Church Planting in the New Testament 

Church Planting in the New Testament 

Often when we think of church planting, we think of mega churches, with satellite campuses and technology that streams services from one to another in the blink of an eye. Churches like Hillsong here in Australia, or Mars Hill in the United States, come to mind. We may think of independent churches setting up in school halls and theatres when we think of this missional activity. Or perhaps we might conjure up images of breakaway groups formed after some theological dispute.  

Church planting in mainline denominations often goes under the radar. It might be spurred on by new housing developments, where there is no infrastructure in place for religious expression. Residents would be forced to travel if they wanted to participate in church services. Churches see the need and plan to build a Christian community in the new suburb.  

They might be driven by compassion or justice in some way, establishing a presence in a particular ethnic or socio-economic community. These church plants have a particular focus to reach people of a particular group or subculture. One example is Christian people moving into low socio-economic postcodes to share not only the gospel, but life, with residents experiencing intergenerational poverty. 

While there are many types of church plants, and they have legitimacy in different contexts, it is worth exploring what the New Testament says about church planting. Biblical underpinnings to this endeavour of church planting are important. 

Church planting did not start off in the New Testament as the erecting of new buildings or growing a denomination. It started as obeying the instructions of Jesus’ “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:16-20, to go into all nations to make disciples, baptise them and teach them Jesus’ way. In Acts 1:6-11, at Jesus’ ascension, he instructs his disciples to be witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth in the power of the Holy Spirit. 

If we understand churches to be groups of believers, then it is important to recognise that the first groups were Jewish believers. They were meeting together and being taught in synagogues. The Christian movement started as a Jewish “sect”. It wasn’t confined to Judaism, however, and incrementally, it began to spread beyond the bounds of Jerusalem. 

In Acts 2 we read of Pentecost and the conversion of around 3,000 Jews from a number of nations. The next chapter has Peter and John beginning to preach the good news at the temple in Jerusalem. By Acts 6, a large number of believers have been added, including Jewish priests. In Acts 8, after Stephen’s death due to his preaching and teaching, persecution against believers starts. Some move out of Jerusalem to escape the oppression. Philip begins to proclaim the gospel in Samaria, a region to the north of Jerusalem. Peter and John are then sent and the new believers are baptised in the Holy Spirit. Philip heads south to Gaza and converts an Ethiopian Jew who is heading home after worshipping in Jerusalem. In Acts 9 Peter and John encourage believers in Lydda and Joppa, north west of Jerusalem. Saul the persecutor becomes Paul the believer, and he begins learning and teaching in Jerusalem under Barnabas’ wing. Paul is moved to Caesarea in Samaria and then Tarsus in Cilicia to the far north, when news of plots to kill him surface. In Acts 10, Peter is dramatically challenged and preaches the good news to a Roman Centurion, Cornelius, and his household, family and friends, many whom believe. Gentiles are now understood to have access to, and be part of, God’s family. This foreshadows Barnabas being instructed to start a church in Antioch in Syria, where believers are first called Christians (Acts 11), and that church sending him and Paul to start churches in the surrounding regions, starting on the island of Cyprus (Acts 13). 

Paul spends years travelling around the Roman Empire, sharing the good news about Jesus. From Cyprus, he visits Perga in Pamphylia, then Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe in Lycaonia, Perga, Attalia, Troas, Philippi in Macedonia, Thessalonica, Beroea, Athens, Corinth, Cenchrea, Ephesus, and back to Caesarea before heading home to Jerusalem. He revisited a number of the groups of believers. This was just his first two missionary journeys. One more would follow covering some of the same places and more added. 

When he visited a town or city, Paul’s custom, according to Acts 17:2, was to focus on the Jews first and teach in the synagogues, often on a daily basis. If he was well received there, he would continue teaching. If not, Paul would go to the Gentiles, as his conflict with Jews in Corinth describes (Acts 18:1-6). Sometimes he would find sanctuary in a house where he could teach from, like that of Titius, whose house was next to the Corinthian synagogue. At other times he would teach from public places like the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). 

Throughout Acts, there is a movement from Jews to Gentiles, in terms of people groups, and from Jerusalem, to Samaria and surrounds, and then spreading into Roman provinces, in terms of geography. Churches are planted in this missionary movement and many of the letters in the New Testament are written to those churches or individuals within them. 

