Is Church Planting an Effective Method of Evangelism?

As a church, we are hoping to plant – in fact, we will be discussing it as a church this Tuesday evening at our member’s meeting. We would appreciate your prayers for wisdom, zeal, and the Lord’s blessing. We want to be faithful to what God has said, and we also want to be fruitful – both in terms of believers being strengthened, AND in terms of people bowing the knee to the Lord Jesus for the first time.

Here’s a question I’ve been pondering the last couple of weeks since someone asked it: Is church planting an effective method of evangelism? If we want to see new people coming to know Christ, is planting churches a good way to see that come about? Or might it be better to have a central hub that believers from all over come along to? To help give at least some kind of answer, let’s have a look at some of what was going on in the very first days of the New Testament Church, following on from the day of Pentecost. By the way, I’ve never been a member of a new church plant, so do let me know what you think, what I’m missing, where I’m going wrong! Just to be crystal clear: I’m not making any claims about what size a church should be before it plants, how often churches should be planting new churches, or anything like that.

In the beginning of the Church, after the Spirit had been poured out, ‘all the believers were together’ (2:44). And boy, what blessing they knew! Three thousand were added to their number in a single day (2:41). Not long after that, we see another couple of thousand believing the message of the crucified and risen Messiah, and being added to the church (4:4). It’s clear that as the Spirit was at work, there was great blessing on the people of God and great evangelistic fruit as they all stayed together in Jerusalem.

Then, along comes Acts chapter 8. Straight after the killing of Stephen, ‘a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria … Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.’ (8:1, 4)

This wasn’t a deliberate church planting scheme on behalf of the Jerusalem church of course – rather, it was through necessity that most of the believers spread out. And, because they loved the Lord, those ‘ordinary’ believers spoke about him wherever they went. Though it wasn’t a deliberate programme, we can see what happened when the church ‘spread out’ – when it went from being one central hub to beginning to be spread across the regions.

What happened? Well, as the Spirit blessed, the Church did continue to grow. Through the book of Acts we see churches planted in new places. But here’s the thing: When they were all together in Jerusalem, they saw growth of thousands in single days. But after they spread out, there are no more records of such fast, amazing, glorious growth. Instead, the pattern when the gospel is preached is much more like what goes down in Athens: some sneering, some wanting to hear more, some believing (17:32-34). Which sounds a lot like what still goes down today.

So, if we want to be faithful and fruitful like the early church, why not go back to the pattern of the earliest church? Jerusalem Megachurch, rather than these small scattered churches all over the place? Were they wrong to spread out? Should the Jerusalem church have remained simply a hub for believers and spiritual seekers to head towards? Hopefully, to ask the question is to answer it.

Yes, there might well be quicker growth for a time through building larger churches. A crowd draws a crowd, after all. But how would people in Wittenberg or Geneva, Arequipa or Reading ever have heard the gospel, if all the first century believers simply stayed in Jerusalem? Would we have been expecting people to cross oceans in order to attend church? It’s an absurd idea, isn’t it?

Here’s some things I think we need to remember:

  • The growth and spread of the gospel isn’t always going to be the same. It might well be that nominal Christians with memories of Sunday School stories as they hear the gospel clearly proclaimed, may quickly come to trust in the Saviour they had vaguely heard about. Conversely, if a large proportion of a local population are from an entirely different religious tradition, or convinced that religion is a sham, or living in a society that appears unfavourable to Christian faith, it seems likely that growth will be slower. This isn’t entirely dissimilar to the situation in Acts. The Church started off amongst a people who had ‘been entrusted with the very words of God’ (Romans 3:1). Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Church saw such fast growth in a place where believers could point to the Messiah who had been expected and longed-for over hundreds of years, in comparison to places where multiple deities were worshipped, or the concept of resurrection was seen as foolish.
  • Of course, it is true that all of what I’ve said in the point above can be overturned in a second. The Lord is sovereign, and his Spirit can cause thousands to come to faith in a single day. Indeed, that’s exactly what happened in Jerusalem. He could have done exactly the same in Lystra or Athens. The Lord can save by many or by few in any context, through any ecclesiology. Any evangelistic endeavour that isn’t soaked in prayer is a fool’s errand – I say this as someone who is a fool a good 70% of the time.
  • Churches aren’t only about evangelism. David, one of the other pastors at the church where I serve, said in a sermon a couple of weeks ago that churches are to be ‘a worshipping and witnessing community’. If the ‘witnessing’ were the only aspect of churches, the picture might be different. But the church is to be worshipping. We’re to glorify God – the Lord whose glory is to be known all over the world, even as the waters cover the sea. That wouldn’t have happened, if Jerusalem Megachurch were the only church in the world. And then, the church is also to be a community. It’s to be the place where believers are nurtured and built up. And of course, without that taking place, the witness of the church will be hugely ineffective in the next generation.

That’s some things for us to remember. But here’s far and away the biggest thing to recognise when we’re wondering whether church planting is useful:

‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

-Jesus, Acts 1:8

Christ commanded his people not to just stick around in Jerusalem, but to be witnesses to himself and his mighty deeds, all the way to the ends of the earth. If Megachurch Jerusalem had been the only church on earth, not only would it have been less effective in reaching the world long term, it would have been acting in direct contradiction to the command of its Lord.

Even if church planting were to lead to the extinction of the church (which it won’t), even if in one sense it slows down the growth of churches (which in a limited sense it might), it would still be right to plant churches. How will we have healthy, faithful Christians living and speaking for the glory of Christ around the world (as Christ commanded) unless we have healthy, faithful churches around the world? ‘Is church planting an effective method of evangelism’ is a healthy question to ask, and an important question for churches to be asking – but it isn’t the most important question to be asking. We need to ask – can Christ’s Church fulfil Christ’s Commission, if we don’t take church planting seriously?

In this blogpost, I haven’t unpacked the ordinary necessity of the church for the growth of believers. Perhaps one day I will write such a post. Or, there are many other books you could read on the subject – first among them is one called the New Testament.

For now though let me leave you with the positive vision of Revelation 7:9-12 – Christ’s people, called out of every nation and people, tribe and tongue, worshipping the Lamb who was slain. Why are there people from all over worshipping Jesus? Because Christ’s people were obedient to his call to make his name known throughout the world.

If we want to be obedient to Christ, for the glory of God, and the salvation of sinners we need to have a more long-term view than one year, five years, even fifty years. Church planting isn’t the only method of evangelism. It probably isn’t the method with the fastest (genuine) yield. But an essential part of the two-thousand-year-old Great Commission is that there be believers making Christ known throughout his world. And for this to be the case, there will need to be gospel churches in every part of his world.


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