The DNA Factor of Church Planting

Peter Hay

The subject of church planting is increasingly a part of denominational planning; the resources and training available to church planters is growing as well. This is a positive development and one that is consistent with the church-planting emphasis of The Christian and Missionary Alliance. What concerns this writer is that church planting could become a matter of technology, much like the church growth movement has become. Will our focus be on finding more effective methods and more efficient tools for the prototypical church planter? I believe these issues must be addressed, but first and foremost the question of a philosophy of church planting must take priority. Philosophy will determine method. In this article we will consider a biblical philosophy of church planting that should be the basis for every design.

The award-winning novel Shoeless Joe (later made into the movie Field of Dreams) is a story about believing in your dream and putting it all on the line. The novel’s main character, an Iowa corn farmer, hears a voice telling him to “build it and he will come.”1 The “it” turns out to be a baseball diamond in the middle of one of his prime cornfields, and “he” is the farmer’s baseball hero, “Shoeless Joe” Jackson. Building “it” takes the field out of production and threatens the viability of his farm. But sure of the call to proceed, he cuts down his corn and builds his “field of dreams.” Like a modern-day Noah he endures the derisive resistance of neighbors and family, but persists because he knows it is the right thing to do. Everyone thinks he is crazy, but as the story goes on he converts others to his “faith” and the dream comes true. The story is about the mystical power of baseball and what “true believers” can accomplish.

Years ago I was asked by my denomination to plant a church in a prime community. Demographic studies had been done which indicated that this community (henceforth designated for our purposes as “Churchpoor”) desperately needed another church, especially one of our unique denominational character. This started a process that I suspect many denominational leaders will recognize. Newspaper ads were placed, inviting all those interested in starting a new evangelical church to a denominational presentation at a local community hall. Nearly forty attended that first meeting, and within a matter of weeks a core group was formed that became the basis for starting a new church. Immediate plans were made to secure a pastor (me), rent a meeting place and begin services.

Having determined a significant level of interest in the community, our denominational leadership began to construct its “field of dreams” in Churchpoor. The philosophy was simple: “Build it and they will come.” Our hero in Shoeless Joe built a baseball diamond on faith and then waited for the players to come and play the game. The evangelical church-planting equivalent is the Sunday morning service with all the accessories—Sunday school, junior church, a nursery and a contemporary worship team. Build it and they will come.

Where does this blind faith come from? Are we like the Iowa farmer who wakes up in the middle of the night to the sound of a supernatural voice, then proceeds in the certainty of a faith beyond logic and reality? Or are we just as sure about the mystical power of church planting as that farmer was about that of baseball?

”Churchpoor” was not a success; though continues, it is a struggling church. As her pastor I began to wrestle with the reasons for the failure of a church that seemingly had everything going for it: The preparation work was extensive, the denominational support total; the core group was enthusiastic and committed; I was a ten-year veteran in the pastorate, with previous church-planting experience. We had every reason to expect success and were confident that within one or two years we would be a completely self-sufficient, growing, healthy church. We became neither and the future prospects are dim. Why? How does this happen? Is there something fundamentally wrong with our church planting philosophy and practice?

The fallacy of Shoeless Joe is the mystical, supernatural power of baseball that controls the unfolding story. Could it be that the unfolding story of church planting has been controlled by a similar faith in an innate supernaturalness that frees us from considering reality and practicality? Have we gotten the idea that church planting has God’s blessing on it no matter how we do it, that like the building of the tabernacle in Exodus 40, we need only set up the structure and the glory of the Lord will cover and fill our “Tent of Meeting”?

The corn farmer in Shoeless Joe got his mystical baseball team. But for some reason many church planters are not getting the “players” they had hoped for. The diamond remains empty while the trainers and support staff sit on the sidelines wondering why it’s not working.

Kevin Mannoia reports that new church plants in his denomination had only a 35 percent chance of success; he confesses that there was a high level of commitment to planting churches among his leaders, but very little practical intentionality.

(We) seemed to be basing our church planting successes on two delicate assumptions: 1) the ability of the regional leader to create momentum for church planting and 2) a group of as-yet-unknown variables that we hoped would somehow come together in just the right amounts and at just the right time to form a successful venture.2

In other words, there was an implicit expectation that somehow a church plant should succeed simply as a matter of faith.

We should never cast aside our dependence on God as the single most important ingredient in the church planting process, but we must also remember that the works of God must be done as God prescribes. The prelude to the setting up of the tabernacle in Exodus 40 is the fashioning of its individual parts according to precise instructions from God. That this was critical is revealed by Moses’ own testimony: “The Israelites had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded Moses. Moses inspected the work and saw that they had done it just as the Lord had commanded. So Moses blessed them” (Exodus 39:42-43).

The “blessing” came only after the Israelites had precisely obeyed the plan that God had laid out for building the tabernacle. They were following a “build it and He will come” plan that came to fruition in Exodus 40:34 when the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. We should rightly expect the glory of the Lord to attend our church planting endeavors, but only as we are prepared to hear and obey His instructions. We are no longer required to build the wilderness Tabernacle but God has not changed. We have now been enlisted to build His Church, and surely He has a plan. We see the same precision of detail in John’s description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 as we do in Exodus. Grace has not ushered in an age of sloppiness and wishful thinking.

