Overlooked Essentials of Missionary Church Planting
Over the last several years the church has witnessed a rise in the efforts of what is today called church planting. Throughout the entire history of the church, the world has witnessed the body of Christ continue to expand as the gospel keeps on going forward, for the most part, unhindered (thanks to Jesus binding the strongman). As a result, new local expressions of the body of Christ keep on taking form. Glory to God. At the same time, the West has in many ways experienced some setbacks as nominal and liberal Christianity that denies the inerrancy of Scripture has plagued the land and caused many to think the church is something it's not actually.
In today's post, I want to share an overview of the missionary method of church planting, also known as apostolic church planting. This is the method of church planting we see in the New Testament era as the church was first established. It's of utmost importance to understand this method in any missionary context, yet many if not most seminary graduates today have not been trained or even heard of it. Many missionaries being sent out are not practicing this method. So what is the apostolic method of church planting and why is it important to understand as we involve ourselves in the Great Commission? Our two New Testament texts today will help give us a framework for where we get the idea of apostolic church planting.
Before we begin, however, I want to publicly state (for the sake of clarity) what we don't mean when we speak of apostolic planting. When we talk about apostolic planting, we're not talking about a continuation of the office of the Apostle. There are people that actually think they're apostles today. We would argue against that. To be clear, there is some similarity between the word apostle and missionary, one who is sent out. Still, when we refer to apostles, typically in regard to Christianity and the Bible, we're speaking about those few men called by Jesus at the very beginning of the church. They were key people for the foundation of the church that God ordained to be the main instruments through which the gospel went forward, disciples were made, the Church was founded, and the New Testament was penned. A foundation was laid and after that, there were no more apostles. Period. But what does remain is what we are speaking of here today, the apostolic approach to church planting. This is the method of the apostles when it comes to seeing local churches formed and established.
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you — Titus 1:5
"I left you in a place, Titus, so you might put what remained in order."
What we can understand here is, when Paul was doing church planting, he was actually going from one place to another. He was on the move. He couldn't just stay in one place, and have that as his camp, to be there forever. Being an apostle and having a very specific task as a missionary apostle, his job consisted of going to a place to evangelize the lost, make disciples, train elders, and get out to move on and do it again in other key places.
In short, that's what we're going to see today. This is the heart and primary task of missions proper. (We could even argue that this is practical missions...)
We can note here from this verse that there was still work to be done in a church that was planted. As a missionary and apostle, Paul would give orders to people here like Titus in this case and Timothy in another case. He would tell them essentially, "Now, you stay there and finish the task. A foundation was laid, but there's still a wall that needs to be put up around it, so to speak. There are still some things that need to be put into order."
In fact, he says exactly that - "Put what remained into order". So there's still more work to be done for that church to be finalized in the church-planting process. Paul got it started and Titus is going to do the rest.
Another key element we see here is the call to "appoint elders in every town as I directed you".
It's here we get the idea that we see in the New Testament regarding church leadership; a plurality of elders, not just one pastor to oversee a church. A plurality of elders is the sound, normal practice for a Biblical church. For churches to flourish it's essential that they have a plurality of men who are trained, equipped, and recognized as the leaders of the church according to the qualifications that we see in the New Testament. (In our upcoming PMc course, Apostolic Church Planting, we will teach more fully about the qualifications for pastors/elders.) These men are to lead, direct, and guide the church through the right preaching and teaching of the Word of God (the whole counsel of Scripture) as they care for souls and labor by the grace of God to do all the work that that shepherds/pastors are called to.
Paul orders Titus (operating as a faithful missionary) to appoint elders. Then once the elders were appointed, then we would understand that the church was considered to have been planted and able to continue by the grace of God to grow and expand, according to the Lord's will, and impact the world.
Now we'll look a bit closer (though not exhaustively) at the work of apostolic planting through the life of Paul as recorded by Luke in Acts 14:19-28.
But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. 20 But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. 21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. Paul and Barnabas Return to Antioch in Syria 24 Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. 25 And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, 26 and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. 27 And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they remained no little time with the disciples.
Here we have a beautiful and brief summary of the work of the apostles when it came to church planting. A few things I would like us to note here:
Firstly, we see that Paul was stoned and they dragged him out.
