Essential Elements of Church Planting and Growing in the 21st Century

Recently an Asian mission asked me to evaluate its strategy. After a preliminary inquiry, I said, "Before we go on, it already appears to me that you have overlooked the importance of the church."
They replied, "But you see, in our country people will accept Christ but they will not do so if they think that it entails changing churches. Christ is not a problem; the church is the problem. So in our mission we just lead people to Christ and disciple them."

I'm sure that these friends are sincere and dedicated servants of Christ. They want to carry out the Christian mission as best they can. But I also believe that they do not fully understand the nature of either the church or the Christian mission—of what Christ through the Holy Spirit is doing in today's world and desires to do in the world of tomorrow.
New Testament mission was designed to bring people into relationship with Christ and with other believers in responsible churches.

New Testament mission was deemed most successful when churches were planted—churches like the church in Thessalonica, which itself became a missionary church reaching out to people near and far. Churches then and now have problems; nevertheless, the churches are not the problem. On the contrary, they are the primary means of continuing mission and the ultimate fulfillment of the Great Commission.
Unfortunately my friends in that Asian missionary organization are not alone in possessing a rather limited understanding of the Christian mission. Perhaps never before in history have there been more differing understandings and misunderstandings of this kind. And now as we meet together we stand on threshold of a new century, indeed, a new millennium. Never has the challenge been greater; never the church larger; never mission involvement more diverse; never the need for divine direction more evident. But one of the most important would be the missionary task of planting and growing New Testament churches.

Gospels provide direction

What are the essential elements of that primary missionary task? Where would we expect to discover them? Without hesitation, all would answer "Why, in Scripture, of course—and especially the New Testament." Good. But having agreed on that we might already be inclined to part company with one another. Some will go to the Book of Acts because there the Holy Spirit is given, missionaries are sent, and the church is born. But if we go to Acts first we may be tempted to make what is descriptive of one place and time, normative for all places and times. So others will go to the Epistles since they are more normative and can be applied to all times and places. But if we go first to the Epistles, we overlook the historical record that is so important to proper interpretation.

So what shall we do? Where shall we go? I propose that we go back to the Gospels. From that background the early missionary undertakings developed—missionary endeavors that resulted in churches. Those churches were sanctified in Acts and the Epistles, and glorified in the Apocalypse. But both the early mission and the early church had already been prophesied, prescribed, and promised in the Gospels. And it was in those Gospel prophecies, prescriptions, prayers and promises that the apostles themselves were first instructed.

A few years go as I was studying the Olivet Discourse I realized that for many years I had read, studied, preached, and taught the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24-25 and the Great Commission in Matthew 28 without ever once considering the fact that they were and are intimately related. In the Olivet Discourse our Lord was not primarily concerned with satisfying the disciples' curiosity about end-time events but rather with preparing them for his Passion and resurrection and also for their commissioning as recorded in Matthew 28. When I saw that latter connection it gave me an entirely new perspective on both passages—on both Olivet Discourse prophecy and Great Commission prescription. In fact, I realized that, most of the teachings of the last months of our Lord's ministry on earth constituted a preparation for the final events of his life—not only for his Passion and resurrection, but also for the commissioning.

More recently I have applied this insight in studying the connection between our Lord's teachings and prayer recorded in that extended and important passage in John 14-17 on the one hand, and the abbreviated forms of the Great Commission in John 20:21-22 and Acts 1:8.

First, however, allow me to comment on two preliminary passages in Matthew.

I. The Building of the Church—Matthew 16:15-19

This is a crucial passage for Catholics, Orthodox, Anglo-Catholics, and Protestants. There are two fundamentally different interpretations. One says that the church is built on Peter himself. The other says that the church is built on Peter's confession. Perhaps both are partially true and partly false.

There were three aspects of our Lord's promise to Peter: On this rock I will build my church; I will give you the keys to the kingdom; and, whatsoever you bind or loose on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven. Certainly one way—perhaps the best way—to determine what the Lord meant is to see the promise to Peter in its relationship to the Great Commission and its outworking in the Book of Acts. In Matthew 28 Jesus went beyond the previous commission to reach Jewish people (Matt. 10) and said that his followers were to reach all the ethne, i.e., Gentiles but not to the exclusion of the Jews. Then in the early chapters of Acts we find that the Holy Spirit worked in such a way as to change those disciples inwardly. The change in Peter was dramatic indeed. He who was boastful yet cowardly before, became both humble and courageous. The little stone became rock-solid as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit. The transformation was both essential and productive. Peter preached the gospel message of repentance and faith, and thereby opened the kingdom door first to Jews and proselytes in Jerusalem and then to Gentiles in the house of Cornelius. Moreoever, when Paul's ever-widening mission to the Gentiles came under suspicion in the early church, Peter's testimony was crucial to its vindication.

