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Over the last year, I have been reading through the Gospels and the book of Acts in an attempt to understand how Jesus and his disciples thought about starting new churches. It seems clear that Jesus intended believers to live out their faith in community, and both Peter and Paul, the primary leaders that we see in the book of Acts, definitely seem to be carrying out this intent in forming communities, but is it possible to say that there is a process, a roadmap, a pattern to starting these new churches?
I don’t think that we can say that the process is perfectly linear in the sense that you could outline an ordered set of steps, but I have come to believe that there are specific points that we can see in the scripture that are important to seeing new churches started.
As a result, with humility, knowing A) that I am not a Biblical scholar, and B) that I am continuing to learn, I am writing what I believe are these points. To give these points and process a name, I will call it a Biblical Roadmap for Starting New Churches and plan to refer to this as I go forward.
To get started, I think that I want to start with the practice that I see in the book of Acts, and then look back from time to time to Jesus’s teachings to understand why the disciples were doing what they were doing as they started churches.
But the book of Acts in chapter 1 actually starts with Jesus. He is about to ascend to heaven, and he knows that the disciples, while they have learned a lot, still do not have the spiritual fortitude and power that they will need to do the task that he is sending them to do. As a result, he tells them to go back to Jerusalem and to wait. They had seen the water baptism of John the Baptist, and presumably had also taken part in being baptized as they were baptizing others. Now, they were to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, and Jesus says that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them.
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
I think it is a fair question to ask Why. Why was receiving the Holy Spirit so important that the disciples should wait to receive it? Here are a few quick things that I can think of based on the first few chapters of Acts:
- Upon receiving the Spirit, there was such a great curiosity in the languages that the disciples were speaking as they praised God in other tongues that they caught the attention of a great crowd of people. The result was that Peter was able to share the Gospel and have 3,000 people believe in that one day.
- Upon receiving the Spirit, we see the disciples transform from being a small, likely-scared group of spiritual misfits whose leader is no longer around to become a small army of confident leaders themselves, showing both Jews and Gentiles the way to God through faith in Jesus. From a human perspective, the movement that they were a part of was on the verge of falling apart, but now, powered by the Spirit of God within them, it would not only revive, but grow even stronger than ever before.
- We see the disciples perform powerful physical healing miracles. Starting in Acts 3 with Peter and John healing the man who was begging of them, and going further into Acts 5 where it says that all of the people who were sick or tormented were healed.
There is a stark contrast between what we see as the attitude of the disciples in Acts 1 and later in Acts 5. The disciples were wondering when Jesus would be restoring the Kingdom to Israel, and then suddenly, Jesus leaves and they are left looking up at the sky, wondering what was happening.
Then just a little while later, we see these same men, now powered by the Holy Spirit that God had given to them, walking around with healing power, leading a fairly large – and growing – number of people, walking in faith as a community following Jesus.
Is it possible that all of this could have happened without God sending his Spirit? Would it be possible for these men to manufacture the change in attitude? To manufacture the healings that were taking place? And for that matter, to manufacture it on behalf of the others that were believing, joining the community of the disciples, and changing their lives, even putting themselves at significant risk as they run afowl of the Jewish leaders directly in the heart of the power seat of Judaism there in Jerusalem?
To me, it seems unlikely that any of this would have happened without God baptizing the disciples with the Holy Spirit…and this was only the beginning of what was to come as the Good News of Jesus Christ began to spread out from Jerusalem to the Jews and Gentiles alike across the world.
So what does this mean for us today? I think the answer to that question is both simple and challenging. I believe that God’s desire is:
- To bring all people from around the world to Himself through Jesus. We can see evidence of this from the very beginning to the very end of the scriptures, and we even see that God, of course, accomplishes this desire.
- He wants to use us, his people, to accomplish this task. Jesus left his disciples to continue the work that he started, and it is a work that even continues to this day.
- He wants to do this so much that He sends His Spirit to come and dwell with us, with the intent to give us the same Spirit, intended to provide even the same type of power to do the same work, that we read in the book of Acts. Similar to sending Jesus to be with us, He continues to dwell with us despite our failings, because he loves us and He wants us empower us to continue to show and spread that love to others directly in our communities where we live and around the world.