This then begs the question, “Is there a divine plan for church planting and, if so, what is it?” Christian Schwartz, who is notable for his teaching on “natural church development,” declares that God has given us everything we need to plant and grow churches, but we rarely make proper use of it and our endeavors are carried by the “square wheels” of human effort.

Instead of using God’s means, we try to do things in our own strength—with much pulling and pushing.
It is not that the workers in this picture are unspiritual. It is not that their goal—to get the church moving—is in any way wrong. The problem is that their methods are insufficient because they are inconsistent with God’s plan.3

Schwartz believes that when we follow God’s plan the church functions naturally in innate ways that God intends. Growth is natural to the church in this framework. One might argue against this based on our understanding of the stages of development in the life history of an established church, but we cannot argue against the practical necessity for a new church plant to grow if it is going to survive.

Denominations that plant churches are implicitly committed to growth. It is therefore no great leap of logic to be committed to the expectation that church plants should grow. I have repeatedly been confronted by indignant church leaders who insist that there are all kinds of churches with all kinds of purposes. What this means, of course, is that not all churches are supposed to grow. An underlying assumption I pick up in these debates is that there is something carnal in seeking and expecting your church to grow and that those who intentionally remove themselves from the church growth agenda hold the high ground.

I suspect that a part of this defensiveness arises from the prevailing lack of growth in 95 percent of the churches in North America. Carl George classifies the two most frequently found churches in the United States and Canada as the “Cat-Size” small church of up to fifty people and the “Lap-Dog-Size” medium church of up to 100 people.4 The former designates 70 percent of all churches in North America; the latter, 25%. George describes the structures of both of these churches as clannish and “too contented to reap the harvest that surrounds its walls.”5 In other words, 95 percent of the churches in North America are not growing and are structured to remain that way.

We plant churches with the expectation that they will grow; however, if these statistics are accurate, most churches either don’t grow or they stop growing in the early stages of their life-cycles. Donald McGavran describes this in his ground-breaking Understanding Church Growth: “Mission methods congenial to slow growth have developed. Theologies have been formulated, ostensibly built on Scripture but actually arising from the debris of decades of rejection.”6

McGavran relates how whole church growth philosophies have arisen which teach that the only good growth is slow growth. The late 20th-century North American equivalent to this missions response is the evangelical sport of target-shooting rapidly growing mega-churches, such as Bill Hybel’s Willow Creek Community Church. No modern church has suffered more criticism. Could it be that Willow Creek and other churches like it expose our underlying sense of failure and bring into question many of our fundamental assumptions about church ministry? How do we justify 95 percent of our churches in a no-growth mode? How do we explain it? Would we tout the virtues of quality versus quantity? George acknowledges that churches that grow experience a lessening in the quality of their church life but that this is simply a problem of appropriate organizational adjustment.

This problem of organization has been around since the very first church in Jerusalem. True, it modeled an unusual depth of quality:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. . . . Every day they continued to meet together. . . . And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-43, 46-47)7

One of the organizational adjustments recorded in Acts was the appointment of the deacons. The ensuing and continued growth of the church testifies to an ecclesiology that embraces both growth and a quality church life.

The book of Acts has long been considered the expression of the ideal for church life and ministry. The difficulty is that while many desire the evident growth, signs and wonders, and blessed fellowship therein, they are at a loss to identify a methodology that could be adapted to the modern church. It is evident in Acts that there is no system, that the disciples are reacting to situations rather than strategizing and planning. They are managing church growth. They are not devising ways to make it happen.

This, of course, is the very dilemma facing us today. We are not growing, and we are earnestly devising plans to produce growth. Wouldn’t we rather be facing the problem of managing growth? What is happening in Acts that makes the Church a living, dynamically growing organism? McGavran believes that one of the greatest reasons for a no-growth church in the modern era is the tendency to confuse the perfecting of the saints with discipling. In other words, the main business of the church has become the constant improvement of itself. This, I believe, is the main distinction between the modern and the Acts church. “The Church exists not for herself but for the world,” McGavran says. “She has been saved in order to save others. She always has a twofold task: winning men to Christ and growing in grace.”8

The program of making disciples finds its genesis in the training period of the twelve disciples and their final commissioning by the Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 28. Here He sums up their training and passes on to them responsibility for reaching the world with the gospel:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

The elements of this “commission” are not just implied, but plainly obvious. We must not forget that there were no churches to speak of as Jesus uttered these words. The disciples had no ecclesiology after their three years in Jesus’ seminary. Whatever they were apprehending from this moment it was not a church growth strategy to go into all the world and plant churches. Indeed, churches did result from what they did. However, they were not an end, but a by-product. This is our first lesson from the so-called ideal church described in Acts. They were not focused on planting churches but on something else that resulted in churches. That something was evangelism.

What Jesus began His ministry with was what He intended His disciples to put first: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ He said. ‘The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’ ” (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus did not spend the training years with the Twelve teaching them how to build and maintain churches. He taught them how to proclaim the good news. Then He commanded them to make disciples who would “obey everything I have commanded you.” This meant that Jesus wanted their disciples to have the same priorities He had taught them.

Somewhere along the chain of disciple-making this teaching has been marginalized. Somewhere the church’s primary business became itself, while Jesus intended it to be “all nations.” If we examine the priorities of the Acts disciples, we can learn how to produce churches that grow, churches that have within them a life-giving DNA that leads to natural growth. The leaders in Acts were riding a wild horse. Growth was not a problem. How to manage it was their main concern. They developed their ecclesiology in response to the burgeoning need they faced.

