I didn’t grow up in church, and didn’t spend any significant amount of time with Christians until I was in high school. Before that, I didn’t have any frame of reference for how church worked or what Christians were like, so when I first began attending a church and exploring the idea of God, I had to figure everything out, like when to stand and when to sit, when to sing and when to bow my head in silence, and which cute girls were single (It’s true, I was in high school). I also didn’t really have any expectations of the people I encountered there, but when I first read the description of the church in Acts 2 I recognized that something was off, and I realized when I read it again recently that I still felt that way.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” - Acts 2:42-47 NIV
That’s really sweet and all, but the church was in it’s honeymoon phase. I bet that sort of passion and generosity and joy died pretty quickly. That was my first thought when I read this passage recently. The church described in Acts was brand new, witnessing incredible miracles and ministry, and everyone was just getting to know each other. It’s no surprise that they got along so well and acted so virtuously, but did that really continue after this season of the church? Looking at today’s churches, much of our society might say no, including people who attend those churches. Our expectations of the church are lower than this description in Acts, including my own. Why?
Most of the world expects something from Christians, and usually it’s the expectation to see a life that represents a man named Jesus who loved and healed and empowered people, and claimed to give his life to save the world. But nearly all of us have had encounters with church people or have seen self-professed “Christians” on our TV screens who are woefully missing the mark, and that sets our expectations for future encounters with someone who claims to be a Christian. After these encounters our expectations are nearly always lowered.
If we get enough courage and dare to set foot in a church, it doesn’t take very long to confirm these expectations either, because the reality is, churches are filled with broken people. There are liars and cheats and thieves and adulterers and the greedy and lazy and judgmental and self-righteous within the walls of the church. And when you put that many messed up people in one room together, conflict is bound to happen. And it eventually did for the new church in Acts:
“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” – Acts 6:1 NIV
As people began congregating as the church in Acts, there were some who were of the nationality of God’s people (the Hebraic Jews) and those who were not born into but had adopted the faith (Hellenistic Jews). Those who were not born into the nation that traditionally had been God’s people were being mistreated, their widows overlooked when food was distributed in the church. The church experienced discrimination from within based on nationality at the very start of it’s existence.
Ha! I was right! This is where the honeymoon phase wears off and the church began descending into the reality we see in the church today, where people fight and gossip and vie for power and nitpick about how things ought to be done and forget about the world outside the church walls! Well, not really. When faced with the inevitable disagreement and tension in the church, what did the leaders of the church do? They addressed the issue, corrected the problem, and moved on to continue the work of loving people and telling them about Jesus (6:2-7). It even says that because of how they handled the situation “the word of God spread” and “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly” (6:7).
So the honeymoon phase continued? When did it really end? And this is where I think the greatest expectation of the church is revealed. Whether on the outside looking in or judging from inside the church walls, nearly everyone shares the same expectation of the church:
If you’re going to be a Christian then you better represent Jesus perfectly, avoiding the stereotypes about Christians that exist in the society around you, and simultaneously fulfilling the expectations of the family of God, perpetuating this perception of the Acts honeymoon phase of church. But the tricky thing about a human standard of perfection is that it is subjective. Everyone has different standards to be met and hoops to be jumped through in order to declare that Christians are “doing it right.” But what the new church in Acts and a freshman-in-high-school me had in common was that we had no expectations, because we had never seen church before. So all of our hopes for the church were being fulfilled because it’s people did one thing really well: They tried.
Now don’t get me wrong, Jesus definitely has expectations of his people that they would try and grow more like him. But in their trying the church in Acts was growing. Through their failures they were becoming increasingly generous and committed to loving each other, while also stoking a collective passion for people to know the God they knew, one who loved all people and desired for them to know a new and whole life in Jesus. It didn’t ultimately matter that conflicts arose and feelings were hurt, they entered into those places of pain, sought reconciliation and healing, and continued to try their best to love the world and glorify God.
And that’s exactly what I saw when I first went to church: a bunch of imperfect people loving God and each other, welcoming anyone who walked through their doors, and working towards healthy relationships and the good of others. And at times they failed. And I failed. We all failed and continue to do so! But I think that’s an appropriate expectation of the church: to be trying. Because while Jesus was perfect in our place, he also gave us his Holy Spirit to empower our trying, and if we are legitimately trying to live lives worthy of the legacy of Jesus, then we should and will be growing daily in radical compassion, beautiful humility, passionate sacrifice, and joyful unity in the name and power of Jesus.
The church will never be perfect, but it was meant to try.
Photo by Megan Burgess