The Bible does not say much about church planting. In fact, it does not technically address methodology or process at all. Neither does it give us a prototype to follow. But a lot of churches were planted. At first glance, that seems at least a little odd.
The early history of the church is recorded in the book of Acts. Most people who teach on church planting focus quite a bit on that book. They often speak about the initial gathered community in Acts 2. Though that was the birthday of “the church,” it was not the birthday of “a church” per se. People often reference Acts 5:14 where the numbers increased. But that is just a statement on the overall spread of the gospel and receptivity not whether or how they gathered themselves together. Again, about “the church” not “a church,” Acts 8, 10, 13, 14 and 16 all refer to the spread of the news and/or inclusion of new groups or people into “the church.” Here we get windows into the scattering (Acts 8:1) and gathering (Acts 16:13) and spreading and increasing (Acts 12:24). Again we get nothing about intentionally starting a church or a community of believers for weekly meetings or any other kind of meeting. Acts 17-19 give a better picture of what those many church communities looked like well after they had been planted. In these chapters, we become familiar with the cities or regions in which the church gathered.
The Apostle Paul wrote several letters to churches like those in Galatia, Corinth and Rome. When he wrote to them, they were already established enough to have leaders, problems, reputations and expectations for their gatherings and in some cases more than enough rules to guide them along the way. We get a good look at fully operational (both functional and dysfunctional) churches. But again there is no prescribed methodology or description of how those churches were planted. Yet there were a lot of churches that had been planted. In fact, we know that the church was present on three continents (Asia, Europe and Africa) before the end of the first century. None of them had brick and mortar as many of ours do today. Most of the churches that are referenced refer to all gathered communities in a region (approximately 40 regions by 90 A.D.), rather than a specific group. In other words, we don’t find a church in Athens with a sign above a door in bold letters noting Mars Hill Christian Fellowship gathered at 11 a.m. Sunday on the corner of Caesar Augustus Drive and Aphrodite Avenue. Again there were a lot of churches, gathered communities of believers, who met together and met the needs of those with whom they met. But we know very little about how they gathered initially.
In fact, so little help is given about church planting methodology in Acts and the Epistles of Paul that some have predated their biblical references on how to plant a church back to Jesus’ instructions to His 12 apostles (Luke 9) and later 72 disciples (Luke 10). In those passages, Jesus instructed His disciples to go to new places for the purpose of healing, casting out demons, talking about the kingdom of God and the like. But again we have no information that would lead us to believe that Jesus expected the formation of churches or that church planting was even what He had in mind. We know that these were temporary expeditions wherein disciples were able to extend the work of Jesus. After all, the disciples returned to Jesus and we have no record of these impacted regions continuing to meet or that churches ever developed there. No names of towns or villages are given to us to identify them later. We never hear Jesus speak about this being a future methodology. It was a commissioning of sorts for those closest to Him — a transfer of authority and power to do what he had been doing. It was preparation for church. It was not church. The word “church” was not even used at that point and the Holy Spirit had not yet been given.
The word for church, ekklesia, does not appear in the Scriptures referring to a specific group until after the Luke 9–10 passages when Jesus sent the disciples out. So again why? Why do we see so many churches and so little about their beginnings in our primary sourcebook?
The reason is because church planting was as natural a thing for Christians at that time as praying and loving and wanting to fellowship with other believers is today. It was like breathing, eating and talking. Think about it. Jesus had called the disciples to make disciples everywhere. So they did. He didn’t say anything to them at all about planting churches, just making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). He didn’t tell them that, when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they would plant churches (Acts 1:8). He said they would be His witnesses. He knew that as they were witnessing to the goodness of God and making disciples, those new disciples who discovered Jesus Christ through saving faith would be bound with an unbreakable bond with other Christians. They would seek out other believers. He knew that transformed people would know intuitively that they are better off together than alone. He knew most certainly when these new disciples would gather like moths to the light. He knew they would plant churches.
Church planting was a natural outcome of witnessing (Acts 1:8) and making disciples (Matthew 28:18–20). It still is.
This is how it works — naturally. A church of witnesses of God’s grace who are bent on making disciples do precisely that. They make disciples of the people they know. Those people become part of the church and continue in the disciple-making process with others. Throughout the ages, people long to make disciples of their friends. Making disciples is helping people know Jesus Christ and learn to live in obedience to Him. When people gather together for teaching, praying, confessing, testifying, fellowshipping, caring for one another, gift expression, encouraging and even correcting one another, they are doing church. They are being church. When people have burdens for friends who lives at a distance, they want to ensure that their friends have a group of people who can help them. In fact, the church will have a natural burden for neighboring communities of people who do not know Jesus. That emanates from the love of God.