In the modern church, much of our time is spent developing models—ideal churches that will grow if we’ll give them a try. Each ecclesiological expert erects his “field of dreams” and hopes that somehow God will fill it with people. Schwartz has latched on to a key concept in his description of “natural church development.” When we try to manufacture church growth, there is something unnatural about it. But when we do it God’s way, we discover that His plan contains within it the seeds of life—a sort of DNA program that unfolds naturally. Jesus’ declaration, “I will be with you always,” promises His presence with the church, but it also implies His blessing on our obedient and faithful carrying out of the Great Commission. The negative aspect of this is that we lose that blessing when we depart from His priority to evangelize the world.

The disciples were described as “unschooled, ordinary men” (Acts 4:13), while in the very midst of a thriving church. We need to see that church growth is not a complex process requiring years of trial and error. There is a naturalness to it that requires only an obedient response to God’s instructions. We do not need to hear afresh from God. He has already spoken. As the Acts church unfolds, a DNA pattern becomes apparent, a pattern that is of divine inspiration. It is this DNA pattern that we must return to if we want to plant growing, living churches.

Early on in the planting of Churchpoor I had this nagging feeling that we were boxed in by a predetermined set of factors that were out of our control. Like most church plants we began with a small group of people hoping to become larger. Our denomination was committed to getting a public service up and running as soon as possible. This was to be a sort of denominational showroom for attracting consumers.

If I sound cynical I do not mean to be. Anyone who ministers in a denomination with an aggressive church planting program will quickly recognize the pattern herein. Great amounts of time and energy are expended to make Sunday morning happen. Christians believe that a good church has a Sunday school, so every church plant is required to have a quality functioning Sunday school. This means a superintendent and teachers must be recruited and trained. Along with this comes a nursery, toddlers class, junior church, ushers, greeters, worship team, custodial helpers and on and on it goes. Do the math and you can see that your entire core group will be hard at work just maintaining the public service.

What brought this to my attention as a possible problem were the answers I was getting to invitations to prayer meeting and home cell groups. People were too busy and too tired. Nearly all of the energy of our core group was invested in maintaining our public service. All our apples were in one basket. But our strategy was not paying off. People were not coming into our showroom. In this game he who puts on the best show wins. And a new church with limited labor and resources is hardly equipped to compete with the large established church down the road. We were losing, and our people didn’t know why and for a long time neither did I.

Recently I read an article by Murray Moerman of Outreach Canada, one of the driving forces behind Church Planting Canada’s goal of planting 10,000 churches in Canada by 2015. He believes we should dispense with the term “planting churches” and use “disciple-making communities” instead of churches. This functional term more accurately reflects the meaning of a church’s existence. “It is clear,” he says, “that it’s a combination of prayer, spiritual vitality and multiplication of cell communities that has brought significant advance to the Kingdom no matter where you look.”9

The very things described by Moerman in this quote are those that suffer as we endeavor to uphold the public service and the building as the true traits of the church. It is this confusion of essential nature that is at the core of the church planter’s dilemma, for it is certain that whatever we conceive church to be will determine the outcome, just as surely as our DNA determines our appearance as an adult. Scientists tell us that genes are absolutely determinative. A purebred pair of Great Danes would never produce puppies with the tiny, short-legged characteristics of a dachshund.

This is important in two aspects of church planting. First, it means that whatever genetic material we put into it will produce the church we see in the years ahead. Second, it means that one cannot proceed with the assumption that he can fix his mistakes later. You can’t turn a dachshund into a Great Dane no matter how hard you try. It is true that we live in a time of genetic manipulation, but these things are very difficult and very expensive. This too is true in the church.

The point of this is that going back and fixing our problem churches is not always the preferable way to go. If we plant good seed in the genitive stages of a church we can save ourselves a lot of trouble later on. Kevin Mannoia describes the cost in just the early years in one of his denominational districts as being characterized by a 34 percent success rate and failed attempts representing “over $550,000, years of time and energy and 11 careers.”10 The cost of those churches that survived and continued as a drain on denominational coffers and a discouragement to members and pastoral staff remains to be tallied.

It is not difficult to make a list of the desirable traits we would like to see in our ideal church. Indeed a whole part of our Christian publishing industry is dedicated to producing books that describe the “biblically” ideal church. What is difficult is describing how to achieve this result. Genetically it is really very simple. Traits are inherited because genes are passed from parent to offspring when a new organism is conceived. These genes are the blueprint for the organism, providing all the information needed for its life, development and characteristics. What this means is that the single most determinative influence is the parent.

In church planting this means that the how and the who of the very first days of a church plant are going to decide the destiny of a church for years to come. We can’t plan to “fix it later.” We have to very seriously consider the impact of what we do and the philosophy we communicate. If our end is to get a “public service up and running” as a denominational showroom, that makes a strong statement of values to our startup core group, a message I believe they hear loud and clear.

“Build it and they will come” tells us to sit and wait within the walls of our church instead of penetrating our community with the gospel. If the leaders of your denomination appear to subscribe to this, then why shouldn’t you? This is the problem so many pastors are facing. They struggle to mobilize their congregations for outreach. Little do they realize that we may have planted genetic information in their early Christian experience or in a church planting situation that loudly affirmed to them the “build it and they will come” philosophy of church growth.

