Zim Okoli is co-pastor of New Life Catford and attends Co-mission Planter Training. He wants us to see that planting churches is absolutely central to obeying the great commission.
Now let me be clear. I’m not saying church planting is the only way to obey the Great Commission. For instance, one implication of the Great Commission is evangelism. Many Christians are committed to evangelism without being involved in church planting. Rather what I want us to see is that it’s pretty hard to find a more fitting, more all-encompassing way to obey the Great Commission than planting churches.
GOING MEANS MISSION BY THE CHURCH
Therefore go and make disciples… (Matt. 28:19)
From the outset, Jesus’ intention is for his followers to be outreach-focused not inward-looking. Jesus is saying, Make disciples by going out on mission to the lost. He already gave his disciples a taster of this back in Matthew 10. Back then he sent them out to preach the gospel to Jews, saying to them, “As you go, proclaim this message” (Matt 10:7). That translation “as you go” in Matthew 10, is much closer to what the original Greek says in Matthew 28:19. This means mission is an ongoing commitment to outreach. It is something we are always doing, “as we go” (Acts 8:4; 11:19-20).
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking mission means big one-off activities, like a church mission week or an overseas trip. But Jesus calls us to mission that every Christian can get involved with; ongoing, relational outreach to the lost wherever we go.
Another mistake we might make, is to think that mission is something you or I do on our own. But the command of Matthew 28 is given collectively to Jesus’ disciples. This is really important: mission is something the church does together.
Craig Ott and Gene Wilson summarise the point like this:
a missionless church is no church, and a churchless mission is not biblical mission…The church is God’s instrument in mission. (Craig Ott and Gene Wilson, Global Church Planting)
At least one reason to plant a new church, is simply to be biblical in mission when seeking to reach non-Christians in a new area. Going means mission and church plants do mission.
MAKING DISCIPLES REQUIRES REPRODUCING CROSS-CULTURALLY
…make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19)
This is the central command of the Great Commission. There is a global vision here. Jesus didn’t go to the Cross and rise from the dead, to save just a handful of people 2000 years ago in Jerusalem. No, in His death and resurrection, He had a much grander goal in mind. To create a community of disciples for Himself, gathered from all nations under the sun.
When we hear “all nations”, we should not think of modern day political states. Rather, Jesus meant the gathering of disciples from all cultures or people groups. What a fantastic privilege we have in the UK to reach the nations. Many millions of people belong to a culture that is not ‘White British.’ Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK were born in countries where there are extremely few Christians. There are some valid reasons why some people complain about immigration. But as Christians who take the Great Commission seriously, we must see this as a massive opportunity. For me it is incredibly exciting that on the tube in London, you’re more likely to hear any language being spoken apart from English.
This end goal for us, as followers of Jesus from every nation, is what Daniel saw in his vision of the Son of Man. Daniel saw “all nations and peoples of every language worship[ing] him” (Dan 7:14) That’s where Revelation 7 tells us all of history is heading. People from every tribe, tongue and language, worshiping God the Father and Jesus His Son.
Why is this relevant to our argument? Because planting new churches is an obvious way to reproduce cross-culturally.
One strong reason for this is the book of Acts. What we see in Acts is Jesus’ first disciples, obeying the command to make disciples of all nations, by taking the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. And how do they do this? They relentlessly planted new churches wherever evangelism occurred. Look at Acts 11: in Antioch, the preaching of a ‘pioneer team’, blessed by God’s gracious hand, leads to many coming to faith, a church grows, with an ethnic diversity in their congregation which baffles the divided city of Antioch and with a diverse leadership team too (Acts 13:1). And that church then becomes a mission hub sending out others to do cross-cultural mission (Acts 13:3). Then Acts 14: more frontier mission; people believe; churches form and elders are appointed. Then Acts 16: the gospel crosses for the first time into Europe, a new set of cultures. God opens hearts to receive the gospel and straight away house churches form. The same in Acts 17, 18, 19 – Thessalonica, Corinth and Ephesus. The book of Acts shows us what it looks like to obey the great commission. And it looks like diverse churches sending people out to plant more diverse churches.
Another reason for reproduction by church planting, is that studies show that new churches are often more effective at reaching cultures not reached by established churches. As existing churches grow, they tend to form a sort of internal culture, determined by the group they’ve been successful in gathering. This success limits their effectiveness in reaching additional social classes, ethnic groups or sub-cultures. Planting a new church, gives a fresh opportunity to be as intentional as possible about reaching the diversity in a new neighbourhood.
For the group of us coming together to plant a church in Catford, we have the opportunity whilst we’re small, to think intentionally about making disciples cross-culturally. Sometimes, this is what experts call contextualization. That simply means we do all we can to enable the unchanging gospel to be heard and understood by people from diverse backgrounds. Thinking cross-culturally has affected our choice of name: New Life Church Catford. We wanted a name that didn’t use Christian jargon unfamiliar to the unchurched, but rather a name that, with ordinary words, that says something about our desire – to reach those who are spiritually dead with new life in Christ.
Thinking cross-culturally will mean:
- We are concerned for the unchurched working class in Catford. Often these tend to be white European or white British. We’ll be asking ourselves if our talks and Bible studies are engaging for people who aren’t particularly academic or have any Christian background.
- We are concerned for the cultural Christians of Catford. These are often churched but unconverted Africans and Caribbeans. We’ll be asking ourselves if our church calendar includes outreach events that might appeal to such people. Whether it’s an International Food Day, a Gospel Music Night or a Watchnight Service.
We do all this because, making disciples of all nations means reproducing cross-culturally. Put simply: Churches exist to reproduce cross-culturally.
