How to Grow a Church
Hey, grab your notes and look at this–let’s jump right in. The book of Acts is all about Church growth–let me show you. “Those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). Three thousand in one day–and this was no altar call in a typical crusade crowd. These were actual, real conversions. “The Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47b). Every day, people were getting saved.
“All the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number” (Acts 5:14). “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Some estimates say over 20,000 people were saved in Jerusalem at this time. “The church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase” (Acts 9:31).
“The word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied” (Acts 12:24). “The churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily” (Acts 16:5). “The word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (Acts 19:20). And even when Paul was arrested, the Gospel kept spreading. “And [Paul] stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, 31preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered” (Acts 28:30 to 31).
In spite of all kinds of opposition and hardship, imprisonment, persecution, martyrdom, and difficulty, the Gospel was going out into all the nations–and thousands, tens-of-thousands were getting saved, and churches were springing up out of nowhere, and those churches were growing. And all of this growth was a fulfilment of a promise that Christ made in Acts 1:8, right back at the beginning of Acts, when Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Jesus promised these first Christians that they would be the Gospel delivery system to the whole world, and that’s exactly what happened. The book of Acts is all about Church growth. Now how does Church growth happen? How do you grow a church? How can we pull this off today? Well, modern church-growth gurus have all kinds of ideas. One website gave the following steps. 1) set up a committee to focus on church growth, 2) set a specific, time-sensitive growth goal, 3) create user personas of the kind of people you’d like to join your church, 4) create a communication plan to reach your target audience, 5) host well-marketed opportunities and events that will attract your target audience. That, they say, is the right way to achieve church growth.
Other church growth experts say we’ve got to focus on felt needs, social issues, and be sensitive to political leanings. We have to talk about the things that people are interested in. You’ve got to provide a safe space where people can come and be comfortable. It’s got to be non-offensive. Your messaging has to be attractive. You can’t talk about sin. You can’t talk about repentance. You’ve got to provide just enough entertainment to ensure people don’t get bored. The music has to be appealing. The sermon can’t be more than 20 minutes and has to be filled with stories to capture the imagination. And you’ve got to promise them that if they become a Christian their life will improve–they will enjoy a better lifestyle.
Now the way to do this is you survey the people and see what they want–especially the unbelievers. You ask them, “What do you want to see in a church?” And whatever they ask for, that’s what you provide in order to get them in the door. But the problem is, if you use earthly pleasures to get them, you’ll have to continue those earthly pleasures to keep them—otherwise, they will leave just as quickly as they came.
Now I’ve read a few Church-growth books over the years, and none of them promote the idea of killing a husband and a wife in order to grow the Church (as we will read in Acts 5). None of them say poverty and persecution grows the Church. None of them say putting preachers into prison is an effective Church-growth strategy. But that’s exactly what was happening in the book of Acts. These Christians were living in terrible times–they were outcasts from their own society. They were hated, they were persecuted, they weren’t able to promise a better life to anyone. Some will be martyred–and yet the Church was growing like a beanstalk. The Gospel was spreading like wildfire.
Today, what I want to show you from Acts 5 is that Christ grows His Church by bringing judgment and fear. That’s right–judgment and fear is what grows the Church. Let me show you. Turn in your Bibles to Acts 5. If you have the handout, the whole Bible text is there for you also. In Acts chapter 5, we come across the account of Ananias and Sapphira. If you know the story, this married couple was killed by God because they told a lie. They lied and they died on the spot. But the story really begins back in chapter 4—so we’ll do some review to get the context. Look at 4:32, and we’ll call this . . .
1. The DUO are ENTICED Acts 4:32 to 37
Ananias and his wife Sapphira observed these events in chapter 4, and were enticed. They were tempted to sin as a result. Look at this. “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. 33And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. 34For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales 35and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. 36Now Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means Son of Encouragement), 37and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:32 to 37).
