The Goodness and the Groaning of Growth

Thoughts on Bethlehem's Future

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified." 37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" 38 And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, "Save yourselves from this crooked generation." 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

You may be looking at this text and the title of this message and wondering what happened to the end of Romans 10. What happened was a meeting of the Council of Elders last Tuesday. The upshot of that meeting was the request that I address this morning the issue of Bethlehem’s future and how crucial the next 7-10 weeks seem to us as elders. The elders’ intention is that a special team of elders (and some others) meet weekly to brainstorm and seek the Lord concerning strategies and structures and immanent decisions that will shape the kind of church Bethlehem is for years to come. So what I aim to do this morning is a biblically based assessment of where we are right now, where we are going, and where God would want us to go. And then the elders want me to issue a church-wide call to fasting and prayer during these weeks. I’ll give you more details at the end.

The Goodness and the Groanings of Growth

The title I have given this message signals how some of us feel about our present blessings at Bethlehem. They are great. I will mention ten of them at the end. But the kind of blessings God has given us in his mercy and in our weakness and imperfection come with groanings. We are not alone in this, and we do not intend to run from it. You remember how Paul ended his list of burdens in the ministry in 2 Corinthians 11:28, "And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches." In other words, God was blessing this missionary apostle with successful church planting; and the effect of this blessing – this wonderful blessing – and this success and this growth was what he called the "daily pressure" of concern for all these churches.

Divine Blessing and Apostolic Groaning in the Book of Acts

So we see in the life of the apostle "the goodness and the groaning of growth." Now look at it with me in the book of Acts. Peter has just finished his message at Pentecost to a great crowd of people. Now, jump into the text at Acts 2:41: "So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls." Now this is phenomenal and sudden church growth. And it didn’t stop there. In Acts 4:4 it says, "But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men [that’s a gender specific word, in addition to women] came to about five thousand." So, even leaving room for the fact that some of these converts were from out of town and may have left, within a matter of months you have five to ten thousand new believers to care for pastorally, and to lead in worship and some kind of body life, and to mobilize for missions.

That gives a certain realism to the next verse (Acts 2:42): "And they (these thousands) devoted themselves (proskapterountes) to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." Now how did they do that? The apostles’ teaching is not written down yet and there are no printing presses anyway. There are only eleven apostles, and there are three to ten thousand adults plus children to care for. And they "devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching." And they shared their goods and their lives: the ate together and they prayed.

Now I think Luke reports this as all very good. I don’t think Luke is groaning here and saying: growth is a pain in the neck and it would be nice to have slow growth and small problems to deal with. He reports this as a blessing and as the work of God. In Acts 4:31-33 he comments on the boldness of the witness of the saints and how "great grace was upon them all." So this is all good news. God is blessing.

But I wonder what it was like to manage or coordinate all this? How did they provide teaching and pastoral care and worship to these thousands of people? There are eleven apostles and no doubt some other leaders around them. But it must have been chaotic. And I think there was a good bit of apostolic groaning – like we heard from the apostle Paul.

Here is a bit of evidence that this was the case. Look at Acts 6:1-4

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number (note this well!), a complaint (gongusmos – the word even sounds like "groaning") by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word."

So here we have a vintage administrative hassle and pressure! It comes with any group of people two or larger. Meeting the needs of three thousand to ten thousand people and leading them into joy-filled mission is very messy. It has always been, and it always will be. You can see where I am going. This is what I meant by a biblically based assessment of our situation.

Now back to Acts 2:42. These huge numbers of people, it says, were "devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." How was this happening? How did the eleven apostles manage this? Two observations in answer to this question – and it is one of the most pressing questions for the elders of Bethlehem at this juncture of our history. How were they being taught, cared for, led in corporate worship, and mobilized for ministry in ever increasing numbers? I say "ever increasing" because of the end of verse 47: "And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved." So they didn’t have the luxury of a time when everyone was mature and well-taught and able to minister from deep resources. They were always dealing with new believers who had to be patiently helped along the rough road to mature faith.

How Did They Manage This?

