Churches and their Mission
“It’s been a wonderful week,” David was very excited as he began to tell Brother Eyo about their experiences at Gane. “Several more people have been saved, two were marvelously healed, and a notorious drunkard accepted the Lord. All the town is amazed at his new life.
“And not only that,” John interrupted, “the new Christians meet together every evening and sing with such joy almost the whole town comes to listen. We’re amazed at how much the church is growing.”
“That is the purpose of the church in the world,” replied Brother Eyo, “to show people the power of Christ to meet their greatest needs. When they see this, they are eager to come to listen to your message.”
In this lesson you will learn how God used the apostles to establish the principles which guide the mission of the church. The New Testament provides good examples of these principles, and you will see how they can be applied today.
The Mission Defined
The church in the New Testament established principles by which its mission was to be accomplished. Methods, of course, have changed and will change, but the mission that was established by the Holy Spirit at the birth of the church will remain.
What do we mean by the mission of the church? Mission may generally be defined as the carrying out of the redemptive purposes of God to all peoples. The church came into being because of God’s redemptive purpose. The church is the body of Christ and therefore the instrument through which God’s desires and purposes must be carried out (Ephesians 3:10– 11). Jesus stated the means by which the purpose would be accomplished when He said to His disciples, “‘I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it’” (Matthew 16:18). Jesus further defined the mission of the church in terms of where and how
Jesus clearly stated where the mission of the church would be when He spoke the words we call the Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The mission of the church is to go everywhere with the gospel and make disciples in all nations.
Jesus wants His church to search for and rescue the lost everywhere. The Lord’s parables emphasized finding. The woman did not merely search everywhere for her lost coin, but she searched until she found it (Luke 15:9). The shepherd searched for his lost sheep until he found it and joyfully brought it home (Luke 15:5). When the servant told the master of the feast that the invited guests would not come, the master told him to go and continue inviting until he found those who would come (Luke 14:21–23).
Jesus carefully instructed His disciples not to stay where the gospel was rejected, but to continue on to towns where the people would receive it (Matthew 10:14). The apostles followed His instructions (Acts 13:51). However, while the apostles did not continue with those who rejected the gospel, they did preach to persuade. Paul, while in Corinth, “every Sabbath . . . reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4).
The mission of the church is to all cultures, and social and economic levels. Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost to Jews in Jerusalem. The church was formed among the believing Jews who then became the bridge to the Gentiles. From the Jew first, the church went out to all peoples.
How could human instruments carry out God’s purpose in the world? The mission of the church began in the power of the Holy Spirit. The apostles and the early church had to have inward power to propel them forward. They had become colaborers with God to accomplish His purpose. Before Jesus commanded the disciples to go to the ends of the earth, He said, “‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you’” (Acts 1:8). The principle has always remained: The internal power of the Spirit must be in the church before the external mission can begin.
The Mission Begun
The Church Grew
The church in New Testament grew rapidly as people became believers every day (Acts 2:41, 47). The church did not grow simply because people wanted to find something new to believe. In fact, many who did believe were thrown into prison, beaten, or even killed. Yet many thousands of people became believers, and the gospel spread throughout many areas in just a few years. Believers followed Christ because their needs were being met by His power. In a short time following its birth, the church had grown by thousands of new believers. Certain principles used by the apostles then still promote church growth today.
The Authority of Scripture
On the Day of Pentecost Peter preached the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He proclaimed to the Jews that all these events were in direct fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies (Acts 2:21–31; 3:13). Stephen preached God’s plan for His people as detailed in known Old Testament events (Acts 7). At the house of Cornelius, Peter stated, “‘All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name’” (Acts 10:43).
Through the power of the Word anointed by the Holy Spirit, “the people . . . were cut to the heart and said to Peter . . . ‘what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37). They accepted his message and about three thousand believers were added to the church that day (Acts 2:41). The purpose of the apostles’ ministry was to cause people to believe in Christ as their Savior (Acts 2:37). They did not preach to set forth a new religion. They preached with the power of the Holy Spirit to prove that the prophecies of the Messiah pointed to Jesus Christ who was crucified, buried, and resurrected.