They stoned him. Is that a work of apostolic church planting? No, not necessarily. That does happen to some people. It happened here to Paul, but it doesn't mean that this is apostolic church planting. What we can understand from this, however, is that suffering is typically a part of apostolic church planting. Missionary work involves a lot of suffering, (this we will discuss more throughout the PMc Missions Course). There's a lot to be understood about suffering as part of the normal Christian life and in particular, doing missionary work and apostolic church planting. Paul endured a lot, he endured terrible things one after another throughout his ministry. He was stoned, whipped, beaten, imprisoned, abandoned, forsaken, slandered, and so much more. It was normal for him. He understood it. He embraced it. In short, he understood his call as a follower of Jesus Christ and as an apostle.
Then in verse 20, we read that the disciples gathered about him and he rose up and he entered the city.
In this particular case, he likely was dead and resurrected. He actually was stoned so badly that he was considered dead. To the astonishment of all, he rose up and entered the city. It's noteworthy to point out here another thing that apostolic church planters do. In light of all the suffering and all the things that they must endure as they do pioneering work, they continue to rise up.
There are often occasions to fall down, to feel down, and not want to go on, but by God's grace, we rise back up. The Lord Himself will cause us to keep going on and persevere until the end. Without Him, we would simply cease to labor on in this kind of difficulty. Over and over, as we observe Paul's ministry, we notice the grace of God causing him to persevere. He just got up, shook off the dust, and kept on going. He fulfilled the task given to him by God and entered the city and again he is among the people.
Next, we read that he went on with Barnabas. He went on. This is another key thing that we can understand in the work of missionary (apostolic) church planting. We go on. We press on.
In verse 21 we read, "he preached the gospel to that city,"
This shows us another essential work for the missionary planter. In one way or another, they're preaching the gospel. We are to preach in any and every way possible. We preach the Gospel to the masses, to the people, to the individuals, from house to house, to any and everyone that we can. Preaching the Gospel and the word of God is crucial. Whoa to us if we don't preach the Gospel!
In verse 21, we also see that "he made many disciples".
Preaching is good. It's a great thing. It'd be wrong to not preach, but if you just preach and do nothing else, that too would be a problem. You also need to make disciples and making disciples involves time spent with other people. Going to them, being among them, opening the word, teaching the word, guiding them through life and everyday Christian living, and all these different things. In reality, this ought to be the regular practice (even lifestyle) of all followers of Jesus, but especially of those serving as missionaries who are sent out by the church.
Next, we read that he "returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples".
Returning is a part of missionary work. There's this on-the-move idea when it comes to apostolic church planting. You're not stationary, in other words. We also see here that he was encouraging them to continue in the faith. There's a need to be encouraged by God the Holy Spirit through the reading of the Word and meeting with the Lord on a continual regular basis. As we spend time in the Word and in prayer, in fellowship with other believers, we are built up and encouraged so as to be a blessing to others, not a burden. We are to get encouragement from the Lord Himself and bring it to others to the end that they too would continue and fulfill their God-given purpose.
All these things are part of apostolic church planting, but importantly, we read here about the urgent work of appointing elders.
And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. - Acts 14:23
The bid idea here, which we'll get at is the idea that ultimately distinguishes apostolic planting from pastoral planting. Paul is not just going, shepherding, and staying. He's doing much more. He's appointing elders.
Paul does the higher and more costly work of training and equipping other men called by God. He recognizes those who are qualified through the working of the Holy Spirit within them and the gifting of the Holy Spirit. He helps get them trained to teach, preach, shepherd, lead, and care for souls.
Paul understands that the establishment of local expressions of the body of Christ is a work of God from beginning to end. He labors with the end in mind from the beginning and he works towards seeing a plurality of elders appointed and recognized by the new church. The other Christians understand them to be their new God-given leaders/pastors/elders, and then Paul the Apostle, the missionary, apostolic church planter, moves on. He gets out and he trusts them into the hands of the Lord. The family of God has grown. The Kingdom is advancing. Paul moves on to continue doing it elsewhere in another place. He knows his purpose and doesn't settle into a comfortable position. He marches onward to fight the good fight.
May all our missionary efforts to the nations be modeled by this New Testament example. SDG.
I pray you can now at least see that this ought to be a topic that all missionaries are familiar with. In our next post, we will share some of the key differences (and similarities) between those called to pastoral church planting and those called to missionary (apostolic) church planting. If you are looking for a recommendation to understand the apostolic method more fully, check out the links to the books below. In addition, let me encourage you to sign up for free at the PMc Academia online where we are creating a free course on this subject.
Alla prossima! (Until the next time)
Apostolic Church Planting by JD Payne
Apostolic Imagination by JD Payne
Written by Jesse Schreck | founder, director, and missionary with Practical Missions Cohort
Adapted from the PMc video, Missionary Church Planting Like the Apostles