Church Atmosphere By God’s Design

Many churches today are very concerned about the kind of atmosphere people will encounter when visiting one of their services. They invest a tremendous amount of time, manpower, and money trying to create an environment they hope will be attractive to those who attend. It’s certainly a good thing to create a friendly, welcoming atmosphere; but endeavoring to make church appealing can be very misguided and even counterproductive to what God actually wants to accomplish when the church gathers.

Acts 5:1-16 tells the startling story of Ananias and Sapphira; their sin, their death and the effect it had on church atmosphere. In the early church, many people who owned land would sell a piece of property and give the money to be distributed to anyone who had need. Ananias and Sapphira gave the appearance that they were participating in this kind of giving, when in fact they were only giving a portion of the money and keeping back some for themselves. This deception led to their deaths.

Why Such Severe Punishment?

One point that’s easy to miss in this incident is that Ananias and Sapphira gave what was probably a substantial sum of money to the church. However, God killed them for being deceptive about giving the full amount. Was this just a case of lie and you die, or was something else going on that prompted God to respond so rapidly and decisively? I believe the reason for the severe punishment is found in the couple’s motives. It would be easy to attribute their sin purely to greed, but if greed were the only motive they simply would have kept all the money for themselves and not given anything to the church. While greed was a factor, the greater sin was the desire to impress people. While other believers were giving from a desire to help others and honor God, Ananias and Sapphira desired to impress others and honor themselves.

The practice of selling land and donating the money was not a church “program” that someone had implemented. These were purely spontaneous acts stirred by the Holy Spirit and motivated by love, gratitude, and the desire to surrender everything to God. Ananias and Sapphira’s desire to impress people is no small matter. This kind of sin is infectious and has the potential to get into the church and completely corrupt the purity of what God has created. If pleasing people is elevated above pleasing God, any healthy atmosphere will be destroyed. God’s swift and severe judgment was not so much about punishing Ananias and Sapphira as it was about protecting the church.

Peter’s Leadership

The judgment of Ananias and Sapphira was an act of God. However, Peter had a key role in how this played out. This amazing incident wasn’t the result of Peter’s administrative ability or his charismatic leadership style; he brought the deception to light by revealing information that he had no natural way of knowing. He was operating in a word of knowledge, one of the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11. Peter confronted their sin and also proclaimed their judgment. This was God’s decision and played out at His direction, but Peter had to be willing to operate in this manner. God cannot make people lead in a manner they are not willing to. Peter’s sensitivity to the Holy Spirit and willingness to confront sin was instrumental in God’s plan to create the church environment He desired.

God Is Intentional

Because God is infinitely creative, He could have dealt with Ananias and Sapphira in any number of ways, but He chose to kill them, and He did this with a full understanding of what the lasting impact would be. God killing two people, that by all appearances were believers, is one of the more sensational stories in the New Testament. But to appreciate the full value of this story we need to consider the aftereffect of God’s actions, because this reveals the kind of atmosphere God wanted in His church.

People’s Reaction

I want to reflect on several verses that reveal the powerful impact Ananias and Sapphira’s death had, not only on the atmosphere of the church, but on those outside the church as well.

Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events. (Acts 5:11 NIV)

Many churches today want to portray God as very approachable, so the fear of the Lord is not a popular topic. On the rare occasion that it is mentioned the emphasis will usually be to explain how “the fear of the Lord” does not mean that we are to actually fear God. “Great fear” used in the verse above comes from the Greek words “megas phobos”, which can literally be translated as “huge phobia”. So yes, “great fear” really does mean that we fear God, and when God used this phrase, apparently He didn’t feel the need to devote a whole chapter to explaining what it meant. It seems we are expected to take this statement at face value in light of the fact that God had just killed two people.

The fear of the Lord is a predominant theme that runs through the entire Bible. It is put forth as one of the most basic and fundamental attitudes that God requires of people, and the scriptures connect just about every blessing of God with the fear of the Lord. Proverbs 1:7 says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”; 9:10 says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. These verses say that it all starts with the fear of the Lord; it is the foundational attitude that correctly positions us to grow in knowledge and wisdom. Scripture presents the fear of the Lord as a key element to what God considers a healthy atmosphere.

I’ve heard church services ended with this appeal to the lost, “God’s not mad at you, He loves you”. This statement was included in the two minute crash course on how to get saved. Occasionally someone might respond with their “head bowed and hand raised”, but more often than not they walk out the door towards eternity itself thinking things can’t be that bad because God’s not mad at me, he loves me. While this has an element of truth, it is one of the most misleading and dangerous ideas you could plant in someone who is not a believer. John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son”. But the narrative continues in verse 18, saying that “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son”. Verse 36 further reveals that “whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him”. The Bible makes it clear that unbelievers are in terrible standing with God. God’s love for the lost is that He has provided a way for them to escape that place of condemnation and enter into God’s forgiveness and justification; to leave that place of wrath and to abide in God’s love and acceptance. This is available only through repentance and faith in Christ. Trying to make God seem approachable does not actually help unbelievers come to salvation because it creates a false sense that everything is good between them and God, so there’s no sense of urgency to take the necessary Biblical steps to come to the Lord.

God’s Church Is Not Always Attractive

The following verse describes the local attitude toward the church after the death of Ananias and Sapphira.

No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. (Acts 5:13 NIV)

Instead of being attracted to the church, the local community was actually intimidated and afraid to be a part of it. As negative as this may seem to our natural thinking, keep in mind that this perception of the church was orchestrated by God himself.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8-9 NIV)

One of the greatest challenges as a believer is to accept that my natural way of thinking and doing things does not measure up to God’s. And according to God, they don’t even come close; in fact, he says they are miles and miles apart. Our greatest wisdom is absolute foolishness to God and if we fail to embrace this fundamental truth we will settle for what our efforts can produce and miss seeing God’s amazing ways at work around us.

Many churches today attempt to draw people by way of impressive facilities, concert style music, high end sound systems and lights, theme park styled children’s wings, in-house latte shops, cool graphics and décor, needs-based programs, dynamic and entertaining preaching, and just an overall fun and engaging atmosphere. None of these things are inherently bad, but put them all together and they expose an unhealthy dependence on marketing strategies that are driven by worldly wisdom.

The Amazing Payoff

Since God’s wisdom is perfect, his ways work to perfection. The following verse reveals just how true this is.

Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. (Acts 5:14 NIV)

Contrary to natural appearances, God had created an atmosphere that was healthy and ripe for growth; and the phrase “more and more” tells us it was an ongoing, sustained growth. It’s important to notice in this verse the order in which people responded. First, they believed in the Lord, then they connected to the church. This simple truth seems to be missed by many churches today. They bend over backwards trying to get people to connect to their church. Instead, the church should be fully engaged in pursuing God and accurately presenting him to others so they can encounter him in his fullness; not just a watered down, user friendly, easy to approach version.

The Benefit of Miracles

The early church embraced God in his fullness and walked in the fear of the Lord. God responded by revealing his presence and power through the working of many amazing miracles.

As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed. (Acts 5:15-16 NIV)

This is further evidence of just how healthy the church was at this time. These kinds of miracles will blow any marketing strategy out of the water and draw people to God in a way our best efforts can never accomplish. God works miracles–crowds gather. Bam!

I suspect, at the present time, God is waiting for the church to stop packaging itself as an enjoyable experience so that he can unleash his amazing ability to draw people to himself. We need to cease our efforts in order to see the miraculous things that only God can do.

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isa 60:1-3 NIV)

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