The way we experience church in America can make our Asian friends laugh. Francis Chan tells the story of how he had made a trip to be with some college age people in the underground church in China. They were telling him all the stories they had about persecution they were experiencing. They were fired up about their stories.
Chan told them that was not how church in America was. He said:
We have buildings in America we call churches. You go to them and sit for an hour or an hour and a half and someone teaches you a message. And if you don’t like it, you can go to the church down the street. If you get in a fight with someone you can go to another church. If you want a divorce and they’re against divorce you can go to another one. If their music is better, if their children’s ministry is better…that’s what we call church.
That’s when they started laughing. Hysterically. They were wondering how the church in America got to where it was. They were wondering how a person could go to the church gathering and leave thinking, “I didn’t really like it.”
We got there because somewhere along the road we decided to ask the wrong question. The wrong question is, “What kind of church would I like?” At times that question is phrased in a different way: “What kind of church would people like?”
And so the kind of church people would like is one that meets in a nice, new building. There would have to be a speaker that is a cross-between a Biblical scholar, a GQ cover, and Jerry Seinfeld. People would have to be friendly, at least as friendly as the people at Chick-Fil-A. The music would have to be on par with the latest band that has played Cynthia Woods.
If a meeting did not bring in many people, we would change the meeting. If people complained that the worship time was too long, we would shorten it. If no one came for prayer gatherings, we would delete them from the schedule.
Our faith family in other parts of the world can see what we cannot see. We have asked the wrong question about church.
You may be wondering what the right question is. Before I tell you, notice what was happening to the believers in the early church. “They ate their food with joyful and sincere (frankness and openness) hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:46-47).
The first church had “joyful” hearts. The motif of joy is present in Luke’s writing, both the Gospel of Luke and his follow-up called Acts. Let me walk you through some examples:
- The angel says that people will rejoice because John, a prophet, and Jesus, the Savior, will be born (Luke 1:14, 44, 47, 58; 2:10).
- Even followers of Jesus who are persecuted can rejoice because following him is worth the cost (Luke 6:23; 7:23; 8:13; 10:17-20).
- God experiences joy when his children are saved and healed (Luke 13:17; 15:5-32).
- Israel can rejoice because Jesus is their king (Luke 19:37; 24:41; 24:52).
- The church can rejoice because of the community (Acts 2:46; 5:41).
- Gentiles rejoice because the word has come to them (Acts 8:39; 12:14; 13:48; 13:52; 14:17; 16:34).
- The church rejoices when Gentiles receive the word (Acts 11:23; 15:3, 31).
There is a lot of joy in Luke/Acts. People rejoicing with other believers. People rejoicing in church. People rejoicing in homes. People rejoicing in prison. People rejoicing when sinners get saved. People rejoicing when they are persecuted.
Like the underground church in China. Where is their joy coming from? And where did it come from in the first church? Wouldn’t we like to know?
Luke knew the answer to that question. He used joy to help us understand what God is up to by making us wonder where the joy is coming from. For example, the shepherds get the announcement that the Savior has been born. It is “good news of great joy for all the people.” You hear that every Christmas season when Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14.
The social status of the shepherds should have made them the last to hear this announcement. Instead, they were the first. The world as we know it is getting turned upside down. And that’s a reason for joy. We should expect that the common worldview will be turned on its head.
But woven within Luke’s verses of joy is the cross. He weaves joy throughout his writing because joy comes to those who are saved. And it comes to those who are about the things of God. When we are about his things that lead to salvation, joy is a by-product.
And that is why the early church knew joy: they were about the things of God. They were “devoted” to the Apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, to prayer, to meeting in the temple courts and from house to house, and to being generous givers.
Let’s be honest. Are those things we would list if asked “what would bring you joy?” If we’re like a recent survey, probably not. The American Bible Society releases their “State of the Bible” survey results every year. Already that sounds pretty stuffy, doesn’t it? The report aims to show how people are engaging with the Word of God. That would be the first devotion listed, that of being devoted to the Apostles’ teaching.