This was a wonderful thing! Joseph had some property–he sold it and gave the money to the apostles to be distributed among people in the church who had needs. What an awesome gesture. What love for others. What a personal sacrifice. They gave him the nickname Barnabas, because his action was such an encouragement. Here’s a man who did a good thing and was praised for it. They applauded him, and so they should.
But the problem was that Ananias and Sapphira saw that applause. They saw that acclaim. They saw Barnabas receive all that thanks, and they wanted the same thing. They wanted to be elevated in the eyes of their peers. They coveted the same treatment from the church. Barnabas was a leader in the church whom the people loved and appreciated, and they wanted to be leaders on that same level. So this is how they went about earning the same accolades . . .
2. The DECEPTION is ENACTED (Acts 5:1 to 2)
“But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property” (Acts 5:1). They saw Barnabas do it, so now they are doing the same thing. He sold a whole tract of land–they are selling just a piece of land. But the point is, they’re trying to follow in his footsteps–they want the same reputation.
Verse 2 says, “Ananias . . . 2kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet.” That’s what Barnabas had done—so Ananias lays this money at the apostles’ feet and now he’s waiting for the accolades. He’s waiting for the praise to flow. He’s fully expecting the apostles to be blown away by his amazing gift. He wants that same reputation for benevolence–that was his motive.
The problem was that there was a family conspiracy afoot. They had planned it out in advance. They had conspired to lie about the amount in order to gain a rep. And by the way, the issue is not that he kept some of the money. Peter is going to explain shortly that Ananias could have kept all the money if he wanted. The problem is that Ananias and Sapphira lied about the amount. They could have kept it all–but they actually planned to lie about how much they got. So look now at . . .
3. The DISHONESTY is EXPOSED (Acts 5:3 to 4)
“But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land?’” (Acts 5:3). Peter says to him, “You lied to the Holy Spirit!” But I kind of wonder how he knew that? How did Peter figure out that Ananias had lied about the amount? It had to be God’s leading, because in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, there was no Zillow. There was no Redfin or Realtor.com. You couldn’t spy on the value of your neighbors’ houses. The text doesn’t tell us that his real estate agent was in the church, either. It doesn’t tell us about an informant.
And so the best answer is that God told Peter to ask this question. The Holy Spirit revealed this lie to Peter. And it must have been, according to verse 3, that Ananias had promised the Holy Spirit that he would give the whole amount to the ministry. Ananias had lied to the Holy Spirit–he’d made a promise to God Himself–and now God is catching him in his hypocrisy.
Look at what Peter says in verse 4, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control?” In other words, “There was absolutely no expectation for you to give any of the money, any of the land, or any of the proceeds to the church at all. You could have kept it all, Ananias. What were you thinking?”
By the way–just a side note for us. There are some people who want to take the end of chapter 4 and tell us that the New Testament Church practiced socialism. They try to make the case that the Bible advocates for socialism or communism–the idea that no one should be richer than anyone else. We should put all the money in the same bucket and divide it out equally. But that’s not the point of this passage. Ananias could have kept the money. He didn’t have to sell the property and he didn’t have to give any of the proceeds to anyone.
This passage is not about socialism. It’s not about communal living. It’s not even about giving money. This passage is about hypocrisy. Fake religion is the issue here. Look at verse 4 again. Peter says to him, “Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart?” And we know why, don’t we? Ananias wanted to be honored like Barnabas was. He wanted the same seat as Barnabas–the same position, the same respect. But he didn’t want to pay the same price. And so he put on a pretense, a lie, a deception that was nothing more than a conspiracy, to get attention.
And so Peter says at the end of verse 4, “You have not lied to men but to God.” That was his sin. Peter didn’t care that Ananias had lied to him. He was not personally offended. Ananias lied to God. He had promised the Holy Spirit to give all the money, but he didn’t follow through.
Now folks, let’s make some personal application for us today. If you boast of good works you never actually did, if you promise good works you never actually do, if you exaggerate good deeds and make them sound better than they actually are–you come under the same guilt as Ananias’s lie. It’s the same thing. All of it is hypocrisy–pretending to be someone you’re not, pretending to be better than you actually are. You’re more concerned about your reputation than you are about genuine righteousness. And you’re even prepared to lie to God’s face to pull it off. Please don’t go in that direction.
