Biblical and Historical Criteria for Evaluating a Ministry Organization


The Christian leader in the present age contends with a challenge of aim. What is the target? What will guide Christian leaders in their everyday work? What makes for a good aim? There is evidence that a specific set of criteria– employed since the first-century Christian church–has borne fruit through a variety of cultures and eras. This evidence can provide Christian leaders of today with the confidence to pursue that criterion in the ministry they lead as they form a useful means of evaluating a leader’s efforts.

Evangelist and scholar Michael Green first published the criteria presented here in his book Evangelism Now and Then (published in the U.S. as First Things Last). Green identified vital characteristics of the early church described in the book of Acts and called for their reemphasis in contemporary Christianity. With a nod to Dr. Richard Lovelace and his exhaustive surveys of renewal movements throughout Christian history, this article will provide further affirmation of Green’s characteristics by employing a historical review.

In recent years, the movement of Jesus’s followers has become increasingly diverse. Whereas at one time virtually all actions committed in the name of Christ were done through the local church or a denomination as a whole, recent generations have seen the rise of interdenominational mission boards and other parachurch organizations. As a result, various terms, including “churches,” “renewal movements,” and “Christian organizations” will be used in this article to describe ministries that have sought to be fruitful in their endeavors for our Lord.

Let us begin with an introductory description of the eight characteristics of the early church, grouped into three categories/directions; presented after will be biblical and historical evidence for each.

Reaching Up

Two of the characteristics that Green proposed for Christian leaders to apply to their ministry can be characterized by the phrase “Reaching Up.” A description of an individual’s relationship with God is that of vertical, that is, focused on God “above.” Therefore, “Reaching Up” characteristics emphasize our personal relationship with God.

When we look at the characteristics of fruitful renewal movements, we see two aspects of churches that pursue a close relationship with God. First, they engage in dynamic worship. By definition, there is power in such worship. When the youth ministry Young Life began, its founder, Jim Rayburn, created the motto, “It is a sin to bore a youth with the Gospel” (Rayburn, 2012). The ways of God are tremendous, not boring! We ought to “Reach Up” to Him with fittingly impactful worship.

The power-filled renewal movement will also teach transforming truth. Such a movement knows the Bible not just as a collection of words, but as the full disclosure of God’s loving message to the human race. Thus churches to teach transforming truth see the pivotal places where the Word of God is above them, and the ways of the human race are around them. Not only do they teach transforming truth, but these believers also help unbelievers see God’s clear alternative to the ways of death surrounding them. The distinctive knowledge of the God whose “ways are not our ways” not only transforms our lives and worldviews; such sound theology also enables us to “Reach Up” to God as He has revealed Himself.

Reaching In

The next question we must ask is: Is the ministry functioning healthily? When we examine the characteristics that focus on how well a church “Reaches In,” we must look at three areas: authentic fellowship, every member ministry, and shared leadership.

Authentic fellowship begs the questions: Do the believers share life? Do they do so with complete honesty? The keyword here is fellowship, or koinonia, which means “holding things in common.” If one’s resources are available to others in the fellowship–”according as each one had need” (Acts 4:35, KJV)– and if joys and sorrows are shared openly, then that fellowship is engaging in a level of companionship and interdependence virtually unknown in the secular world, where too often independence is seen as a cardinal virtue.

Every member ministry focuses on involving every member in the work, as opposed to ministry only being done by a few. Pastors and Christian leaders often try to do too much by themselves. Others seem unable to motivate their church members to take an active part. Jesus trained His disciples–the 12 and the 70–for active ministry. He then commissioned those disciples to go and make new disciples.

The final element of “Reaching In” asks: Is there shared leadership, or are there just a few who are always in charge? Too many churches are rigid and stuck because those who have “always led” continue to “always lead.” Nothing new is done, no new people are brought in, and soon everyone else either dies, quits, or moves away.

