Our English word church comes from a Greek word ekklesia meaning, “the called-out ones.” The normative pattern in Acts showed that early believers were quickly called out and gathered into newly formed congregations (Acts 2:41–47; 5:11; 13:1). Acts opens with an introduction to the first Jerusalem church and ends with the church multiplying all over the known world. Every now and then someone will say to me, “Jeff, where in the Bible are we commanded to start churches?” My response is, “The entire New Testament!” From Jesus’ selecting, preparing and commissioning His disciples to the testimony of their actions in Acts, to the letters and epistles sent to the newly planted churches, to the Revelation of John where Jesus encourages and corrects churches that were planted.
Where in the New Testament are they not planting churches?
On the essential gospel message Jesus established His church, a church designed for all. Luke provides us with one of his typical summary statements in which he dispassionately describes the normal activity of the first-century church: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (Acts 9:31).
What may be surprising to those who argue for a more consolidated slant to church is that this was never the mentality of the first-century church. Consolidation in a season of peace is wise. Yet this first-century church refused to pause in order to consolidate. The winds of persecution would find them, but their numbers would not be static. Certainly one of the keys that moved Christianity from a cultic Roman outlier to a dominant force in less than three centuries was its proclivity to multiply. It’s not that we want to imitate the early church in terms of all of its contextual ecclesiological forms, it’s that we desire to learn from their obedience to Christ and the blessing that followed. The goal in the twenty-first century isn’t necessarily literal first-century churches but to imitate them insofar as they imitated Christ.
Dominating the turf became the revered fascination that followed this period of history. And with this massive effort of consolidation, the church finally gained notoriety and respectability. With this respectability, many were joyous because it seemed like a noble victory. But wiser sages grieved, for they understood that the church had sold her soul. The kingdom’s increasingly spontaneous expansion of a spiritual movement was reduced to a much darker prescription of sterility and uniformity. The image of Jesus and His church could now be readily seen in art and architecture, but no longer was it visible in the priorities of His people.
A biblical understanding of church multiplication
The multiplication of churches, as witnessed in Acts, offers several insights that demonstrate how the disciples lived out the propositional truths they received. Apparently many churches were planted in a short span of time, for we read that Paul and Barnabas appointed pastors in “every church” (Acts 14:23). Further, Paul traveled “through Syria and Silicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:41). Paul obviously formed new believers into congregations wherever he went. Second- and third-generation church multiplication had quickly begun to spin off of Paul’s early pioneering work as the apostle to the Gentiles. Normal to the first-century church’s sacred experience was the practice of sending out their best for the advancement of the kingdom of God (Acts 13:1–3).
A biblical understanding of church multiplication requires a clear appreciation of the theological nature of the church. With a biblically solid ecclesiological perspective, the long-term intentions of the church should always guide any short-term strategy or vision. So what is the biblical intention of churches?
• Regenerate children, reborn and belonging to God (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:1–2)
• People living appreciatively and reliantly on the Holy Spirit’s work through the entire community (Romans 12:3–8; 1 Corinthians 12:12–30)
• Humble believers amazed and propelled by grace (Matthew 10)
• Incarnational disciples living transformed lives within the world, yet not isolated or alienated from the world (1 Corinthians 6:12–20)
• Those using meek and unpretentious practices with an application of the gospel that is both accessible and understandable (book of Galatians; John 14:26; 16:13–15)
• Selfless and self-sacrificing followers emulating the lifestyle of their leaders who embody a desire to glorify God (Romans 16:25–27; 1 Corinthians 6:20; Philippians 1:20)
• Undiscriminating messengers without racial walls, national borders, or socioeconomic separation, (Romans 15:18–19)
• Reproducing emissaries who obediently take the gospel to new places that commission multiplying new expressions of Christian community (Acts 9:31)
Clearly a straightforward reading of the New Testament can lead to no other conclusion than a kingdom-spirited congregation is to seek to provide opportunities for every person to come face-to-face with the good news of Christ. With this high and eternal motivation, the biblical record illustrates a church that is radically focused on multiplication.
Published May 31, 2016