Reliance on the Supernatural
The next event recorded in Acts about the activities of the apostles after the Day of Pentecost is Peter and John going into the temple. At the gate called Beautiful they met a crippled beggar who was known to all the people. Peter took him by the hand and said, “‘In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ . . . and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong” (Acts 3:6–7). As the people looked on in astonishment and the crippled man leaped and praised God, Peter took this opportunity to preach to the onlookers. Once again, he proclaimed Christ and forgiveness through His name (Acts 3:17–23).
When the people saw miracles of healing performed by the power of God and saw lives changed, they believed that Christ could also meet their needs. The church followed the example of the apostles. Other believers began to be used in ministry gifts. In each case their ministries were like the apostles’ ministries (Acts 6:8; 8:4–8). Demons were cast out and cripples were healed (Acts 3:6–9). When the people saw the power with which the gospel message was preached, they gained faith to believe for salvation (1 Corinthians 2:4). There was great joy in the hearts of the people. The church grew, and new believers were added daily.
The Church Spread
Let us examine two important reasons why the church can grow in any country or location.
Through Multiple Leadership
The church in Jerusalem was well established and growing. Then we read in Acts 5:17–41 that persecution of the church began. After the death of Stephen “great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). The church was scattered, but it was not lost. Wherever the believers went new churches came into being. How could this happen? Because of the following principle: The church is not dependent on one person’s personality or authority. Philip went to Samaria (Acts 8:4–8), and Barnabas went to Antioch after other believers had gone there and formed a church body (Acts 11:19–23). Other disciples must have gone to Joppa, Ephesus, and other cities we read about later. There was always a variety of ministries and leaders according to the provision of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:5–8; 1 Corinthians 12:7–11).
By Flexible Approach
As Jesus had prophesied, the church grew first in Jerusalem (Acts 1:8). Thousands became believers in a short time. Most of them had been Jews who were following the Jewish ceremonial laws. The Holy Spirit guided the new believers to understand that the law was a “teacher” to lead them to salvation by faith. When Gentiles became believers, they were accepted by the Jewish Christians on the basis of their faith in Christ. Both groups learned that the gospel does not require ritual or prescribed ceremony but is received by faith in Jesus Christ.
When Paul spoke to the Athenians who had no knowledge of God or the Jewish law, he found a common ground on which to gain their attention (Acts 17:16–33). He saw their interest in philosophical discussions and in exploring new ideas. He used their interest in many different religions as an approach to preach to them about the true God. In Acts 17:32–34 Luke records some of the Athenians saying, ‘‘‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ . . . A few men became followers . . . Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, . . . and a number of others.”
Only the truth of salvation, not ceremonies or customs, must be taught as the gospel is preached around the world to many different peoples. What the early church taught was the truth of salvation through Jesus Christ. How people worshipped depended on their own culture. The message of the gospel is not the rules, rituals, or ceremonies of a particular religion. It is a message of being brought into a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Knowing that one’s sins are forgiven, and experiencing the joy of salvation—these have no barriers of race, language, culture, or country. That is the power of the gospel.
The Mission Continues
At the time of the birth of the church in Jerusalem there was no prearranged structure of church organization. Jesus had already chosen the apostles who provided leadership for the new congregation. Let us examine some principles established by the apostles as the church was organized to accomplish its mission.
Organizational structure was developed to meet needs. The structure was not made just for the sake of organization; rather, it was provided as required by the needs of the church.
When the church began on the Day of Pentecost, 3,000 people accepted Christ. Most of them were Grecian (Hellenic) Jews. These were people who lived throughout the Roman world, outside of Palestine. Although they were still Jews, they had adopted much of the Greek culture, and they spoke the local languages of the region where they lived. There were many thousands of the Grecian Jews in the streets of Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost when Peter stood up to preach.
After the festival of Pentecost, the number of believers continued to grow. Soon the number of believers from Judea overtook the number of Greek-speaking believers. This caused the first administrative problem in the early church. The Greek-speaking believers (Acts 6:1) felt their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. The apostles realized the problem was deeper than simply having enough help to distribute the food. It was a leadership problem which called for new organizational structure.
