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18. Planting new churches (congregations)

Acts 14vs21-28; 16vs11-40. Church Growing Pains.

There is one sense in which the title of this chapter is not true. There is only one Church that Jesus Christ is building upon Himself as the chief cornerstone, Ephesians 2vs20. What I am drawing attention to here is how Paul and his friends, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, propagated expressions of that Church in different towns and cities almost wherever they went.

I enjoy gardening, and I particularly enjoy propagating new plants from established ones. I have grown coleus, fuchsia, Christmas cactus, begonia, forsythia, hydrangea, blackcurrants, loganberries and other varieties of flowers and fruit in this way. The means of propagation may give us some insights into reproducing churches. Perhaps the most basic method is to let a plant go to seed and then plant some of the seeds to produce more plants. As an alternative a piece may be broken off an existing plant and either rooted in water or a hormone compound before planting out separately. The right temperature and humidity should be maintained. For different plants you can make what is called a layering, which means that you bend a low stem or branch into the ground and bury the slight cut or crease you have made in it while still keeping it attached to the main plant. A stone is helpful for weighing the branch down. In a year or so you should be able to sever the links with its parent and plant the new shrub in its own location. One further method is also to dig up the entire plant (as in rhubarb) or clump (as in Iris), and divide it by a swift stroke with a sharp spade before replanting the two (or more) newly created individuals.

Most of these four methods can apply to creating new Christian fellowships.

1. Churches have started from sowing the seed of the gospel with some bearing


2. Others have been the deliberate, or otherwise, breaking off of a few people

who move to a different location.

3. Alternatively an existing fellowship will parent another on the edge of itself

for a period until both are ready for the severance.

4. Sadly sometimes there are factions and divisions which result in a lot of

uprooting that sets the growth of everything back by a year or two before

most parties resettle and begin to grow.

There may be an example of the latter in the division of Paul and Barnabas over Mark, Acts 15vs39. The usual method employed in Acts is evident in the missionary journeys of Paul and Barnabas, Acts 13vs1-14vs28, and Paul and Silas, Acts 15vs40-21vs26. During this period people were converted to Christ and gathered into congregations in many places, including Paphos Acts 13vs12; Pisidian Antioch Acts 13vs43, 48, 49; Iconium Acts 14vs1; Lystra and Derbe Acts 14vs21; Philippi Acts 16vs15, 34, 40; Thessalonica Acts 17vs4; Berea Acts 17vs12; Athens Acts 17vs34; Corinth Acts 18vs8; Ephesus Acts 19vs10, 18, 20; 20vs1; Troas Acts 20vs7; and also many of the surrounding towns and villages. The missionary evangelists "proclaimed the forgiveness of sins through Jesus" Acts 13vs38, "spoke boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders" Acts 14vs3, "preached the good news" Acts 14vs7 etc. There was always some positive reaction and these new believers were gathered together geographically.

In more detail let us examine what happened first in Iconium and then in Philippi.

The church in Iconium began when God put His missionary call to the church leaders in Antioch, Acts 13vs1-3. As the leadership listened the Lord showed the way ahead. If they had said 'No' at any time the chapter would have closed. Paul and Barnabas sent by the Holy Spirit, saw conversions in many places, encountered some opposition, but persevered in spreading the Word of the Lord. They had their strategy as you can see by looking at a map of their travels, but they also followed the Holy Spirit's promptings. These two things are not mutually exclusive as some Christians seem to think. They are rather mutually endorsing as God's Spirit confirms, or confronts, the strategy that is submitted to Him and then acted upon in faith. In Acts 13vs51 the evangelistic enterprise arrives in Iconium,

In the passage, Acts 14vs1-7 and 21-25, we can learn six steps frequently involved in establishing an independent Christian witness in a town.

1. There was preaching and teaching that effectively communicated the life-changing message of Jesus Christ, Acts 14vs1. Not all preaching and teaching communicates what we want it to communicate. Sometimes our media or methods shout against our message. In the Iconium synagogue Paul would have read the Old Testament Scriptures and reasoned with his hearers that Jesus Christ was indeed the One sent from God to be their Saviour.

2. There were some conversions. The verse continues "they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed." Not everyone responded positively, but everyone responded! Such a clear line was drawn by the preacher that, "the people of the city were divided, some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles", Acts 14vs4.

3. There was, inevitably, conflict. Those who would not accept that the message was legitimate and preferred to remain entrenched in their own tradition expecting no more, became abusive as they incited the crowds and prejudiced them against Paul and Barnabas. By 14vs5 the violence has become physical and the evangelists' lives were in danger. Paul reminds Timothy about this in his letter, 2 Timothy 3vs10-11 "You know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings - what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them."

4. Notice that the whole enterprise was not a one night stand. "So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord ..." Acts 14vs3(a). Every gardener will tell you that the results of gardening do not become evident overnight. We know Paul spent a year and a half in Corinth, Acts 18vs11; over two years in Ephesus, Acts 19vs10, and three months in Macedonia, Acts 20vs3. We must be ready to invest considerable time in our evangelistic endeavours to see substantial results.