Reaching Out

Three characteristics describe how a ministry moves outside of its own population toward those who need to hear the Gospel and embrace Jesus as their Lord. “Reaching Out,” or outreach, in this sense, is synonymous with the mission of the church.

According to Matthew 25:34–45, an accurate test for the authenticity of a Christian movement is how eagerly the members care for the people outside their doors. Caring for other Christians is also necessary, but that is well-covered under the umbrella of authentic fellowship. However, care for others refers to care toward those who are beyond the boundaries of the fellowship, yet are the neighbors that Jesus commanded us to love. Loving someone simply because the recipient is in need demonstrates the person showing love has a secure sense of himor herself to give away what others would hoard.

The next questions that must be asked include: Does the renewal movement look beyond itself? Do the members do what they, themselves, will gain from, or are they mission-oriented? Jesus was undoubtedly focused on what others needed–as should we. I once heard a local church leader say, “We need to bring in new members so that they will help us pay for the programs we are already doing.” May it never be! New people will lead us in new directions of ministry, for growth necessitates change. Surely Jesus’s motivation for our reaching out beyond ourselves has more to do with caring for the souls of those who do not yet know Him!

Finally, do the constituents of a particular church maintain a passion for Jesus? Are His pleasure and glory their motivation? Or are they keeping a passion for themselves? “Passion” in this context is neither linked to Christ’s crucifixion nor sensuality. We need to have a passion for the One whose passion for us led to His ultimate, undeserved, sacrifice. Keeping the passion for one’s faith fresh is essential for long-term effectiveness.

A Survey of Renewal Movements: How the Characteristics Appeared Through History

Dynamic Worship–Biblical Evidence

Acts 13 begins by describing the church in Antioch. We will return to the first three verses in a moment, but first notice the second verse: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (ESV).

The worship was so important to the leaders that they fasted rather than interrupted their worship. Additionally, their worship made such an impact that they obeyed (in unison) what they understood God to be commanding them during this endeavor. They were open to giving voice to what the Holy Spirit impressed upon them, open to testing the message, and open to obeying.

Dynamic Worship–Historical Evidence

Justin Martyr. Justin Martyr (AD 100–165) is widely known for his spirited defenses of the faith. Also, he also left detailed descriptions of early Christian worship. Notice the emphasis on Scripture and prayer in the following passage by Martyr:

On the day called Sunday, there is a gathering together in the same place of all who live in a given city or rural district. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then when the reader ceases, the leader, in a discourse, admonishes and urges the imitation of these good things. Next, we all rise together and send up prayers. When we cease from our prayer, bread is presented and wine and water. The leader, in the same manner, sends up prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people sing out their assent, saying the “Amen.” A distribution and participation of the elements for which thanks have been given is made to each person, and to those who are not present, they are sent by the deacons.
(Martyr, n.d.)

Martin Luther. Martin Luther (1483–1546), an earnest young man with a gifted mind and a very active conscience, entered the monastery and then the priesthood. He was overwhelmed by his inability to live with the righteousness that God had every right to demand. Change came with the help of an older monk who served as a mentor to Luther; Luther later wrote:

At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I . . . began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith . . . Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.
(Galli, n.d.)

In keeping with the pattern begun by Bernard of Clairvaux and many others, Luther put his insights into music. In possession of a strong singing voice, Luther’s lyrics utilized the special memory aid that music provides. The doctrines of salvation by grace through faith, as well as the sole authority of Holy Scripture, ring throughout such classic hymns as “Savior of the Nations, Come” (which he may have translated from St. Ambrose’s original words into Latin), and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” the melody of which he is believed to have composed (Hustad, 1990).

John and Charles Wesley. Respectively, a great preacher and hymn-writer of the Methodist movement, these brothers cared deeply about maximizing the change that Christ could make in the lives of common people for which they cared. Finding themselves responsible for the spiritual growth of hundreds of thousands, John urged Methodists to focus the singing aspect of worship toward glorifying God. “Worship is the connecting point for the congregation to enter the very presence of God through which they can receive the means of grace” (McLaren, 2003, p. 65).

