A Word from Luke

Throughout the book of Acts, Luke chronicles the growth of the early church.

He writes of 3,000 being added in a single day (2:41), and of the daily additions that followed (2:47).  He wrote of increasing numbers believing and being added to the church (5:14), and even makes specific reference to individual areas of growth – such as Syrian Antioch – where a great number were added (11:24).

“Added.”

It’s a word used over and over again.

John Stott once commented that it had become for Luke an almost technical word for church growth.

It’s an interesting word.

It’s the verb prostithemi , and it’s the basis for our word “prosthetics,” the branch of surgery dealing with the replacement of missing parts of the human body.

What a wonderful word to choose.  It prompted Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch theologian, to suggest defining missiology as the practice of “prosthetics.”

Yet it begs a question:  just who, exactly, is doing the “adding?”

There can be little doubt that we can add people to churches through our own strength and efforts.  Most church “growth” in the United States is transfer growth, meaning the already convinced making a consumer decision as to which church to join. Many of these churches even chalk up high numbers of baptisms, but they are often rebaptisms reflecting a rededication of some kind (which, quite frankly, is biblically dubious), or the dunking of Presbyterians or Methodists as adults.

Or getting hold of the kids of lots of Baptists.

I’m not sure how much the Holy Spirit is concerned with that kind of growth.  It gets a lot of press in church growth circles, but not sure about Heaven’s concerns.

Regardless, it certainly isn’t what Luke is recording.  Luke gives us a history of the early church’s conversion growth.

And it was not done through human strength alone.

Luke was very clear:  “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (2:47).  While God certainly worked through services and talks, inviting and outreach, loving community and service, in the end, He did it.

But rather than a passive affair, it is a dynamic one.  We are invited into the adventure of God’s “adding.”  We have the privilege of being the vehicles and tools, means and conduits, of His life-changing power.

So why aren’t more churches experiencing God’s addition?

I have an idea.

There’s an interesting line in the New Testament about a city that Jesus visited where nothing much happened.  If you know anything about the life of Jesus, that’s kind of rare.  But here’s the record:

“And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (Matthew 13:58, NIV).

Now one way of reading the verse is to take it at face value.  Jesus chose not to do anything there because of their lack of faith.  There is little doubt this is a sound principle throughout the Scriptures:  God chooses to work in participation with our choices; He limits Himself in accordance with human response, and unleashes Himself in accordance with human response.

Which is why prayer matters so much.

But here’s another reading:  because of their lack of faith, they didn’t give Jesus the opportunity to do any miracles.  In other words, because of their hard hearts and shallow spirits, they didn’t bring any of their sick to Him to heal!  They didn’t come to Him with any areas where they needed His power!  Their lack of faith translated into not coming to Jesus for miracles – so He didn’t do very many.

This is another way faithlessness works; we don’t ever venture forward where faith and God combine for action.

Let it be said that faith isn’t what fuels God.  The prayer of faith is not like rubbing the bottle for the manifestation of the Genii, or akin to offering up a magical mantra that forces a reaction.  In Matthew’s account, it wasn’t that Jesus could not do miracles, but would not.

Faith is not what enables God;

But it is what encourages God.

Could it be that the miracle of the Lord “adding” to our number depends on our faith – and specifically,

…how our faith plays itself out in terms of a heart for the lost,

…an openness to the explorer,

…a willingness to engage in the messy work of discipling new believers,

…and believing that God can and does change human lives and has a heart for those far from Him?

In other words, a faith that invites the miracle of addition to happen?

All I know is that Luke really liked the term “prostithemi.”

And maybe the point is that so should we.

James Emery White

Sources

John Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today Series (InterVarsity Press).

Editor’s Note

To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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