By making these and other relevant connections, three conclusions commend themselves—three elements essential to an understanding of the Christian mission. First, Christ promised to build but one entity—the church. The church and the mission (organization) are not parallel nor are they more or less equal. The church is Christ's building, body, and bride. This is not true of any mission organization. The church will reign with him in his kingdom when mission organizations and the need for them have long since passed away.

Second, Peter's ministry was far more important than many of us have recognized. We are almost halfway through the Book of Acts before Luke shifts the spotlight from Peter and the apostles in Jerusalem to Paul and his apostolic band. The Holy Spirit went to great lengths to anchor both the early church and its missionary outreach in the ministry of the apostle Peter.
Third, however important we may consider Peter to have been, it was the gospel that he preached that was most important. It was in response to that message—to the gospel of Christ—that sins were forgiven or retained. In the final analysis, apostolic succession is more a matter of faithfulness to Peter's Christ and the Word of Christ than a matter of linkage to Peter himself.
II. The Discipling of the Ethne—Matthew 28:16-20

As is well known, many Reformers held to the position that the Great Commission was given to, and fulfilled by, the apostles. The Spirit used men like Justinian von Welz, Phillip Spener, and William Carey to impress upon the church the fact that the Great Commission was applicable to all of Christ's followers until its completion. Almost all of us have come to this understanding. But by connecting the commissioning in Matthew 10, the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25, the Great Commission in Matthew 28, and the work of the Holy Spirit in Acts, at least three more essential understandings become apparent.

First, the imperative of the Matthean statement of the Great Commission is that we "disciple" the ethne. There is a widespread misunderstanding as to what "discipling" might be. It is not just introducing people to Christ as some seem to think. Nor is it taking the most promising converts and making good, solid Christians out of them as very many seem to think. No, "disciple" is an inclusive word. To disciple means to make followers, students, learners. To understand it we simply need to follow Christ and his disciples along the path that led to Calvary. To understand it we simply need to accompany early Christians in Acts as they lived out their faith in the midst of difficulties and propagated it in the face of opposition. Discipleship begins when people respond to God's Word in repentance and faith. It continues in company with other believers in the church of Jesus Christ. And it ends in the glory of God's heaven. Discipling in this larger, biblical sense is basic to obedience to Christ's commission.
Second, discipling is to be accomplished by going, baptizing, and teaching all things Christ commanded. More, these three activities are given in ascending order of importance. That can be learned from the grammar alone, but it is also corroborated in the Book of Acts. I encourage you to give careful attention to the witness and proclamation of the early witnesses and missionaries—Peter on Pentecost, Stephen at his defense, Paul in Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, and Athens. Note the scope of their message. Their gospel began with great truths of Genesis, continued with the story of Jesus in the Gospels, and concluded with the judgment and kingdom of Revelation. The gospel in this larger, biblical sense is fundamental to fulfilling the Great Commission.

Finally, as Harry Boer points out in his classic book Pentecost and Mission, the Great Commission was not used to motivate the early church to undertake mission. There is no clear case in Acts where the apostles pled with those early Christians to obey the Great Commission. The Great Commission was not, and is not, just a fiat command. It is an organic law, much like the Genesis command to be fruitful and replenish the earth. It was the indwelling Holy Spirit who motivated those early Christians to obey the Great Commission. You see, the Holy Spirit is also the Missionary Spirit. He works in and through believers individually and also corporately in the church. That is the way mission began; that is the way it has continued; and that is the way it will be completed. The work of the Spirit in this larger, biblical sense is basic to proper missionary understandings and undertakings.

III. The Promise of the Paraclete—John 14:15-18

This brings us to a critical and lengthy passage in John 14-17; to the relationship between those chapters and the Johannine statement of the Great Commission in John 20:21-22; and also to the Lukan statement in Acts 1:8 and Luke's account of the Missionary Spirit's work in the early chapters of Acts. The importance of the chapter 14 to 17 section of John's Gospel becomes evident when we realize that almost one-half of John's entire Gospel is devoted to the teachings and events of a few final days out of a life that lasted over 30 years. Jesus was about to leave. His disciples were to be left to carry on. And they were expected to bear much fruit—fruit that would remain. At the same time, Jesus made it clear that, in and of themselves, they could accomplish absolutely nothing. Put yourself in the place of those disciples. What was their hope of accomplishing such a daunting task? The hope was that they would not be left alone to stand alone, walk alone, or work alone. In the person of the Paraclete Christ would come to be with them, in them, and work through them.