Since we hold the Acts church model as the ideal, can we learn within the pages of Acts a genetic pattern, a DNA for church planting? The answer is yes, according to Michael Green:

One of the most striking features in evangelism in the early days was the people who engaged in it. Communicating the faith was not regarded as the preserve of the very zealous or of the officially designated evangelist. Evangelism was the prerogative and duty of every church member.11

The very business of the Church was the planting of churches. This is not to say that the apostles were intentional in terms of a planned methodology, but that they responded to the developing church with structures that, of necessity, became churches. This was a natural byproduct of the impetus to evangelize and make disciples. The apostles did not intend to plant churches and could never have proposed a method to do so. They intended to evangelize. They intended to make disciples. The local church that resulted arose as a means to facilitate evangelism and discipleship. Successful church planting is irrevocably linked to these two priorities.

Christ’s command in Matthew 28:19-20 to “go and make disciples of all nations” was the driving force behind the creation and establishment of new churches. This is the first gene in the Acts DNA code for church planting—the intentional priority of evangelism in obedience to the Great Commission. It could be rightly argued that no church planting principles are explicitly taught in Acts—indeed, there are none—but this is the genius of the “method.” They succeeded because they focused on the Great Commission. I would argue that the reversal of priorities in favor of planting a church as a base for future ministry, rather than as a result of ministry, is hurting the contemporary church planting enterprise.

By definition, the “disciples” were imitators of Jesus who ministered under the guidance of the Holy Spirit on a day-to-day basis. The disciples did not have a master plan for church planting but were very much dependent on the guidance of God in shaping the structures that arose out of the necessity of ministry. We could refer to the formation of the seven deacons in response to a crisis in Acts 6. Many of the structures of the church must have arisen in like manner. It is likely that the disciples had no idea that what was growing around them would shape the organization of the church for two thousand years. Similarly, they had no formal idea of planting churches in other communities. They simply obeyed the fundamental demands of the Great Commission and then, under the sovereign guidance of God, responded to the structural necessities of dealing with a new community of believers eager to grow in the grace of God and share their common faith. We simply describe what they did with the understanding that God was guiding them. Instead of confining their methods to their unique context, I see this as validating them principally.

What we cannot document, but would be at our peril to ignore, is the intentionality of the Lord Jesus Christ in training and preparing the Twelve for this very time. He could never have told the specifics of what lay ahead. Indeed, they resisted any explanation of future events that did not agree with their preconceived expectations. Therefore much of His preparation for the Acts era must have been through modeling. The disciples must have asked themselves the question, “What would Jesus do?” The answer was just as often, “What did Jesus do?”

Jesus’ own words in Matthew 28:20 imply an unbroken chain of evangelists, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” What He envisioned was that the Twelve would reproduce the lessons of their three-year training in the lives of the disciples they made, who would, in turn, pass on the “training of the Twelve” to their converts. Thus, not only conversion was in view, but a reproductive discipling process that preserved Christ’s teachings and methods.

That the early disciples in Acts planted churches is a matter of record. That they evangelized is also indisputable. What is often neglected, or, at best, taken for granted, is the direct connection between evangelism and church planting. Indeed, an examination of the Acts of the Apostles will lead us to conclude that the early disciples knew no other method but evangelism to plant churches.

If Acts is not normative for the Church in the 21st century, it should be excised from our Bibles or left to the study of historians. By normative we do not mean the uncritical adoption of specific practices but the adoption of fundamental principles. If the Acts church, in practice, gave first priority to evangelism, so should we. If they placed great importance on community, necessitating frequent gatherings and a high level of commitment and accountability, so should we. If they labored hard to make disciples who would take up the mission as their own, so should we. The structures that facilitate these principles will change but they themselves should remain as normative.

The Twelve, their disciples, and Paul went on to plant many churches in their lifetimes. What is important to our study are two fundamental premises: 1)what Jesus taught His disciples is still applicable today and, 2)evangelism was the driving force behind New Testament church planting. All the training of the Twelve was summed up in Matthew 28:19-20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The “upper room” experience provides a compelling perspective on the charismatic question and biblical priorities. What did the experience mean and how did the disciples understand its importance? David Watson points to three emphases in the teaching of Paul from First Corinthians 12.

First, he outlines the necessary spiritual growth into unity and maturity that the whole body must make together. Second, he describes the variety of gifts that God has given to enable this united body to make its growth. And third, he reminds his readers of the supreme authority of the Head of the body, Jesus Christ.12

The themes of First Corinthians, particularly the conflict over the charismatic gifts and disunity, can lead the reader away from Paul’s overriding concern for a church that is unified and operating in the gifts of the Spirit. Paul knows that a healthy church will be an evangelistically effective church. As with First Corinthians, Acts 2 is most often turned to for its account of the workings of the Holy Spirit. Peter’s sermon and “Pentecost” resulted in the addition of 3,000 to the initial group of 120 in one day. We are primarily concerned with the resulting church that was “planted” in Jerusalem through the disciples’ unvarying focus on evangelism.

