By Gary L. Johnson
I remember the moment as if it happened yesterday. It was December 1966 and I was in the fifth grade. My teacher announced to the class that Walt Disney had died. Little did we know that a dream of Disney had died with him.
Disney dreamed of building an “experimental prototype community of tomorrow” in the swampland of central Florida. It would be an ideal urban center—with businesses, schools, city parks, factories, shopping centers, athletic venues, beautiful homes, and even churches. Disney believed urban areas could be purposefully built and developed to serve as models for other cities. Disney called his dream EPCOT—and it was finally built, but not as an urban center. Instead, EPCOT Center—now called simply Epcot—was born an amusement park.
As elders, do we dream of starting or steering a model church? Do we pray and serve in such a way that some would say the church we lead is a model for others?
Urban areas attract people for many reasons. Some people love a city for its skyline or sports teams. Others are drawn to a city for its history, weather, and geography. A city can become known as a model city for one reason or another. For example, Denver is known as a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. New York City is known for theater. In a similar way, the local church can become a model for others in the city and beyond.
It happened to a church in the first century. During his second missionary journey, Paul started a church in the capital city of Thessalonica. In Acts 17:1-4, Paul preached the gospel for three Sabbath days, and many people—both Jews and Gentiles—became Christians. Early in his ministry, Paul wrote two letters to the church in Thessalonica, and he said something of them that he said of no other church: “And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:7).
In the northern seaport city of Thessalonica, a model church had been established. Are you leading a church that can be called a model church?
The word model means “exact reproduction.” The church in Thessalonica was a template or a pattern worth imitating. Macedonia was a region in northern Greece, while Achaia was a region in southern Greece, and this model church had influence throughout an entire nation. As elders, can we say the same of the church we are leading? Do we dream that our church will become a model church throughout our city and beyond?
Paul said Thessalonica became a model church. In other words, this church was not an overnight sensation. It took time to develop into a church worth emulating. And what stands out about their example? Why were they a model church to other congregations near and far? Of the many possible answers to that question, two remarkable traits stand out in the first chapter of Paul’s letter.
From its first day, the church in Thessalonica operated in the power of the Holy Spirit. It was not Paul’s clever preaching but the Spirit’s conviction that persuaded the Jews and Gentiles in Thessalonica to surrender their lives to Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:5). In this verse, the word for power is the word from which we derive the word dynamite. It does not mean a destructive power, however, but a constructive power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit of God unleashed power on the lives of people that built something new within them, a relationship with Jesus Christ.
The Spirit empowered these people to receive Paul’s message “with the joy given by the Holy Spirit” (1:6) despite their extreme suffering. Thessalonica was a city filled with idols. Yet, the new believers, many of them prominent people (Acts 17:4), turned from these idols (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The Holy Spirit empowered these people to become Christians in the face of great personal risk in a godless culture.
As elders, is the same trait present in the churches we lead? Every city has a power source of some kind, and every church needs the power of the Holy Spirit. Are we leading in our own strength, experience, and wisdom? If so, we will not become a church worth emulating. We are commanded to be continually filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). Just as a car or truck cannot run without gas, believers need the power and presence of God’s Spirit if we are to become a model church.
The church’s purpose is to make disciples of all nations, and that is exactly what the people of Thessalonica did. Once they became believers, they could not keep silent: “The Lord’s message rang out from you” (1 Thessalonians 1:8). The word rang means “echo, a rolling thunder.” Their message of good news “rolled” loudly across an entire region, echoing and reverberating the hope of life everlasting in Jesus Christ. The believers at Thessalonica were not ashamed of their newfound faith in Christ.
Does that describe the church we serve as elders? Are the people in the churches we lead boldly sharing their personal faith in Christ throughout the city and region where we live? Do we confidently and intentionally lead people to Christ? If not, why not? As elders, are we developing friendships with unbelievers in the hope of leading them to Christ? When was the last time we baptized someone and then discipled them in the faith? We are to lead by example (1 Corinthians 11:1). How can we expect people in the church to boldly lead others to Christ if we are not? A model church is passionate about the purpose of the church.
A version of Walt Disney’s ideal city—Celebration, Florida—was finally built, but not until long after Disney died.
As elders, we can lead the local church in the hope it will become a model worth emulating. It can happen in our lifetime or long after we are home with the Lord. The point is simply this: lead and serve the local church so that we eventually become a model church.
e2: effective elders is a new monthly column. Watch for more great insights and ideas specifically for elders every month by Gary Johnson, Jim Estep, and David Roadcup!
Gary Johnson serves as an elder/senior minister at Indian Creek Christian Church (The Creek) in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is a cofounder of e2: effective elders (e2elders.org). Gary offers resources and coaching as he works with elders to lead with greater focus and confidence.