by Tom Jones
Recently, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my home church. I have a special place in my heart for that little church, located on the corner of Penn and Neville streets, in Follansbee, West Virginia. Do you know what a sure sign of a home church is? It’s when you are 49 years old and the good folks still call you “Tommy Jones.”
I have so many fond memories of my home church, like when I was 11 years old and stole Communion grape juice from the church refrigerator with my best friend Randy Weaver. We drank right out of the bottle. Randy’s an elder there now.
I also attended Vacation Bible School there every summer. In that church, I met Jesus and was baptized on Easter Sunday in 1967. My third-grade school teacher, Mrs. Stemple, sang in the choir.
My Boy Scout troop met there. Al Cooper, an elder in our church, was our Scout leader. I received the Boy Scout’s “God and Country” award in that church.
I remember going to Elkhorn Valley Christian Service Camp and holding hands with a girl for the first time around a campfire. My home church sponsored me during that camp.
When my father struggled with alcoholism, the church was there for my family. I remember my dad going forward one Sunday morning and rededicating his life to Christ. He wasn’t judged or condemned. Instead, he was loved and accepted.
I developed a heart for ministry at my home church. There, I preached my first sermon when I was 15 years old and a sophomore in high school. Two years later, I shared my faith at a high school assembly of 2,200 students. My youth group days under the leadership of one of our elders, Bill Cooper, prepared me for this public testament of faith.
Throughout the years, my home church always encouraged my move toward vocational ministry. Our preacher, John Barto, and his family took me to Milligan College’s School of Ministry. I fell in love with Milligan and attended college there. My home church helped pay my way through both Milligan College and Emmanuel School of Religion.
I can still remember going to my post office box at Milligan and receiving mail that included a $10 bill from George and Adda Mae Heckman. George worked for the city as a trash collector. He didn’t have much, but what he had, he shared with me.
My home church financially supported both churches I started. With their mission-oriented hearts, they helped the down and out, ministered to alcoholics, loved and accepted unwed mothers, and invested in their youth. All of this was just part of their DNA.
My sister was married in my home church. I was ordained there in 1977. My father’s funeral was held there in 1982, and now those same believers are caring for my ill mother. Words cannot express the depth of gratitude I have for that church. They understand what it means to be a community of faith.
That seemingly insignificant group of people, who meet every Lord’s Day around the Lord’s table on the corner of Penn and Neville Streets in that small river town of 3,000 people, made a huge difference in my life.
Why am I sharing this with you? As we think about the world events of recent years, does any intelligent, thinking man or woman doubt that this planet is in trouble? Do you question the fact that a global spiritual famine is responsible for the human disaster we daily see on the news?
How do we fix this desperate situation? Better laws? Better political leaders? Better government? Military force? These solutions have been tried before and, historically, are always lacking. That’s not to say better government and laws are not needed, but spiritual and moral change cannot be legislated. Lasting change can only occur through the transformation of hearts as people and communities meet Jesus Christ.
Transformation happens through the faithful witness of communities of faith like my home church. The bride of Christ has more to offer than a better set of laws. What the people of God have to offer is a new and better heart that Christ gives to people when they experience him through his church.
The church does not offer the transformation of political systems; it offers personal transformation. As people are brought into God’s family and involve themselves in God-honoring relationships with others, they are encouraged in the strong name of Jesus. Where else are people going to find Jesus Christ and the kind of sacramental community Christians have?
No one else can offer what the church has to offer. Home churches are the best things going. We just need more of them, lots and lots that do what they do best—nothing more, nothing less.
A SENDING GOD
If we are clearly to understand the why of church planting, we must begin by taking a close look at the mission of the church.
God’s nature is at the root of mission. The living God portrayed in the Bible is a sending God. He sends because of his love for the world (John 3:16). He sent Abraham from his home into the unknown, promising to bless the world through him if he obeyed (Genesis 12:1-3). God sent Joseph into Egypt to help preserve God’s people during a famine (Genesis 45:4-8).1 When the time had fully come, God sent his Son. Later, the Father and Son sent the Spirit at Pentecost (Galatians 4:4-6; John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7; Acts 2:33). Finally, Christ sent his church (Matthew 28:19, 20).
Lesslie Newbigin writes, “The Church is sent into the world to continue that which he came to do, in the power of the same Spirit, reconciling people to God (John 20:19-23).”2
David Bosch explains further, “. . . It is impossible to talk about church without at the same time talking about mission. Because God is a missionary God, God’s people are missionary people. The church’s mission is not secondary to its being; the church exists in being sent and in building up itself for its mission.”3
If God is a sending God, and this action culminated in the sending of his Son, and the Son sends the church, then what was Christ sent to do? What has he sent the church to do?
In Luke 19:10 Jesus emphasized the priority of evangelism in his mission when he said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” He later passes this same mission on to the church in the Great Commission. The Commission is given in the New Testament in five different places.
“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).
“Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15).
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46, 47).
“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).
The Great Commission teaches that disciple-making evangelism gets priority in the mission of the church. The early church took this Commission seriously, and effectively fulfilled it.
A LOVING GOD
As important as evangelism is to the mission of the church, it does not stand alone. God’s mission, reign, and evangelistic efforts are concerned with all areas of life.