I said there are two observation in answer to the question: How did they manage this? How did the eleven apostles get their teaching effectively into the heads and hearts of ten thousand people? The first observation comes from verse 46. Notice the parallel with verse 42: "And day by day, attending (proskarterountes—literally, "devoting themselves" to as in verse 42 "devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching") the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts."

The parallel with verse 42 suggests that one way the apostles’ teaching was happening was in the larger group gatherings in the temple, and the sharing and eating and praying was happening in their homes. F. F. Bruce writes, "Day by day, then, in the weeks that followed the first Christian Pentecost, the believers met regularly in the temple precincts for public worship and public witness, while they took their fellowship meals in each other’s homes and ‘broke the bread’ in accordance with their Master's ordinance" (The Book of Acts, 1968, p. 81). He suggests that these larger numbers gathered in Solomon’s colonnade which ran along the east side of the outer court, because in Acts 3:11 and 5:12 it says that’s where they were: "And they were all together in Solomon's Portico."

So the first observation is that there were larger group gatherings at the beginning and there were home group gatherings, and maybe this is the way the teaching filtered down to everyone. But the administrative burden to make sure that all the new converts found homes and good teaching and pastoral support and practical care must have been immense, remembering that there were no telephones or email. And no clocks!!

The second observation is that neither here nor elsewhere in the New Testament do we get detailed instructions on how to organize the church for pastoral care and worship and teaching and mobilization for ministry. There were elders in the churches (they show up very soon in the Jerusalem church) and there were deacons, and there were goals of teaching and caring and maturing and praying and evangelizing and missions. But as far as details of how to structure the church in a city or in an area or even one local church with several thousand saints – there are very few particulars.

A Divine Invitation, Not a Divine Oversight

I do not take this as a divine oversight. I take it as a divine invitation to do what the Elders are calling you to do over the next seven weeks or so. I think God left the particulars open so that churches could be structured in ways appropriate to the Fulani of Cameroon, and the Waorani of Ecuador, and the medieval Vikings of Scandinavia, and the underground church of China, and the nomadic Fulbe of Chad, and even the different cultures of the Twin Cities. I take this New Testament flexibility to be an invitation to the leaders and the people of every church to fast and pray for God’s leading in matters that are not defined in the Bible – like video or no video, multi-campus or single-campus, large buildings or small buildings, one service or many services, Sunday School or no Sunday School, Wednesday-night connection or no Wednesday-night connection, one-hour services or two-hour services, home groups or no home groups, hymns or worship songs, organs or guitars, circuit-riding preacher or a stationary preacher, one preacher or several preachers, 20 elders or 60 elders, and on and on the New Testament does not dictate.

Instead the New Testament commands, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2). And to that end we see the leaders of the early church fasting and worshipping. Look at Acts 13:1-2:

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

This was an absolutely stunning development. Two of the most seasoned teachers, Saul and Barnabas are sent away to launch a new ministry – missions to the wider empire. Nothing in history has been the same since. It was a pivotal moment in the life of the church in Antioch, and the early church. It seems to me that we are at a similar pivotal moment in the life of this church.

What Should Bethlehem’s Next Structural Move Be?

What should our next structural move be? There is groaning in this question.

  • How shall we deal with the implications of a thousand people possibly located at Country Road J and 35W, and two thousand downtown, in one church with one preacher, as the two communities grow increasingly separate and have distinct needs and potentials?
  • How shall we manage the growth downtown? A third service would be helpful now and will be a necessity this fall.
  • Or should we go immediately to a south campus?
  • If so, do we then have the preacher rotating every third week or staying downtown?
  • What happens to church planting which gets left over energies when we are spending so much effort on managing the multi-campus effort for present growth, aware all along that church planting does not seem to slow local growth?
  • What are the effects of the multi-campus strategy on or aims for racial diversity and racial harmony, if video preaching puts another cultural barrier in the way?
  • What about the possibly excessive prominence of one preacher, and what should my role should be in all of this?
  • What about the fact that all of us would love not to be absorbed year after year with crowd management, but instead devote ourselves to proactive evangelism and teaching new believers and caring for the flock and worshipping and doing acts of mercy and sending missionaries?

