A "Model" Church

I have pastored the same church, Calvary Chapel of St. Petersburg Florida, for the past 28 years. During that time, I have met, read about, and heard of scores of pastors & church leaders going from conference to conference, reading book after book, searching for the secret of a successful church. And as a result of the numerical growth of our church, I have often been asked, "What’s the secret of the growth of Calvary Chapel?" My answer all these years has been the same – "It’s the Lord." One pastor friend years ago asked this same question, and when I said, "It’s the Lord," he responded, "I know it’s the Lord, but what else is it?" I really could only reiterate my original answer. But if I had to answer that today, I might say, "It’s the Lord," and then if pressed to go deeper, I might say, "And I’ve tried to use the right model all these years."

A few years ago I was at a well known Christian university interviewing students for the possibility of a summer internship at our church. One student who seemed very bright asked me what "model" we used as a church for ministry, and before I could answer, he rattled off several models, most of which I knew nothing about. The only one I was vaguely familiar with was the "Willow Creek" model (Pastor Bill Hybels). I felt a bit intimidated by this young man’s knowledge, and yet I felt humbly confident in my response. I told him that we try to model our church after the model found in the book of Acts. He then said, "That’s a pretty good model."

If I had to summarize the model God gave us in the book of Acts, it would come down to four overall points. First of all, in Acts chapter 1, before Jesus ascended into heaven, he gave his church a command. They were not to leave Jerusalem until they were endued with power from on high. And after ten days of waiting, Acts chapter 2 records for us that those believers were baptized by the Holy Spirit. It was a baptism of power ("dunamis," from which we get our English word dynamite). That power was essential to their success.

When threatened by the Jewish leaders about speaking and teaching in the names of Jesus, we see the believers praying, being once again filled with the Holy Spirit, then speaking "the word" (about Jesus) boldly (Acts 4:31). The first deacons were men filed with the Holy Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3). The first martyr of the early church, Stephen, stood boldly against his accusers by the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:8-7:60). Ananias told Saul of Tarsus, who of course became none other than the great apostle Paul, that he had been sent to him that he might "be filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 9:17). The Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and the other Gentiles gathered in his house in exactly the same way it had fallen on the Jewish believers on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 10). And in Acts 19, Paul lays his hands on some disciples in Ephesus who he evidently felt were lacking something, and the Holy Spirit came upon them in power. 

It is not my purpose in this article to debate the different theological positions on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, only to remind us that, according to Jesus, we are all absolutely dependent on the empowering of the Holy Spirit if we are going to accomplish the task He has assigned to us (Acts 1:4, 8). So early on in my ministry I earnestly sought for God to baptize me with the power of the Holy Spirit. And I still seek that empowering today.

Secondly, Acts 2:42 tells us that the early church was devoted to four essentials for any healthy church – teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. I continue to strive to make sure these four essentials are a part of Calvary Chapel St. Pete. We put great emphasis on teaching the Word of God. And we do not just teach from the Word, but through the Word. I honestly wish I could get every pastor out there to at some point in the week teach his congregation the entire Bible. If its all inspired, why are we leaving anything out?

Next, fellowship; Acts 2:46a tells us that the early church met corporately (daily in the temple courts),  but Acts 2:46b says they also met regularly in homes (small groups). We currently have over 40 small groups that meet regularly in host homes, with several more beginning soon. We call them "life groups." The atmosphere in a home is unique, and relationships (fellowship) can be best fostered in a home setting. We also have many other small groups that meet at various times during the week. 

And we are told they "broke bread" together. I believe the breaking of bread in Acts 2:42 included not only fellowship around a meal with other believers, but regular times celebrating "The Lord’s Supper." So we encourage small groups to have meals together, including a communion meal on some kind of regular basis. We also have corporate communion once per month (last Wed), and three times per year during all weekend services. 

They were also devoted to prayer. We have recently "beefed up" our prayer ministry. Recently my wife and I had the privilege of driving Pastor Jim Cymbala (The Brooklyn Tabernacle) from Tampa to Merritt Island Florida to speak at our annual Calvary Chapel Southeast Regional Pastor’s Conference. Many of you may be familiar with Pastor Jim’s book a few years ago called "Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire." The book recounts how in the early days of the ministry of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, Jim Cymbala decided that they would gauge the success of their ministry by their Tuesday night prayer meeting. What originally started with a handful of believers on a Tuesday night has grown to several thousand every week. And in talking with Pastor Jim, I was amazed at how today they have prayer meetings going on 24 hours a day! I was challenged, and came away from that encounter determined to make some changes to what I considered a very good prayer ministry in our church already. So I divided our elders into prayer teams, and there is a team now meeting every Sunday for prayer. I instructed each elder to invite one mature believer to become part of the group (not an elder or pastor). As the group grows, we will divide, assigning additional groups different times to meet and pray.  We divided our entire staff into prayer teams, and they have a daily assigned time to be relieved of their regular work in order to pray together. Our goal is to one day have prayer going 24 hours a day.

Thirdly, the book of Acts tells us that the apostles knew their priority in their ministry calling. As a result of continued numerical growth, the Grecian widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. And the apostles response to this problem was essential to the continued growth and health of their ministry. Here’s what they did: 

* Acts 6:2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on table. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’

I believe one of the greatest needs of churches today is to have pastors recommit themselves to the priorities of prayer & the ministry of the Word. The health and growth of the early church was dependent on its leaders making sure they kept these priorities in their proper place, and we must do the same.

Finally, the book of Acts models for us a church that reached out to the world around it. They were "missions minded." Granted, the initial missionary movement came as the result of persecution that "scattered" the believers beyond Jersusalem. But with that said, here’s what we read about those who were scattered:

* Acts 8:4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.

Because the early church leaders maintained a priority of prayer and the ministry of the Word, the people in the congregation became well fed sheep who knew the Word, and wherever they went they shared what they had learned from their pastoral leaders. 

As I look at the various outreach ministries of Calvary Chapel St. Petersburg, I am extremely thankful. They are too many for me to list in this article. People coming into contact with our church for the first time may be impressed by the size of the church and all the outreach ministries going on, but from my perspective these ministries are a natural product of following the model God left for us in the book of Acts. I’m not saying that to follow this model will make every local fellowship a large ministry. The size of each local church does not determine whether heaven views it as successful (John 3:27). But if we follow the model God left us, we will be fruitful according to God’s will for each individual ministry. 

In closing, let me say a couple of things just so there are no misunderstandings. I’m not against church conferences. There are lots of benefits to conferences – fellowship and interaction with brothers & sisters outside of our own sphere of influence, knowledge gained on a host of practical ministry issues, and being fed by some very gifted speakers that God has given to the church at large. And I’m also not trying to "put down" any particular church "models" that are out there. I’m simply suggesting that, if you’re looking for a model church, pick a Bible, turn to the book of Acts. and as you read & study, check all models out there against the original.