If the evangelistic mandate is best summed up in the Great Commission, the cultural mandate is expressed best in the Great Commandment. In Mark 12:31 Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (see also Leviticus 19:18). Christ’s concern for hurting people is an extension of Old Testament thinking. Amos’s prophetic words are characteristic of a total biblical concern for social issues. “You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them. . . . You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts” (Amos 5:11, 12).
Certainly Christ came to reconcile lost people to God, but he also fulfilled other needs in his mission. In reference to himself, Jesus said, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22).
As his church, we are to follow Christ’s example of service.
Ministry to the poor was an integral part of the early church’s ministry and mission. Scripture adequately records the first-century church responding to the needs of the poor and marginalized of society. In the medieval church, monks ministered to the needs of the destitute. Later, hospitals, schools, orphanages, homes for the needy, and other helpful institutions were initiated by the church, not the state.
Christ came into the world as one of us. He saw and felt the heartaches of people, and out of compassion, he acted to ease their suffering. “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). Somehow the church must become incarnational if it truly wants to fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.
John Stott writes concerning an evangelistic problem, “It comes more natural to us to shout the gospel at people from a distance than to involve ourselves deeply in their lives, to think ourselves into their culture and problems, and to feel with them in their pains.”4
Eddie Gibbs concludes, “Churches cannot stand apart from society and invite people to come to them on their terms. Rather, churches must go to people where they are and communicate in terms that will make sense to them, addressing the issues that shape their lives and speaking their language.”5
In short, the mission of the church includes fulfilling the evangelistic and the cultural mandates.
Jesus says that we are to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). The body of Christ is light because we point men and women who are lost in darkness to the illuminating good news of Jesus Christ. We are also salt because the presence of God’s people makes a difference in the world. The model of Jesus sends the church into the world to serve. That service includes “both words and works, a concern for the hunger and for the sickness of both body and soul, in other words, both evangelistic and social activity.”6
CHURCH PLANTING AND MISSION
The most efficient way to fulfill the total mission of a sent church is the multiplication of local churches. The world needs more home churches like mine back in Follansbee, West Virginia. It needs lots of them. Why? Because God sends his church expecting a harvest. He will not be satisfied until lost people are found and all of creation is reconciled to him.7
One of my former students, Laura Buffington, says the language used in the seeker philosophy is reversed. We in the sent church are seekers, and those we pursue on God’s behalf are the sought-afters. Therefore, the Great Commission and Great Commandment are most effectively implemented through God-honoring, seeking local churches.
The church at Antioch represents a New Testament example of a sending church. When the Jerusalem church was scattered (sent out by God) because of persecution, some of the Christians relocated to Antioch. The gospel was preached, and the church was born.
Barnabas was involved with this church, and he brought Paul back to disciple him at Antioch. During this time, the Antioch Christians, led by the Spirit, received an offering to help fellow Christians in Judea (Acts 11). The church at Antioch was definitely interested in fulfilling the Great Commandment. Later this same church set apart and sent out Paul and Barnabas for the purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission by starting a new church multiplication movement (Acts 13:1-4). The Antioch church was serious about mission.
Paul was primarily a church planter.
When the Antioch church sent Paul out, it was the beginning of his church planting ministry. The apostle understood that God had called him to preach the gospel (Ephesians 3) and start new churches wherever he went. Paul established churches in Thessalonica, Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia, and other places. He was especially interested in fulfilling the Great Commission’s direction to make disciples of all nations.
Paul succeeded because he had singleness of mind and clarity about mission. His persistence and perseverance overcame many obstacles, including personal animosity and physical suffering. To fulfill mission, he preached the good news and gathered believers into churches. Paul’s ministry truly reflected salt and light in this world. Groups of God’s people, with different backgrounds, cultures, and needs, emerged everywhere because of Paul’s church planting ministry.
THE MISSION TODAY
The fulfillment of the church’s mission must continue today. The whole world needs to feel the presence of God through groups of his people. Every city, community, language, people group, and town on earth has the right to have a church in its midst. Every person on the planet deserves a home church.
How can more churches be started? I believe every local congregation must restore the New Testament priority of congregational reproduction. Every local church should consider itself a center for world mission.
Donald McGavran sums it up best:
Being a real New Testament church means believing and doing what the New Testament church did. It means planting churches as the New Testament church did. The New Testament church was tremendously concerned with, engaged in, and successful at establishing new congregations. . . . Church multiplication was an essential part of New Testament life.8
The best way to fulfill the mission of the church is the multiplication of God-honoring new churches. The evangelistic and cultural mandates can be effectively implemented when groups of God’s people are sent throughout the entire world. That’s God’s plan, and it cannot be improved upon.
1John R.W. Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1975), 21, 22.
2Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 230.
3David J. Bosch, Believing in the Future (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1995), 32.
4Stott, Christian Mission, 25.
5Eddie Gibbs, ChurchNext (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 39.
6Stott, Christian Mission, 29.
7For a complete discussion on “A God Who Finds,” see Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 31-48.
8Winfield C. Arn and Donald A. McGavran, Ten Steps for Church Growth (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977), 96.
Tom Jones directs the Supervised Ministerial Experience program and teaches in the Christian Ministries area of Emmanuel School of Religion. He is director of recruitment and assessment of Southeast Stadia and editor of Church Planting from the Ground Up, available from College Press Publishing Company (www.collegepress.com), phone (800) 289-3300. This article has been adapted from the introductory chapter of that book.