christ by the Lord; a people who are called to be in one family and so to be brothers and sisters in Christ. And since they are brothers and sisters in Christ, they must have a special care for one another. Thus one of the most important aspects of a vibrant church is that of fellowship. The word ‘fellowship,’ translates the now famous Greek word koinonia, which simply speaks of participation¾participation in each other’s life¾sharing of each one’s blessings and burdens. But what are the characteristics of true fellowship as evident in this Acts 2 church?

Firstly, we are told that they were having fellowship meals (v. 46, here breaking bread is not a reference to the Lord’s supper as in v. 42) in each other’s house “with gladness and singleness of heart” (v. 46). Which says that they were genuinely glad, and were sincere rather than hypocritical towards each other. Those who are hypocritical are describe by Jude as ‘spots’¾hidden reef rocks in the feast of charity (Jude 12). But not so in the church of Acts 2. There is a certain transparency between the members. No one has any hidden agenda or ill-will towards others and no one suspects others as being hypocritical. In a word, there was no politics in the church. This is the basis of their having “all things in common” (v. 44). Sadly this is often not the case in many a church today and I wonder if we will be spared.

But why is there so much disunity, hypocrisy and politics in the average church today? I believe the fundamental problem is that of sin. And it is particularly acute in the  Church in this Laodicean age when sin is paraded in the garb of self-esteem and personal-ambition is seen as a virtue. The inner garment of self-esteem and personal-ambition is of course that of self-love and selfishness. Paul warned that this problem of self-love will reach epidemic levels in the last days: “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy…” (2 Tim 3:1-2)

If this list sounds very unchristian, it is. But realise that Paul is not speaking about the average unbeliever in the street, but about professing believers, for in v5 he tells us that these same people “[Have] a form of godliness, but [deny] the power thereof.” Who are these but professing believers in the church?

How did the church today arrive at the current state? I believe it is due largely to a rampant employment of Arminian and Pelagian forms of evangelism even in churches that claim to be Reformed. This, coupled with an aversion to the Puritan emphasises on assurance of salvation, false profession and introspective spiritual exercises has led to the inward decay of many a churches.

Secondly, not only were the members of the apostolic church self-less and sincere towards one another, we see that they also had great sensitivity and care for others, for we are told “And [they] sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need” (v. 45). Why did those richer believers sell their possessions and goods? It was clearly to provide for the needs of the poorer members in the church.

Naturally, the sensitivity and care to other believers in the church must extend beyond the poor in the church. The poor merely gives the occasion for expressions of love. But Paul instructs us to do good to all, especially to the saints: And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” (Gal 6:9-10)

In a biblically vibrant church where members are sensitive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit through the conscience, every believer is ready to do good always to one another. If a brother is going through a rough patch in his life, many brothers and sisters will realize it without his even talking to anyone, and they will automatically help him as much as they can. And yes this sensitivity extends beyond just physical needs. Rather, members in a biblically vibrant church, continually provoke one another to “love and good works” (Heb 10:24); and “exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of [us] be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13).

The churches of Ephesus and Colosse during Paul’s days were known not only for their faith, but for their love for one another (Eph 1:4; Col 1:15). It is my prayer that our church may, similarly, not just be known for its Reformed distinctives, but our love one for another. Think for a moment what impression will be left in the mind of a visitor who comes to PCC for just one Lord’s Day? Will they feel the warmth, or will they return home saying that they felt left-out and unwelcomed? Could it be that they came just once and no more because of this reason? Will you not, brethren, make every effort to show love to one another and to our visitors especially? Will you not resolve to minister rather than wait to be ministered unto?


5. An Emphasis on Evangelism & Witnessing

A biblically vibrant church must also emphasise evangelism. Not only are we told that 3,000 were added on Pentecost in response to Peter’s preaching, but we are told that the numbers increased daily: “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (v. 47b).

Apart from the sovereign grace of God, how was this achieved through the instrumentality of the Church? I believe it was largely through preaching and witnessing. Preaching is the main evangelistic arm of the church. Members of the church must support this evangelistic effort by prayer, by material helps and especially being ‘Andrews’ to bring others to come seek the Lord.

But the work of evangelism must also include the day to day witness of the members of the church. Indeed, I believe it is probably through the personal witness of the members of the church “gossipping the gospel” that such as should be saved were added daily to the church! But remember our individual witness must be supported by the corporate atmosphere of love. Luke would have us know in the context of the passage that the increase in numbers in the church is closely linked to the warmth of the fellowship between believers in the church.  How is this so? Well, we have noted how the early believers were filled with genuine love, sensitivity and care towards each other. But what is the result of this? I believe the result is found at least partly in v. 47. The result is that the church gains “favour with all men.” This is a factor which we often neglect, but it is an important aspect of the church which is taught by our Lord when He gave the disciples His new commandment. For He said “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (Jn 13:34-35).

Because of the extraordinary love and concern that is exhibited by the believers in a biblically vibrant church, unbelievers are attracted to come and take a look. And some of them may be so deeply touched that they would listen attentively to the Gospel as it is presented whether it is in the church or outside when the believers go out to witness in public. There must be something about the Gospel, if it can transform lives so drastically that unfeigned love between members is visible. It is likely that it was in this way that “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” (v. 47b).

The emphasis on evangelism, is also the reason why we should revive a weekly tracting appointment when we can go out to hand out tracts and invitations in the neighbourhood of the church and of our members.


6. An Emphasis on Covenant Families and Children

Finally, the biblically vibrant church must have an emphasis on the children in the covenant community. Peter tells the inquirers: “the promise is unto you, and to your children” (Acts 2:39). This verse of course speaks much more of the covenant family than of children directly, but as children are included in the covenant family, we are not to neglect our ministry to them. I am referring not only to infant baptism to incorporate the children into the visible covenant community by the sign and seal appointed by the Lord, but also to the children’s ministry in the church. In this regard, although it is increasingly popular in churches to have separate programmes for children during worship, I personally believe rather that they should worship together with the congregation. Indeed the children may not be able to understand the proceedings and the sermon, but this is where their fathers will have the responsibility to instruct and reiterate during family worship on the Sabbath days. In addition, I am also fully persuaded that children must be trained in the faith through systematic catechising. The primary role of catechising the children of course lies with the fathers, but the church should supplement by way of catechism classes. I believe that covenant children who are properly nurtured will most likely grow up to be believers according to the promise of God. We must not assume they are regenerate until they are old enough to demonstrate a credible profession of faith. However, as covenant children, they ought to be treated as believers,—taught to pray, to read the Word of God, to sing the songs of Zion, to walk in the straight and narrow way, and to repent of sin and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Of course, they must also be taught that they are sinners who, like us, deserve damnation if we are without Christ. Pray dear brothers and sisters, for the salvation of the children in our midst. 


Conclusion

May the Lord grant us that as a church, we may not only exhibit the marks of genuineness, but of vibrancy. May our sermons not only be faithfully preached but carefully heard and attended to. May the teaching ministry of this church be given much emphasis so that we have a solid foundation to withstand the shifting winds of error and heresy. May the Lord grant us that we will worship in spirit and in purity of truth. May He grant that we will grow to love one another and be willing to lay down our lives for one another as Christ so loves us. May He grant us compassionate hearts for the lost to pray for them, to earnestly witness to them and to lead them to the Lord! May we not forget the covenant children in our midst to nurture them in the fear of the Lord that they may be the stalwarts of faith in the next generation should the Lord tarry!