The groups of believers that resulted from these missionary trips, however, are still not churches as we most commonly understand churches today, with a permanent building somehow determining the members. Rather, many of them, especially amongst the Gentile believers, were house churches. Designated buildings would come much later. 

Of note is the story of Lydia in Acts 16:11-40. She was most likely a Gentile polytheist, who now believed in the Jewish God, but was not a Jew. She listened to Paul teaching at a place of prayer where women gathered outside the gate of Philippi. Lydia believes what she hears and her whole household are baptised as a result. She opens her home to Paul, Silas, and the other companions and they continue to teach from there. After a brief stay in jail, where the jailer and his family believe and are baptised, Paul returns to Lydia’s house to “encourage the brothers and sisters there” before departing. This suggests that Lydia’s home had become a meeting place, a “house church”. It is arguably the first example of a Gentile house church in Acts.  

We possibly see a change from the synagogue and house churches, to a different permanent building, in Acts 19. Paul has been active in mostly itinerant ministry up until that point. On this, his third missionary journey, he stops in Ephesus for two years, the longest he stays anywhere on his trips. After a few months teaching from the synagogue, tensions rise, and Paul moves to the lecture hall of Tyrannus. Here, he teaches and argues the faith on a daily basis. People from the surrounding areas, both Jew and Gentile, are able to come and hear him speak. This lecture hall, according to Andy Chambers in his book Exemplary Life, was either a building for public discussion or a school house. Owned by Tyrannus, it was rented or donated for the Ephesian church’s larger assemblies, and was combined with instruction in smaller groups meeting in multiple homes around Ephesus (Acts 20:20). 

We see Paul establishing small individual house churches as well as larger assemblies of multiple households for many years. When he left a town or city, there would be local Christians assigned to lead. Paul would revisit many, encouraging, correcting and challenging. He also wrote letters of instruction and exhortation, some of which we find in the New Testament. Some are for churches, some are for leaders, others individuals. All these actions of Paul’s, are to fulfil what he believes Jesus called him to do, through Ananias, after his experience on the road to Damascus: to be “an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). 

Chambers understands that there are four aspects to the purpose and character of God in Acts. Firstly, God is a purposeful God, in that the coming of Jesus and the spread of His gospel is the fulfillment of the saving purpose of God announced by the prophets and Jesus, and proclaimed by the apostles. Second, God is a missionary God, reaching for Jews and Gentiles alike. Third, God is a saving God, offering salvation, through Jesus, to all who repent and believe in him. Finally, God is a community making God. When people are saved by God, God adds them to the community of believers. This is the church which continues to grow. 

Chambers also argues a threefold theology of the exemplary church of Acts concerning its origin, character and mission. The origin of the church is in God. The Holy Spirit was present at creation and came upon prophets and judges to proclaim God’s ways. The Spirit anointed Jesus and later on every believer that was present at Pentecost. The Spirit continued to help those believers proclaim the Good News of Jesus and continues to do so today. God continues to build God’s church and the Spirit empowers Christians to participate in that. 

The character of the exemplary church can be seen in a number of ways in Acts. It calls people to respond to the life and message of Jesus and be baptised. The church brings new believers into its worshipping life and commits to fellowship. It participates in the Lord’s Supper, prayer, meeting together, worship, and the proclamation of the Good News. The church generously shares to meet other’s needs. Believers enjoy meals together, care for the place where they live, and expect that people will be saved. The church protects its unity and boldly proclaims the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It lives in the grace of God, earns the respect of its community, yet recognises that persecution will prevent some from joining. It also acknowledges and respects other believers and churches when there are differences that concern race and culture. 

The mission of the church was assigned to it by Jesus when he told the disciples that they would be his witnesses in the power of the Spirit to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Chambers argues that: 

“…the call to go and tell others about Jesus cannot be separated from the call to gather new converts into churches. The mission in Acts is about going and gathering, not just going and telling. The 120 believers who prayed and waited in the upper room…for power…became the church…before they were thrust into their mission. Everywhere the believers went proclaiming the gospel and leading people to faith in Jesus, they left churches in their wake.” 

Church planting is a part of the mission of the church. It is an expression of evangelism, and is one way that God works in the world to gather more believers to the wider church. It can take a variety of forms and utilise different people and ideas. Ultimately, it is for reaching people who are not yet believers, communicating with them God’s love, grace and mercy, and offering them a community of believers to share life with as they worship God together. 


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