BAPTIZING COMMUNICATES PUBLIC SOLIDARITY WITH CHRIST’S KINGDOM
baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19)
Two church fathers from the first couple centuries of the church stick out for me. One is Ignatius, who was so on-board with suffering for Christ, that he warned his Christian friends not to help him escape persecution, because he didn’t want to be ashamed of being publicly known as a Christian.
The other is Polycarp, who after hearing he would be burned alive for being a Christian, prayed “God…I thank you that you deemed me worthy of this moment.” Here were people that accepted upfront the costliness of being publicly known as a Christian. Not even the threat of death could shake their solidarity with Christ and His people.
In the first few centuries of the church, no one took baptism lightly, because baptism was understood to be an initiation rite, initiation into solidarity with a Christian community that was hated and persecuted by the Roman empire.
Craig Ott and Gene Wilson, are worth quoting again on this. They say:
Baptism is often viewed as an individualistic event. Indeed, it is a public confession of personal repentance and faith, but beyond this…early Christian baptism indicated identification with a community – a meaning that we have largely lost today…to baptize is to enfold into a Christian community, the church. (Ott and Wilson, Global Church Planting)
Jesus says his disciples are to receive the sign of baptism. As they go down into the water, the sign indicates that they have died to their solidarity with the world, the flesh and the devil. As they are raised up out of the water, the sign indicates that they are now spiritually raised to a new solidarity with Christ and His people.
This baptismal sign is to be received in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, because Jesus’ disciples belong to the Triune God, whose family the church is. You won’t find New Life Church, baptising people in Zim’s name or Remi’s name. It’s all God’s church and the people belong to Him.
So what are the implications of baptism for church planting? You can’t be united to Christ without being grafted into the church, His body. In the book of Acts, when people believe they are baptised and when they are baptised they are ‘added to’ the church (Acts 2:41). This is why evangelism and church planting are inseparable. In planting local churches, we take seriously the importance of conversion as people being simultaneously joined to Christ and joined to a family of believers. We take seriously the local church and baptism as public solidarity with a visible local gathering of Christians in the midst of their community.
Imagine Jim, who’s pub mates can’t believe it when he invites them to his baptism. They think he’s been brainwashed by a cult. But Jim’s church is just down the road, So he cheekily tells his mates; “at least come gather some evidence against this terrible cult!” After the church service, they have to admit, “well it was pretty un-cultish even though we’re still not convinced about Jesus. At least no one was chanting in strange languages, and your Christian mates even invite us to watch the big football game.” We hope and pray for stories like that in Catford, as newly baptised believers publicly live out their solidarity with Christ’s kingdom.
TEACHING ASSUMES CHURCHES COMMITTED TO THE APOSTOLIC GOSPEL
teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matt. 28:20)
Although this great commission is to be fulfilled in every age, we are not the apostles whom Jesus directly trained. When Jesus says “everything I have commanded you” He is referring specifically to the apostles, and what he taught them to pass on to the church. The church is built on the foundation of the teaching of the apostles, which they themselves received from Jesus. This is why we read in Acts 2 that the very first church plant “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42).
If Jesus is the General who has come up with a master strategy for victory, then the apostles are his Majors, whom he’s tasked with training their divisions with this strategy. And the church, scattered through the ages, are the foot soldiers whose only job is to stick to the plan. Even when the situation seems daunting or unpredictable, we have one job – stick to the plan. It simply is above our pay grade to change the strategy. Our general happens to be no mere man but God in flesh. And He knows the end from the beginning. Victory is guaranteed if we stick to the plan. That victory is the making of many disciples for Christ from all nations. What’s this master strategy we must stick to? It’s brilliantly simple – teach people to obey what Jesus commanded.
And what did Jesus command? A lot of things, but in summary, He commanded people to repent and believe the Gospel. In Matthew’s account, this call is repeatedly summarised by the formula;“The kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt.3:2; 4:17, 23; 10:7). The gospel is the great announcement, that the kingdom of heaven has broken into our world, with the coming of Jesus. The King of heaven came in the flesh, to call sinners to repent – to turn back to Him. The King of heaven was crowned on a Cross – that through faith and union with this crucified and risen Messiah we would enter his kingdom. Here is the strategy for making disciples – teach people to obey the gospel of the King. Teach them to believe and keep believing the amazing news of what God had done for us in Christ. Teach them to follow this crucified and risen King; follow him trusting in the Cross and walking the way of the cross.
Serial church planter Ed Stetzer says,
Regardless of how seeker sensitive we wish to be, we can never justifiably remove what for some nonbelievers is the stumbling block of the cross. (Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches)
We never move on from teaching the gospel of the crucified King. And the normal pattern is that this teaching will be happening in local churches. Whilst we might watch our favourite preachers online, or do individual evangelism in our workplace or university, the normal pattern that Jesus lays down is that the local church is where people are to be habitually nurtured in the teaching of the gospel.
When we plant new churches, what we are seeking to do is to saturate our towns and cities with as many gospel teaching communities as possible. Everywhere we look, we want there to be a gathering of faithful disciples, proclaiming the gospel to each other, and to the world.
We cannot do any of this in our own strength but we have a clear command from our King and the resources of the Father who is all-powerful and more passionate than we will ever be about gathering all nations to delight in his Son.
Richard Coekin, director of the Co-Mission church planting network, puts it this way,
Since we’re trying to obey Jesus in making disciples by planting churches, and since our loving Father is sovereign, we trust that he can employ our weakness for his glory and pick us up if we fall flat on our faces…Trusting this truth creates an atmosphere in which we can be bold in mission. (Richard Coekin, Gospel DNA)