What sort of churches do we want to plant?
We want to be committed planting churches that meet not only with the world’s approval, but with God’s.
To do that we’re going to look at the depiction of the first Christian church ever planted, given to us in the book of Acts 2. The author, Luke, presents this church as the model Spirit filled community formed through the apostolic eyewitness testimony to Jesus Christ. Not only is this church the result of gospel preaching but it becomes the means of gospel preaching. Of course we need to be careful when reading narrative accounts of what happened in the Bible. We need to be wary of making something descriptive into something prescriptive. Nevertheless there are some abiding principles that do emerge from which we’re meant to learn. In particular there are four distinctive features of this new community that will shape any church planting initiatives that we undertake in the future.
1. We want to plant learning churches (42&43)
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.
The first feature of the churches’ life was their devotion to God’s word as it came to them in the apostles’ teaching. These first Christians had an insatiable appetite for Bible teaching of which the apostolic interpretation of the life, death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ is a part. They simply couldn’t get enough of God’s word.
They weren’t scornful of using their minds in the exercise of their Christian faith. Though faith in God is more than intellectual comprehension of the truth, it isn’t less than that. Whilst some of contemporary Christianity is anti-intellectual, authentic Christianity is nothing of the sort. The Holy Spirit, who brought this new church into existence, is the Spirit of truth. He cares about the truth. He’s passionately concerned for right thinking and an accurate understanding of reality. And that’s what he effects in us through salvation. Being saved by God involves helping us to think rightly about reality. And the Bible makes it clear that until we have the Spirit, we can’t think straight. We can think, but we just can’t think rightly. Without the aid of the Spirit, our thinking is warped. Our logic and reasoning is blighted by sin so that we take reality and skew it to our own ends. It takes a work of God to undo that. And that happens as we encounter the word of God and then the Spirit of God persuades us that it’s true.
Therefore church that we ought to be and the churches that we seek to initiate and resource must be first and foremost communities of people committed to learning from God in His word. And so the people with whom we plant must be Bible people.
The church planters ought to be teachers. The ideal church planter is an omni-competent church minister, strong in every regard and excelling in every spiritual gift. But in the real world the church planters that we need are primarily those that’ll gather God’s people and stick their noses in the text.
The church members ought to have a passion for teaching. The desire for learning is one of the sure fire signs of regeneration. In Co-Mission, we have a reputation for planting churches that put a strong emphasis on the Bible but I wonder whether that reputation is real. If we were to scratch beneath the surface of our church programmes would we find that we’re reading our Bibles, coming to church principally to learn and using our spare time to grow in the faith?
2. We want to plant caring churches (44&45)
44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
These first Christians expressed their fellowship with God in their fellowship with one another. Their love for God worked itself out in a love for His people. Luke describes and the New Testament envisages a level of communal involvement and social provision that’s rarely experienced in contemporary churches. Perhaps that’s because of the advent of the welfare state to which even the church has deferred its responsibility to love the poor and needy. It’s a challenge to 21st century, western individualistic living.
But this is not a charter for collectivised ownership. Private possession of property wasn’t forbidden in the early church, as (46) makes clear. The first Christians continued to own their own houses. And the selling that took place wasn’t enforced; it was voluntary and occasional. In other words, it took place in response to congregational needs. But what’s clear from these verses, and a similar passage in chapter 4, is that the early church pursued a level of personal care in meeting the needs of others that we would do well to imitate.
The issue of the financial support of others is a delicate and contentious issue. We may feel sensitive to it because, relatively speaking, many of our church members are well off and in a position to be generous. But we must feel the challenge of these words. The Bible encourages us to be liberal and sacrificial in our giving and to be cheerful as we do so. It doesn’t give us an amount, though 10% is a good place to start. What we decide to give is a matter of prayerful consideration of our situation. We just mustn’t be hard hearted or tight fisted.