Teach Transforming Truth–Biblical Evidence

From the first century beginnings of Christianity, effective evangelists and pastors have found the glaring errors in a culture’s understanding of the world and have responded with clarifying truth based on the Word of God.

Acts 11 stresses how seriously the early church took teaching the Christian faith, so much so that they imported Barnabas, who in turn brought Saul from Tarsus, and “for a whole year they met with the church and taught a large number of people” (Acts 11:26, ESV).

Additionally, some of the transforming truths on which the New Testament community focused included leadership (Col. 1:25), destiny/fate (Rev. 5:12), and the fear of death (John 3:16).

Teach Transforming Truth–Historical Evidence

In his earlier work Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green identified several New Testament themes that challenged the dominant thinking of the culture surrounding them. A fatalistic surrender to one’s supposed destiny was a frequent target of correction (Green, 1978, p. 21, 124). Much of this continued throughout the first generations of Christians.

St. John of the Cross. Early in the Renaissance, St. John of the Cross (1542– 1591) addressed a topic that still challenges many. While many people find joy in their early experiences as followers of Jesus Christ, the phenomenon of spiritual discouragement is widespread and of mortal danger. While written in the late 16th century, the explanation offered by St. John of the Cross in The Dark Night of the Soul is a worthy complement to Romans 7, and continues reassuring many still today:

. . . The soul, after it has been . . . converted to the service of God, is, as a rule, spiritually nurtured and caressed by God, even as is the tender child by its loving mother, who . . . carries it and caresses it in her arms; but, as the child grows bigger, the mother . . . sets down the child from her arms and makes it walk upon its feet, so that it may lose the habits of a child and betake itself to more important and substantial occupations.
(St. John of the Cross, n.d.)

The Clapham Sect. Forty years after the Wesley’s participation in the First Great Awakening, William Wilberforce felt called by God to pursue the abolition of slavery. Gathering a company of committed Christians with a wide array of skills, they focused their efforts on changing the mindset of a nation. It took more than 30 years, but the “Clapham Sect” gradually turned the great ship of the English people until their souls would no longer abide by the buying and selling of human beings, no matter the financial profit dangled before them as a lure (Howse, 1953).

Ajith Fernando. A Sri Lankan Christian responding to national prejudice, Ajith Fernando leads a nationwide evangelistic ministry in his native Sri Lanka. In his book Jesus-Driven Ministry, he speaks from the perspective of someone whose homeland has been ravaged by a civil war between the dominant Singhalese and the minority Tamils, who rebelled against perceived injustices.

At one point, one of Fernando’s ministry partners–of Tamil heritage–was put in jail, suspected of acting with the terrorist rebels. Fernando, himself ethnically Singhalese, was convinced “it was necessary for me to take him his lunch every day to the police station where he was held for 45 days. We may think that something like this takes us away from our work, but this is part of our work as leaders.” This experience is a vivid testimony of the transformational power of Christian unity (Fernando, 2002).

Authentic Fellowship–Biblical Evidence

Jesus prayed that those who believed in Him through the testimony of the apostles would “be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21, ESV). Acts 4:32–35 bears witness to the great unity of the early Christians, with the Greek text of verse 34, particularly pointing to their extraordinary mutual generosity as a cause for “with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (ESV).