People-pleasers are not God-pleasers. Church pretenders are an offense to a holy God who sees right into their hearts. He penetrates their very soul. He knows exactly what is going on. God cannot be duped. In counseling, I come across husbands who are trying to impress their wives rather than live for God. They are more fearful of their wife than they are of God. And then there are wives doing everything they can to hold onto their husbands rather than serve and fear God. There are students who are playing all kinds of people-pleasing games with their friends, which is nothing more than idolatry, rather than pursuing true righteousness. It doesn’t make any sense, because God knows–He sees the lie. Please don’t live like that, folks. Don’t be tempted to play the hypocrite.
Now one other thing before we move on. It’s a theological truth that can’t be missed. In verse 3, Peter said that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit. And here in verse 4 he says Ananias lied to whom? Yea–God. That means the Holy Spirit is God–they are one and the same. This is a New Testament affirmation of the deity of the Holy Spirit. And you can use that on your Jehovah’s Witness visitors when they come knocking at your door on Saturday mornings. That’s an aside which is so helpful, when talking about the Trinity. Now back to the flow of the text.
Okay, so we saw The Duo Enticed, The Deception Enacted, and The Dishonesty Exposed. What is God going to do with Ananias now? Let’s see . . .
4. The DEATHS are EXECUTED (Acts 5:5 to 10)
Here we go–oh boy! Verse 5, “And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it.” Ananias died on the spot. So great was the offense, so great was the lie and hypocrisy, that God judged him instantaneously. And I kind of wonder if this was a surprise to Peter. Can you imagine being Peter? You confront the guy and he drops like a brick. If I was Peter, I’d be thinking, “Oh no, what have I done? Oops!”
But this wasn’t Peter’s doing. This was an act of divine judgment. This came from God. And so verse 6, “The young men got up and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him.” That was the Jewish custom at that time–burial happened quickly. The hot weather made it necessary to get it done. There was no embalming process, no undertaker, no funeral director. And it took less than three hours to do the job, because in verse 7 it says, “Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.”
No one told her. No one went to find her. No one informed her. She wasn’t even invited to the burial. Why didn’t they tell her? The text doesn’t tell us, but maybe they were too scared to tell her. Maybe they didn’t want to be caught on the wrong side of this conspiracy. Maybe they didn’t want to be attached to it in any way, because they had just seen firsthand the judgment of God.
So Sapphira comes in, and she’s clueless. Verse 8, “And Peter responded to her, ‘Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’” Whoa–this is really bad. Ananias and Sapphira are in cahoots. They’ve colluded together in this plot to garner attention. What Sapphira should have said was, “No! My husband is a stinking liar.” That’s what she should have said–she should have told the truth.
As Christians, husbands and wives should be stimulating one another to love and good deeds–not fake good deeds, but actual good deeds. Like letting your yes be yes, and your no be no. Wives, if your husband is in hardened, constant, unrepentant sin–call him out. And if he doesn’t listen, call a small group of his loving, caring, Christian friends–tell them what he’s doing. If he still doesn’t listen, expand the accountability even further. Do it with great love for him, and a deep sense of honoring Christ. But never do a cover up, and never join him in his sin–otherwise you become guilty of his sin too.
Husbands, if your wife is in hardened, constant, unrepentant sin–call her out. And if she doesn’t listen, call a small group of her loving, caring, Christian friends. Tell them what she’s doing. If she still doesn’t listen, expand the accountability even further. Do it with great love for her, and a deep sense of honoring Christ. But never do a cover up, and never join her in her sin–otherwise you become guilty of her sin too.
This is what genuine believers do–Christians run toward accountability. They want it, they need it, they know they need it. They run to churches that practice church discipline. It’s unbelievers who hate these things. It’s unbelievers who run away from biblical fellowship. Sapphira was so wrong to go along with Ananias’s sin. But that’s what she chose to do. So look what happens in verse 9.