The manifestation of the Holy Spirit must have been a powerful experience for each individual. It would have been easy to focus on the experience. Instead it became the occasion for an evangelistic sermon and a tremendous spiritual harvest. One suspects that the modern Church, in similar circumstances, might have called the curious into the upper room in an attempt to reproduce the Pentecost experience and then build a church as a monument to it. This critical moment in the history of the Church speaks loudly to us of divine priority and apostolic obedience. The coming of the Spirit moves the “Church” immediately to evangelism, the first gene of church planting.

We turn our focus to Acts 2 for the second gene in the Acts DNA model—a loving community of believers united in evangelistic witness. This “community” is clearly connected to effective evangelism.

They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to everyone as they had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

What is described in this passage is the visible expression of the unity of the Church. Any church that is planted must surely be an outward representation of the unity of Christ’s Church. According to Hans Kung,

[The] Church—and by this I mean as always the local church and the universal Church, the local community and the community as a whole—is really and positively one Church, one people of God, one body of Christ, one spiritual creation. The whole New Testament message bears witness to this.13

Kung argues, and rightly so, that the Church is one independently of whatever man does; “. . . it depends finally not on itself but on the unity of God.”14 We remember the prayer of Jesus in John 17:21—“that all of them may be one.” Jesus knew full well that the Church was going to be one in the sense that Kung expresses. His prayer therefore reflects His concern for the Church’s visible expression of that unity, a unity clearly breached, for example, in the case of the Corinthian church. It is true that the Church is one but there remains a responsibility for every local church to express that oneness. We affirm consequently that a biblically valid church plant must be based on this unity and express it in practice. Acts 2:42-47 is a valid biblical expression of a united church. In practice all of its expressions of unity may not be realistically applicable in a different time and culture, but we can learn from the principles in this passage.

Modern church growth scholarship affirms some of these principles. Carl George identifies needs that modern churches will have to meet if they want to succeed in our contemporary culture. One of these is the desire for a personal touch. For each new wave of technological change, people seek a compensatory human touch. George believes that a great opportunity exists for churches that respond to this trend: “I believe that opportunities for interpersonal exchange such as small caring groups, are needed more than ever.”15

Another of George’s felt needs is that the church be a group of people who cares. George cites the largest church in Christendom (in Seoul, Korea), where every tenth member is officially commissioned as a caregiver. The link between these factors and growing healthy churches is, apparently, being rediscovered. Acts 2:42-47 prominently features these two “felt needs.” What we see is a church that is a caring, supportive family. The key phrase is, “they devoted themselves.” This “devotion” was to the “fellowship” among the four things cited by Luke.

Commentators and churchmen affirm that the members of the Church need each other for the process of growth and discipleship to take place. Whatever our differences, we all need one another and we belong to one another. This is also the clear teaching of First Corinthians 12. To be consistent in principle with the Acts 2 church the goal of the church planter must be to build a family atmosphere. Sunday services alone would be inadequate to achieve this if Acts 2 practice is our guide. Acts 2:46 tells us that they met every day. As this is impractical in the modern church, the church planter faces the challenge of building a fellowship that does not depend solely on Lord’s Day services. Warren,16 George and others suggest that this can only be done through small groups that meet on days other than Sunday.

The pastor can only provide the “personal touch” to a limited number of the church membership through visitation and pastoral care situations. The dynamics of group ministry care are in many ways comparable to the quality of pastoral care, while having the advantage of being consistently available. Critical to the church planter is J. Glyn Owen’s observation that Acts 2:42 and 2:47 appear to have a causal connection:

Within the community there was a spirit of rejoicing and generosity; outside, they enjoyed great popular good-will. They ascribed all glory to God, and their numbers were constantly increased as more and more believers in Jesus were added by Him to the faithful remnant.17

Owen adds that while primacy is given to worship, this does not lessen in any way the mandate given to the Church to evangelize.

[Evangelism] is a mandate to ALL THE CHURCH. It is commonly agreed that it may have had special reference to the Eleven, but it was to the Eleven as representative of the whole Church. That is how they understood it and that is how it was implemented in the Apostolic era portrayal in the book of Acts.18

Thus we see in Acts 2:42-47 not an idealized expression of church life in a unique setting, but a representation of what a healthy, normal church ought to be. The three essential elements of worship, edification and evangelism are apparent. The very first church plant is a prototype for subsequent church plants and the church planter should not rest until the full expression of the three-fold mandate is in evidence in a new work. Acts 2 informs us that we need to go beyond Sunday in order to properly edify the members of a congregation and to be effective as an evangelistic witness.

Our study of Acts has revealed a Church model that includes the genetic components of evangelism, community and (as will be discussed later) lay discipleship. But we must affirm that evangelism drove the Acts church and that the other two genetic components are byproducts. To relegate them to methodological byproducts does not mean they are of secondary importance. They are necessary characteristics of the church and the means by which it is sustained and passed on. Our model is both integrated and interdependent. Like a stool with three legs if one leg is removed the stool can no longer do what it is made for.

Evangelism comes first in this model as a logical necessity. If the disciples had not proclaimed the gospel, there would have been no converts and as a consequence no gatherings for worship and no training in discipleship. It is in this sense that evangelism drove the Acts church. We thus argue that this is the reasonable, if not logical, pattern for church planting and indeed the biblical one.

