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A Culture of Devotion

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves… (Acts 2:41-42)

Habits are definitely in vogue here in the 21st century Western world. Peruse the self-help shelf at the library or scan through videos on YouTube, and you’ll find a plethora of content devoted to forming habits. They’ll change your life!

And while there is great wisdom in the confidence being placed in habits, here’s what’s missing: a goal. A common definition of a good person and a good life toward which our habits ought to build. This dooms the consumer of said content to a life of exploring habits with no greater metric than how it makes them feel about themselves.

But before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, let’s take a closer look at the culture of the first local church as it is described in Acts 2:42-47. So far, we’ve witnessed the proclamation of the Gospel by Peter. Many in the crowd respond to the gospel in repentance and faith, publicly proclaiming their repentance through baptism. This experience created a new community centered on the gospel and its proper response.

And according to Luke (the author of Acts), that community was marked by “devotion.”

A Culture of Devotion

In the Christian world, the word “devotion” usually refers to time spent privately reading the Bible and praying. If someone asks, “How is your devotional life?”, that’s what they mean. And as we continue exploring the gospel culture described in Acts 2:42-47, we can understand why. But there is one key difference: when Acts 2 uses the word “devotion,” the author was referring to something done communally, not privately.

This of course doesn’t mean we jettison any private practice associated with our faith; doing so would ignore a major portion of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:1-18), which our church happens to be exploring right now in our sermon series. This does mean, however, that we may need to expand our expectations concerning how “devotions” ought to show themselves in the Christian life. So let’s take a closer look at that word, since it is key to understanding the gospel culture that characterized the Acts 2 church.

When someone is “devoted” to another person, this word describes a continuous and close association usually marked by service. But when a person is “devoted” to a behavior or a practice, they are continuing “to do something with intense effort, with the possible implication of despite difficulty.” They are enduring, persisting, staying with, persevering in that behavior, even when the desired outcomes or results aren’t there.

Think Small

Enter today’s trendy term: habit. This word can be used synonymously with the “devotion” described in Acts 2. When someone is “devoted” to a behavior, that behavior becomes a habit. Habits are small investments that yield great change if they are made consistently over a long period of time. And the reason is made clear in this quote from James Clear in his great book Atomic Habits:
"Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of our habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent" (p. 16, my emphasis).
Jim Collins makes a similar observation about companies that gain momentum and create lasting change toward greatness. It’s not the result of a silver-bullet idea that catapults a company into greatness. Instead, companies achieve lasting greatness as a result of an enduring devotion to the practices that make it unique (p. 14). Like a flywheel gains momentum the more it is turned, lasting change is the result of small actions made consistently over a long period of time, regardless whether the desired outcomes are always there.

In other words, enjoying gospel culture is the compound interest of habits that characterize a church. This was true of that first gospel community in Acts 2. They were devoted. And that tells me at least three effects that gospel proclamation ought to have in our church.

Three Aspects of Devotion

First, gospel proclamation should make us intentional. After responding to the gospel in repentance and faith, this community formed around seven key habits, or devotions, that were the pathway of transformation. They chose what kinds of things they would do and what they would not based on the doctrine of the gospel.

Second, gospel proclamation should breed resilience. Being devoted to something or someone suggests that forces push against that devotion. Our own sinful desires, the lies of our enemy, and the lure of this world all stand against a culture of devotion to gospel practices. Yet the gospel itself is a message of a God who is ruthlessly devoted to His people despite their wavering affections. And His Spirit is in and among us to help us continue in the habits that defined the first local church community.  

Third, gospel proclamation should make us patient. In his helpful book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, historian Alan Kreider points out that patience was of supreme importance to the early church, not just as a general disposition of the believer, but specifically in continuing their habits in the face of resistance (pp. 68-69). They did not abandon those habits, some of which emerge directly from Acts 2, when the headwinds of persecution and the battering waves of their own sin persisted. And this drew their neighbors toward the gospel.

Devoted to Each Other

Ultimately, the Acts 2 church was not only characterized by devotion to these habits, but devotion to each other. Each of these practices were communal in nature, meaning their unity, which was purchased for them by Christ (Eph. 2:14-16), was enjoyed and reinforced by their collective commitment to doing these habits together.  

So with that in mind, we will begin our exploration of these seven habits, or devotions, that defined a community of people who gathered around the gospel. We’ll look at how each one clearly emerges from gospel doctrine, the headwinds that might push us away from these practices, and how they ought to look in our church community.
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