I’m saying all of this to say that I believe the first step in seeing communities of churches who are ready to redeem the world is to wait on God and receive the Holy Spirit. There is much more that we can say here about How this happens that I am continuing to learn and will need to cover another time. For now, my encouragement for those who are followers of Jesus is to ask God to fill you with His Spirit, to pray, and wait for Him to respond. At that point, we can begin to consider the next steps in following and obeying Jesus as we make disciples and see communities of grace-filled, world-changing believers arise around us because of the work of the Spirit within us.
I’ve moved around quite a lot in my life. Because of my Dad’s changing job situation and some other factors at the time, I went to a different school in each of my four years of high school.
That was followed by my first and second years of university at different schools.
Gina and I were then married and moved near Louisville, Kentucky for my student teaching, only to move back to Indianapolis for a couple of years, living in two different apartments there.
I was then offered a new job in St. Louis, where we went to live for 11 years and were in two different houses and an apartment there.
Another job offer and we moved to Denver. Two different houses there as well.
And finally (or at least “finally” up to now), our move to Catania on the island of Sicily.
By my count, that is 11 cities, in at least 15 homes, in 2 different countries and 3 US states over the last 30 years. It makes me tired just doing the counting!
So you might think that I would be the last person to talk about growing where you’re planted, but I prefer to think that having had these experiences helps me to see the significance of what I read and saw while in Israel last October:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.
This seems like a fairly innocuous verse, at least until you take a look at the context of what had just happened. Jesus had just seen two very significant things happen in his life.
First, Jesus had just been baptized by John the Baptist, was given the Holy Spirit, and God Himself speaks from heaven, telling Jesus who he is and that he loves him.
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Second, the Holy Spirit takes Jesus into the wilderness where he would be tempted by Satan. Satan speaks to him to offer him food to overcome his hunger, tests his identity, and offers him power over the kingdoms of the world. In the end, though, Jesus defeats Satan and doesn’t fall victim to his temptations. Satan leaves and the angels are watching over him.
Given this context, it puts that first scripture in a completely new light for me. For most people, I think that, if we know that we have been called and blessed by God, and especially if we sense that we have any power whatsoever – both of these things happened to Jesus prior to him returning to Galilee – we would be thinking of the most strategic location in which we could be setting up a ministry work. In other words, my guess is that we would be thinking of the best way to grow the largest ministry to affect the greatest number of people. In Jesus’s case, if he were to follow this path, I would have thought that he would have immediately entered Jerusalem. That is the capitol, the seat of power, both religiously and in the government. I would have thought that is where he would have gone.
But here, we see Jesus return to Galilee. Do you know what is in Galilee? Outside of the “Sea” that we read about in the scriptures (really, a large lake), there are some small towns, but even today, there isn’t much. 2000 years ago, there would have been a lot less!
Just to give you some perspective, here is a picture that we took on a plateau that overlooks the northern side of Galilee.
Somewhat strangely, we see that this is the area where Jesus calls and teaches his disciples. This is the area where he teaches most of the parables and performs most of his miracles. It isn’t in Jerusalem. It is here in Galilee, where there aren’t a lot of people. There isn’t a seat of political power. In fact, among the Jewish leaders, there is at least indifference, if not disdain, for this area. There was even a saying amongst the Jewish people that no prophet would come from Galilee, even though the scriptures didn’t say this. The Jewish people’s dislike for this area blinded them such that they couldn’t see what God was doing through their own nation.
As I’ve thought about this over the last couple of weeks, I was reminded of something that we learned while on this trip to Israel, seeing this area, and understanding that this was Jesus’s home for most of his life. The lesson that I learned was that, regardless of where we are, God’s desire for us is to be faithful, to live lives that honor God, to make disciples and teach others to do the same. There is no need to do what seems heroic to other people. The primary thing that we should do is figure out how God is working around you where you are and be part of that work, being faithful to follow Him throughout our time.
On Thursday, Paul and I met a good friend from Gambia after not seeing him for several months. As we were catching up, we learned that he had recently baptized another young man and was now going on to disciple him to follow Jesus. It was great news, and it seemed that he was developing a vision for making disciples of other guys.
