Back to Index

A Church On Fire
May 22, 1994

ACTS 2:1-21

Nearly two centuries ago, Robert Fulton tested his steamboat. A crowd gathered for the occasion, a crowd of supporters, enthusiasts, and, of course, some cynics. There was one fellow who was quite vocal in his skepticism. He knew it would never work! He kept yelling, "It'll never start! It'll never start!" Then, a gasp went through the crowd as the steamboat pulled away from the dock, and it moved majestically up the Hudson River. The cynic changed his tune, but not his style. Now he yelled, "It'll never stop! It'll never stop!" He reminds me of some church members I've encountered over the years, present company excepted, of course!

There are those who, when a church does get on fire, do their best to stamp it out! There must have been quite a few of these folks in the church at Laodicea. John, the author of the book of Revelation, shared his visions with seven churches in Asia Minor. To the church in Laodicea, he delivered this message from the Lord,

I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, "I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing." You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Revelation 3:15-17

Lukewarm churches are not on God's Top Ten list. Lukewarm churches think they are prospering. Lukewarm churches are satisfied, complacent, and committed to the status quo. Lukewarm churches have lost their dependence on God. They think they need nothing. Lukewarm churches cause little damage. They create few ripples. They take few chances. They play it safe. Lukewarm churches incur the displeasure of the Lord. Lukewarm churches disappoint the Lord, and have little effect on people or the world.

Now, what is a hot church? What is a church on fire? When the church was born, on the Day of Pentecost, it was on fire. In fact, the presence of the Holy Spirit was so powerful, a violent wind blew through the house, and tongues of fire appeared and rested on each of the disciples. Let's look at what happened that day, and let me highlight three characteristics of a church on fire.

First, a church on fire prays. Read chapter one of Acts, read what happened before the Day of Pentecost, and you will be impressed with the time they spent in prayer. The resurrected Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait. While they waited, they held board meetings (which I discussed last week), and they prayed. 1:14, constantly devoting themselves to prayer. They were in constant, continual prayer. They waited on the Lord. They knew they couldn't do what God wanted by themselves. They didn't even know what the Lord wanted them to do. They had no vision. Some wanted to go back home to Galilee, but Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, they were strangers. They were country folk suddenly plunked down in a city. They didn't know anyone. They were fish out of water. They had no idea what to do.

Churches often don't know what to do. They continue doing what they have always done, because they don't know what else to do. Some churches are declining, are dying, because they are out of touch with their community. They are like fish out of water, plunked down in a strange environment, having no clue what they are to do. A church on fire, like the disciples on the Day of Pentecost, is a church which prays. A church on fire is a church that is constantly engaged in prayer, a church where its members daily wait on the Lord, communing with God, enjoying God's presence, and asking God for direction, for vision, and for power.

A second characteristic: a church on fire is powered by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit filled the room where the disciples had gathered on Pentecost. Like a mighty wind, with tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit came. The disciples began to speak in other languages. They left the safety of their comfortable room, and went out into the streets of Jerusalem. Previously, they had no vision of what to do. Previously, they cowered in a dark room, afraid of the authorities, afraid they too might be crucified as was Jesus. They were powerless, shy, fish out of the water, country folk.

Then, suddenly, they were transformed. They went out into the streets and began proclaiming. Jews who had gathered from around the Roman Empire were astounded to hear these simple Galilean country folk speaking their languages. Then, Peter got everyone's attention, preached a sermon that is the envy of every preacher. Preachers dream of preaching a sermon that converts 3,000 people!

A church on fire is a church of power, a church where its members are unafraid to talk about their faith, a church where its members are eager, willing, and ready to do their ministry. Each member is a minister. Each member is called to do God's work in his/her unique way. A church on fire is a church of power, doing what? Changing lives.

A third characteristic: a church on fire is a church that is changing lives, a church that meets the needs of people and makes a difference in their lives. Chapter two of Acts concludes with a description of more characteristics of a church on fire, and then closes the chapter in verse 47 with this sentence. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. A church on fire is a church where the Lord is working. Not that we change lives, not that we are successful, not that we reap harvests, but where the Lord is working, where the Holy Spirit is working. Theologian Karl Barth said that to affirm, "I believe in the holy catholic church" means that we believe here in this place, in this congregation, in this very room, the Holy Spirit is at work. The Holy Spirit is at work in a church on fire using the gifts and talents of a church's members to change people's lives.

I am currently reading the book, User Friendly Churches, by George Barna. Barna surveyed growing, successful churches and then shared in his book what makes those churches successful. One characteristic of a church on fire is they evaluate all their programs, not by the numbers who come, not by the number of workers, but by how many lives have been changed. They ask, "How many people have been affected, have been changed by this program?" Programs that are merely social and are not changing people's lives are dropped. If the Lord is not adding those who are being saved, the program is not worth doing. The church is only lukewarm, not on fire.

An old man was strolling along the ocean when he came to a stretch of beach where thousands of starfish had washed ashore. A storm had left them washed up on the beach, exposed and unable to shelter themselves from predators or the glaring sun. They were all destined to die. The old man felt pain and sorrow at this tragic waste of life, and then noticed a young girl bending down, picking up the starfish one by one and putting them back in the water. The old man laughed and said to the girl, "There are thousands of starfish dying. How can your small effort ever amount to anything?" The little girl looked down at the starfish in her hand and replied, "It means everything to this one," and gently set it in the water. The old man joined her and they spent the rest of day returning starfish--one by one--to the safety of the ocean. They made a huge difference in the lives of a few starfish.

Sometimes we get discouraged by the enormity of the task. How can we make a significant difference in the world? We are not called to do something about the thousands, the millions, but we are called to make a difference in lives, one by one. We received eight youths into full membership of the church this morning. It is not easy growing up these days. Over the last 30 years, suicide among teenagers has risen by 300%. One in seven teenagers say they have tried to commit suicide. Drug and alcohol use is widespread. Tobacco companies would be in real trouble if it weren't for the children and youth who smoke. 40% of today's l4-year-old girls will become pregnant by the time they are 19. And, here in Merced County, the number of 12 and 13 year-old girls becoming pregnant is alarming. It's not easy to be a teenager. A church on fire reaches out, one by one, and touches lives with the message, "God made you. Jesus loves you. You are powered by the Holy Spirit."

The composer, Irving Berlin, best known for God Bless America and I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas, which still ranks as the all-time best-selling musical score, was interviewed and asked if there is a question he'd never been asked that he would like to answer. Berlin replied, "Well, yes, there is one." What do you think of the many songs you've written that didn't become hits? My reply would be that I still think they are wonderful." Perhaps not all the children and youth of our church will make the hit parade, but I want them all to know that their church thinks they are wonderful. God takes particular delight in all his creation. We are all wonderful. One by one, each starfish counts. One by one the difference we make is very important to the one who is being saved.

A church on fire is constantly in prayer, waiting on the Lord for direction and power. A church on fire is where the Holy Spirit is at work. A church on fire changes people's lives, one by one.

© 1994 Douglas I. Norris