Those are just a few of the questions that have caused the elders to step back for the next seven to ten weeks and seek the Lord with you. We would like you to pray and fast with us. We believe God has a way forward for us. "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32). We do not deserve God’s favor or blessing. But because of the blood and righteousness of Christ, we are confident that we live under the wings of God’s mercy. We are not sure why the way forward seems to some of us so unclear.

I search my heart regularly, and call the elders to search our hearts, to see if there is any pride, any lust, any greed, any fear, any kind of hidden sin that would hinder the full enjoyment of God’s favor and guidance.

We are calling you to join us for the next seven weeks, I will be spending half that time speaking in Scotland, Ireland, England, Maryland, Georgia, and North Carolina, and the rest of it on vacation. I will be back, God willing, on July 28. While I am gone, I will be joining you in prayer and fasting each week.

Here is the simple specific plan. Every Wednesday morning from 6:30 to 7:30 for the next seven weeks on the downtown campus you are all invited to pray. One way to fast would simply be to skip breakfast and newspaper that morning. I won’t get more specific than that except to say that if that doesn’t work for you, choose any meal or any habit and any day to fast and set aside some time to pray for a breakthrough. The elders and some others will be starting their weekly prayer and brainstorming (and Bible-storming and heaven-storming) tomorrow night and will meet probably on the next two Mondays and then take stock.

Ten Blessings at Bethlehem

Now I promised you at the beginning that I would mention ten blessings at Bethlehem right now. You need to know that churches move forward by grace in the midst of great inadequacy. God is never confused. He is never perplexed. He never groans with uncertainty about what to do next. He is always overflowing with wisdom and good ideas. And he is merciful. He has blessed us in and through all our groaning.

  1. We are thrilled that there is total unanimity among search committee and care-givers and elders on the candidate that we will be bringing to you for the pastor for counseling in August. He is ready and willing, and all that remains is a careful education of the congregation so that you can happily join your leaders. This will mean hundreds of new trained lay-lovers of people who have increased wisdom and skill in the strengthening and healing ministry of the church.

  2. We are thrilled that this summer Ken Currie and his wife and five children and nine associates will arrive to set up the ministry of Campus Outreach Minneapolis as a ministry of Bethlehem Baptist Church with all the energy and fruit that will bring not just to college evangelism but to all of us.

  3. We thank God that the new twenty-something group had its first gathering last night with all the ministry potential in that group of people who don’t want to waste their lives.

  4. We stand amazed at God’s blessing in bringing not eight new TBI students this summer but a class of sixteen, because with the new pastoral staff we will be able to mentor more than before. The short-term impact of their presence among us and the long-term impact for the kingdom should make us bow in worship.

  5. A few weeks ago we received an unpledged gift of $400,000 for the vision of Education for Exultation and the finishing of the new building. This moved some of us to tears and made us hear God say, "I can see that this gets done debt free." Trust me. Seek me.

  6. Right now we have a team of people (led by pastors Chuck and Erik) ministering in Myanmar, and later this summer Brad will take a team to minister to AIDS orphans in Uganda. This is the tip of the iceberg of missions outreach this summer that few people see.

  7. In fact there are about ninety of our members serving in vocational missions (not to mention the missionaries we support who are not members, and not counting the children involved). This steady state blessing becomes old and familiar, but should make us leap for joy!

  8. We should give repeated thanks that the newly founded BUI (Bethlehem Urban Initiatives) is already funding and sending two "urban missionaries" here in Minneapolis.

  9. And lest we be ungrateful and treat the growth of our church only as a problem for management and groaning, let growth be mentioned here as a precious blessing – not all the conversion growth we want, but some, and with that much spiritual awakening and equipping and sending – 18% growth in the period from October to now over last year’s attendance – about 400 new people.

  10. And finally let us rejoice for every son and daughter who was once lost and is now found

I am not discouraged. I leave on the plane in a few hours a very happy pastor and husband and father. And you will increase my joy if you come and sit under the ministry of my gifted colleagues, and if you give generously through the summer, and if you come to pray on Wednesday morning at 6:30, and fast for the guidance that we need so much. God bless you as you seek God’s face this summer.