One part of the survey asked Americans if they thought the Bible was a daily necessity. Now, remember, this is asked of people who probably can quote Jesus’ saying that “Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
The ABS asked their question and put the Bible alongside coffee, something sweet and social media. 37% responded that coffee was necessary for their day. 28% said something sweet was essential. 19% said they had to have their social media fix every day.
If the answers were a race to finish last, the Bible would win hands down. It came in at 16%.
In case that brings you down, here’s some other news that might help. The study also shared some demographic-specific data. People who identified as “Bible-centered” are most likely to say it’s a daily necessity to the tune of 61%. But that’s like asking a body-builder if the gym is a necessity in their life.
Joy is missing in our lives and so is Bible reading as a necessity. Could there be a correlation? As America becomes less Christian are we becoming less joyful? Another survey says that we are only 33% happy. It’s up from the previous year of 31%, but if two out of every three people you bump into are unhappy, watch out.
John Gerzema, CEO of the Harris Poll, says that “To me, it feels like a cultural lack of presence… we are so caught up in our texting, multitasking, jobs and commutes that we seem to have less and less free time. Older people age 65+ are the happiest.”
Joy is missing in our lives and so is connection, the kind where we are present to other people. The early church would call it fellowship. Could there be a correlation?
One more study just for grins. Researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland conducted a survey to see if there was a link between generosity and joy. Hint: there was. They said that a “…piece of good news was that it didn’t seem to matter how generous people were. Planning to give away just a little bit of money had the same effects on happiness as giving away a lot. …. at least in our study, the amount spent did not matter…It is worth keeping in mind that even little things have a beneficial effect—like bringing coffee to one’s office mates in the morning.”
Joy is missing in our lives and so is generosity. People give on average 3% of their income to charity. Could there be a correlation?
Could there be a correlation to the devotion of the early church to the Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayer, meeting together, and giving to the joy they experienced?
We want joy, don’t we? Advertisers try to sell us joy. It’s promised in every commercial or ad you see. White teeth: joy. New car: joy. Eat at this restaurant: joy.
Joy is a big topic in Luke’s writing. It’s a big topic because God wants his church to be joy-filled. Like any Father who wants to see his children giggling with joy, so God wants his church to find his joy. And his joy is something different than what the latest product or trip or purchase can give.
That kind of joy is dependent on what is happening around us. His kind of joy is a decided joy that is rooted in what is happening in us. When his Spirit—another favorite topic of Luke’s—is in us, there is joy.
Peter knew that joy. He wrote: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; though not seeing him now, you believe in him, and you rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8,9).
Peter was not writing to people living the lifestyles of the rich and famous. He is writing to people who have been displaced, people who were facing persecution, some separated from families, and their futures upended.
All their stuff had been taken. But Jesus was not taken from them. He was the source of their joy. And since no one could separate them from Jesus, no one could take their joy. These Christians were joyful Christians, which is a bit of redundancy. What other kind is there? It’s like saying a “tall skyscraper.” Or “dry desert.” Or “handsome Rick.”
When our joy is decided instead of dependent, our joy percentage will increase. The question, “What kind of church do I like?” will only disappoint you. It’s the wrong question.
The right question is this: “What kind of church does God like?” Instead of changing the exterior workings of the church, what if we let God change our hearts? He tells us how that happens. It happens when our heart devotions get aligned with his.
And by now you can guess what those are: The Apostles’ teachings, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, prayer, meeting together, and generosity. When we are being the church that God likes, joy will show up.
The early church was not known for their buildings. They had none. They weren’t known for their denomination. There were none. They were known by their joy.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.
Try God on this one. Devote yourself to the things that make up the church he likes. And see if your joy gets back to where the church’s joy was in the beginning. We want people laughing with us. Not at us.