The outcome will be helping people find salvation and hope in Jesus Christ. Those who are a distance (geographically, culturally or situationally) from the church will find a need to connect with other disciples — members of this unusually wonderful family. They will desire to meet. The desire becomes a need to worship together, learn more about God together, and use gifts that are given by the Holy Spirit specifically for the community. These only make sense in relationship with others. They will want to be obedient to Jesus’ command to make disciples as someone was obedient to disciple them. Those new disciples will likely emerge from friends and family who are proximate with that community. And a church is planted.
Now is there more to church planting than that? Yes, of course there is. I have abbreviated the process and simplified the activities involved in planting churches. I have a purpose in doing so. Given the choice between portraying church planting as an unbearably complex undertaking — with hope for success only in the hands of experts and professionals — and portraying church planting as a rather simple and natural outcome of churches and people who are busy making disciples, I will choose the latter. In fact, the places on the globe where church planting is thriving at present are where there are few to no professionals or church planting experts. In the U.S., we have more trained church planters in percentage to the number of Christians than any other country in the world. And we plant fewer churches than the countries where church growth is vibrant.
I stand as a living testimony to how unscientific church planting can be. I can testify that once you start making disciples, the Spirit of the Lord will bring people with hopes and burdens. The Spirit will also create opportunities that cannot be readily planned, even by the professionals. My wife, Marlene, and I had the privilege of launching a church plant as twentysomethings from our very first church. It failed to thrive. But disciples were made, and some of them later reconnected and became part of a thriving church in Boise, Idaho.
After a move to the Philippines, we connected with a believer who lived in a poor community with no church and few other believers. After asking if she had been testifying about God’s grace with others who need Him, she replied she had and began a small group of four women who were new in their faith. I started to meet with those four women, and, within about nine months, we were joined by more than 100 other new disciples who were growing in their faith and making disciples. We started meeting on Sundays and Thursdays. The need arose in the community for education for their youngest children who were too vulnerable and too poor to attend public school, so we started a school. We graduated more than 60 kindergarteners per year and granted scholarships for public school to all of them. A pastor was located and we moved on to plant three other churches.
After returning from the Philippines to Spokane, Washington, some friends and my persistent sister conspired with Marlene to convince me to start making disciples in an area of town where they had friends (prospective disciples) but no church in which to disciple them. We gathered about 12 burdened disciple-making types together in a friend’s living room and four months later launched a church with over 90 people in attendance. Today that church has launched three other churches — the latest one in September 2016.
Now to the point. I do not consider myself a church planter. I am in love with Jesus and committed to making disciples. The opportunities to do that in existing churches abound. But existing churches cannot contain all of the people who need to become disciples, in every community and culture where Christians have unique connection and influence. It just so happens that when churches and groups of people have a big-enough heart, wide-enough connections and faith that stretches them beyond what they see, something new is bound to result. And, since Jesus promised to build His church, His family wants to pitch in and help. One of the many results is church planting.
Some people who are reading this article and who happen to love Jesus and are committed to helping people grow to know and follow Christ might not consider themselves church planters any more than I do myself. But they might just do it — naturally. The reality is that we need more churches in more locations to contain the disciples and afford them the opportunity to lead and make disciples themselves.
The saddest part is how uncommon it is for churches to plant churches. I could go into all of the reasons. Some are afraid of losing precious and much-needed resources — people and money — from their existing church to a new church. Others believe the work is too complex and requires expertise that is beyond them. Still others think that church planting is a calling for some leaders and churches and not for others. And others believe that a church is only a church if it has a building, a full program for all ages, a piano player and a trained preacher with leadership gifts, a pulpit, a great knowledge of Scripture and charming sense of humor. None of those is required. The sole requirement is a disciple or a community in love with Jesus and committed to making disciples.
Though church planting is uncommon, it should be uncommonly natural. A common refrain among church planters is: “I could not do it, but the Holy Spirit had other ideas and made it clear that He would.” If there is anything He is interested in helping us do, it is making disciples, which naturally leads us to start churches.
Bishop Matthew Thomas has been an active part of the Free Methodist Church since 1979. His ministry roles have included serving as a pastor, church planter, missionary and superintendent.1