Rediscovering Paul’s Church Strategies
I. On Making Disciples as a Strategic Focus
Brandon Price posted on his blog (link) that he was “growing kind of uncomfortable with the term ‘church planting.’” He said that term, “seems to put all the focus on creating a church (an often location-based institution), and nowhere in scripture are we told to go and make churches. Instead, the church is a natural outflow of what our actual call is: making disciples.” He is reframing their work of planting churches as “making disciples.” It got me thinking. A google search turned up Scott Thomas (link no longer exists), who wrote the following in Sept 2009 at Acts 29, “Jesus did not say go make churches. He said go make disciples. Where disciples are gathered, churches are formed. But if we fail to focus on making disciples we will use them to build our church.”
When you look at church planting through the lens of Making Disciples, the transformation of people comes more clearly into focus. For me, it is freeing—I don’t have to think so much in terms of what a church will look like as on what the people must look like. Then, as Brandon puts it, “the church is a natural outflow” that results from making disciples, and as Scott says, “the church will form.” And, especially important, the church that results will be adapted to the culture and people group from which it springs. I tried to keep this perspective in mind as I outlined the points to follow. It was Brandon’s post that prompted me to set down some things I’ve been thinking over about Paul’s church planting methodology.
We also have a biblical definition and model of what it means to be a disciple. Jesus defined this with finality in Matt 16:24: “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” In Phil 2:2-9, Paul exhorts us to follow our Lord’s example:
“Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.”
Finally, Brian Russell sums the focus on discipleship and disciplemaking nicely on his blog (link no longer exists):
“Discipleship at its heart is missional. Jesus calls disciples in order to multiply his own work of making disciples. This is clear in the climactic passage of Matthew (28:16-20). This text, better known as the Great Commission, centers on Jesus’ exhortation to ‘Make disciples.’ Thus, we need to read Matt 16:24 and its call to discipleship within this overarching framework of mission…”
Paul used people terms and not institutional terms referring to his work in Galatia, “And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the LORD, and see how *THEY* do.” Not, “…how the churches we planted are holding up!” -Acts 15:36
II. Paul’s Purpose
Paul had a clear goal in mind for new believers: that they should become disciples who bore the image of Christ
A. Making Disciples: travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you
Paul’s Goal: He tells the Galatians that I am in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (Gal 4:19). My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you.
B. Making Disciples who make disciples
For Paul, all should be involved in the purpose to bring one another into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Chris.
In Eph Paul is explicit that the apostolic giftings and NT elders are given “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:…Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ:… speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” Eph 4:12-13, 15-16
It is the saints doing the work; the elders and itinerants equipping the saints for their work as disciple makers with one another.
III. Paul’s Example
In Acts 13 through 21, the activities of Paul and his coworkers establish the first church planting movement and demonstrates a church planting methodology that is flexible, financially lean and operates under a surprisingly brief timeline.
Their work was taking place among very similar cultures and times to our own. We can look to their methods to re-examine and revise the church planting models we use today, and especially to increase our expectations of what God can accomplish through His people as He builds His Church. Here are seven key observations, which would be considered ridiculous strategies by the church planting movements in the West today.
1. On average, churches were planted and self-sufficient in 12 months
2. The work was unfunded, accomplished by bivocational servants
3. Paul planted multiple churches regionally, often from a base camp church in a major city (churches that planted churches)
4. There was follow-up by Paul and/or itinerants as well as letters to continue to support and encourage, especially through troubles
5. Whole households were being converted, not just individuals
6. After an initial time in weeks or months of reaching new disciples, they are left on their own as a church without formal leadership for months
7. Paul enlists additional workers from among the new churches as local elders (on average with 6 to 12 months experience as believers) and as itinerants (with about 2 years experience as believers). They all share the same focus (see Eph 4:11-16).
A dose of reality: Don’t try to copy a church model (maintain the principles and functions while staying expectantly and brutally flexible on the practices and forms that will uniquely emerge in the people God calls together where you are laboring); don’t expect an implausible growth explosion. A typical church plant will be well under 100 in the first year, and in the first five years.
IV. Paul’s Message
In all of his letters he in one way or another refers to the centrality of Christ, the cross, and the pure gospel as being the “only foundation” on which his ministry was built. We must have the same message:
“For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” –I Cor 3:11
And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; –Col 1:17-19
Paul was a skilled logician, and rhetoric was a highly respected cultural means of public address. Yet, we read this,
And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. –I Cor 2:1-5
Someone just this week made the observation that if Paris Hilton can draw a following, anyone can start a church. But the church isn’t to be built following a celebrity pastor with excellent teaching that entertains. interests, and informs. It isn’t built on excellent speech, but on following Jesus at great cost by a congregation of disciple making disciples (who will make up church planting churches).
V. Paul’s Pattern
Paul consciously set a pattern for others to follow by his life. Paul was very aware that his every action must constitute a clear example to the new believers, and was willing to make great sacrifices to do so. This over rode any rights he might have.
A. The Pattern we gave you – Follow my example
“One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.” Phil 3:13b-17 NIV
B. The Tradition you received from us – the Example we set for you to follow
“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; Neither did we eat any man’s bread for naught; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. -II Thess 3:6-9
VI. Paul’s Venue
In today’s church, the pastor is expected to invest significant time preparing for a major weekly sermon address. This is considered his important teaching ministry. But if our focus shifts to making disciples, then we might rethink this approach.
Paul taught the believers in Ephesus, “publicly, and from house to house.”
Paul spent time teaching people in their homes, one to one and in small groups. He was focused on building disciples, and this is not something accomplished by weekly lectures. Jesus also taught both publicly and in homes, in large groups and small and in one to one or one to a few opportunities. If your pattern is to invest most of your time and teaching efforts to a weekly public delivery, then you are not using the methods of Jesus and Paul to build disciples.
VII. Paul’s Power
The secret power Paul used was that He believed God was alive and active in the affairs of His people. Paul entrusted the new believers in the hands of God at work in and among them.
Paul felt no need to maintain control or build a large network with himself at the head.
“And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” –Acts 14:23
“And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.” –Acts 20:32
VIII. Paul’s Plan
Paul laid down foundational truths for new believers (and itinerant workers as well as elders were instructed to carefully pass these on).
We know that Paul felt an urgency in these, teaching new believers both publicly and privately (Acts 20:20)
- “I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” –Acts 20:20, 21
- “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you… For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:” -I Cor 11:2, 23
- “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” –II Thess 2:15
- “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust. // Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” –I Tim 6:20; II Tim 1:13
- “Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.” –Titus 1:9
- These foundations included:
- Instruction in remembering the death of the Lord and expecting His return I Cor 11:23-26
- The accounts of the resurrection I Cor 15:3-18
- A whole list of what Bill Dillon (God’s Work in God’s Way, Brown Gold Publications) called, “rich doctrinal truths” shared so quickly can be seen from I Thessalonians, including, “election, 1:4; Holy Spirit, 1:5-6, 4:8, 5:19; assurance, 1:5; Trinity of the Godhead, 1:1,5,6; conversion, 1:9; second coming of Christ, 1:10, 2:19, 3:13, 4:14-17, 5:23; walk of the believer, 2:12, 4:1; sanctification, 4:3, 5:23; Day of Jehovah, 5:1-3; resurrection of Christ and believers, 4:14-18; man as body, soul and spirit, 5:23.
IX. Paul’s Values
Values were shared consistently so that they became, “faithful sayings” (and Paul urged the itinerants to continually communicate these values among the saints)
- The gracious, sacrificial example of Jesus – “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” –I Tim 1:15
- The example of men sacrificing to serve others in the community – “This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” –I Tim 3:1
- The contrast between living for this world and the next – “For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation.” –I Tim 4:8,9
- The importance and rewards of sacrifice and suffering – “It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him: If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us: If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself.”–II Tim 2:11-13
- The focused effort needed in doing good works – “This is a faithful saying. and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men.” –Titus 3:8 (note that this is one of the important purposes of assembling together regularly—to consider one another to “provoke unto love and to good works” which is holding fast to “the profession of our faith without wavering.”
X. Paul’s Results: Devout Disciples
A Community of Disciples who followed Paul’s example, turned from Idols to serve “the Living and True God,” and who were awaiting the return of Jesus from heaven.
“…our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake.
And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost.
So that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia…
For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.” –I Thess 1:5-10