Have you ever asked yourself the question, “How did my church start?” To be sure, it started in a particular place at a particular time. For some of you, the start of the church was recent. You are members of a current church plant and can clearly remember its beginning; however, most of us benefit from the efforts of faithful Christians who planted churches decades and centuries before our time. If not for their efforts in church planting, our churches would not exist. As we think about the foundational work they did in the past, we are faced with the question, “Why did they plant the church?” If we apply this question to our contemporary context, we ask ourselves, “Why plant churches?”
1. Church planting is biblical.
As a matter of fact, church planting is the primary evangelistic method in the book of Acts. The church at Antioch sends Paul and Barnabas out to make disciples and plant churches (Acts 13:1-2). With their first missionary journey, we see a pattern develop that will repeat itself throughout the book of Acts. They preach in an area and see people come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, disciple the new converts and help them to grow in the faith, and then appoint elders to lead the newly planted congregation. Luke records this pattern of church planting stating:
After they preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.(Acts 14:21-23 NASB)
On his second missionary journey, Paul plants a church in Philippi with the help of Silas. They travel to the riverside place of prayer and share the gospel with a group of women.(Acts 16:13) A woman named Lydia is among the listeners there. She responds to the gospel in repentance and faith and invites Paul and Silas to use her house as a base for their missionary efforts. The two missionaries plant a church that meets in Lydia’s home. As they are preparing to leave Philippi, the Bible states, “They went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia, and when they saw the brethren, they encouraged them and departed.”(Acts 16:40 NASB) The fact that such a church was established in Philippi is evident in Paul’s greeting at the beginning of the book of Philippians. He writes, “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”(Philippians 1:1-2 NASB) Again, one sees the pattern of preaching the gospel, encouraging/discipling new converts, and establishing a local congregation.
The final example I will mention is the example of Paul planting the church in Ephesus. On his third missionary journey, Paul returns to Ephesus and shares the gospel with a group of disciples of John the Baptist who he subsequently baptizes in the Lord’s name.(Acts 19:1-7) Paul spends a little over two years in Ephesus discipling believers there and building up the leadership of the church.(Acts 19:9-10). We know that Paul established such leaders in the church because, while in Miletus, he shares a tearful farewell with the elders of the church in Ephesus.(Acts 20:17-38) He preached the gospel in Ephesus, discipled the believers there, established leaders, and moved on with the intent of planting churches as far as Spain.(Romans 15:24)
In light of such a clear biblical pattern of the early church using church planting as its primary evangelistic method, we contemporary Christ followers should ask ourselves: “Is church planting part of my church’s evangelism/missions strategy? If church planting is biblical, then is my church developing and implementing an intentional plan to plant churches?
This is Part 1 of a 3 part series. Part 2 will be available March 11.
Dr. Tim McKnight is Assistant Professor of Missions and Youth Ministry at Anderson University. He has over 21 years of experience in ministry, serving churches in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina. He served in youth ministry for 12 years and in the pastorate for 9 years. In addition, Dr. McKnight served as an infantry chaplain in the U.S. Army, deploying on Operations Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom in 2001. He holds a BS in Criminal Justice from Bluefield College, and a M.Div. and PhD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. His primary field of study for the Ph.D. was in evangelism, with additional studies in missions and church history. He has also co-founded Carolina Family Planning Centers and founded Twin Vision Consultants, a church consultation team that helps congregations become healthy and growing churches. He has also served as a disaster relief chaplain in multiple settings in recent years, including in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake and Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina.