Drifting and Dreaming (the Early Church)

Drifting and Dreaming (The Early Church Then and Now)

Drifting and Dreaming

(The Early Church Then and Now)


Most of us have grown up in mainline churches and denominations, whether Protestant or Catholic. Others have been part of independent churches that have no denominational affiliation. Regardless of the form of religious expression we have known, much of it reflects contemporary thoughts and ideas—the culture that is known in our own day. Professing Christians have found it difficult to break free from this mindset and honestly seek to understand what God wanted His people to be in this world. Most people have been content to wear the “glasses” of present-day Christendom rather than seeking to recapture New Testament belief, practice, and lifestyle.

The following story is in the form of a “dream.” Try to imagine what the storyteller is describing and actually hear and see what is being explained. Let this fascinating message stimulate you to go back beyond modern evangelicalism, beyond the Reformation period, beyond medieval Catholicism, and even beyond the early apostate church of the second, third, and fourth centuries. Go back, back, back to the first century, the period reflected on the pages of the New Testament writings.

Is this what you want? Do you wish to find in your own experience the dynamic, the life, the faith, and the love that we see depicted in the Scriptures? Every sincere heart that pants after God, that is in love with the Lord Jesus, and that respects the Word of God, will answer in the affirmative. But how? How can we possibly leave the apostasy, the institutionalism, the false teachings and practices, the apathy, the compromises and lukewarmness, that we see on every hand today? This is the question—and this is the problem that we must solve.

Let this little story stimulate you to find answers. Look up and thoughtfully consider the many Scriptural passages referred to in the text. Then write for a listing of additional resources that will help you to apply what you learn to your own life and that of your family and friends. May the Lord bless each of us in this holy quest!

Drifting and Dreaming 

The Story

Sunday had arrived and the fashionably attired members were filing into the large brick church edifice. The sanctuary bore the unmistakable imprint of religion, with its towering steeple, stained glass windows, and ornate furnishings. The altar in front, with its candles, cross, and floral arrangements, was the center focus to the gathered worshipers. Some of the men halted on the stop step and took a last long draw upon their cigarettes before flipping them into the yard.

Ushers in faultless dress led the members down soft carpeted aisles to the deeply cushioned pews. The aroma of perfumed women was heavy as the members arrived. The jingle of gold bracelets was heard as painted women put dainty hands to well-arranged coiffures. Everyone was relaxed in the air-conditioned comfort.

It was a momentous occasion because the new minister was to speak on “New Testament Christianity.” A special invitation had been given through a costly advertisement in the Saturday newspaper for all outsiders to attend. Some of these had accepted and were already present.

The minister left his ten-room parsonage adjoining the sanctuary. In front of the auditorium he paused to admire the large lighted sign: “First Church – Rev. Doctor James P. MacGreggor, Pastor.” It was a distinct honor to be the Senior Pastor of such a large, distinguished congregation.

Soon he was in his study and gave a last inspection of his fine black vestments and clerical collar. Now if he could just convince some of the outsiders to join First Church, his reputation would be made. He recalled the statement of his professor at the seminary when he was a student, “You men can write your own paychecks. You can get fifty, sixty, or eighty thousand a year, parsonage included.” The minister smiled. His income approached the maximum mentioned, and he had been given a Cadillac and Volvo as well.

Taking his seat in the high-backed, richly upholstered, clerical chair, the pastor looked out on his own spiritual flock. The gathered congregation must have numbered well over a thousand parishioners. The worship service proceeded smoothly with hymns, special choir arrangements, readings, announcements, and denominational liturgy. As usual, the pastor recited his specially prepared pastoral prayer for which he was often complimented.

During the sermon the pastor was irked by the lack of attention by his own members. One of the church board members slept off the effects of a heavy breakfast. Two of the women who taught Sunday school classes whispered to each other during the service about recipes they were trying that day. One of the men daydreamed of the golf game that he had played with the minister the previous day. A number of the teenagers sitting on the back row talked about the ball game they had won Saturday afternoon as they played in the church softball league.

But the people he particularly attempted to impress—the visitors—gave good attention. He was extremely satisfied with the sermon and thought it was a masterpiece of eloquence. He had delivered it before as a trial sermon at two other places, and in both cases it had won him the pulpit over the other candidates.