5. There was a gracious confirmation from God over and above all the opposition. "The Lord confirmed the message of His grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders" Acts 14vs3(b). Just as God had testified to Jesus Christ in this way, Hebrews 2vs4, He also put His seal of approval on the Iconium ministry. The miracles pointed to Jesus Christ. They acted as directional signposts. The wonders made people aware that there was so much more than a material side to life. Precisely what they were we do not know, but "God" was the only explanation.

6. Finally, those who instigated the events showed special care for the folk who were converted and took a stand for Jesus Christ. Although they fled from a plot to kill them, Acts 14vs5, 6, they returned at the earliest opportunity for specific reasons. Four things were on their hearts when they returned to Iconium as well as Derbe, Lystra and Pisidian Antioch. They wanted to strengthen, encourage and warn the believers, Acts 14vs22, and they wanted to set up a system of responsible people to lead each meeting. "Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust", Acts 14vs23. They taught the lessons that needed immediate teaching, they formed a local leadership to take on responsibility and then they left them to God - a positive act of reasonable faith. (Revisits did occur later on, see Acts 15vs36 and 16vs1-5). By encouraging the believers to remain true to the faith Paul showed he was convinced God's truth could look after them. By raising a leadership through prayer and fasting Paul showed he was prepared to let the church be a true local expression. By committing them all to the Lord he showed that his trust was in God rather than in his own work.

So the church in Iconium came into being through communication, conversions, conflict, considerable time being allowed, confirmations from God and positive aftercare. These are good steps for us to follow.

For just one more example move to Acts 16vs6-40. Philippi was contacted for Christ after the human plans to go to Asia and Bithynia were laid aside and the team agreed to follow the vision Paul had of a man calling them on to Macedonia. Philippi would probably have been the first Christian church in Europe. Its establishment followed the vision of a person, a place and a plea, "During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us'", Acts 16vs9.

The missionaries' method involved prayer. The first place they went to was "the place of prayer" by the riverside. There were not enough Jews for a synagogue in Philippi. As well as prayer Paul, Timothy, Silas and Luke needed to mix with people in order to evangelise. It was one of those people who heart was opened by God's Spirit as Paul spoke. The preacher was working in partnership with God. Lydia made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and was baptised as a sign of her new found faith, Acts 16vs15.

The almost routine opposition soon followed except this time it was from the city's business community and not the synagogue! Paul and Silas ended up in prison after a near riot caused by the exorcism of a fortune teller and the consequential rage of her owners. Called by God. Commissioned by the church. Clapped in jail! Not what they would have chosen. Yet God was still in control. He was going to draw the jailer and his family to Himself and so He arranged for the preachers to be in the prison where they could not go off and do anything else.

The jailer took his job conscientiously and put the prisoners in the innermost cell, Acts 16vs24. He turned his back on their Christian testimony by going to sleep even while Paul and Silas sang songs of joy and praise, vs25. When the earthquake struck and the doors broke open the jailer became terrified of personal failure. He was about to commit suicide, vs27. Then God turned him around, vs28-32. He saw living testimony of the unexpected way Christians lived in that crisis and he heard the word of the Lord explaining the reason. Finally he testified to receiving new life by being baptised as a believer, vs33, 34. Although the Bible does not say it I am sure Paul put the jailer and family in touch with Lydia and her household. Two converted families! It seems there were others too. "After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia's house, where they met with the brothers and encouraged them. Then they left", Acts 16vs40.

Paul developed a loving relationship with the Philippians. The letter he wrote to them shows something of their care for him before and during his time in a Roman prison, Philippians 2vs25, 4vs14-18, and his care for them, Philippians 1vs3-8. He was sure that God would look after them although he could not be there himself. "Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ", Philippians 1vs6. We are not aware of other personal visits Paul made, but he wrote to them, he prayed for them, Philippians 1vs4, and 9; he sent emmissaries to them, such as Timothy, Philippians 2vs19-24. He warned them about troublemakers and he encouraged them to "stand firm in the Lord", Philippians 3vs2 and 4vs1.

The church at Philippi was founded on a businesswoman and a jailer both soundly converted through personal, situational, evangelism. In a fairly hostile environment, Philippians 1vs29, 30, the church grew into having "overseers and deacons", Philippians 1vs1, a missionary vision, Philippians 4vs15, and they were urged to have a characteristic joy in the Lord, Philippians 4vs4.

God's method for world evangelism is His church. He still propagates where He can find people willing to listen to His voice and learn His directions. It is impossible to have too many churches in a town. By that I mean that a housegroup in every street is an excellent goal. In the early eighties three times I visited a church in Jakarta, Indonesia, that made a lasting impression on me. It had then about 7000 members. Five or six services were held on a Sunday, each one packing seven or eight hundred people in, but where were the others? Every member was in a housegroup and the church goal was a housegroup in every street of their section of the capital city. If a few new members came from a different street they were encouraged to start a group. The meeting I enjoyed ministering to most with them was last thing on a Sunday night when all the leaders came together and told what God had been doing in their groups of six to sixty persons throughout the city while the main congregation had been in this building.

Wherever we are we can plant the life of Jesus Christ in our village, town or city, or in a neighbouring one, if we will follow His call.

Discussion questions

  • If you could choose a method for starting a new church, what would you choose and why?

  • If you have new housegroups developing locally based and with new Christians in - how do you relate them to the "mother" church?

  • Do they need to be so related?


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