At one point, I asked him, if he had to teach his new friend to share the Gospel with someone else, would he know how to do it? He thought for a moment and said, “No, I don’t think I know what I would teach him.”
I asked him if I could quickly show him a way to share the Gospel and he said Yes. We walked through the Three Circles in about five minutes, and then, without preparing him that he would need to do anything, I asked him to share with me the same thing that I showed him, meanwhile hiding what I had shown him. He missed a few details, but certainly was able to explain the primary gist of the Three Circles, and thus the good news of the Gospel of Christ.
So, why is this story important? I think there are two main reasons:
- Our friend now knows at least one way to share the Gospel with other people.
- He now has a simple way to teach his new disciple how to share the Gospel.
This is critical because we now have the ability to duplicate our efforts.
Very frequently, we talk about wanting to do what Jesus told us to do, to make disciples and teach others to do what Jesus taught us to do, but we miss making it practical. Somehow, it seems that we believe that we’ll learn to do it someday, but if we are truthful, that day rarely comes for most people. And because it never comes, we have millions of Christians who could be sharing with others, reaching their friends, their family, or others across their community or across the world, but it doesn’t happen because they simply don’t know how.
At one point in our conversation, I asked my Gambian friend, if I gave him a cup, if he would know what to do with it. Of course, he said. It was a hot day, and we were sitting outside, drinking a lot of water. The cup was a simple tool that allowed him to take a drink of water. We discussed that the Three Circles is like the cup. It is a tool that, because of its simplicity, you can easily understand how to use it to do what you want to be able to do.
I believe that it is very important that we both read and understand the scriptures, but I believe we must also find ways to put them into practice in very practical ways. And beyond this, we must teach those around us to be able to do the same themselves. We shouldn’t wait to find the “right person” to share with our friends or family. We shouldn’t need to wait until we think the time is right and invite them to our churches. No, instead, for each person to be both ready and able to share in simple ways what God has done through Jesus in our lives and for the whole of humanity.
To do this, we need to use the power of simplicity. We need to be able to share this amazing message in a way that someone else, within a few minutes, can learn and understand, and be ready to turn around and teach it to someone else. If we do this, then I believe that we can see the good news of Jesus travel from one person to the next, moving ahead without limits.
So as I wrapped up my session talking about birthing spiritual grandchildren (see the previous posts on part 1 and part 2), we moved to Matthew 13. We read verses 1-9:
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
Jesus seems to have a clear priority for fruitfulness, but let’s make sure that we have an understanding of what he is talking about here. The disciples asked him to explain the parable, so later, Jesus provided some definitions:
The farmer: Someone who is sharing the message of the Kingdom of God.
The seed: The message about the Kingdom.
The four different types of soil: The different ways that people might receive the message.
As I read this, I see that there is actually only one type of soil where the message isn’t received or not believed. That is the first type of soil, and because the message isn’t received, Satan takes it away.
In the second and third types of soil, I see that these people do believe. They have accepted Christ, but they have difficulties in continuing to grow and be fruitful.
For the second type of person, they are experiencing trouble because of their new faith. They are afraid of what people are thinking of them, or they don’t believe that this new faith is actually worth the persecution that they are receiving from others. The root of their newly planted faith doesn’t go deep into the ground, so despite initially believing, they fall away.
The third type of person is similar, but it is because they are prioritizing the things of the world, whether because they think they don’t have enough money and spend their lives trying to make more, or they have enough that they do everything they can to protect what they have. In either case, they have believed, but their priorities are connected to the kingdom of the world, not to the Kingdom of God, so those misaligned priorities crowd out their ability to be fruitful.
The fourth soil person is someone who both receives the seed and believes, but then goes on to produce a harvest. In the same way that I remember farmers where I grew up in Indiana planting corn, beans, or other kinds of crops, I know that they put the seeds into the ground in the spring with the intent to receive back a great harvest in the fall, and that is what this type of person will do. By planting that seed within them, the farmer sees a great harvest come through the planting of this one seed.
So in my talk, I simply asked the question: Should this parable have any bearing on how we think about our ministry work? If our time is limited – and it is! – how should we be spending our time?
Clearly, we should be like the farmer, spreading the seed. I don’t see that the farmer is trying to take his time to figure out what type of soil the person is in advance. In fact, he doesn’t seem to care very much. Instead, he is just spreading the seed.
But once we can see which type of soil the seed has been sown into, should there be a priority in our ministry time and work on those who are the good soil?
For example, if I were to tell you that you could invest one dollar in a company, and at the end of one year, you would receive one dollar in return, would you do it? Of course not.
But if you could invest your one dollar and make $100, my guess is that you would invest that money quickly.
So I believe that this is what Jesus is saying. Sow the seed. Find the good soil. See and help this new disciple become fruitful.
As I was preparing to speak, I had thought of the people that Paul had been greeting in Rome. They were people that he clearly knew, and had been some of the same names that I had read about working in other places while reading in the book of Acts. In short, they were now Paul’s spiritual children who were going on to continue to make spiritual grandchildren by sharing the good news of the Gospel and discipling others as well.
I thought it would be important to go back one generational step and think about Jesus. Did he have a particular method for making disciples? Did he have a vision of what that meant? Was he also thinking about generations of disciples making disciples?
I think that Jesus had been preparing his disciples to make disciples for quite some time. I won’t go into detail on this just yet, but just to make one example, I think that if we look in the book of Mark, starting in chapter 3, we can see that he appoints his disciples and then in chapter 4, he begins teaching them his disciple-making plan. Once he finishes teaching them his plan using the parables of the soils, a lamp on a stand, the sower, and the mustard seed, he tells them it is time to go over to the Gentile side of the lake where I believe he intends to start putting them into practical training.
Jesus teaches them the importance of faith as he calms the storm. He teaches them the importance of walking within the authority and power of Christ with the demon-possessed man, the bleeding woman, and the girl who had died. He even shows them the importance of sharing with others as he sends out the healed Demoniac to the Decapolis cities. And now finally, he sends them out two-by-two to do all of this themselves, to replicate what they had seen Jesus doing. I think this is all training for his disciples to make disciples, just as Jesus had shown them how to do it.
In my talk, I paused on this time that Jesus sent out the seventy-two disciples and focused on Luke 10:2:
He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.
I wanted to stop here because I always thought that it seemed a bit odd that Jesus would tell his disciples, within the context of sending them out, to pray for more workers. It seemed odd because our application today just never fit within the context of what Jesus was teaching his disciples at this time.
Typically, I think we would respond to this scripture by saying, “OK, let’s pray for more leaders, more pastors, more missionaries who will go to reach others.” But in this time, Jesus and these disciples that he was sending out were all there were – there were no other believers. There were no other believers to pray for that God would send. So why would Jesus be telling the disciples to pray that God would send out workers into his harvest field? Why not instead tell them to pray for new people who will believe in Jesus, or who will enter the kingdom of God, since that is the message that he is sending them out with? They are supposed to tell the people that the kingdom is near. Isn’t that what they should instead be praying for?
I think the answer here is that Jesus isn’t just thinking about new believers. Yes, he wants people to enter the kingdom, but he is telling his disciples to go beyond this in their prayers. He is telling them to not just pray for believers, but for fruitful disciples who will become workers.
The key point here is that they are to pray for these workers from the harvest field. These new workers would come from the non-believers that Jesus is sending them to meet within each of the towns he will soon visit.
Jesus doesn’t tell them to go make more converts. He wants them to go make fruitful disciples. He tells them to pray for workers. Jesus is thinking about generations of disciples, and I believe that he wants his disciples to stay in the house of those new disciples because his intent is that this new home will be the “home base” for kingdom of God in that town, the place that has learned about Jesus the Messiah and will be the new generation of workers within their own town. The disciples won’t be just eating and drinking, doing nothing, laying around throughout the day. They will be talking about what Jesus has taught them and the miracles they have seen, and the people in the house will be learning about the reality and the ways of the kingdom of God.
To me, it already seems clear that Jesus isn’t just thinking about gathering the disciples around him, but instead is thinking about how his kingdom can travel and spread out everywhere, to all people, through the disciples who will be fruitful workers.
