Inevitably, the leadership of a church will be faced with deep issues affecting the well-being of their congregation. It is at challenging moments like this when mature, thoughtful and prescient leadership is needed. In the face of crisis, leaders can often make decisions that, while giving immediate relief, can actually implement a course of direction that may ultimately lead to catastrophic consequences for their church.
The first New Testament church in Jerusalem provides an outstanding example of both an urgent ministry crisis and mature, thoughtful, Biblical leadership that addressed the immediate problem without causing an ultimately greater one. But even more helpful than noting the wisdom in leadership is highlighting the foundational “LifeLines” for the vitality of a Christ-centered, Gospel-driven, Spirit-filled, sin-destroying, sinner-saving, life transforming, God-glorifying church in the midst of a broken world. The event is recorded in Acts 6:1-7.
The church in Jerusalem was exploding, beginning with the “eleven,” and then “the 120” in the Upper Room after the ascension. There, they gave themselves to extensive prayer while obediently waiting for the Promise of the Father declared by His Son – the anticipated outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 2:42-47 reveals a vibrant, effective and growing congregation who gathered in the Temple for corporate worship and in homes for small group disciple-making, sacrificial giving and personal evangelism. Even the initial outbreak of persecution against them could not stop this Gospel-Awakening. But what Satan could not do from the outside through persecution, he would attempt to do from the inside.
A complaint arose from the Hellenists, that the resources gathered from the sacrificial giving of the people were only being distributed to the Hebrew widows. The Apostles were being accused of racial prejudice and bigotry that lead to mercy ministry discrimination. But before sinful allegations and reactive responses could tear the church asunder, Godly leadership emerged.
The Apostles, functioning as the church elders, fully understood that the mercy ministry distribution was inequitable – a product not of bigotry, but of functional inadequacy. The church in Jerusalem numbered 14 to 20 thousand strong, but had only 12 recognized formal leaders who were all focused upon shepherding, evangelism and discipleship. The church had fallen into the trap of doing the mercy ministry intentionally but not thoughtfully or carefully. Change was imperative, but any shift in resources could produce more problems if not done appropriately. Twice in Acts 6, they repeated the necessity of maintaining the priority of “the ministry of Prayer and the Word” while addressing the necessary corrections for the mercy ministry. They realized that if they gave more attention to the mercy ministry and neglected the ministry of Prayer and the Word there would be no one to minister, no resources available and no heart to care for those in need. So, they brought forth and repositioned the Old Testament Levitical Temple ministry which provided administrative and mercy leaders for God’s people by appointing seven Deacons to “serve the tables.” Therefore, these Deacons would handle administration, resources and mercy ministry so that the Apostles/elders could maintain an effective discipleship and shepherding ministry. Interestingly the qualifications for a Deacon are spiritual yet all seven Deacons had Hellenistic names. The result? A more effective mercy ministry while maintaining the “LifeLines” of Prayer and the Word for the vitality of the church.
Why did the apostles realize the importance of “Prayer and the Word” as the foundational “LifeLines” of the church? I would suggest five reasons.
The Old Testament. The ministry of Prayer and the Word was central to the vitality of God’s people and provided the heart and impetus for ministry in general and the mercy ministry in particular. The revivals in the Old Testament such as in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah were always preceded by protracted times of Prayer and the Word.
Christ’s life and ministry – The Apostles were continually discipled under the modeling and mentoring ministry of Christ which highlighted by example the priority of prayer and the primacy of God’s Word. His prayer life was so profound and they would call upon Him to “teach us to pray.”
Disciple making – the Lord not only exhibited the “LifeLines” of Prayer and the Word before His Disciples, He also ignited, inspired and instructed them by Prayer and the Word for three years.
The History of the church at Jerusalem. The importance of Prayer and the Word was clear to the Apostles since the church at Jerusalem was conceived in a prayer meeting (Acts 1) and birthed in a sermon (Acts 2).
The Lifestyle of the church. The lifestyle of the church at Jerusalem is summarized in Acts 2: 43 as being “devoted to the Apostles teaching” (Ministry of the Word) and to “the prayers” ( Ministry of Prayer).
As a final thought, such careful, responsive and thoughtful leadership continues to be a great need in today’s church. But, the question remains, “Where is the “priority of Prayer and the Word” in my life and in the life of my church?” These “LifeLines” are still essential to connect us to the Fountain of Grace which transforms “trophies of grace” into “channels of grace” from which flows “the rivers of living water” resulting in praise to God through true worship and encouragement to believers and the proclamation of the Gospel to the lost.