Planting Churches Together
The Great Commission, to take the Gospel to every neighborhood and nation, is given to every generation. It has to be, because every generation needs to be freshly evangelized and discipled. The timeless New Testament strategy for this is church planting. We need to be convinced of this.
We also need to be sobered, because planting churches is hard. Planting healthy churches is even harder. Repeating the process on a regular basis is harder still. It is hard to birth a new church without the “mother” church taking major strain. It is hard to plant churches that are more about reproduction than merely repositioning believers from an existing church into a new one.
Nevertheless, we have every reason to be encouraged. Despite considerable opposition, the early church planted many strong churches around the Mediterranean in the period recorded in the Book of Acts. And since then, millions of churches have been planted throughout the ages. God is faithful!
Here are a few biblical, church planting principles and practices for us to keep in mind:
Strong Churches: The Jerusalem church was strong before it ventured beyond Jerusalem. The Antioch church appeared to have a strong five-man eldership team before sending two out to plant a church (Acts 13:1-3). Despite our zeal to plant more churches, we should try not to compromise the fundamental strength of existing churches, as this would probably mean a net reduction of the kingdom of God, rather than a net gain.
Local and Global: The Jerusalem church needed a severe jolt (persecution) to get them engaged beyond the local. Antioch needed a weighty prophetic moment to get them doing the same. Many churches need something similar to be galvanized to wider mission! Other churches are prone to imbalance the other way, i.e. over-extension globally that compromises the integrity of the local mission. It must be both/and, local and global.
Growth, Not Reshuffling: Reshuffling existing believers from a sending church to a new church is necessary for the start-up, but it is vital that the new church prioritizes evangelism. In Acts 8:4, we read, “All who were scattered went about preaching the word.” – nice. Paul stressed that he personally baptized the first converts in the Corinthian church plant (1 Cor. 1:14-16) – nice.
Multiplication of Leaders: I advocate a “triple it” philosophy, whereby a church endeavors to produce three times the number of leaders that they currently need. The idea is that you need one group of leaders to lead your church at its current size, another group to cope with increased numbers as your church grows, and another group available to send out to a new church plant.
Short, Strengthening Visits: Acts 8:14 records that, as the new church in Samaria was being planted, Peter and John came from Jerusalem to pray for these new believers to be filled with the Holy Spirit. While this passage underlines the importance of believers being filled with the Holy Spirit, it is also demonstrates the importance of short, strengthening trips to get a new church up and running.
Longer Deployments: As well as making short visits to places, Paul sometimes relocated to a city for several years, which resulted in the planting of many churches. For example, his two-year relocation to Ephesus resulted in “all Asia” hearing the gospel, no doubt involving the planting of a region of churches in that area (Acts 19:10). Where possible, it is good to free up appropriately gifted people for middle to long-term deployments to a specific church plant or to catalyze multiple church plants in a region.
Training: While in Ephesus, Paul taught daily in the Hall of Tyrannus, which resulted in enormous gospel fruit in that region (Acts 19:10). Training of senior leaders and potential church planters is usually best done together to synergize quality resources from different churches.
Finance and Prayer: New Testament churches contributed both finances and prayer to church plants. Finance is vital ammunition for the mission. No ammo, no victory.
Partnership with a Trans-Local Team: The New Testament pattern was churches partnering with other churches and with trans-local teams in order to plant and strengthen churches. This combination of local churches and translocal ministries results in well-founded churches.
Robust: Acts 16 records two false starts in Asia and Bithynia before the gospel advanced into Philippi in Macedonia. Similarly, Paul needed to defend his church planting season in Thessalonica as not being a failure (1 Thess. 2:1). Church planting is not an exact science, and there might be some unexpected turns in the road ahead. We remain loving and loyal to each other and to the mission in the face of setbacks, disappointments, and delays.
Planned and Spontaneous: The New Testament planting strategy was a combination of the planned, the spontaneous, and the supernatural. There seemed to be a deliberate plan to target the main cities around the Mediterranean, but the early church also responded well to spontaneous initiatives. Examples include: preaching the gospel when they had to flee Jerusalem (Acts 8), obeying the prompting of the Holy Spirit to send out Barnabas and Paul (Acts 13:1-4), and visiting Macedonia as a result of Paul’s dream (Acts 16:9-10).
We try to be organized and strategic in our planning, while remaining flexible and open to spontaneous initiatives and the prophetic leading of the Holy Spirit. We also work to cultivate prophets and prophecy in local churches and in the wider family, knowing that this is one of the most important spiritual gifts.