After the sermon, the pastor took his place in the foyer, the appointed “Visitors Welcoming Committee” by his side, and shook hands with the departing guests. He was thrilled when the vice-president of the First National Bank congratulated him and informed him that he and his wife were thinking of applying for membership with First Church. He said, “Two of your deacons are members of the Rotary Club, and while we were playing cards at my house the other night they were kidding me, as they always do at our noon luncheons at the Country Club on Wednesday. They told me that their denomination was the best in town and perhaps it could offer opportunities for self-fulfillment and community betterment. And that seemed to make sense.” The pastor quickly replied that the church could offer many benefits and it definitely was the largest and most popular in town.

The minister did not often dream. His slumber was generally undisturbed. But on this Sunday night he had the church on his mind. Perhaps it was that, or it may have been the pizza he ate just before retiring. In any event, he had a strange experience in his sleep. He found himself on a narrow cobblestone street in a foreign city. He knew it was Sunday, and he seldom missed a gathering of the church—except for his occasional cruises or vacations to the Bahamas, Hawaii, and San Francisco. But the church—how could he locate it?

Strange though it seemed, he found himself able to understand and speak the language of those on the street. He accosted two men who were richly dressed in native costume. “Sirs, can you tell me where I can find a local church?” The men stared at him uncomprehendingly. The pastor continued, “Well, is there any Protestant denomination in this city?” The men shook their heads in the negative.

However, a poorly clad individual, with a slave owner’s brand on his forehead, waiting until the rich man passed on, stepped to his side, and whispered, “Perhaps, sir, you would like to meet with the community of believers. Come with me!”

They walked a mile before turning down a darkened alley. The pastor shuddered. His feet were paining him from the exertion. In a narrow aperture between two buildings, a flight of stairs led upward. The guide began to climb. Two full flights he went before he stopped in front of a rude door. He cautiously knocked on it and immediately a young woman with a long robe opened it. The man entered, beckoning for the minister to follow.

A company of men and women were here gathered in simple surroundings. An aged man arose and spoke, “Welcome, beloved! We have gathered to encourage one another and remember the Lord.”

The minister took a seat as his eyes scanned the assembly. The greater number appeared to be poor or slaves, nonetheless were clean and wore a smile on their faces. Both men and women, boys and girls, were modestly and discreetly, yet becomingly, dressed. The women present had long hair and veilings. Each person appeared to consider others better than himself. Those arriving were greeted with warm embrace and a kiss of holiness. Inquiries were made as to the welfare of those not present. It was all very astonishing, even bewildering, to the visiting minister.

Another aged man now took a place at the head of the table that extended the length of the room. Before him rested a loaf of bread and a cup of liquid. The aged one spoke, “Dearly beloved, let us engage in praise to God and the building up of one another.” A man arose and began a hymn of praise. It was followed by other songs.

At their conclusion, a man arose who identified himself as a shoe cobbler. His fingers were blackened with the prick of the awl. But he lifted his stained hands in a gesture which seemed gentle and kind. He spoke feelingly of the need for personal devotion to the Lord and for separation from the defiling ways of the world. He told of his own surrender to Jesus the Anointed One, and how the Holy Spirit had fashioned his life into one of usefulness and service even as he took scraps of leather and made from them the sandals which brought comfort to the feet of those who journeyed along the roads.

When he sat down, the slave who had guided the minister arose and declared that the preceding remarks had stirred him to give utterance to his own faith. He belonged to an unbelieving master. He was often beaten. His body bore the marks of the lash. He had secured the right to attend the meeting by toiling all night, treading the waterwheel in the irrigation canal. But his spirit was free. He urged all who were free in body to use that freedom to free others from sin. The lash of the master could not make a mark on the spirit. Some wept openly as he spoke.

He was followed by another man who had just returned from a journey abroad. He told of his experiences as he proclaimed the wondrous message of Jesus Christ to men and women in distant places and how some had responded to God’s love despite suffering and persecution. The assembly was overjoyed with the report of the speaker. Each man shaped his words from the experience of his own life, background, or trade.

After this, another man in the assembly arose and read a portion from a Hebrew prophet, expounding on it at length. At his conclusion, still another man read a letter from Paul, the Lord’s messenger, and emphasized portions of it, making application to those present. The visiting pastor noticed that only the men took part in addressing the assembly; the women remained silent. A final brother arose and delivered a lengthy message of encouragement to the attentive assembly.