Bellah and Roof19 tell us that “boomers” and “busters” are willing to commit themselves to organizations that have a highly developed sense of mission. Indeed, they seek opportunities for that sort of commitment, frequently complaining that churches fail to address this desire, that churches are boring places where nothing ever happens. Church planters who recognize this will not compromise the gospel mandate.

It would be unwise to assume that the kind of loving unity described in Acts can be nurtured and developed in the roughly two hours that believers spend in church on Sunday morning. The circumstances of the Jerusalem church forged an interdependent community. Conversion meant exclusion from synagogue life and consequently one’s family and livelihood. The new believers needed each other and essentially bonded into a new family. Believers in contemporary churches rarely face similar pressures and thus have an underdeveloped sense of the need for community. Yet if evangelism and thus church growth are critically linked to the quality of church community, as Acts teaches by example and affirmation, then the church planter will need to be proactive in developing it. “As it is not possible to be equally committed to every Christian,” advises David Watson, “the practicalities of this must first be worked out in local areas or small groups.”20

Geographically based small or house cell groups are a practical solution with a solid biblical precedent. The Jerusalem church lacked what modern Christians consider essential to having a “real” church: a building. Instead they would “meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade” (5:12) or in the “temple courts” (5:42). We also discover that the apostles taught and proclaimed Christ “from house to house” (5:42). The practical difficulties of celebrating the Lord’s Supper or holding a prayer meeting with five thousand church members are obvious. It is most likely that the believers gathered in centrally based homes for fellowship, prayer, teaching and the breaking of bread. These groupings would have been the main structural component of the new church, especially as public meetings became more risky. Thus the Jerusalem church would have consisted of satellite home groups.

This model has a great deal to commend it, especially to the church planter who will similarly not have the luxury of a church building. Much is made of buildings. Perhaps a new church should be shaped by the community life of its people rather than a building. The model of home cell groups that are not dependent on buildings and programs is more consistent with the biblical witness. This is not to suggest that new churches should forego the traditional service, but that the church-planting pastor prioritize house groups where he can nurture the community life of the new church. The character of the new church that arises in a public format will be a product of the community that formed it. The reversal of priorities that so often arises is the formation of the structures and programs of church ministry which the church planter tries to fill with people.

A church that has evangelism as its number-one ministry priority will base every organizational decision on that priority. For example, Acts 6 recounts the appointment of the seven deacons. The apostles had a powerful and effective ministry of evangelism that was being restricted by administrative constraints, notes Watson. “Acts tells us how they found themselves choked by administration, and deliberately delegated this work so they could give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.”21

This reflects the priority of the church planter. The calling to plant a church can get confused with the building and the church’s administrative functions. The apostles recognized the danger of getting bogged down in administration. The greatest danger was and is that one loses sight of the work of evangelism. The apostolic experience in Acts 6 is a warning to every worker in a pioneering situation. We see the consequent result of to the apostolic affirmation of the priority of evangelism: “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

What the apostles saw as a result of their decision was church growth. There is nothing more critical in the church planting endeavor than growth of this kind. Warren comments, “Considering the Great Commission that Jesus gave to the church, I believe that the definition of fruitfulness for a local church must include, growth by the conversion of unbelievers.”22

Could it be that the neglect of evangelism, or making it a low priority, has stunted the growth of many new church plants? Church planters may not be making good decisions in the initial stages of ministry and are producing churches that, by biblical standards, are unhealthy.

Church plants, by definition, must grow. Growth—and especially growth by conversion—is the greatest issue that church planters wrestle with. The apostles, by example, point the way by making evangelism a priority and by not being diverted from it. Moreover, we note that, though the deacons were appointed to administer, they did not consider themselves excused from the responsibility to evangelize. Stephen is immediately arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin for preaching the gospel (6:8-15). In fact, the greater part of the evangelistic endeavor was carried out by lay people. This reflects the third gene in the Acts DNA—lay discipleship. Green comments:

Christianity was from its inception a lay movement, and so it continued for a remarkably long time. In a sense, the apostles inevitably became “professionals.” But as early as Acts 8 we find that it is not the apostles but the “amateur” missionaries, the men evicted from Jerusalem as a result of the persecution which followed Stephen’s martyrdom, who took the gospel with them wherever they went.23

It is therefore incumbent on the church planter to see that the members of the church share not only the mission of the church but also the ministry. In other words, they must be actively involved in the evangelistic endeavor. Green says that lay involvement is not only appropriate but that it makes the hearer more receptive to the gospel message. Referring to the scattered Jerusalem church, he says:

They were evangelists, just as much as any apostle was. This must often have been not formal preaching, but the informal chattering to friends and chance acquaintances, in homes and wine shops, on walks, and around market stalls. They went everywhere gossiping the gospel; they did it naturally, enthusiastically, and with the conviction of those who are not paid to say that sort of thing. Consequently, they were taken seriously, and the movement spread.24

Practically speaking, the church planter can multiply the labor force addressing the problem of growth. This can be done by encouraging active lay involvement in the very earliest stages of a new church. Lay involvement in the mission of the church dictates lay training. The Twelve were trained by Jesus. He commanded them to “make disciples”—to train their converts to carry on the mission just as they had been taught. The problem with so much of the teaching in churches from sermon to Sunday School is that it lacks a clear focus. Many of us as pastors are “tickling the ears” of our congregants from Sunday to Sunday when they really need and desire a mission they can give their lives to.