The apostles told the Greek-speaking believers to “choose seven men from among you” (v. 3) whom they could put in charge of the distribution. All seven men were members of the Grecian group, as is shown by the fact that they had Grecian, rather than Aramaic names. These Greek-speaking leaders did not replace the authority of the apostles. They simply provided direct leadership for their group. This new organizational structure was approved by the apostles (Acts 6:6), and it provided for a clear line of authority and a smooth functioning in the church.
Local churches were first established in strategic population centers. While the Scripture gives us no evidence that the apostles sat down together and made an organizational plan for church planting, we do know that the Holy Spirit guided them in terms of where churches should be established. Some of the earliest congregations were founded in places such as Cyprus on the main sea route to the west, and in Antioch, a leading city in the north. At first they preached only to Jews, but soon after, believers traveled from Cyprus and Cyrene and won Greeks to Christ (Acts 11:19–20). Churches were also established in Derbe, Iconium, Lystra, and other centers in Asia Minor. To the west, churches were founded in Corinth and Berea, as well as other main cities in the provinces of Macedonia and Achaia. The cities and towns in which Paul planted churches were centers of Roman administration, of Greek civilization, of Jewish influence, or of commercial importance. Many travelers passed through these cities. It is likely that people heard and accepted the gospel while there and then took the message to the surrounding areas.
Many experienced and successful church planters follow this same principle today. For instance, in Brazil the church has experienced phenomenal growth in recent years. There the church leaders plan evangelistic crusades in large cities. Many people come into these cities to find work. They have an opportunity to hear the gospel and accept the Lord. Later they may return to their towns and take the gospel message there. As a church is established in a center, it begins to spread out and establish churches in the surrounding areas
Church finance was a part of worship. Giving offerings was a spontaneous act of worship for the early Christians. No organization can continue to function without planned and accountable financing. There were no pleas and demands for offerings, but believers gave from an inward desire of love and worship. “All the believers were together . . . Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44–45). Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the churches in Macedonia: “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity . . . they gave . . . even beyond their ability” (2 Corinthians 8:2–3).
When the Christians in Jerusalem were in need, Paul instructed the churches in Corinth and Galatia on a systematic method of giving and sending offerings. Paul made it clear that funds were to be handled in an accountable manner that would be above suspicion (1 Corinthians 16:1–4; 2 Corinthians 8:18–21).
Paul commented on the generosity of the believers and their spontaneous giving to those in the ministry (2 Corinthians 9:1–5). Those who preach the gospel should live by the gospel. The Scriptures reveal that those who receive the blessings of hearing God’s Word should help those who minister (1 Corinthians 9:7–12).
The Church Threatened
When we read about the church in the New Testament we can become awed by the manifestations of power of the Holy Spirit, and the great dedication of the leaders. We may tend to think of that church as ideal and forget that the apostolic church had some very serious problems that threatened its existence. The Holy Spirit guided the apostles to record in Scripture the principles used to solve the problems which threatened the mission of the church.
An administrative problem may cause much difficulty in a church today, and that was the first type of problem to threaten the unity of the early church. Their problem was two-fold, but it was overcome by a single solution.
The apostles were overworked and did not have time to see to the details of daily administration. They needed assistants to whom they could delegate responsibility for daily administration, so they could give themselves more fully to the ministry of the Word. This organizational problem was solved by setting up lines of authority and delegating responsibility. As we studied in the previous section, the seven men chosen to assist the apostles worked under their authority
The second aspect of the administrative problem in Acts 6 concerns the needs of a cultural minority within the church. There was a large minority of Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem. They organized their own synagogues, usually according to the regions they lived in before they returned to live in Jerusalem. There were 480 such synagogues in Jerusalem at that time (according to Talmud). The Jews often considered the Grecian Jews to be too worldly because of their Greek style of living. They were often viewed as second class Jews. This prejudice was partly carried over into the early church. It was the Greek-speaking widows who were being neglected in the daily distribution, not entirely all the widows. So it was not just an organizational problem, it was also a cultural problem.
In solving this problem, certain administrative principles can be observed: 1) Leadership responsibility must be partly delegated, and clear lines of authority must be established; 2) Cultural minorities should be represented in the leadership of the church; 3) Leaders should be acceptable to those they lead.