Further biblical evidence can be seen in the identities of the leaders of the Antioch Church (Acts 13:1–3). Among them, Green describes:

Barnabus, a Cypriot landowner and Levite; Simeon nicknamed “the swarthy,” who was clearly black; Lucius from Cyrene in North Africa, who was probably black too; Manaen, one of the intimates of the Herod family, and therefore very much an aristocrat; and a fiery intellectual from Tarsus by the name of Saul. I do not imagine that it was very easy for this lot to live together in peace. But they must have achieved it.
(Green, 1979)

Authentic Fellowship–Historical Evidence

St. Augustine. The importance of authentic fellowship can be seen in the pattern of life described by St. Augustine in his Confessions. This gifted scholar had a close circle of companions; this group stayed beside Augustine as he struggled with the guilt of his sinful ways before he committed himself to Christ, as well as when he dared to begin the life of faith. Addressing his words to God, he wrote:

Our plan was formed with your knowledge but was not publicly known, except to our intimate circle. It was agreed among us that it was not to be published generally. Meanwhile, to us who were climbing out of the ‘valley of tears’ (Ps. 83:6 f.) and singing a ‘song of steps’ (Ps. 119:33), you had given ‘sharp arrows and destroying coals’ to answer any deceitful tongues of criticism (Ps. 119:3 f.). Tongues that appear to be offering helpful advice can actually be hostile opponents and, in offering love, may devour us in the way people consume food.
(1991, p. 156)

This group of friends continued to encourage and defend one another as their spiritual adventure continued.

Roman Catholic Church. The value of authentic fellowship is seen in its absence. The monasteries and abbeys of the Roman Catholic Church were intended to be places of equality and brotherhood. However, the unequal acquisition of wealth within some of these brotherhoods betrayed many of the ideals of their founders and contributed to a rejection of the Roman Church over the centuries, culminating in the Protestant Reformation.

Pietist Movement. The seeds of the modern understanding of authentic fellowship can be seen in a sequence that began with the Pietist movement within the Lutheran church in the 17th century. Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705) was deeply concerned with the spiritual apathy that ran rampant through the German Lutheran Church. Convinced, however, that God had “promised His church here on earth a better state than this” (Spener, 1964), he drew from the example of Christ Himself.

Spener used ecclesiolae–”churches within churches”–to reach out to the nominal members of the state church, the only unreached people group to which he had access (Spener, 1964). Spener’s connection to the Anglican Anthony Horneck, led to the latter’s encouragement of Spener’s program of “little churches” or collegia pietatis. In the early 1700s, both Samuel and Susannah Wesley (the parents of John and Charles) organized gatherings outside of the usual activities of an Anglican church and incorporated this initiative. Count Nicholas Zinzendorf–the founder of the Moravian Church–as well as Wesley himself, are among those directly influenced by Spener’s early description of what is now known as the “Small Group Movement.”

Authentic fellowship has occurred through church history and occurs today throughout the globe. The Holy Spirit of God flourishes where and when believers engage in such authentic fellowship.

Every Member Ministry–Biblical Evidence

The life and ministry of Simon Peter demonstrate the priority the early church placed on the participation of every Christian in ministry. He was present when the risen Christ commanded those identified as “disciples” in Galilee, “Go and make disciples from among all ethnic groups” (Matt. 28:18–20, emphasis added). Peter, present at the conversion of the first Gentile (Acts 10), also defended the participation of non-Jews in the evangelization of the world at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:7–11). In his first letter to the scattered believers, he named them “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9, ESV), while addressing the second letter “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours” (2 Pet. 1:1, ESV). The “work of all” was to be “all the work.”

Every Member Ministry–Historical Evidence

Second century Christians obeyed this command in high numbers, as Aristides described in his apology: “They live in the awareness of their smallness. Kindliness is their nature. There is no falsehood among them. They love one another. They do not neglect widows” (Arnold, 1972).

Michael Green himself drew support from Adolph Harnack (1908), who wrote, “We cannot hesitate to believe that the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries.”

Nicholas Zinzendorf. Zinzendorf, who had studied under Pietist leader August Hermann Francke (Galli, 1982), wove the idea of “every member ministry” into the fiber of life at Herrnhut. The attitude of imitating the servanthood of Christ pervaded. All–foreign missionary or Herrnhut cooper–were part of the missionary effort, and put in 16 hours of work per day.

Those who seek a church faithful to the example of the Apostles will resonate with the quote of Bishop Jablonski’s: “When I read the intelligence from Herrnhut, it is as if I saw the mode of life of the Primitive Christians reproduced” (Lewis, 1962).

