Recently I’ve become concerned by the way the American church is shrinking. This week I went to the Book of Acts, the history book of the early church, and studied it in detail in hopes of finding some insight.
The disciples outreach efforts began with Jesus’ command in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
Then, through the next twenty-seven chapters, we are shown how the early church’s “witnessing” efforts grew their cause from a small band of tepid disciples meeting in one room, into the most aggressively growing religion the Roman world had ever seen.
What gave them such power?
I’ve come to the conclusion that pain made the difference. Every page of the Book of Acts is chocked full of broken teeth and arms, imprisonments, beatings, executions, and other gruesome plots and twists even Hollywood couldn’t dream up. The first followers of Jesus went to bed wondering if their doors would be kicked in, and their daughter’s and wives dragged into the streets and raped while their sons and fathers were run through with spears.
People often assume that the “power” the apostles received when the Holy Spirit “came on them” as described in Acts 1:8, was the ability to perform the miraculous. I’m sure that was a part of it, but I think the “power” Jesus was really describing was the power to persevere. It was the ability to cope with two kinds of pain: pain suffered at the hands of non-Christians and pain suffered through the course of everyday life events.
The way the first followers of Jesus endured through the worst life could throw at them pricked the curiosity of those around them.
As Theologian William Barclay observed,
“The really important thing is that in those early days the pagans saw in Christianity and in the Church a power that could cope with and mend the human situation. They saw in Christianity a power which they did not possess -- and they wanted it. The greatest converting influence of all is a life which clearly and obviously is possessed of a power which can cope with the human situation in all its problems, in all its tragedy, and in all its pain.”
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