The church that we ought to be and the churches that we seek to initiate and resource must be communities of people committed to caring for one another. The attitude of the hearts of these first Christians was to give generously to help the conditions of others in their church community. It could well be that in the coming months some of us lose our jobs as a result of the turmoil in the financial markets and the resultant recessionary pressures in the economy. If we’re to be a church worthy of the name many of us will need to sacrifice our current standard of life in order to care for others. Perhaps then the people who choose to remain outside these walls will realise that we’re not an irrelevance.
3. We want to plant worshipping churches (46&47)
46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favour with all the people.
These first Christians met formally and informally to worship God. They did so in the institutional religious structures of their day and they did so in the private homes of their church members. When they gathered they shared food and they shared their passion for God. In awe of God and in joyful thanks for their salvation, they praised the Lord to His face, to one another and to a watching world. And why shouldn’t they? They had something to get excited about. Praise, though often employed in a religious sense, is essentially a business term meaning ‘advertising’. Christians are in the business of advertising God, we’re the promotional vehicle for God’s reputation. These first Christians gained a favourable public reputation as a result of their lifestyles. Theirs was not a private insular existence but a public profession of their allegiance to the risen Lord Jesus Christ. The church was not a bomb shelter from which they could seek refuge from the attacks of the world; it was a city within a city that showed the rest of the world how to do things.
The church that we ought to be and the churches that we seek to initiate and resource must be communities of people committed to praising God. The praise of God is often accompanied and facilitated by music. Most good advertising is! And so we’ll give attention to our music in church. We’ll do all we can to keep developing our bands. But it can be the case that we pay far too much attention to what goes on at the front rather than what goes on in amongst the seats. Normal congregational members have a massive contribution to make in our singing. Our singing is often a good barometer of our hearts. I know that we need to be aware of different cultural expression of praise. It’s likely that an Afro Caribbean congregation will praise God in a different way to an Eastern European congregation. We ought to be wary of reading into someone’s heart from outward cultural expressions. But though we need to be cautious it’s not unreasonable to assume that how we sing is a good indicator of what we think. I’d love any churches we plant to be known as places where the praise of God sings out.
4. We want to plant evangelistic churches (47)
47 And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Luke concludes with a note of commendation. God set His seal of approval on what the early church did. It’s clear what He thought of them because He carried on increasing their numbers. We must not conclude that numbers are everything. A big church is not necessarily a good church. There are lots of big churches that are anything but good churches. Some of them are a disgrace. But a good church can expect to become big as the Lord brings people to it. In other words, if we live like this it seems reasonable to expect that the Lord will add to our number. If we’re doing what He wants, why wouldn’t He back us?
In one sense the church growth movement is a massive administrative and occasionally theological enterprise given to the pursuit of finding the silver bullet of growing big churches. But Luke gives it here. In dependence on the Spirit teach the truth, share your lives and promote the Lord. If we want others to join us, not only on a Sunday morning but to join us in this new community then we need to go on cultivating a love for those that aren’t here. There was a missional priority and zeal to their lives. It’s not that they became a holy huddle and God sent them some people. The means that God used to grow this church was their passion for people who didn’t call themselves Christians.
The church that we ought to be and the churches that we seek to initiate and resource must be communities of people committed to reaching the communities in which we live.
The presentation that Luke gives us of the first Christian church is of a group of people gathered by the Spirit of God. This was a spiritual church because the Spirit of God gave them four loves
- a love for the apostles teaching which he caused to be written
- a love for one another in whom the Holy Spirit dwells
- a love for God for that is who He is
- a love for unbelievers because that is the Spirit’s ministry
And so we could say that
- Theologically they were to be devoted to the word of God
- Socially they were to be devoted to caring for one another
- Doxologically they were to be devoted to praising God
- Missiologically they were to be devoted to those not in church
The Spirit of God gave these new church plants clear theological, social, doxological and missional priorities. May he give us the same in the churches that we start.