Contemporary expressions. Greg Ogden, in his book The New Reformation, cites six changes in recent years to the landscape of the Christian church,    which “have unleashed the ministry of the whole body,” including the idea    that “all God’s people are ministers. ‘Ministry’ does not equal ‘tasks for the church’ but is an expression of the giftedness of the Body” (Ogden, 1990).

Modern management science has since affirmed the best practices of these leaders in historic renewal movements, as evidenced by the following quote from Stevens and Collins (1993):

A systems pastor establishes deep inter-personal allegiances with the members of the congregation and with the whole congregation and functions as a primary (not sole) guide to evoking health and life through coaching, playing, defending and sometimes confronting.
(p. xvii)

Every member ministry is an essential component of the “life together” of any church family.

I have personally taught this material at the Africa Theological Seminary in Kitale, Kenya. There, students active in ministry regularly express concern that the elders of the church do not provide an opportunity for younger leaders to develop. This flies in the face of both biblical and historical evidence.

Shared Leadership–Biblical Evidence

First-century Christians shared the leadership of their church family. The twelve who had been called by Jesus, even before receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit (recorded in Acts 2), did not consider the privilege of their apostleship something to be grasped. Instead, in Christ-like humility, they chose to replace the deceased traitor Judas with a qualified fellow-witness of Jesus’s public ministry. By the time of Acts 6, with the growing church in need of a diversified ministry, the Apostles established the role of deacon, looking for leaders who, like themselves, were filled with the Holy Spirit.

In Acts 13:1, as we look at the church in Antioch when the Spirit commanded that those who gathered set apart Saul and Barnabas to go out from among them, there is no indication of who was their leader. Even if it was Saul and Barnabas, God was putting them out of that job, so others would need to take over.

Shared Leadership–Historical Evidence

When the 4th century church began to imitate the army structure of the Roman Empire, the domination of church leadership began. The Protestant Reformation only began to undo those restrictive bonds. Present church leadership must develop and implement processes by which new leaders are raised to serve God in full obedience to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Richard Baxter. The preface to Richard Baxter’s book, The Reformed Pastor, gives insight to an early attempt at this. Writing in 1656, Baxter was invited by other pastors to address them for their benefit and to build up their work as pastors. However, he also knew he would have lay readers and reminded them–as they were about to witness strong words to their pastors that might disclose the imperfections that lie beneath the robes of their office–not to judge too harshly, writing: “God has put men, and not angels, in the office of church guides” (Baxter, 1956).

John Wesley. John Wesley set a good example of sharing leadership when he ordained Francis Asbury as bishop to the American Colonies (Walker, 1970). By this act–brave and even rebellious though it was–Wesley’s effective ministry was multiplied.

Care for Others–Biblical Evidence

Ralph Martin wrote that “the New Testament teaching on [benevolent giving as a] part of Christian worship . . . involves the giving of the Church for the work of God and the furtherance of the Gospel,” citing 1 Corinthians 16:14 as an expression of that “First Principle” of the Christian life: “Concern for those who are in distress” (Martin, 1975).

We see this in Acts 11:28, where Agabus demonstrates concern for those affected by the famine in Jerusalem and elsewhere. The compassion is not just for temporary physical needs, but also eternal spiritual ones. Additionally, in Acts 13 deep concern is shown for those who have never heard the Gospel.

Care for Others–Historical Evidence

Aristides. As early as the Apology of Aristides, we find this description of the practice of early Christians:

If they see a traveling stranger they bring him under their roof . . . If anyone among them is poor or comes into want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast two or three days for him.
(Arnold, 1972)

William Wilberforce. At the beginning of the 19th century, Wilberforce and his ministry partners from Clapham were motivated by Christian compassion. Wilberforce worked tirelessly, both to end the slave trade and to free those who had been enslaved, a process that took nearly his entire life (Howse, 1953). Additionally, he and his colleagues also made substantial improvements in the areas of child labor, care of orphans, and other unfair labor practices (Howse, 1953). They continued the spirit of the work begun by Whitfield and Wesley’s outreach to the coal miners and others of the working poor (Birrell, 1951), and further continued by Lord Shaftesbury, who made even more impact in helping the urban poor of England realize improvements in their living conditions (Shaftesbury, 1844).