As the church spread to other areas, a need to communicate arose between the apostles and the various groups of believers. When false teachers and dissensions began threatening the church, a central body was needed to make decisions and then communicate the decisions to all the members of the body. We read in Acts 15 about the important actions of this central administrative council that gathered in Jerusalem. This council gave us a pattern of effective church administration by which the church members can deal with their problems as well as enjoy fellowship together.
Human beings seem to have a need for a hero or a dynamic leader to follow. This is why some political leaders, whether good or bad, can gain a large group of followers. Leaders have attracted many people because of their magnetic personalities.
One of the first problems Paul had to deal with when writing to the Corinthian church was the divisive spirit among the believers. The believers wanted to claim that they were disciples of different great Christian leaders. One of them said, “‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ’” (1 Corinthians 1:12). Paul asked them, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?” (1:13). Paul corrected the divisions by pointing out to them that this was a very immature attitude (3:1–5). But more importantly, he directed the believers to Christ and showed them that all disciples are co-laborers together for Christ (3:5–15). Paul’s message is clear: The true Christian leader directs people only to Christ, never to himself
Doctrinal Errors and Wrong Practices
The apostles used their authority and gifts of teaching to correct many types of errors that came into the new church. In the letters to the churches new believers were not told that they were not true Christians; rather, they were told that they needed teaching. That is still the key today: New believers must have teaching from God’s Word. The weaknesses that were in the Corinthian and Galatian churches are representative of problems that must be dealt with today.
Paul’s teaching corrected wrong practices and established a high standard for Christian living. He gave instruction on the question of taking a brother to law, on the sanctity of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6), and on dealing with problems related to marriage (7:1–15). In 1 Corinthians 12–14, he gives directions concerning the use (and abuse) of the spiritual gifts, particularly speaking in tongues and prophecy
Wherever Paul taught to correct doctrinal errors, he emphasized the person and work of Christ. He did this to deal with divisions in the church, and especially to refute errors about the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12–28). A true knowledge and understanding of the doctrine of Christ was the very foundation of the church.
In many societies today, sexual immorality is a serious problem that can threaten the effectiveness and purity of the church. It is impossible for the church to accomplish its mission of taking Christ to the world if at the same time it overlooks its own sin.
Paul had to deal severely with a case of gross immorality in the Corinthian church. He urged severe discipline for the benefit of the erring man, and taught the church that it is responsible to judge its own members (1 Corinthians 5:2, 4–5). It may seem harsh that Paul instructed the church to “‘expel the wicked man from among you’” (5:13). He used the illustration that a little yeast can affect the whole batch of dough. In verse 7, he urged the believers to “get rid of the old yeast.” He showed the Corinthians that dealing severely with sin is a means of bringing the sinner to repentance (v. 5).
Later, he also tells them, “Now instead, you . . . forgive and comfort him . . . I urge you . . . to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:7–8).
This is the other side of church discipline. The church must hate sin, but love the sinner. Sin must be dealt with, but those who do so must make a special effort to encourage and restore a repenting brother. “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).
One of the most difficult and divisive problems the early church faced was the opposition caused by false teachers. Most of these were Jews who were teaching that the Gentile converts must keep the Law of Moses and be circumcised in order to be Christians. Probably some of these people believed they were honoring God’s Word by keeping the Law of Moses. The most dangerous kind of false teachers is of this same type today. They teach a little bit of truth along with their false teaching and so deceive many.
The problem became so severe that it was taken before the council in Jerusalem, where the council made the decision recorded in Acts 15. Instead of the false teachers repenting and correcting their teaching, they went their own way and continued to oppose the church. Paul called these people “savage wolves” who will not spare the flock (Acts 20:29). The church in Galatia was especially affected, so Paul wrote to them to re-establish their faith in the grace of God (Galatians 3:1–4, 19–20). Once again Paul admonished the church that the answer to problems was teaching in the church and a firm faith in Christ (Galatians 5:1). Then he reassured them, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).
In many ways, the New Testament church was unique. However, we know that many principles for planting the church were developed then and should be followed by the church in every age. If we could summarize briefly two key factors that guided the church then and should guide it now, they are: 1) the importance of teaching the Word of God, and 2) a constant focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ.