As we have set out to plant a new church in East Austin, we have been able to have a lot of conversations with others about why we are doing what we’re doing. Our vision is to see our city transformed by giving every man, woman, and child in Austin repeated opportunities to see, hear, and respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We believe that the way this vision will become a reality is through planting churches that plant churches that plant churches. One of the questions that has come up a few times is, “Where does this idea of planting churches come from in the Bible?” I love the question, since I think everything we do should be rooted in the truth of the Bible, so hopefully this post can be helpful for anyone else wondering, “Why plant churches?”
Jesus’ Unstoppable Church
The first appearance of the word “church” in the New Testament is in Matthew 16:18, where Jesus tells Peter (after he confesses Jesus as the Christ), “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. From the Greek word ekklesia, meaning a called out assembly of people, Jesus uses this term to refer to his called out, chosen, and beloved people. Jesus is building an unstoppable church of beloved Christians; a “people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Tit 2:14). He “gave himself up” for the church on the cross, and one day when he returns, he will “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25, 27).Â He proved that nothing would stop him from building his church when he, the cornerstone of the church (Acts 4:11), rose from the grave in triumph over death, sin, and hell. Jesus is alive, and his church will prevail.
The Great Commission
12 chapters after Jesus promises to build his church, he commands his disciples to actually participate in the building up of his unstoppable church by making disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything he commanded. This is the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28:19-20, followed by Jesus’ precious and comforting promise at the end of verse 20, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”. We are able to participate in Christ’s work of building his church by making disciples. As more and more people hear the gospel from our lips and are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, and baptized in his name, the church of Jesus is built up in the world. And thankfully, Jesus is with us every step of the way to strengthen us and lead us in this disciple-making work.
Now, we can see how this Great Commission of Jesus gives way specifically to church planting in Acts 14:21-23,Â looking at the disciple-making ministry of Paul and Barnabas, who pioneered taking Jesus’ Great Commission to the nations.
“When [Paul and Barnabas] had preached the gospel to [the city of Derbe] and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed”.
In this passage we see that as Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel and made disciples in different towns, there emerged smaller, local expressions of Jesus’ church (“in every church”, v. 23) within each of the different towns. So Jesus’ unstoppable, worldwide church is made up of smaller, local churches that had local leadership (“appointed elders for them”, v. 23) who taught about the kingdom of God and encouraged the local disciples in their faith (v. 21-22). This was the pattern of the Apostle Paul’s ministry, and he passed this pattern along to the post-Apostolic church through his disciples like Titus and Timothy, directing them to “appoint elders in every town” who are “able to teach”, and can “give instruction in sound doctrine”, to teach and care for the local churches (Tit 1:5, 9; 1 Tim. 3:2).
To obey the Great Commission of making disciples of every nation, the Apostles saw it necessary to establish new, local churches with qualified local leaders (elders) who would oversee the flock entrusted to them, and teach them about God’s kingdom and what it meant to obey all of Jesus’ commands. In Acts 20:28, Paul made clear to the elders of the Ephesians churches how weighty this task really was, saying “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood”. Disciples are made in the context of local churches, who belong to Jesus, under the care of Spirit-led elders.
Continuing the mission
So, we plant churches because Jesus commanded his disciples to be disciple-makers, and the biblical pattern for worldwide disciple-making is establishing new, gospel-centered, local churches led by qualified elders who will lovingly teach and oversee their flocks. One day the building up of Jesus’ church will be complete, full of the redeemed from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev 7:9), to live with God forever in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21). Until then, we long to see what Acts 16:5 depicted here in our city and in our world, that “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily”. So we humbly rely on God, since “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). The growth of a new church plant into an established, healthy, church-planting church only happens by the grace of God; all the power comes from him, and all the glory goes to him.