The Meaning of Life: To Help Establish Local Churches

We are investigating the meaning of life and the question: Why are we here? Last time we concluded that the Great Commission implies that we should plant new churches throughout the world. So if we are to obey Jesus and follow the example given us by the Apostle Paul, then surely high on our list must be to help spread and strengthen the local church. But how do we do this? Where can we look for guidance?

We need look no further than Acts Chapters 13 and 14. Not only is this the summary of Paul’s first missionary journey, it gives us clues to the activities of a healthy church. It is therefore a guide for how we should engage with the church.

Apostle-PaulDavid Hesselgrave has looked at this question and neatly summarized Paul’s activities in his classic book, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally. There he outlines what he calls the Pauline Cycle. He looks at the book of Acts and how Paul carried out his missionary charge.

Boiled down to its essentials, the cycle is this:

  1. Select church planters under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As the church leaders at Antioch fasted and prayed, the Holy Spirit led them to choose Paul and Barnabas to go out. These two were their best, most gifted leaders who had learned how to do ministry at home before they went out. They selected men from within, whom they knew well. How often do we send out inexperienced, untried men and women who do their learning in the field?
  2. Gather believers into churches. The missionary band went out from the local church, preached the gospel, made converts, and gathered them into new churches. The essence of the Great Commission is to create new churches throughout the globe. A new church brings more new believers through its doors than older, existing churches. It is an engine of growth.
  3. Establish believers in sound doctrine. The missionary team then spent considerable time establishing the church. They taught the converts the whole plan and counsel of God—all that Jesus commanded. They grounded these new believers firmly in the faith. This didn’t just involve a “Sunday morning” experience, but sitting down with converts during the week and explaining the teachings of Jesus. “Establishing” believers in the faith must come about through a process of systematic, ordered learning.
  4. Appoint elders and equip them. Paul identified and chose leaders, appointed elders in every church, and equipped them for ministry. He even ignored new missionary opportunities so he could spend three years in Ephesus training and teaching leaders. From Ephesus, some went out and planted a growing network of churches in surrounding regions. Finding and training new leaders is a critical next step, without which the church will stagnate and the growth process dies.
  5. Revisit and strengthen the newly planted churches. Paul sent letters, emissaries, and he, himself, revisited churches he’d previously planted to strengthen them and address problems they were seeing. The new churches also reported back to their sending church all that had been accomplished. Providing feedback and encouragement to those in the sending church is important so they can rejoice in how they are fulfilling God’s plan and so they will do it again.
  6. Repeat the process. Finally, the new churches began again at step one, seeking God’s will to select and send out new church planters.

This then is how Paul carried out the will of God. We see it in Acts 13 and 14 in his first journey. We see it in every journey he made. But is what he did in Acts a pattern and model for us today? Indeed, it is. At every step of the way Paul was guided by the Holy Spirit. It was his plan, but also God’s plan. Luke wrote the book of Acts under the influence of the Holy Spirit not just to record early church history, but to give us a model to follow.

How successful was this model? By AD 100 churches were established in nearly all Roman provinces including between 250,000 to 500,000 Christians. By the time of Constantine there were nearly six million Christians out of a population of sixty million. That’s 10% of Western Civilization. Of course many of those followed Christ in name only, looking for economic advantage after Constantine declared Christianity the religion of the empire. But now local churches existed nearly everywhere, where seekers could go and believers could congregate.

This is how we obey our Lord Jesus. This is how we take the news of His coming to the world. And it is surely one of the most important reasons why we are here.

Next time we’ll look more at this cycle and how we, as individuals, can help.

The Meaning of Life: To Spread the Gospel Through Churches

We’ve been investigating the meaning of life and the question: Why are we here? Jesus tells us in the Great Commission to go out, baptize believers, and teach them to obey everything he taught. But how are we to do this? Before baptizing believers evangelists must tell them the news of Jesus’s coming. But from where do they come? And when a new believer is baptized, who baptizes them? And into what are they baptized?

The last thing Jesus commanded was to teach new believers “to obey all the commands I have given you.” So who teaches them? And where did the teachers learn what to teach? And who guarded, protected, and maintained the doctrine through the turmoil, wars, purges, and oppression of the ages of men?

We can boil our questions down to one: What is the one “institution” the Great Commission requires, without which it cannot occur?

China-house-churchThe answer—the local church of which Christ is the head.

Yes, the ultimate meaning of the Great Commission is that we are to go out and plant churches. We create new churches. And note we are talking about “local churches”, not the church universal. We mean the concrete church down the street, the one that’s real, not just an abstract concept. We mean the one meeting in the hotel ballroom on Broadway at 10:00 on Sunday morning. For only the local church can carry out the work of the Great Commission.

What’s the source of the evangelists who go out, preach the gospel, and make converts? The local church. Individuals can do this, but if not done in the context of a local church, their efforts will be for naught. For the new converts may quickly fall away.

Who baptizes new believers? The local church. Baptism itself is a rite of passage. It’s a public ceremony marking the beginning of an adult believer’s new life in Christ. It should not be done in secret, but openly. Baptism is a public statement that says, “I now identify myself as a Christian and have joined the body of Christ.” The new convert is not joining an idea, but an actual group of believers who meet at a certain time and a place. Of course they’re joining the “church universal” but that’s an abstract concept.

What is the local church? It’s not a building. It’s the body of believers who meet regularly for worship, prayer, sharing the Lord’s Supper, and studying Jesus and the Apostle’s teachings. It may never have a building to call its own. The local church is who baptizes, what the new believer joins, and which provides the witnesses to the event.

Who maintains and teaches sound doctrine and grounds new believers in the faith? The local church. If new believers are not firmly “established” in Jesus’s teachings, they’ll be like the seeds planted on rocky ground, and their faith will not take root. The local church teaches the teachers who teach new converts. Without the local church the gospel will not spread.

Who guards, maintains, and protects sound doctrine—the teachings of Jesus? The local church. And if a church fails to do so, it’s doomed to failure. A church that teaches the doctrines of men, that doesn’t take the teachings of the Bible as truth might just as well be a yoga class at the community center or a meeting of the Sierra Club. And if new converts are not grounded in sound doctrine they may well fall prey to the first false teaching that comes along—Jehovah’s Witnesses; Mormonism; Hare Krishna; Buddhism; Islam; or Health, Wealth, and Prosperity Gospel.

Where does the believer find a Christian community that’s necessary for them to grow strong in their faith? The local church. For without a commitment to community, that new believer has only a tenuous connection to the body of Christ.

So to follow the Great Commission means this: We should plant new churches and firmly establish existing ones. It’s what Paul did. It’s what the book of Acts tells us.  (Read Acts Ch. 13 and Ch. 14.) And it’s what St. Patrick did in ancient, Celtic Ireland.

We’ll stop here for today. Next week we’ll look at the life cycle of a healthy church and what we, as believers in Christ, can do to help the Great Commission through the local church. For surely, that is one reason why we are here on this earth.

The Meaning of Life: We Are Here to Spread the Gospel

In our investigation of the meaning of life and the question, why are we here, one of our answers is to obey the God who gave us life, both physical and spiritual. One of the most important commands Jesus gave his followers was the Great Commission. From Matthew 28:18–20 (NLT):

GreatCommission18 Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

This means we go out. We do not sit home. We take the gospel to others, or support others who go out. It means some of those who hear the good news that Christ died for us and rose again will believe. They must be brought into churches where they will be baptized. It also means we need to teach these new disciples what Jesus taught—all of of what he taught, not just some of it. And all of it must occur in the context of a local church. That is how we obey the Great Commission.

And why should we obey? We who are believers have been given an incredible gift, the best present anyone could ever receive—eternal life. Once we comprehend the magnitude of this, and understand the great cost Christ paid to leave his heavenly throne, come to earth, live out a finite number of days in a physical body, and then submit to an earthly death by crucifixion—all for our sakes—we should be overwhelmed with gratitude and joy. That’s why we obey.

But joy at our salvation must be tempered. As we look around us, both in our community and in the world, we see countless billions who do not know the love of Christ. Ralph Winter estimates that only about 10% of the world’s population can be counted as Bible-believing Christians. For the rest, at the end of their days, when they stand in judgment before a perfectly holy God, a God who cannot tolerate sin, they will no one to intercede for them. Because they do not know Christ. This means that if nothing changes, over 6.2 billion souls will be eternally separated from God. This is a terrible thing to contemplate.

David Platt, in his book Radical, put it this way:

“…I stood atop a mountain in the heart of Hyderabad, India. This high point in the city housed a temple for Hindu gods. I smelled the offerings that had been given to the wooden gods behind me. I saw teeming masses in front of me. Every direction I turned, I glimpsed an urban center filled with millions upon millions of people.

“And then it hit me. The overwhelming majority of these people had never even heard the gospel. They offer religious sacrifices day in and day out because no one has told them that, in Christ, the final sacrifice has already been offered on their behalf. As a result they live without Christ, and if nothing changes, they will die without him as well.

“As I stood on that mountain, God gripped my heart and flooded my mind with two resounding words: ‘Wake up.’ Wake up and realize that there are infinitely more important things in your life than football and a 401(k). Wake up and realize there are real battles to be fought, so different from the superficial, meaningless ‘battles’ you focus on. Wake up to the countless multitudes who are currently destined for a Christless eternity.”

So we obey the Great Commission because, first, we need to respond to the gift of eternal life, and in so doing show God our love. And second, because our hearts should break for the eternal fates of those who don’t know Christ.

How do we do that? By taking the gospel to our friend, family, and coworkers. And by supporting foreign missionaries with prayer, funds, and care.

Next week we’ll look at a major component of missions for both local and foreign—why is its important to plant churches?