Essentials of a New Testament Church

What do you see as the essentials of a New Testament Church? A couple of weeks ago, as part of my normal routine as I drive to the office, I was listening to a Christian radio station. As I turned on my radio that particular morning, I immediately recognized the voice of the venerable Dr. Charles Swindoll. He was in mid-sermon as I began to listen. Mind you, at this point, I was listening but also thinking of several other things. But then, he made a statement after he read Acts 2:42-47 that got my undivided attention. He said, “these four things are essential for a New Testament Church. If you don’t have at least these four things, you shouldn’t call yourself a church.”  These four things were directly from Acts 2:42 “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  In general, these four things are knowledge and practice of the Bible, supportive and involved relationships, worship and prayer.

Now, before we continue, examine the verse (Acts 2:42) again closely. Notice, it states, “they devoted themselves.”  The word for devoted means to persist, hold fast, endure. Devoted to something means much more than just something casual. It is more than agreement. It is even more than being a routine activity. The following statements may help us begin to grasp the idea of devotion:

Tom Brady is a devoted football player.

Samone Biles is a devoted gymnast.

Jackie Chan is a devoted actor.

Garth Brooks is a devoted singer and song writer.

Billy Graham is a devoted evangelist. 

We can say they are devoted because they study, practice, execute, persist, and continue doing it consistently over time. So, does a deeper understanding of the word “devotion” change how you see your involvement in the local church?

Now that we understand “they devoted themselves,” let’s look at what “they devoted themselves” towards. The first in the list is the “apostles teachings.” When this first church in Jerusalem began, they didn’t have any New Testament manuscripts.  The New Testament, at this point, was in formation. What they had was what they heard from the Apostles who passed on what they learned during their time traveling with Jesus for 3 years. So then,  they learned what the Apostles learned from Jesus and put it into practice. After all, you can’t say someone is devoted to something unless they are learning and putting what they learn into practice. JA 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

The second in the list is “the fellowship.” The Greek word is koinōnéō which means “to share in.” Let’s take a moment to reflect here. The context is “they devoted themselves to . . . the fellowship . . .”  In other words, they were persistent, held fast and endured in close relationship with other believers. In essence, they did life together. Now wait a minute. Take a breath. Let this sink in. Fellowship is more than sitting in the same room and singing the same songs.  It is more than a membership. It is more than a routine meeting at a restaurant. It is even more than working on a project together. Stop the presses. Yes. Fellowship is more than working alongside each other in ministry. It is all of that and investing in one another, serving one another and being present to pray, celebrate and mourn together.

The third in the list is “to the breaking of bread.” You might think this just means eating together. Well, not exactly. This is a reference to the Lord’s Supper specifically, and worship in general. Again, if you are devoted to something, it is highly important to you. If you’re devoted to the Lord’s Supper specifically, and worship in general, it is a priority for you regardless of what else may come along any given day or week.

The last and fourth in the list is “the prayers.” This is a reference to sharing in prayer together. A church may have a prayer team dedicated to managing the prayer list, involving others in prayer and possibly planning and organizing group prayer opportunities. However, the prayer team can’t be the only ones “devoted to the prayers.” They may, in fact, be considered the prayer warriors of the church. Nevertheless, we all must be devoted to “the prayers.”

All in all, we can’t have a church segregated into areas of devotion based on the individuals passion and gift. Oh sure, an individuals gifting and passion is likely the individuals primary place of service but not his or her only devotion. I’m running the risk of being redundant but our “devotion” must include biblical teachings, fellowship, worship and prayer at a minimum and not just one choice among others in the list.

Again, these four things are what the venerable Dr. Charles Swindoll regards as the minimum essentials to being considered a New Testament Church. And, of course, not just having the framework for these four ministries but being devoted to these four ministries (Bible teaching, fellowship, worship and the prayers) as an entire church family. Allow me to reiterate that these four things are a minimum. Of course, evangelism (Acts 1:8) and disciple making (Matthew 28:18-20) are part and parcel to what it takes to become a great New Testament Church. In fact, it is our mission as a church to share the gospel and make disciples. We simply can’t exist as a church short of obedience to our mission.  Did your answer change to the question I asked at the beginning? What do you see as the essentials of a New Testament Church?

In closing, here are a few questions for reflection: What are you devoted to? What does your schedule, spending and relationships tell you about what you’re devoted to? What changes do you need to make in your schedule and practice to work toward becoming devoted to biblical teaching, fellowship, worship and prayer? Remembering that you’re integral to the local church, what is your local church devoted to?

A Work in Progress,

Pastor Gene