When no one else signified a desire to speak, the aged man, with a tone of sadness, said, “Brothers and sisters, beloved, you know that our dear brother Jason was apprehended this past week for proclaiming the message of our Lord and Savior in the marketplace. At his trial, he was sentenced to banishment. He is now in custody awaiting a ship sailing from our shores. He will need our prayers and our assistance. Let those whose hearts are moved by love to have a share in his suffering, give to his need, and the servants and overseers of the community will see that he receives your provision before he sails.

A solemn hush fell over the assembly. A bearded man took the loaf in his hand. He gazed upon it and the tears welled to his eyes and trickled down his cheeks. He spoke of suffering, of cruel death on a Roman cross, of hope springing anew from an open tomb. He spoke of remembering Jesus as Savior, as the One who gave Himself for their sins, and as the One who was now alive and would one day come again for those in the faith.

Lifting his eyes toward heaven, he gave thanks. Everyone present at the table said, “Amen!” The bread was passed to all of their number. Next, thanks were offered for the cup and it was likewise passed to the gathered saints. Tears of love and joy coursed down the cheeks of the young and old, men and women, alike.

Afterwards, all of them knelt. One after another, several of the men prayed fervently, with praise and thanksgiving. The slave, kneeling beside the minister, prayed, “Beloved Father, bless our dear visitor who has come to us from afar to be our guest this day”—and just at this juncture the pastor awakened.

The next morning, as his wife set the breakfast before him, he said to her, “I had the craziest dream last night. I thought I was in some foreign country, but I couldn’t tell where. I stopped a man on the street and asked the location of the church. Some fellow who looked like a tramp took me upstairs in a building that had no sign on it, so I couldn’t tell what it was. We went into a room where some radical group was holding some kind of religious service. I don’t know what they belonged to, but they were fanatics. They cried a lot, even while one of their number was trying to sing a song. It was the longest service I’ve ever endured.

“It was the funniest place you ever saw—no pulpit, no clergyman, no properly prepared sermon, no choir director, no choir, no organ or piano or even guitar, no liturgy, no collection plates, no recitation of the creed, no religious artwork or statuary, and no formal order to their service. In fact, it could hardly be called a worship service! They even allowed shoe cobblers and slaves to talk. All they could think about was Jesus and love, love, love! I wonder what makes a person have such fantastic dreams?

“Well, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ll go over and polish up another sermon. I think we’ve got some of the leading citizens of the city about to apply for membership.”

A Final Note

We came upon this simple story many years ago and it has continued to have a real message for us today. The story itself has been adapted and extensively revised to make it more appropriate, descriptive, and definitive. In our printed form, Scriptures have been added for your own study. (Those of you who may want this more complete form of the story, with numerous references, should write to have the booklet mailed to you.)

The impression should not be left that all “clergymen” fit the description of the one in this story. “Rev. Doctor James P. MacGreggor” definitely was a hypocrite of the first class. Neither are all denominational churches represented in the story. The “dream” is not meant to be an exposure and total condemnation of every aspect of denominationalism and organized religion. It is intended to portray some of the ways that contemporary “churchianity” and institutional religion has drifted far from the harbor of New Testament Christianity.

The main point is that what exists today under the label of organized “Christianity” very often is far removed from the simple community of believers of the first century. (This is true even apart from a consideration of several of the spiritual gifts which we have not emphasized in this account.) The first Christians constituted the community of saints, the body of Christ, and the family of God. The life of the early believers centered on Christ Himself. He was the focal point of their gathering and worship. Their relationship with one another was one of love and devotion.

So revolutionary was the life of Christ manifested in the early body of Christ that early believers were referred to as those “belonging to the Way” (Acts 9:2; cf. 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22; 18:25-26). Moreover, they followed the One who declared Himself to be the only “way” to God the Father (John 14:6).

You may reply that we are encouraging the “ideal” and are overlooking the “real” world. We must admit that severe problems did exist among the early believers. Apostles and prophets had to teach against and condemn false teachers, false teaching, and worldly attitudes. But we must strive for the ideal—the very life and service to which the Lord has called us. Our plea is to be simply believers, saints (holy ones), disciples, brothers and sisters, or followers of Christ (i.e., Christians). Our desire is to be in the twenty-first century what Christ wanted His followers to be from the very beginning. Will you join us in this elusive but worthy pursuit?

(Richard Hollerman)

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