The disciples did not understand. They wanted Christ's physical presence. Or else they wanted to go with him wherever he might be going. But it was for their good—and for the good of the church and of the world—that he go. Why? Because only then would the Paraclete be sent; only then could their mission be carried out; only then could greater things be accomplished; only then could the church be planted and grow; only then could the mission extend beyond Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria to reach around the world and until the end of the age.
Notice that this Paraclete is first identified as the Spirit of Truth. Later on Christ will command them to wait for the Spirit's coming, until Pentecost, in order to receive the necessary dunamis or power. But truth takes precedence over power because the nature and source of power must be tested by the measure and application of God's truth. In a world of false spirits, phoney enterprises, and foolish ideologies, the ministry of the Spirit of Truth is basic.

IV. The Provision of the Word of God—John 14:26; 16:13-15

Old Testament Scripture came through inspired patriarchs and prophets. In the fullness of time Christ the Living Word appeared. But he wrote on sand, not papyrus. He initiated a new era, but authored no books. He uttered timeless truths, but published not one volume. He taught his disciples, but they were often forgetful and failing. Would the writing of his words be left to fading memories as had been the case with Buddha's words several centuries before? Or would his word be left to the machinations of a man subject to hallucinations as would be the case with the Qur'an six or seven hundred years hence? No, the Spirit of Truth would guide their heads and hearts, and minds and hands, and cause them to write Christ's words unerringly. And so we have the Gospels. And the command to disciple the nations by teaching all that Christ commanded becomes eminently possible. In fact, it becomes possible only in that way.

This understanding is both profound and absolutely essential. We have championed the authority of the Bible. Now we must champion its proper use. Christian films, dramas, testimonies, and music play their part, but in and of themselves they are woefully deficient. Preaching that highlights the preacher's experience, ideas, and eloquence may attract an audience but will not do the job. Social science findings, statistical analyses, spiritual demonstrations, special programs—these may make some contribution if they measure up to the standards of Scripture. But the Bible, the Word of God itself must be preached and heard if there is to be the response of faith. William Dyrness has said it well: I will argue . . . that it is Scripture, and not its "message" that is finally transcultural . . . . Although it will surely relate in some way to Christ and his work, what is transcultural is not some core truth, but Scripture—the full biblical context of Christ's work. It is this that must be allowed to strike its own spark in the light of the needs of particular cultures.1

V. The Witness to the Son—John 15:26-27

Note the recurrence of this theme throughout these chapters. The Lord Jesus is the Son and Savior. He is the Way, Truth and Life. The Son is to be magnified. The Son is to be glorified. The apostles were to witness to the Son. The Spirit bears witness to the Son. The Father, the Spirit, the Scriptures—all are "Son-centered." The missionary, the evangelist, the prophet, the pastor, the teacher—all are to be "Son-centered." Churches are to be "Son-centered." Missions are to be "Son-centered."

This truth is essential to understanding the Lord's prayer for his people that we will look at shortly. This truth is essential to understanding the Great Commission that we have already looked at. This truth is essential to understanding that oft-quoted passage in Acts chapter 1: 8—"And you shall receive power after the Holy Spirit is come upon you and you will be My witnesses . . . ." No man comes to the Father but through Jesus. No one is filled with the Spirit apart from glorifying the Son. No one understands the Bible unless in its pages he sees Christ. No pastor has fulfilled his ministry unless his congregation sees Jesus. No missionary has fulfilled his mission unless people see Jesus. The Great Commission will never be fufilled unless hitherto unreached peoples are introduced to Jesus.

VI. The Conviction of the World—John 16:7-11

These verses are basic to that part of theology called "elenctics." It comes from a Greek word found in verse 8 and variously translated as "convict," "convince," "reprove," and "persuade." The Lord Jesus indicates that the world must be convicted or convinced of three things.

First, the world must be convicted of sin. Not just any sin, but the sin of not believing in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Most people will admit that they have lied, or cheated, or stolen. But how can they be convinced that the sin that will doom them to hell is the sin of unbelief in Jesus?

Second, the world must be convicted concerning righteousness. Not just of the need for being as good or better than their neighbors, but of the need for being as perfect as Jesus. Most people compare themselves with their neighbors and feel that they measure up quite well. After all, only one small group of people in all the history of the world had a perfectly righteous Neighbor. They lived in first century Nazareth close to Joseph and Mary and their sons. And the righteous Jesus had left Nazareth and was soon to leave the world entirely. How will people be convinced that neither their righteousness nor that of their neighbors measures up to God's standard? That they have to be righteous like the Christ they do not yet really know; in fact, that they have to have his righteousness?
Third, the world must be convicted of judgment. Not just that they will be judged someday, but that judgment has already occurred. Most people agree that there will be some kind of judgment in the future and hope that God will be kind and merciful. But how can they be convinced that sin has already been judged at the cross of Christ? That Satan is already a defeated foe? That the cross has changed everything?

That they must come to the Christ of the cross?

As a matter of fact, no matter how eloquent and persuasive Christ's ambassadors might be, they cannot convince the world of any of these things. But, take heart. The Holy Spirit can and does. That is his ministry. That is why Christ sent him. That is why all of us, and especially those of us who go to new areas, witness among unreached peoples, and build the church where foundations have yet to be laid—that is why we must remember that we have the Paraclete standing beside us, living in us, and ministering through us. He makes the mission possible.

VI. The Prayer for Unity—John 17:18-21

We have heard it many times: John 17 is the "Lord's Prayer." The writer of Hebrews says that he is able to save us because he ever lives to make intercession for us (7:25). Our High Priest is always praying for us. How does he pray? For what does he pray? He prays that we will be kept. He prays that we might have joy. But in these verses he prays that his disciples and all who believe through their witness throughout this church age will be sanctified and unified so that the world might believe in Jesus.

Ecumenists commonly infer that this has to do with organizational unity. When the various churches and missions come together in one organization the world will sit up, take notice, and believe. Evangelicals and Pentecostals are generally of the opinion that Jesus was praying for organic or spiritual unity in the church universal. But the world doesn't seem to be impressed by ecumenists who compromise or truncate faith in order to establish organizational unity. Neither is the world greatly impressed by a spiritual unity that they cannot see and which our divisions and defections seem to deny.
Perhaps the Lord was praying for a unity that is still somewhat different. Perhaps he was praying that Christian believers and churches would be differentiated from the world in that they have forsaken false gods and embraced the Lord Jesus; and have become honest, upright, loving, caring people. Nothing can be expected to impress worldlings more than this. That must be one reason why Jesus prayed for unity among his early disciples; and why he prayed for all who would believe through their witness. That must be one reason why he sends us out to plant and grow responsible churches; why he leaves his people in the world; and why he still prays for his church.

Conclusion. According to one version of a well-traveled apocryphal story, when the Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, one of the archangels said to him, "Now that you have returned to the Father, what will happen to your work on earth? What is your plan?"

Jesus replied, "I have called out some disciples and given them explicit instructions. They will not only carry on my work; they will accomplish a greater work by extending it throughout the whole earth."
Perhaps with Peter especially in mind, the archangel queried, "But what if they fail? What other plan have you made?"

To this our Lord Jesus simply replied, "I have no other plan." We've all heard this little story, and we've likely been impressed by it. But it is neither factual nor is its lesson entirely true. How do we know? Because before he ascended to the Father, the Lord Jesus gathered those early disciples as they faced an entirely new era of history with all its uncertainties and challenges. And in essence he said, I have been with you for these three years. I have given you new life, a new relationship with the Father, and hope for the future. Now I am going to the cross, and then back to the Father. I have told you what you are to be and do in the world, and before I go I will make all of this even more clear; I will tell you exactly what your mission is and how to accomplish it. Nevertheless, it will be more than you can possibly do on your own. Even if you are willing to do it you will not be able to do so. Therefore, when I go back to the Father I will ask Him to send the Paraclete. The Paraclete is the Enabler—He will fulfill the Great Commission in and through you. In fact, in the Person of the Paraclete, I myself will be with you and in you to the very end of the age. Now let us go to the Father in prayer.

And then in due course the Lord Jesus regathered those disciples and said, Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you."And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit . . . " (Jn. 20:21-22). And so it was that they waited and the Paraclete came. And so it was that they remembered and gave us the Word of Truth. And so it was that they set about the task of discipling the ethne. And so it was that the Holy Spirit convicted sinners of the first century.

And so it was that Jesus the High Priest prayed for all who believed. And so it was that the church was built. And so it was that the first-century world was turned upside down.

And so it will be in the new world of the first century of the new millennium if we too remember, and witness, and work, and wait for the One who promised, "I will be with you to the end of the age, and then

I will come again and establish my Kingdom—and my will will be done on earth as it is done in heaven." Amen. Even so come, Lord Jesus.

(A message delivered at a plenary meeting of delegates to the New World Mission Congress for the Third Millennium, International Conference Hall, Kyoto, Japan, October 25-31, 1999.)


1. William Dyrness, Learning About Theology from the Third World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. 28
DAVID HESSELGRAVE, the author of more than 20 books, is professor emeritus of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill.
Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service. This article originally appeared in the January, 2000 issue of EMQ.