Introduction: The land of Turkey was the centerpiece of Christianity in the first century. After the fall of Jerusalem, Turkey became the “Holy Land of the Church.” Yet today Turkey is the #1 unevangelized nation on earth. What happened to its great churches? What happened, for example, to the “Church of the Holy Apostles” in Constantinople? Though arguably the most famous church in the world in its day and the burial place of several New Testament heroes, no trace of it remains now. None of us knows what’ll happen to any particular church in the future. We’ve got to minister for today and do our best to keep our churches and ourselves healthy and vibrant. The story of the church in Ephesus can help us. There are six stages in its history.
1. Gestation (Acts 18:18-28). Paul made an initial contact and left three people there as an advance team. You can’t often start a church overnight. Church-planting (especially in unprepared soil) requires some pick-and-shovel work.
2. Birth (Acts 19:1-11). The birth of the church in Ephesus is described in Acts 19. Verses 1-7 describe the first seven converts and the “Ephesian Pentecost.” In verses 8-10, Paul moved from the synagogue to a rented lecture hall and spoke each day. Verses 11-20 give us insight into the strategy the Lord employed in that occultist city. In verses 21-22, Paul began to wrap up his ministry in Ephesus. And the riot caused by the silversmiths is described in the last part of the chapter, hastening Paul’s departure. Many times, those with evangelistic gifts help launch a church, then move on to do it elsewhere.
3. Growth (Acts 20:17-38). In chapter 20, Paul gave one of his greatest lectures, to the leaders of the congregations in Ephesus. This evidences the growth in the church. There are lessons here for all of us.
4. Maturity (1 Timothy 1:1-5). Under the leadership of Timothy, the church matured. Our maturity as a church and as individual Christians is seen by our love, coming from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.
5. Decline (Revelation 2:1-7). Under the ministry of John, the church experienced some spiritual erosion. They had persevered, kept their doctrine pure, and endured hardship for Christ. But they were in danger of losing their first love.
6. Impact (Ephesians 1:1-2). Today no church exists in Ephesus. The site itself is nothing but a set of magnificent ruins. But the impact of the church in Ephesus remains every time we read and preach from the two letters addressed to this church in the New Testament—the book of Ephesians and the seven-verse mini-epistle in Revelation. It’s a great comfort to think that even if our own church one day ceases to exist, it’s impact will continue on until Christ comes again.
Conclusion: The secret of a strong church is to nurture stage 4, avoid stage 5, and rejoice in stage 6. Of course, since a church is simply a collection of individual Christians, each one of us has these six stages before us — with the option of skipping stage 6.