“Then Peter said to her, ‘Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test?’” That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? She was testing the forbearance of God to see how far she could stretch Him. She wanted to see just how much she could get away with. What a terrible way to conduct one’s life–“I’m just gonna see if God will let me get away with this next sin, and the next, and then the next.” Testing Him–stretching His grace just a little more each time. Brothers and sisters, Christians do not do that to the Lord–not deliberately. And especially not in cooperation with others.
So Peter continues in verse 9, he says, “Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out as well.” Peter said it with confidence, because this time he knew exactly what was going to happen and he told her so. “You lie, you die.” There’s no doubt in his mind. “And immediately she fell at his feet and breathed her last, and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband” (Acts 5:10).
Such a sad, sad story, isn’t it? It’s not sad that they died–everyone dies. It’s sad that they were hypocrites when they should have known better. It’s sad that they did not give glory to God. They died because they did not fear Him. They pushed God aside and lived their lives for people and for praise instead of for Him. How selfish is that?
Now let’s just pause for a minute—I have four questions for you. 1) Has God judged people like this before? 2) Why were these sinners punished so severely, when other sinners aren’t? 3) Could this happen today? 4) Were Ananias and Sapphira saved? Great questions, aren’t they? Let’s take number 1.
#1 Has God judged people like this before?
The answer is, yes He has. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt because she looked back to her past life of sin, when God told her not to (Genesis 19:26). Nadab and Abihu were vaporized in flames, because they worshipped God with strange fire (Leviticus 10:1 to 3). The ten spies that were sent into the promised land, who came back with a faithless report, died by plague (Numbers 14). The ground opened and swallowed Korah, because he claimed to be as holy as Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16). Uzzah died because he touched the Ark of God (2 Samuel 6:6 to 7). And there are many more stories like that. So yes, God has judged people for specific sin throughout history.
#2 Why were these sinners punished so severely, when other sinners aren’t?
It’s a fair question, and here’s why. Let’s be honest–we all know that we have sinned today, right? In some way, in some manner, we have all sinned today. And yet, here we are alive. God didn’t take us out. Why did Ananias and Sapphira die, and not us? The answer is, we all deserve to die–but almost always the Lord shows grace and patience towards sinners.
But there are some special cases when the Lord wants to make an impact upon the congregation far beyond just the individual sinner. And in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, the whole point is to demonstrate God’s hatred of sin. God is teaching the Early Church, “You have to take My commandments seriously–you must learn to fear Me.” That’s the lesson for the Church and for us today. But that leads to a third question . . .
#3 Could this happen today?
Could God take out a person in 2020 if they sin? What’s the answer? Yes! First John 5:16 says, “There is a sin that leads to death.” It’s true–some sins do lead to death. Which ones? Well, that’s for God to decide–we don’t know. He is sovereignly bringing about His purposes and He uses whatever consequences He deems necessary to bring about His will. And if that involves immediate punishment, then so be it–because God always does what is right. Amen?
In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul told the church in Corinth that many among them were weak and sick, and a number had even died, because they took communion in an unworthy manner (1 Corinthians 11:27 to 30). That’s why we give warnings every week before communion. We have to do a self-evaluation–confessing, turning from sin daily. Because if we don’t, we run the risk of divine judgment. Sometimes God’s judgment is death, and sometimes it’s sickness.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul delivered a man into the hands of Satan for the destruction of his flesh. Why? So that in the last day, his soul might be saved. If it takes illness, or a near-death experience, or the destruction of everything a person holds dear–God will do whatever it takes to save their soul in the last day. Paul told the Corinthians that Israel was judged in the wilderness “as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved” (1 Corinthians 10:6). These accounts are written for us so that we would learn to fear God, obey His commandments, and pursue His righteousness. So yes–God can judge someone in 2020, just the same as He did in Acts 5.
#4 Were Ananias and Sapphira saved?
What do you think? Were they Christians–yes or no? There are two options, either 1) they were unsaved church attenders, whose sin was the final nail in the coffin, or 2) they were genuine Christians, whose sin God used as an example to the Church in Jerusalem. So were they saved or not? The text doesn’t tell us, and frankly I’m hesitant to take a position. We just don’t know. But you see, that’s not the point of the passage anyway. The point is, God hates sin in the Church. God will do whatever it takes to preserve the testimony of the Church.
Now some people really want to believe that Ananias and Sapphira were saved–you know why? Because they really want to say about themselves, “Well I’m okay with dying, as long as I still go to Heaven.” Have you ever thought that way? “I’m willing to take the risk that God might kill me on the spot, or through illness, as long as my soul goes to Heaven–then I’m okay with Him judging me on Earth.” Could someone think this way? Yes!
But think about this–to say, “I’m okay with dying, as long as I still go to Heaven,” is tantamount to saying, “I’m okay with sinning, as long as I still go to Heaven.” It’s the same thing. And you can’t be okay with temporal judgment without being okay with the sin that caused it–does that make sense? The real question is, “Why are you deliberately sinning in the first place–all the time still thinking you’re going to Heaven? Why are you secretly, habitually, deliberately sinning–while pretending to be a Christian? Why are you putting the Holy Spirit to the test?”
Ananias and Sapphira were hypocrites. Their sin was exposed. Their deaths are executed. So that’s our four questions answered–let’s go to number 5. This is where we see the wonderful, amazing fruit that comes from this tragedy. It’s called . . .
5. The DEVOTED are ENERGIZED (Acts 5:11, 27 to 29, 42)
This is the whole reason for the deaths–the Church gets their fear into gear. Look at this–back in verse 5, after Ananias died, “Great fear came over all who heard of it.” And then in verse 11 when Sapphira died, “And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things.” That right there was God’s desired result–fear. Why? Because God is the only person or thing in the universe who deserves to be feared.
Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” What is wisdom? Wisdom is knowledge applied–putting into practice the things you know you ought to do. Ananias and Sapphira knew they shouldn’t have lied, but they did it anyway. They weren’t wise–they were fools who didn’t fear God. So God took them out on the spot, to teach the rest of the Church to fear and obey Him.
You say, “Did it work? Did it help the Church?” Yea–you bet it did. Look at this in verse 27. The apostles were thrown into prison, they were miraculously released and then recaptured, and then look at verses 27 to 29, “When they had brought [the apostles], they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, 28saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.’ 29But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’”
What gave them such boldness? What gave them such poise? In the face of persecution, in the face of imprisonment, in the face of embarrassment, the loss of freedom, loss of rights, the loss of family, and in the face of possible death–what made them say, “We must obey God rather than men”? It was their fear of God! They had learned the lesson from Ananias and Sapphira.
Listen, God is more scary than prison. God is more scary than losing your reputation. God is more scary than persecution. God is more scary than a spouse who sins against you. God is more scary than COVID-19. God is more scary than political change and the removal of your freedoms. God is more scary than economic collapse. Friends, we are scared of the wrong things! The apostles learned the lesson, and the Church grew like wildfire. The Gospel was spreading and nobody could stop it–you know why? No one was messing around with petty issues anymore. They were serious about God. They were serious about righteousness and they refused to play church.
See verse 42–this is where we finish. “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42). Oh what a wonderful result! The real Christians were energized, and the fake Christians ran a mile. The whole point of killing Ananias and Sapphira was to see who was genuinely saved and who wasn’t.
How do you grow a church? Let’s go back to the beginning. How do you grow a church? Is it about marketing, and slick performance, and meeting felt needs, and providing a safe space, and political correctness? No! You grow a church by starting with genuine Christians–real Christians who fear God more than anything else in the universe, who take Him and His Word seriously, who love Him dearly, who find their highest joy in obedience. Christians who are happy to sacrifice everything, who love the body of Christ, who put Jesus Christ at the center of their lives (not just an addendum)–and you let them loose with the Gospel. That’s how you grow a church. May FBC be that church. Let’s pray.