I wrote a reflection paper on The Book of Acts and The Epistle to the Ephesians for a course I am taking.
Pictures in my head
My initial impression on church renewal was a picture which included growing church attendance, people lining up at the altar accepting Christ, numerous baptisms, powerful preaching, and many more other positive images.
The Picture of Revival in the Early Church as Shown in Acts and Ephesians
The book of Acts paints a picture of renewal of the people from a traditional, law-bound, performance-based and ethnocentric1 religion to a group of believers who were grace-bound, transforming into an ethnorelative2 mindset and filled with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus commands the apostles not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the main actor of the church. Paul identifies the Holy Spirit as the seal, or guarantee of God’s promise that the believers are “included in Christ”. (Eph 1: 12 – 14)
However, the disciples do not understand the significance of His command. They are still looking for a Jewish earthly kingdom revival. (Act 1: 6) As I reflected my image of revival of the church today, am I looking for solely numerical increase in congregations? Does Jesus have something totally different for this era? What are the forms and functions of renewal today?
The apostles personally witnessed the death and the resurrection of Jesus. They still focused on the restoration of the former glory of the Kingdom of Israel. However, Jesus had a vastly different picture of the Kingdom of God in His mind.
What does renewal of the church look like today?
I have heard people preach on church renewal. The focus is usually on how to restore the bygone imagined faded glory of the “Christian Nation”. In the book, Abandoned Faith, (2017) by Alex McFarland and Jason Jimenez asked the question: “Why this generation is considered ‘less Christian’ that past American generation?”3 In the author’s mind, renewal is building a future in order to re-establish the resplendence of the past. I do not think that theirs is the model for renewal. Jesus has a vastly antithetical view on the revival of His Kingdom.
What came next was quite different from what the disciples had in mind
First, the future is not for us to know. Renewal is determined by the sovereign Father. (Act 1: 7) I have to humbly admit I do not have a clear picture of how and when renewal will take place.
Second, the renewal of the old religion, law-based Judaism, into the new Christ-based relationship will be powered by the Holy Spirit, not by military might. (Act 1: 8a) I cannot reconcile how or why some mega churches, especially in the US, align themselves with political parties to gain influence today.
Third, I am called to be a witness of Christ starting within my culture and extending it to other cultures. (Act 1: 8b) Unlike the ethnocentric view of McFarland and Jimenez which emphasizes reconstructing the “past American generations”, Jesus points us toward an extending omni-cultural ethos.
Community of the Believers
In Acts 2, the new believers formed a community to learn, to fellowship, to live and to pray. The Holy Spirit enabled them to perform signs and wonders. They shared their possessions. I can envision Christians gathering together to learn, fellowship and pray. However, I do not know how Christians in today’s Western society can live together in a commune or perform miracles in public without being considered weird, eccentric or cultish.
A Threat to the Establishment
When Paul arrived in Ephesus and made many disciples, the silversmiths lost income because the new believers would not buy idols made by them anymore. They started a riot to try to force Paul and his followers out of town by using false accusations and hatred. (Acts 19: 24 – 27) Paul did not retaliate with anger, but let rational argument take its course. When Paul later wrote the letter to the Ephesians, he urged the believers to maintain the attitude of righteousness, holiness and truthfulness. (Eph 4: 23 – 27) They should bear resemblance to their new identities in Christ. (Eph 4: 20 – 21)
Church renewal threatens the establishment. Renewal brings changes to the existing comfortable or perceived stable system. These changes challenge those who benefit from the existing power structure inside and outside the church. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians encourages them to keep their faith and unity in Christ by love, peace and the power through the Holy Spirit. (Eph 3: 14 – 21)
Diversity, Unexpected Convert and Multiculturalism
As the congregation became grew, there were culture crushes between the Jews with Greek heritage and Jews with Hebrew heritage. Both groups were Jewish followers of Christ. However, the language and cultural differences caused tension. (Act 6) I would like to believe such racial or cultural prejudice would not occur today. The reality I observe suggests otherwise. Diverse cultural encounters will emerge when there is true renewal in a congregation.
Once a leader of the anti-Christian Pharisee, Paul was to became a convert. (Act 9) Paul later became the missionary called by God to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. (Eph 3: 8) The Holy Spirit has the power to reach those I consider the unreachable. I need to expect the unexpected events when renewal occurs.
Peter received a vision from God to reach out to the Roman centurion Cornelius. (Acts 10) Congregations and their leaders may expect some unanticipated callings from the Holy Spirit. I need to prepare to answer the call.
Paul emphasized there were no more distinction between ethnicity or bloodlines; Jews and Gentiles could all reconcile with God through the cross. (Eph 2: 14 – 22) Ethnicity is no longer a factor in God’s grace. I believe that when the Holy Spirit directs a revival, numerous ethnic groups will receive the saving grace of Christ. It does not mean all ethnic groups will live harmoniously together. They all have to learn how to accept each other’s cultural differences.
My “Accidental” Encounter
I was in Hong Kong two years ago. I planned to attend the Christmas Eve service in the oldest English-speaking Anglican Church in Kowloon area. I arrived at the wrong time. I found myself arriving late for the service of its outreach ministry to the Mandarin-speaking Mainland Chinese. The church was so packed that I was escorted to sit in the clergy section. The service was conducted with nine different dialects. The minister used this example to illustrate “For God so love the world…” meaning that God so love all the ethnicities in the world. I witnessed an established denomination was willing to reach out to a different cultural and linguistic group through the gospel. The result was phenomenal.
- Bennett, M. (2013). Basic concepts of intercultural communication: Paradigms, principles, & practices.Boston: Intercultural Press. (pp. 88 – 94)
- Ibid. (pp. 94 – 99)
- McFarland, A. and Jimenez, J. (2017) Abandoned Faith: Why Millennials are Walking Away and How You Can Lead Them Home. A Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (p. 61)