Depending upon which church growth expert you have been reading, there are supposedly thousands of churches closing their doors every year. A number of possible reasons are cited. To hear that a local body of believers, a church, has closed its doors is dismaying in the least. Churches are living organisms, bodies that are appendages of His Body, the Church, and to learn of an assembly that is now ceasing to be is a contradiction of the first order. These things ought not to be!
But, in the infant stages of the Church that Christ said He would build, a body that the gates of Hell could not prevail against, (Matt.16:18 ) there are keys that will open timeless truths as to what makes a church a life-giving body. One such passage is early in the book of Acts. The mother church, Jerusalem, had experienced phenomenal growth beginning on the Day of Pentecost, witnessing thousands of conversions and baptisms, mostly in the Jewish community/population. Persecution eventually reared its ugly head and many of these converts had to “get out of town.” Antioch was one of the destinations as we read in Acts 11:19. The new Jewish believers were not reticent to preach the gospel to the Jews that they met in Antioch and many believed. In a short while, they began preaching to the Gentile audiences also and “a great number believed and turned unto the Lord.” (Acts 11:21) There was in time a church founded, a church which Paul and Barnabas spent a year meeting with, grounding the new converts who “assembled themselves together with the church…” as they “taught much people…and the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11:21, 26)
That’s the kind of church every God-called, Spirit anointed pastor would love to shepherd, a church upon which the hand of God was resting. Why was it so? What made the church at Antioch, where believers were first called “Christians,” (Acts 11:26) a church of which it was noted that God’s hand was upon it?
First, it was a church known for its preaching; it was born out of and bathed in the preaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. Preaching to every man, Jew and Gentile, was its primary occupation. And, since the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation, (Romans 1:16) a great number believed and turned to the Lord. Dr. Robert Delnay, a 20th century mentor of many preachers once said, “The vitality of Christianity at any time in church history is directly related to the vitality of preaching.” Charles Spurgeon put it this way: “I do not look for any other means of converting men beyond the simple preaching of the gospel.” And, Robert Murray McCheyne confessed: “I preached as never to preach again; as a dying man to dying men.”
The church upon which the hand of God is resting today is a church where Bible preaching is still the primary objective of all ministries. Not small groups designed to meet every conceivable need of those who attend; not a lively music program, complete with a band that generates striking sights and sounds; not side-shows that promote personalities or programs, but just Bible preaching that exalts Christ and exhorts sinners.
A church where the gospel is being regularly preached will also be a church where people are getting saved and baptized. “A great number believed and turned to the Lord.” (v.21) When people trust Christ as Savior, turning to Him in repentance from their sin, there follows baptism, identifying with Christ’s person and message, and then the joining of themselves to a local assembly of those who are of like faith and practice. “Added to the church” is a phrase originating on the day of Pentecost and to this hour when a person hears the gospel, believes unto salvation, then is baptized and added to the church, the New Testament blueprint, recorded in Acts 2, has been followed. That is what happened in Antioch when people were getting saved, baptized and added to the church. It happened because the hand of the Lord was upon that church, and wherever or whenever a church has God’s hand upon it people are getting saved, baptized and added to the church.
When the church at Jerusalem heard of the work of the Holy Spirit in Antioch, they sent Barnabas to check it out! He came, he witnessed the grace of God at work and he “exhorted them all that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.” (Acts 11:23) When God’s hand is upon a church, there will be Biblical exhortation. Exhorting one another is a ministry that every believer should take seriously. To exhort is to encourage with urgency. Paul exhorted Timothy that prayers and supplications be made for all men, (I Tim.2:1ff.); and he said that “reading, exhortation and doctrine,” should be continued “till I come.” (I Tim.4:13) Barnabas exhorted these new converts in all matters, and it resulted in a local assembly that was alert and alive. A church upon which God’s hand is resting is a church that embraces Godly, Biblical exhortation.
Then too, it is a church that loves Bible teaching. Along with exhortation comes the systematic teaching of God’s Word. “Preach the Word…reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” (2 Tim.4:2) This new church at Antioch loved Bible preaching and teaching. For a whole year, as the church regularly and willingly assembled themselves together, Paul and Barnabas “taught much people.” There were no gimmicks to draw them day after day, week after week, for a year; they loved the Word and could not get enough of it. That is a characteristic of a new-born babe in Christ; and, it is an earmark of the church upon which the hand of God is resting. We should note also that the testimony of the church at Antioch was sounded abroad. They become known as “Christians.” When the mother church at Jerusalem was suffering because of a “great dearth,” the church at Antioch became at once a giving church, “every man according to his ability” sending relief to the saints at Jerusalem. It was a church with a testimony for God, a church with a heart for God’s people, a giving church, and a church upon which the hand of God was resting.
Maybe churches that are not following this New Testament model should close. God’s hand has, evidently, been removed from many an assembly that once had lights burning brightly for Christ much like the church at Antioch. May our prayer be that God’s hand will rest upon our churches now like He did then, with souls being saved, saints being grounded and aptly exhorted, and missionaries being sent out to establish another candlestick in another community upon which the hand of God is.
“The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.” (Rev.1:20)