Cell groups can be as counter-productive as a dead church, if they only exist to foster fellowship. They need a challenging discipleship edge that calls our members to ownership in the Great Commission in a practical way. Even in Acts they grew too comfortable. Their zeal for worldwide evangelism needed to be refocused.

The “go” of Matthew 28:19 informs the attitude and action of the church planter. Peter needed to be convinced of this in Acts 10. God insisted that he go to Cornelius. Peter was not thinking of planting a church. His sole concern was the gospel. What we need to see is that the primacy of the gospel and the willingness to proclaim it without reservation produced church plants. The household of Cornelius would undoubtedly have become a house church and a base for continuing outreach and growth. The Jew-Gentile barrier of uncleanness was broken down once and for all by Peter’s obedience. He had challenged tradition and was taken to task for it (11:1 ff) and could only justify what he had done on the basis of following the word of the Lord. This should be the testimony of every church planter—first, not to be bound by tradition, and second, to do only what God says. Peter was waiting and God had to get him going in the right direction, one he would never have gone in otherwise.

In Acts 13 Barnabas and Saul are commissioned as missionaries by the leaders of the church at Antioch. Specifically, they are instructed by God to release Barnabas and Saul “for the work to which I have called them” (13:2). It is unlikely that Saul knew more than that he was called to preach to the Gentiles (cf. 9:15). This was a mission trip that would clarify the words of the Lord at Damascus. Saul, soon to be Paul, would discover his gift for planting and maturing churches. On the surface he understood that he was to be an evangelist to the Gentiles. With that knowledge it would have been easy for him to preach, win converts and immediately leave to harvest other fields. But Paul confirms the link between evangelism and planting churches by his example. In Derbe (14:21-25) we see a classic Pauline mission. After winning converts in the cities of Lystra, Iconium and Antioch during their itinerant mission Paul and Barnabas returned to establish each of the churches by “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. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church” (14:22-23).

There are two principles that can be derived from the ministry of Paul. First, he was called to the ministry of planting churches. As Richard Longenecker puts it, “A . . . conviction which was unmistakably clear to Paul was that he had been appointed by Jesus Christ to be an apostle to the Gentiles, delivering to them the message of a crucified and risen Lord and bringing them into the unity of one body in Christ.”25 It is important, therefore, to ascertain not only that potential church planters are trained but that they are called by God to carry out that ministry.

The second principle is the link between evangelism and planting churches. The mission given to the apostles in Matthew 28:19-20 has apparently been passed on to Paul with his full understanding. He is to “go,” “make disciples” and “teach.” To plant churches without evangelizing, or to evangelize without planting churches, would have been inconsistent with the command of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Great Commission. It is consistently clear throughout the book of the Acts that this is how the Church understood its functional purpose. The notion that the outworking of Christ’s word can somehow be divided and carried out in isolation is foreign to the New Testament record.

We also see a danger in the kind of denominational “franchising” that occurs in some church planting endeavors. Paul would not compromise on the essentials of the gospel but his church plants were clearly a product of their birthplace. Thus a Jewish-dominated congregation might have had worship practices consistent with the Jerusalem temple or the synagogue. Correspondingly, a Gentile congregation would know little of Judaism and worship, observing only the restrictions of the Jerusalem Council decree in Acts 15. Paul was not only comfortable with this but he insisted on it in his ministry. Church planters who insist upfront on denominational distinctives and who have in mind a pre-conceived result may be limiting their effectiveness, particularly in the matter of conversions. Paul adapted himself fully to the context he ministered in that he might succeed. In Athens he went to the Areopagus. In Philippi he went to the river to preach to Lydia and the women gathered there (Acts 16:13). He understood the “go” of Matthew 28:19-20 to mean that he was to go to the people where they were. Normally church plants are begun by initiating Sunday worship services in a fixed location and asking people to “come.” This is a step removed from the New Testament practice, and it was generally not used Paul.


The manifesto for church planting is Matthew 28:19-20, the Great Commission. This fixes firmly the principle that the church planter’s call is to evangelize and make disciples. The DNA or genetic code for fulfilling the Great Commission has three essential genes. DNA is the stuff of biological life; the genetic material in Acts is the life-giving essence of the Church. This is not a list of options but of vital necessities which, if neglected, create the very real likelihood of producing a “dead” church, one that is stillborn or genetically deformed. These genes we have simply recognized and acknowledged are:

1. The priority of evangelism. In terms of ministry in the Church we spend more time at this than at any other activity. This drives everything else. It produces the converts who worship, learn and evangelize. It gives the church a sense of mission and purpose that informs everything it does. I remember a New Year’s service where a young man got up and testified to his recent dramatic conversion. His was the sole conversion in our church that year. The impact in that service was electrifying. People rejoiced, wept and praised God. I could not help but think that this was what should be happening at every service. It was as though we had for a brief moment been awakened to another reality that we all longed to continually experience.
Many churches go through an entire year of ministry without really delighting the heart of God in this way. The very incarnation and ministry of Jesus tells us that God wants more than anything to save people. He never said, “Go into all the world and plant churches!” He wants real, live, new children and our call is be His witnesses in all the world. I may not need to convince the church of the priority of evangelism, but my concern is not so much what the church believes but what it actually does. After thirty years as a believer and seventeen as a pastor I have little reservation in saying that, based on the evidence, evangelism is not a priority in the average evangelical church. It is for this reason that we have so many genetically deformed church plants.

