There is a Greek verb that is used only four times in the New Testament, all in similar contexts describing the activities of Paul and other leaders revisiting churches they had help get started:

“They returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.” (Acts 14:21-22)

“They were sent off and went down to Antioch. . . . They said much to encourage and strengthen the believers.” (Acts 15:30, 32)

“Paul chose Silas and set out . . . through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the believers.” (Acts 15:41)

“After spending some time there, he departed and went from place to place, through the region of Galatia and
Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.” (Acts 18:23)

This Greek verb, episteridzo contains the root from which we get our English word “steroid.” It means to make something firm and solid, to give it backbone. The goal of these apostolic visits was to help transform struggling baby churches into the churches on steroids that would be equal to the years of opposition and persecution ahead.

If you’re curious about the apostles’ strategies and techniques for church-strengthening, you’ll find some interesting clues in the accounts of those visits in the biblical Book of Acts. Luke, the author, was an astute observer. As a physician, he was interested in what made things work, so the details he mentions are all significant.

First, it’s interesting that these strengthening visits were not touch-and-go, but usually involved an extended stay. This is emphasized in Acts 14:28, 15:35 and 18:23. There are no quick fixes in genuine church growth. Athletes on steroids may use needles or pills to deliver the chemical boost they want, but there is no equivalent shortcut for churches undergoing genuine growth. It takes long term commitment and total involvement by a core group of true believers.

Second, Luke’s account of the development of these earliest churches emphasizes the identification of strong, gifted local leaders. What happened in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch was typical: “After they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord” (Acts 14:23). These leaders would be critical to the stability of each church through the times of persecution, keeping the believers focused on their calling to spread the Good News of God’s forgiveness.

Third, there is frequent mention of the importance of sound teaching. Paul and Barnabas stayed for an extended time in Antioch, so that they might “teach and proclaim the word of God” (Acts 15:35). The new believers in Beroea were commended because they “examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17″11). The church in Corinth was slower than other churches in understanding the full meaning of the Gospel, so Paul “stayed there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:11).

Fourth, it’s very clear in Luke’s history that these young churches were under no illusion that their journey of faith would be easy. They were in for attacks from without (oppression, ridicule, persecution) and from within (immoral behavior, petty jealousies, false teachings). The apostles tried to show them that these negative experiences were an essential part of God’s positive strengthening process: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

These four principles may be a formula for being a church on steroids today, rather than one of those wimpy, anemic churches so common in our age of convenience and ease. I’d like to see ABC commit itself to the strategy that jump-started the early churches.

And I believe these four principles can put an individual believer on course to a Christian life on steroids as well:

First, be there; hang in over the long haul; don’t be a come-and-go Christian.

Second, associate with proven, genuine spiritual leaders, rather than the pop-star of the day.

Third, understand what Gospel truth really is, and follow it rather than fads.

Fourth, embrace the fact that your spiritual experience will only grow through hard times.

I’m encouraging you all to strive toward a muscular faith.

— Pastor George Van Alstine