Preach, perfect, prepare & plant
On arriving back to the UK in early 2019 from a stint in Latin America working in the areas of lay education and church planting I was kindly invited to a very interesting meeting. Three vicars and three representatives from their PCCs were meeting together to jointly discuss becoming a resource church and how those three churches might work together to plant a new congregation. They told me that they had identified three areas across their churches which they needed to grow in - if they were not only going to be able to plant a church but also revive their existing ones. Evangelism, discipleship & leadership development.
I suggested that that sounded rather like Paul’s church in action in Acts 14.21-23. They were surprised at how the elements they had identified appeared in those short verses and even more that I so readily brought them to mind! Unfortunately it wasn’t due to deep biblical knowledge on my part but because I happened to be meditating on those verses for my ‘standard’ missionary sermon to give on our last home leave. On looking at the passage more it seems to me that it has a lot to offer local churches as a way of joining the dots of different areas of church life that can have a missional impact in our communities. There is probably nothing new here for large churches of different stripes but often surprisingly absent in many of our Christian communities and something that I would love to see developed in my small traditional church on the edge of London.
There isn’t the space here to do a proper exegesis of the passage but I would just like to draw out some activities that seem a natural part of the Apostol Paul’s missionary activity and church planting efforts in what is now modern Turkey. And I claim no originality here as I am sure I picked up these ideas in different things I have read or heard. In these three verses we have four steps that seem key to developing self-governing, self-supporting & self-propagating churches (Henry Venn, honorary secretary for CMS, 1841-73). Preaching, perfecting, preparing and planting.
1. Preaching the gospel
‘They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples.’ (Acts 14.21a) All mission should begin with preaching the gospel. Jesus himself said: ‘As the Father sent me so I send you’ Jn 20.21. How did Jesus begin? By preaching the good news that the Kingdom of God is near and that people must repent and believe (Mr 1.15-16). So we should start in the same place.
How do we do this? It is easy to set up formal courses be they Alpha, Christianity Explored or another introduction to the Christian faith. More difficult is developing a culture that encourages people to love God above everything else and therefore are motivated to love their neighbours in word & deed. Where folk constantly have Jesus’ name on their lips when they serve their neighbours, where they invite folk to evangelistic courses, where they open their bibles with their friends and acquaintances and show them them the bad news of their estrangement with God and the good news of Christ dying in their place to reconcile them to a loving Heavenly Father. That is what Paul and his companions did in Antioch, Iconiu,, Lystra and Derbe on their first missionary journey and so should we in our local contexts.
2. Perfecting the saints
‘Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.’ (Acts 14.21b-22). Paul didn’t stop at winning ‘souls’ for Christ but immediately began a process of discipleship with new believers. This wasn’t just teaching them that God loved them and that now life would be a bed of roses but realistic encouragement in how to ‘deny oneself, pick up one’s cross and follow Jesus’.
This is a big challenge in many C of E churches where attendance can be a duty rather than a delight and people aren’t expected to be deeply challenged in their faith. Home groups are a great place to start, 1-2-1s reading the Bible together are vital and I have also found small same sex discipleship groups of three or four a great place to strengthen faith whilst building close relationships. There are many great resources around but here are a few that perhaps not all are familiar with because they come from across the pond: Saturate, The Gospel Centred Life, & the Essentials series.
3. Preparing leaders
‘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 14:23). This step of preparing leaders was what Paul did in all his churches and he then took many converts (like Timothy) from one place to another giving them leadership training in mission situations. In Ephesians where Paul stayed the longest he expounded the scriptures to teach them the full council of God (Acts 20.27). His developing of leaders, following in the footsteps of Jesus, lead to the spread of Christianity across the Roman Empire and eventually beyond it.
There are many ways of doing this both within the local church and using outside resources. We are currently exploring what would be best for our church context. The diagram that follows is what we finally came up with in developing the foundations for the three churches to be a resource church. Having a smorgasbord of resources on offer from across the evangelical spectrum that could be tailored to a local congregation or group of churches.
Of course Acts 14.21-23 is just descriptive of what Paul and his companions did - they contain no commands to go and do likewise - for that we must turn to many other places in the New Testament. However, the preaching of the gospel (evangelism), the perfecting of the saints (discipleship) and the preparing of leaders should organically lead to the planting of new congregations and churches. For us at the moment it is a huge jump of faith to even think of doing this five or ten years down the line. But hopefully, we can pray passionately, prepare punctiliously and patiently put into practice these steps taken from the ministry of the apostle Paul and see the Kingdom of Jesus Christ grow and flourish in our neighbourhood. And I pray that especially in these challenging times you can too in yours.
 The fourth self - self-theologising - that Trull & others have developed goes beyond the limits of this article!