What can American church planters learn from our international counterparts?
As director of training and leadership development for India Gospel League (IGL), Benjamin Chellapandian (“Pastor Benny”) oversees 7,000 church-planting pastors in rural India and Sri Lanka who over the past 25 years have planted roughly 70,000 churches. Recently, Chellapandian spoke to a U.S. church about God’s plan and purpose for growth, focusing on his observations from the Book of Acts. Below is an excerpt from his message:
In past years, the church has discovered that to fulfill God’s plan and purpose, we need to grow numerically. Much of that teaching comes from the Book of Acts’s account of the birth and growth of the early church. If we want to learn about planting churches that grow and accomplish Jesus’s mission, we don’t have to look any further than to the examples of the churches in Acts. I have learned (and continue to learn) so much from the early churches about planting churches. In Acts 1 after Christ’s resurrection, Jesus is teaching His disciples about the Kingdom of God and tells them to “wait in Jerusalem.” Then just before He ascends into Heaven, He shares with them Acts 1:8.
“But 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” (Acts 1:8, NIV).
Notice that the promise of power begins in Jerusalem, then moves to Judea and Samaria, and from there to the ends of the earth.
But I believe that God gives His disciples a strategy, purpose and plan for the church that goes beyond geographical. God gave us this growth plan to show how the church develops from one stage to the next, moving from the first stage to the second, the third, and finally to the fourth stage.
First Stage: The Worshipping Church
Acts 2:42-47 finds the early church in Jerusalem operating and growing. The believers devoted themselves to listen to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship and to pray. They gathered together in houses to learn God’s Word. They shared their belongings. They worshipped and praised God, celebrating their new life in Christ.
Moreover, they were satisfied in their Christian life, settled in Jerusalem. I would call this church the “worshipping church.” As they worshipped and shared with each other, God added believers to the church. Many churches in India today are worshipping churches. Actually, I think many Christians around the world are living as worshipping Christians. They want to come to church, learn God’s Word and pray together. They want to enjoy the fellowship. They are sharing with each other and they pray, “Lord please come soon.”
But remember what Acts shows us. Worshipping is not the purpose of the church.
Rather, it’s just the first stage of growth. Too many churches today remain at the first level; they’re still in Jerusalem, settled. God expects the church to move from Jerusalem to multiply, ultimately to the ends of the earth. But the church is not moving.
Go back to Acts. At first, the church remained in Jerusalem and were quite content to stay there. God had to bring Saul against the church to move them from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria. Without persecution, they would never have moved.
My dear brothers and sisters, God wants the church to move to the next level. And if you’re not moving, then God may bring a Saul into your lives–not to stop you, but to move you to the second stage of growth.
Second Stage: The Witnessing Church
Acts 8:1 tells us that as a result of Saul’s persecution against the church, thousands of believers scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. In Acts 8:4, we read that those who were scattered “preached the Word wherever they went.” In Jerusalem, their focus was worship. But when they moved into Judea and Samaria, they preached the Gospel. That is God’s purpose for the church—to become the “witnessing church.” As they they preached the Gospel wherever they went, churches were planted throughout Judea and Samaria.
A few years ago, I was in the state of Gujarat where a great opposition came against the church, especially in the tribal areas. One evening, as believers in a small village tribal congregation prepared their church for a Christmas service the next day, a group of young people came into the village and asked all of the believers to come out of the church.
They told them, “You are not going to celebrate Christmas tomorrow. You are not allowed to worship Christ in this village.”
The group closed and locked the door of the church and took the key with them. The next morning, the church’s elder, a very old man, returned to the church, broke the lock and ushered in the congregation for the worship service they had planned. The news quickly got back to the people persecuting the church, who came back before the the service was over. Again, they asked them to come out of the church.
“Who broke this lock?” someone asked.
The elderly man stood up: “This is our church. We are worshipping our God. Who are you to come and stop us? I broke this lock.”
Armed with weapons, the persecutors dragged the man away and beat him to death. He died on the spot before the people. They said to the others, “If you do this again, the same thing will happen to you.”
They were about to leave that village when the wife of the elder put to death came forward. “Please stop!” she shouted at them. They turned back.
She went to the dead body of her husband and knelt down beside him and said to the persecutors, “You come and beat me! I will worship the Lord ‘til I die. I’m not going to stop. You’ll have to come and beat me.”
One by one, all of the believers in the congregation knelt down by the dead man, and said, “We will all worship our Lord until we die.” All of the believers came together. The persecutors couldn’t do anything. They just left. After that persecution, thousands of churches were planted in that village and others.
That church was a witnessing church. They were bold enough to share the Gospel with others. The church today has to shift from being just a worshipping church, content to be with other believers, and grow into a witnessing church.
Third Stage: The Living Church
Later in Acts 11:26, we read that the disciples were called Christians for the first time in Antioch. I would call the church in Antioch the “living church.” They lived out the Gospel. They not only worshipped, but also witnessed and walked out their faith, reflecting Jesus to the community around them. They spoke as Christ spoke. They walked as Christ walked. They told others about Christ and what He had done for them on the cross. They were different, and people saw that. So they were called Christians. The believers of Antioch were not just believers; they were disciples.
I often tell my church, “If you are a disciple, then you want to be called a Christian. If you are a believer, you have not yet become a ‘Christian.’ Your life must reflect the Gospel. Only then are you truly called a Christian.”
The church is called to become a living church—reflecting God’s love and light to the community.
Fourth Stage: Sending Church
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the elders of the Antioch church decided to send out Paul and Barnabas as missionaries of Antioch (Acts 13:1-3) to share the Good News. In other words, Paul was sent to the ends of the earth. The church in Antioch became a “sending church“–the fourth stage the church must grow into and mature. Not only did they reach out locally to their community, but they also focused on fulfilling the Great Commission to “go to the ends of the earth and be witnesses for Christ.”
Where Are You? Where Is Your Church Plant?
So where are you today? Where is your church? Are you still in Jerusalem? In Judea and Samaria? In Antioch? God wants to grow you from worshipping believers into witnessing believers and then from witnessing believers to living Christians who are concerned about the global mission and reaching all the nations. That is the purpose of the church. I believe Acts 1:8 was fulfilled in Acts 13. Sadly when I talk to pastors, they often say, “We’re still in Jerusalem.”
The church has to move!
To the U.S. Church Planter:
The Sending Church. These words ring true for every church planter, both American and international. However, small church plants do not always have the resources to think globally when sending. One way to build local and international sending into the ethos of a new church plant is to partner with one of the many international church planting movements already underway. Like many church plants, the church to which Pastor Benny spoke numbers only a few hundred. Fully supporting an international ministry would be beyond their means. However, this fellowship can easily partner with an indigenous church-planting movement such as India Gospel League by supporting “barefoot pastors” (i.e., church planters) in India. An approach like this allows smaller churches to be immediately involved in a global missions strategy.
Wherever you are in the church-planting process, it’s never too early to become a sending church!
Download your free copies of the eBooks Commissioned: How God Is Changing Lives, Transforming Nations and Involving You by India Gospel League writer Dan Jarvis and the eBook Igniting Movements: Multiplying Churches in Dark Places (Exponential) by Ajai Lall, founder and executive director of Central India Christian Mission. Exponential 2015 West will feature 140+ speakers, including Ajai Lall.