What is the church? Is the church a social club in which members congregate together separated from the world? Is the church a charitable organization ministering to the needs of people inside and outside its community? Is the church an agent of political and societal change? The church has been all of these at times with both positive and negative consequences. But scripturally the church is called to be an authentic community of believers engaged in gospel ministry and mission.
The Bible identifies the church as the group of those who have truly believed the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout all time; this is who composes the church. But more often the Bible employs a description of the church by the characteristics it embodies, and the work that it undertakes, which are both a result of the transformative power of Jesus upon individual lives.
One need only turn to the Book of Acts to identify the characteristics of authentic community that the early church possessed and modeled for all future generations. The key ingredient for the Acts church was operating in the power of the name of Jesus, not their own strength, wisdom, or ability. By this they were able to form an authentic Christian community which engaged in prosperous and fruitful ministry. This is a repeatable model.
Operating in the power of Jesus’ name, the Acts church exhibited several reproducible characteristics that should mark every church that identifies with the name of Jesus. They displayed a unified purpose in all that they did, while balancing it with a charitable spirit toward one another. Acts tells us that the early church was “of one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32). So, at least in the beginning, there was no division over the mission and focus of the church, there was only unity which made all of the following characteristics possible.
Their sense of charity was not compromised by a watering down of the message they were commissioned to deliver, but rather a bold witness (Acts 4:29; 33) that stood for and articulated truth with grace. An authentic community must know what it believes and what it stands for and unashamedly be willing to declare it. But our sense of truth must be couched in grace if people are to receive it. The Apostle John wrote that Jesus was full of grace and truth (Jn. 1:17), compromising on neither, and he must be our example.
The Acts church was a responsible community of voluntary participants looking out for the needs of one another. One of the most interesting accounts in Acts is how the church was willing to provide for its own members. If one was lacking, the church moved to meet their need by willingly sacrificing their own possessions (Acts 2:45; 4:34-35). Another notable aspect was that this was always done on a voluntary basis not a compulsory one (Acts 4:36-37; 5:4). No one had to be guilted, or compelled, to help, the desire of the individual members was to be a blessing to fellow believers.
And one of the most enviable aspects of the Acts church is that they were continually engaged in prosperous ministry, fulfilling the role for which they were called. As the community of believers operated in the power of Jesus’ name, great grace was upon them all (Acts 4:33b) and the Lord continually added to their numbers (Acts 2:41; 47; 5:14 ) and multiplied their ministry effectiveness. If the church today will operate in Jesus’ power rather than our own, and walk in his example, the church will be an authentic community and return to prosperous and fruitful ministry.