Care for others is a characteristic of fruitful churches. It is demonstrated when Christians respond compassionately and creatively to their neighbor’s problems while remaining true to the faith handed down once and for all. Since Jesus marked such compassion as a critical identification for His disciples, every church family seeking the health that comes from faithfulness should strive to exhibit this Christ-like care.

Looking Beyond Self–Biblical Evidence

The first followers of Jesus set the pattern of sacrificial devotion to making disciples from among all peoples. With the Great Commission, Jesus gave a new command to the people who would identify themselves as belonging to Him. He told them, in effect, to not focus on the personal benefits they would personally gain from coming under the care, blessing, and protection of their Advocate and Friend in Heaven. He wanted us to look beyond.

Biblical evidence of looking beyond self is found in the church in Antioch. Acts 13:3 tells us that after hearing from what they understood to be the Holy Spirit, the leaders of the church “placed their hands on [Paul and Barnabas] and sent them off.” Do today’s Christian leaders share their “best people” so freely?

What is more, the Apostle James urged his readers not to show preference to the rich and powerful (who could make the believer’s life comfortable), but to treat the poor with dignity. “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which He has promised to those who love Him?” (Jas. 2:5, ESV).

Looking Beyond Self–Historical Evidence

Origen. Famously, the early Christian leader Origen was deeply influenced by his father’s imprisonment. As a youth, Origen wanted so much to also suffer for the Lord that his mother resorted to cunning wiles; we are told that “she hid all his clothing and compelled him to stay at home” (Eusebius, 1965).

William Taylor and the Wesleyans. In a sense, all movements that result in church growth demonstrate that believers are looking beyond themselves. When William Taylor, a Wesleyan evangelist from California, came to South Africa in 1865 after a successful Australian campaign, the local Dutch Reformed minister made his bigger church building available to Taylor and the Wesleyans (Orr, 1975).

Sunday School Movement. The Sunday School Movement, which was started in 1780 by Robert Raikes of England, targeted children of the poor working class of Gloucester, a city in England filled with factories. The parents, forced to work seven days a week to keep their jobs, were not bringing their children to church; as such, Raikes made it the mission of his church to get the children and bring them to where they could be fed, taught, and loved (Orr, 1975).

Pandita Ramabai. The Indian subcontinent provides a non-western model for looking beyond self. During the late 1800s, Pandita Ramabai understood God to be calling her to focus on the needs of women abused by the Hindu system of the time.

I began to think that there was a real difference between Hinduism and Christianity. I asked the Sister who instructed me to tell me what it was that made the Christians care for, and reclaim “fallen” women.” The Sister read the story of Christ meeting the Samaritan woman, and His wonderful discourse on the nature of true worship . . . I had never read or heard anything like this in the religious books of the Hindus; I realized after reading the 4th chapter of the Gospel of John, that Christ was truly the divine Savior he claimed to be, and no one but He could transform and uplift the downtrodden women of India.
(Noll & Nystrom, 2011, pp. 127–140)

A Passion for Jesus–Biblical Evidence

Michael Green asks what it was “that led the Antiochenes to coin this word [Christians] for the believers in their midst? It must have been [that] . . . they were consumed with a passion for Jesus Christ” (Green, 1979, p. 28). Green would have us notice, “They don’t call themselves Christians . . . they were called it by others.” They received the name “ . . . because they kept speaking of Christ, nothing else was so important to them. And the pagans knew it” (Green, 1979, pp. 27–28).

