Who are the people God uses to form a new church? Who qualifies? Must the leaders all be pastors? Can it take other Christians sent from other churches, or must a new church only start by reaching new Christians? These are good questions people have asked in both instances where I have endeavored to plant churches.
Acts 11 is a great place to go to answer these questions. In Acts we learn that the church begins in Jerusalem following Christ’s commission in Acts 1 (specifically Acts 1:8) and the Holy Spirit’s empowering in Acts 2. The rest of the book of Acts explains how the church went from Jerusalem to where you are today. In Acts 11:19-26 we see participants in one of the first new churches started beyond Jerusalem, and these participants all come from one of four scenarios. In starting a church, God will use…
1. Christians being providentially steered (11:19-20).
Providential circumstances led the Christians in the Jerusalem church to move beyond Jerusalem. They went out from the church they came to faith in, and wherever they went they continued sharing the gospel with the new people they met. These were everyday Christians, not preachers as we know them. And yet the Bible says they “were preaching the Lord Jesus.”
Most Christians could never imagine leaving “their” church for any reason. But God uses changes in the circumstances of our lives to lead us in expanding His Kingdom and keeping the church on the move with the gospel. Life is an adventure. It is likely, as God is providentially working in our lives, that He will use various Christians influentially participating in the start of a new church. Their circumstances and church origins might differ, but these Christians are needed in planting churches.
2. New Christian being saved (11:21).
Luke tells us that “the hand of the Lord was with them.” Being forced out of your city because of persecution is not usually a sought after experience. However, God uses changes in life and the difficulties of His people for amazing purposes. This was an unsettling and uncomfortable time for many Christians, and yet, “a large number who believed turned to the Lord.”
Many times church planting is the most productive way of reaching new people with the gospel. Some church plants will see new converts immediately, and some will labor years and new converts will be hard to come by. In some parts of the world, missionaries labor years with the gospel before they ever see their first convert. Nevertheless, it takes new people believing the gospel and turning to the Lord for church planting to happen.
3. Leaders being sent (11:22-24).
Thankfully, the leaders and Christians in Jerusalem where not concerned by so many leaving their membership as a part of the mission of God. Instead, “The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch.” The church in Jerusalem wanted to be intricately part of this church planting movement. They sent one of their best leaders, Barnabas. Shockingly, Jerusalem did not send Mark, who was little known then and very inexperienced. They sent a person who had been around since Acts 4. Barnabas was the man sent, whose name means “son of encouragement.”
I wish I could say that pastors of churches have responded encouragingly to me each time I felt led by God to plant a church. The sad reality is that in each church planting endeavor I have participated in, pastors have responded in very discouraging and unenthusiastic ways. New churches are viewed as threats, and leaders and resources are too often withheld. To God’s glory, one of these pastors eventually became one of our most helpful and supportive people, leading his church to partner with ours to reach our city with the gospel. (Caution to church planters: Don’t get bitter when pastors in your area fail to welcome you to the city. Do what God sent you to do. Show by example that you are a partner for the gospel, not a competitor. God can change the hearts of pastors who are not excited about you being there.)
It will take leaders sent by churches to plant new churches and expand the Kingdom of God.
4. Teachers/pastors being sought (11:25-26).
Soon, Barnabas left Antioch on a recruiting trip to find help. He searched for Paul to come and help in teaching and pastoring in this new church. It’s a fact that it takes disciples to make disciples. Paul and Barnabas spent the first year discipling leaders in Antioch. Soon, Paul and Barnabas would be sent out from Antioch and there will be new teachers and pastors leading the church there (Acts 13). New churches have an amazing opportunity to be the most mission-minded and most aggressive churches that plant churches.
I am not afraid to asked trained leaders to pray about coming to lead in a new church. This is not the same as trying to build the attendance of a church worship service by attracting and inviting the members of other churches. Church planting should not involve “sheep stealing.” However, churches must actively train new leaders to replace the leaders that the Holy Spirit may send out from their church. It will take trained leaders to start new churches.
Notice also that Paul and Barnabas had never “officially” pastored in a church before. They were likely solid leaders in other aspects of the church, but there is no record that Barnabas was a pastor in Jerusalem, nor Paul in Tarsus. Church plants are likely places for mature Christians to serve in new capacities. Men who have never served as an elder, but meet the qualifications of an elder given in 1 Timothy 3, may be called to serve in this way. Nevertheless, it takes qualified teachers and pastors in planting churches.
So, who are the people God uses to begin a new church? Some will come through providential changes in life that lead them to help start a new church. Some will join the movement as new converts. Some will be leaders sent by a partnering church. And some will be recruited to lead in the early stages of the new church. All will find that the adventure of church planting is an amazing part of God’s Kingdom purposes.