To go one step further, though, how do we see Jesus praying? Does Jesus have a desire related to spiritual generations of believers for which he asks God to intervene?
In John 17:20, we can see that Jesus prays for spiritual grandchildren as well. He says:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message…
I once asked a group who Jesus was saying that he was praying for. The group responded that he was praying for us! That wasn’t the answer I was thinking of, but it is still correct. Jesus is praying for those who will become his followers, generation after generation. Again, Jesus is thinking about, and praying for, spiritual grandchildren.
So what does this mean for us? Is there a lesson that we should learn as followers of Christ? Shouldn’t we also be praying for workers and not just believers? Would anything need to change in our approach if we were to think about, pray for, and practically prepare the people that we are discipling to become workers? To, themselves, make spiritual children and have spiritual grandchildren?
Tomorrow morning, we will begin to meet as a 3/3rds Group in the large park in Catania called Villa Bellini. I’m looking forward to having a weekly rallying point that will include a time of thanksgiving and praise, prayer for one another, scripture study and discussion, thinking of how we can put God’s word into practice, and prayer for our friends who do not know Jesus. Of course, each thing that we do in making disciples has an impact for the future, whether for good or bad, but I have sensed that now is a time in particular where we are setting the stage for the future, where we are “putting our hands in the wet cement”, if you follow my expression.
This week, I have been reading Mark 1:1-8, thinking and meditating on it in advance of our discussion on it tomorrow morning. I will be trying to facilitate a discussion, not necessarily teaching the passage, but I like to try to think in advance about the passage to consider some of the main things that I can see within it. Here is the passage:
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”— 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
As I’ve thought about this passage, here are some simple observations that I have made:
- Jesus is called the Messiah and the Son of God, which means that he is, himself, God.
- Mark points back to the prophet Isaiah to talk about John the Baptist, but it seems that the point is ultimately that God is preparing the people to hear about Jesus, initially through John.
- John would preach a message of repentance. It is a message that the forgiveness of sins starts with repentance, a humble heart before God that admits what we have done wrong.
- The people of Jerusalem and Judea responded to John’s message. They recognized that he was right and God was moving (actually, literally!) at that time. This “made the way” for Jesus to come and bring the Spirit of God.
- Despite John’s great ministry and great response of the people, he says that he is nothing compared to the one who would come after him, namely, Jesus.
- John says that Jesus will baptize them with the Holy Spirit. I believe this means that God himself washes over us to make us clean.
As a primary takeaway, I think this passage is speaking of Jesus coming as the king, a king over the entirety of the world, and John is showing how the king wants to interact with us. Typically, in our own strength, we believe, and try to show others, that we can take care of ourselves on our own. We are proud people, and this extends directly into our spiritual interactions with God as well. We don’t humble ourselves before him because we believe that we can take care of our problems on our own.
But the king is coming, and his herald, the one who will prepare the way, the one we call John the Baptist, is telling the people that they must be prepared for him. To be prepared for him means that we must come in repentance, in humility and in surrender because we have rejected him before. But now, he is coming, and he is bringing with him the Holy Spirit, who will spiritually baptize those who have been prepared in repentance and humility for the coming king.
So what does this mean for me, to put this into practice? Over the last few weeks, we have had a leader’s meeting where we have discussed what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit and what we can do on our part to be ready and prepared for this. Following teaching that we have learned, we have been attempting to learn what it means to surrender to God’s will and wait on him. This week, I have been trying to slow down the time of reading in the scriptures and prayer, writing what I have been learning as well, in an attempt to hear more of what God wants to say to me instead of imposing my schedule and steps upon my time with God. It has been a necessary time for me to chew and digest the Word, attempting to listen to the Spirit through this week. In short, attempting to come before God in humility to hear what he has to say instead of doing all as I typically do with super-imposed timetables.
God, I pray that you will help me to continue to slow down to listen to you. You are the energy in all that I do, and without your leading, nothing moves forward. I certainly want you to use me, but I first want to connect with you, so I pray that you will help me to take the steps to practically do this today and as I go forward.