The Spirit, The Church, and the Stories We Tell

According to Acts 2:41, about 3,000 people were baptized, joining the Jesus movement on that Day of Pentecost. Now I must admit that 3,000 is an impressive number. Don’t tell your not impressed. I don’t know of a pastor or church that wouldn’t welcome 3,000 baptisms in response to preaching the gospel. In fact this number of 3,000 has sort impressed upon us the idea that numbers matter. No, it’s not the number that matters; it’s just numbers that matter.

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers…

We plan for numbers, measure success based on numbers or at least partially based on numbers, and admire numbers. When churches had revival meetings, the measure of success was the number of people who responded to the gospel invitation. When missionaries sent in their missions report, what mattered was the number of new Christians, new church members, new churches established. And today, we’ll buy the books on ministry written by a pastor of a mega-church (ironically a term referring to a numerical size) because the mega size of the church obviously is impressive.

But that’s the problem… our measuring stick is calibrated with numbers. So when we read through Acts chapter two, we believe the sure sign that the Holy Spirit was poured out upon all (v. 17-18) is the fact that 3,000 people were baptized after Peter preached the gospel. And therefore, all the numbers we enamor ourselves with surely is the sign of the power of the Holy Spirit.

But are we sure that numbers tell the power of the Holy Spirit?

The Power of the Spirit is…

Don’t get me wrong. I not trying to praise smallness nor am I trying to take away from the numbers of baptisms, new church members, new churches, etc… But when we role with this logic that measures the power of the Holy Spirit and therefore the success of ministry by numbers, then whatever number is claimed is actually a sign of weakness. For example, if 3,000 baptized is the sign of the Spirit’s presence and power, then why not 6,000 or 60,000?

Rather than pointing to numbers as the sign of the Spirit’s presence and power, it is spiritual transformation of those 3,000 who were baptized that speaks to the power of the Spirit (Stone, Evangelism after Christendom, 270). And that ought to be a game changer! What happened on that Day of Pentecost because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit wasn’t just 3,000 baptisms but the character formation of a new community that “had everything in common” (v. 44). These new disciples had been transformed into a community which embodied the very gospel they heard preached as their way of life.

So when we talk about the work of the Holy Spirit among us, it’s not the numbers that count but the spiritual formation that happens. In fact, if we’re going to claim that the Holy Spirit is at work among our churches and ministries, we ought to be telling stories of communities undergoing transformation so that the gospel is embodied like we read of in Acts. However, and to be rather frank, I doubt that every claim of the Spirit’s work among churches and ministries can be matched with a community that embodies the gospel we preach. Of course, that may also be an indication that the gospel we are preaching is in wanting (but that’s another issue). What it does mean is that we’ve got work to do and we need the Holy Spirit to do it.

A Question for Ministry…

This must force us to look at our own ministries, whether we are pastoring an established church or planting new churches. Here is the question we must ask: Is the aim of our ministry numbers or a number of people who are being formed into a community which embodies the gospel of Jesus Christ?


Last Sunday I spoke about the character formation of the church as the sign of the Spirit’s presence and power from Acts 2:32-47. I have uploaded this message, The Spirit Formed Community, if you wish to listen to it (click on the title).

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