Note: This is part two of a two-part series. For part one, click here.
In Acts 13:1-2, we see that the leadership of the Antioch church regularly ministered to the Lord together with the practice of fasting. This church was so new that they did not even have apostles in their leadership, only prophets and teachers.
This is because they knew that they had to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit and hear from God directly regarding church work; they knew that mere natural church-planting strategies did not fit their historical narrative regarding the expansion of the kingdom. The result was that the Holy Spirit told them to send Barnabus and Saul to the work He had (already) called them to (13:1-2).
The missionary launch
Among the first cities they went to was Pisidia Antioch, where they first preached to the Jews—but then turned to the Gentiles when the majority of the Jewish people rejected the Messiah (13:46-50).
Church planting in Iconium
Next Barnabus and Paul went to the city of Iconium where they preached to both Jews and Gentiles (14:1-2). God backed up this apostolic team by bearing witness to the Word with signs and wonders (14:3). Thus far in church history, it seems impossible to separate the expansion of the Kingdom with church planting from displays of God's supernatural power.
Preaching at Lystra
After being persecuted, they preached to the Gentiles in the city of Lystra. There, God used Paul to heal a man crippled from his birth; however, in spite of this miracle, it was difficult to gain a foothold in this city because of the ensuing persecution which resulted in Paul being stoned to death and subsequently raised back to life (14:19-20)! However, in spite of these traumatic experiences, they were successful in planting a church, as we see in 14:21-22. Reading Acts 14:23 seems to indicate that they usually did not remain in a city after they were able to set in elders to oversee a congregation, perhaps because of persecution. This apostolic team was always on the move, always focused on using church planting as the primary vehicle to expand the gospel. Nowadays, many denominations plant missionary societies in various nations, but Paul planted churches to fulfill the Great Commission.
The gospel goes to Western Europe
Even though Paul had plans to plant churches in Asia, the Holy Spirit did not permit him to do so (16:6-7). Again, we see how Paul functioned with sensitivity to the voice of God regarding Church planting and missions. How many of our missionary and church planting endeavors today are based on a sensitivity to the Lord, along with fasting and prayer as the norm (as we see in Acts 13:1-2)?
Eventually, Paul was led by a vision he had at night to go to the Greek city of Philippi (Acts 16:10-15) and launched a house church in the home of an influential woman in the city named Lydia. Again, Paul suffered great persecution and was arrested after casting a demon out of a slave girl (16:16-24). While praying and worshipping in his jail cell, God sent an earthquake which released his chains and the chains of all the other prisoners resulting in another house church start up in the home of the Jailer who got saved after witnessing this miracle (16:30-43).
In these two chapters, we see a familiar pattern Paul the apostle employed regarding church planting. He first went into the local synagogue and preached to the Jews and god fearing Gentiles. We also see Paul having an extraordinary opportunity to speak to the gatekeepers and intellectual elite (in this case, they were called the Areopagus in the city of Athens; see Acts 17:22-34). Throughout the New Testament, we see that Paul's methodology for planting churches differed according to his audience. When he was in a synagogue, he used the Old Testament Scriptures to convince the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah; when he was with non-Jews, he used nature or quoted from their contemporary literature and poets. In every place, he stayed long enough, if it was possible, to establish elders that could oversee the church (unless persecution forbade him from doing so, as we see in Thessalonica in Acts 17).
He gives us a great lesson regarding the preaching of the gospel and church planting: that we are to always adapt our methods without compromising our message. Paul became all things to all men that he may save some (1 Cor. 9:20-23). Static churches that are so entrenched in their ethnicity and religious traditions that they cannot change their methodological approach to preaching will eventually die out!
Acts 19 shows us that God caused His word to be famous in the city of Ephesus by doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul (even allowing handkerchiefs and aprons that touched his skin to heal people), as well as allowing a demon possessed man to beat up seven unconverted Jews who attempted an exorcism (19:13-20). The result was that the fear of the Lord fell upon the whole city and the Word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily (19:17-20).
Consequently, the economy of the city was negatively affected because it was connected to a false goddess named Artemis; this resulted in a huge riot taking place in the city (19:28-41).
Malta (Acts 27,28)
Our last church planting snapshot is no less extraordinary than any of the others. God allowed a ship Paul was sailing on to go adrift and break up so he can land on a small island called Malta. Once on this island, Paul failed to die after a viper bit him, which caused the natives to highly regard Paul and opened a door for him to minister. Eventually, God used Paul to lay his hands and heal the sick father of Publius, the chief man of the island, which led to all the rest of the people on the island to get healed through Paul 's ministry. Of course, even though it is not mentioned in this passage, we know from church history that a church was indeed planted by Paul's efforts on Malta. There is even a famous Pauline site on the island named, "The Church of St. Paul's Shipwreck".
In conclusion, church planting and kingdom expansion was rarely predictable, often messy and always accompanied by divine interventions and supernatural miracles, along with shipwrecks, riots, great persecution and opposition. Some of the primary church plants were not even planned or intentional but came about because of traumatic circumstances (Acts 8 and 11).
God is so big that He used the worst possible conditions, like murderous persecutions, to scatter a comfortable church and force them to go to places and people who needed the gospel. Of course, we also see that, whenever possible, Paul employed common strategies like going to strategic cities, reaching influential people of the city, staying long enough to establish new believers in the faith, raising up elders, and using apostolic teams from among these congregations to aid him in further expanding the kingdom by planting other churches. We also saw that the early church set up systems of establishing new believers (Acts 2:42-47).
Our final takeaway is that God's main strategy for expanding His Kingdom has not changed. It is not by evangelistic crusades (disconnected from local congregations) and starting missionary institutions; it is by planting and establishing local congregations. Truly our God is powerful, audacious, unpredictable and cannot be tamed by human institutions and Church councils. Jesus said that the only entity that will never be conquered by the gates of hell is the church (Matt. 16:18).
Joseph Mattera is an internationally known author, futurist, interpreter of culture and activist/theologian whose mission is to influence leaders who influence nations. He leads several organizations, including The United States Coalition of Apostolic Leaders (uscal.us). He also has a blog on Charisma magazine called "The Pulse." To order one of his books or to subscribe to his weekly newsletter go to josephmattera.org.
This article originally appeared on josephmattera.org.
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