2. A loving community of believers united in evangelistic witness. The essence of a gene is the life and shape that it gives. Acts tells us forcefully that community is a critical component of evangelistic witness. Ananias and Sapphira’s breach of that unity brought the severest of consequences. Why? Because the proclamation of the gospel was compromised. That God would kill two believers for a seemingly minor breach of ethics only makes sense when we understand the integrity of the Acts church was at stake and thus its credibility as a witness.
Thirteen years ago I was involved in church split. God taught me through David’s first failure to bring up the ark of the covenant (1 Chronicles 13:5) that good intentions are insufficient when we fail to do things in God’s way. Technically I was on the “right side” in the split, but God showed me that nothing ever justifies a breach in the Body of Christ. I learned what a high value He places on the unity of believers. Apart from the gospel itself, this is the single greatest weapon in our spiritual armory. We have not been called to emphasize house groups primarily so that our church members can have good fellowship—though that will happen. We are being called by God to build a community that will itself be a witness to the gospel.

3. Lay discipleship. We often take for granted the observation in Acts that most of the outreach was done by lay converts. Apparently the Twelve took seriously the training mandate in the Great Commission. Jesus said, “teach them everything I have commanded you.” It was a given in the apostolic mind-set that they were going to train others to carry on the mission. It was plain that the Twelve could not reach the “world” by themselves. Yet, today, so many pastors carry the whole world of ministry on their shoulders. The biblical plan is both economical and practical and, like a genetic component should be, it is life-giving. Disciples gathering together with a high sense of mission and purpose are eager to learn and grow. There can be no higher purpose than the Great Commission.
The house or cell groups I have already advocated are a natural vehicle for training believers, thus serving more than one purpose. God’s design is elegant and functional. A popular notation is appearing in many church bulletins these days. Where the pastoral staff is normally listed a new category appears: “Ministers: the congregation.” This was and remains God’s plan. Many church-planting philosophies are designed to firmly place the church member in the pulpit or in a public service maintenance role that is emphasized as first priority. But for the most part, we are not making ministers so much as passive consumers. Yet, without this vital genetic component, the church can not function as the church. It becomes a genetic deformity.

There are those I know who will object to prioritizing evangelism as I have. What about all the other critically important things the church does? But this is not a case of choosing, of either/or. My contention is that this is the engine that drives everything else in the church. Making dead churches live seems to have become the lot of many, many pastors. From a church-planting standpoint we have an opportunity to start fresh—to get it right from the start. Acts serves us well in this regard. Jerusalem is the first church plant, the closest to Jesus’ original intentions for the functioning of the Church.

I must emphasize that we are not advocating structures but principles. These principles can give rise to a multiplicity of unique structures as history well attests. The Acts story is not one of fulfilling a vision for a church so much as one of the leaders reacting to needs as they arose. The creation of the office of deacon was likely a very typical day-by-day situation for the Twelve. It must have been very exciting. This is what I advocate—something that is living, exciting and faithful to the biblical witness. These genes have been discovered as we have put Acts under the microscope. And we are not the only ones who have made this same discovery. History teaches us that the witness of Scripture is faithful.

1William P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe (New York: Ballantine, 1982), 4, 6.
2Kevin Mannoia, Church Planting: The Next Generation (Indianapolis: Light and Life Press, 1994.
3Christian A. Schwartz, Natural Church Development (Winfield, BC: The International Center for Leadership Development and Evangelism, 1998).
4Carl F. George, Prepare Your Church For The Future (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1992.
5Ibid., 7.
6Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 143
7George, 46.
8McGavran, 144.
9Murray Moerman, “Church Planting Seen As A Key,” Christian Week (June 8, 1999), 13.
10Mannoia, 67.
11Michael Green, Evangelism In The Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970) 274.
12Ibid., 275.
13Hans Kung, The Church (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976) 351-2
14Ibid., 353.
15George, 15.
16Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).
17J. Glyn Owen, The Church’s Mission: A Series of Three Sermons (Toronto: Knox Presbyterian Church, 1977) 20.
18Ibid., 24 (emphasis in original text).
19Robert N. Bellah, Habits of the Heart (Berkely: University of California Press, 1985) and Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers (San Francisco: Harper, 1993).
20David Watson, I Believe In The Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 99.
21Ibid., 100.
22Warren, 63.
23Green, 73.
24Ibid., 173.
25Richard N. Longenecker, The Ministry and Message of Paul (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 36.

Editorial: Hypocrisy- The Malpractice of Religious Leaders

The Laws of Clean and Unclean and Their Relationship with the Concept of Sacred Space, Joe M. Sprinkle

Does a Soul Have Wrinkles? Evangelism and Mature Adults, James A. Davies

The DNA Factor of Church Growth, Peter Hay

Constructing Contextual Theology in a Postmodern Asian Society, Paul Y. Siu

A Critique of Charles Nienkirchen's Book, A.B. Simpson and the Pentecostal Movement, Paul L. King

From Eden to the Christian Counselor's Couch: Humanity's Loss and Recovery of Wholeness, Craig W. Ellison

Nonverbal Communication and Spiritual Discernment, K. Neill Foster

Elio Cuccaro, Ph. D., Editor

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©2006 by K. Neill Foster