Such evidence abounds. From the day of Pentecost, the first Christians were characterized by this passion for Jesus. After Gamaliel warned the rest of the Sanhedrin against excess in their persecution of the apostles, the Twelve were only flogged and ordered to not speak in the name of Jesus. “The Apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41, NIV, emphasis added). This is in keeping with the words of one of their number, who responded to previous threats, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge” (Acts 5:29, ESV).

Just as much of the true missionary work of the early church was done by those whom Harnack referred to above as “informal missionaries,” so we can see this passion for Jesus being demonstrated by lay Christians from the beginning. In Acts 19:19, for instance, “a number of those who practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all” (ESV), demonstrating their determination to be holy. At Troas, virtually all the believers (excepting Eutychus!) stayed awake through the night to hear everything they could that Paul, as Christ’s emissary, had to say (Acts 20:12). The Roman Christians showed a similar passion for Christ as they journeyed miles to meet Paul before making their way with him into the heart of the city (Acts 28:15).

In the forward of his translation of the Book of Acts, J. B. Phillips wrote,

It is impossible to study this book without being profoundly stirred and, to be honest, disturbed. The reader is stirred because he is seeing Christianity, the real thing, in action for the first time in human history. The newborn Church, as vulnerable as any human child, having neither money, influence nor power in the ordinary sense, is setting forth joyfully and courageously to win the pagan world for God through Christ. Yet we cannot help feeling disturbed as well as moved, for this is surely the church as it was meant to be. It is vigorous and flexible, for these are the days before it ever became fat and short of breath through prosperity, or muscle-bound by over-organization . . . But if they were uncomplicated and naïve by modern standards, we have ruefully to admit that they were open on the God-ward side in a way that is almost unknown today.
(Phillips, 1955)

A passion for Jesus is undeniably present throughout every depiction of a faithful and thriving church in the New Testament.

A Passion for Jesus–Historical Evidence

This passion continues throughout the history of our faith.

Charles Finney. Finney was a fervent evangelist of extraordinary success during the nineteenth century. His efforts were the high-water mark of the Second Great Awakening (Johnson, 1983, p. 177). Several of his practices had not been seen before, including “praying for people by name, females praying in public meetings . . . the use of an anxious seat, inquiry meetings, and the immediate admission of converts into the churches” (Johnson, 1983, p. 176). His use of such “new measures” in evangelism engendered criticism from those who may have envied his results (Rosell and DuPuis, 1989, p. 141). However, as John Wesley had found in the previous century (Wesley, 1970), Finney’s passion for Jesus eventually earned the respect of his critics. One admitted that the evangelist’s personal array of talents in service to God were “of signal service in enabling Mr. Finney to fathom the deepest recesses of the human heart, and to throw light on the darkest portions of human character” (Finney, 2016).

World Christians. Consider one more example. Some of the most robust and comprehensive passion for Jesus can be found among what Ralph Winter labeled “World Christians” (Thompson, 1978, p. 5).

For the World Christian, life begins with God, not the world around him, nor even the need of world evangelism. He is absorbed first in God, and for that reason he becomes absorbed with humanity. The World Christian takes up the cause of world missions because he understands that to be God’s cause. Because “God so loved the world,” the World Christian absorbed in God is committed to His program of world redemption.
(Thompson, 1978, p. 7)

The believers Winter describes as “World Christians,” as the first-century Christians Green describes in his books, are enthusiastic contributors to the health of their church family. However, enthusiasm does not say enough. The fire sparked to life by encountering the living Christ through the teaching transforming truth and the experience of dynamic worship, compels the continually renewed believer to practice authentic fellowship, every member ministry, shared leadership, care for others, and look beyond self. Beneath it all is this single underlying urgency: they all had, and have, a passion for Jesus.


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Peter J. Smith, D.Min. (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) is the pastor of the First Congregational Church in Hanson, Massachusetts. He has taught in Christian higher education settings in Massachusetts, Tanzania, Kenya, and India

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