MESSAGE FOR APRIL 22, 2012 FROM ACTS 28:16-31
Two and a half years ago, we began a series of messages from the book of Acts. Luke gives the broad outline for the book in chapter one where Jesus says in verse eight. “8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” By God’s grace, we have traced God’s hand through the birth of his New Covenant church, the spread of the gospel--first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, mostly through three missionary journeys of the apostle Paul. Today, we bring our series to a close as we finish chapter 28 that we heard read a few minutes ago. This morning, for reasons that will become apparent, we will just lightly touch this text before drawing some concluding implications from the book of Acts. As Paul arrives in Rome, as is his usual practice, he goes to the Jews who—because they were so far removed from Jerusalem, had heard very little about the church other than what Luke records in to verse 22, That is—it is a “sect that [is] everywhere …spoken against.” Verse 23 continues, “23 When they [the Jews] had appointed a day for him, [Paul] they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.” When many of the Jews rejected his message, Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah, telling them that they, like the Jews who had rejected the prophets had “hearts that had grown dull…ears that barely hear, eyes they have closed.” He then once again turns to the Gentiles who listen to him for two years as he was “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”
Just as Jesus said in Acts 1:8—when we get to chapter 28, Jesus’ witnesses had brought the gospel to what was “the end of the earth. As many have said, because the book of Acts is a history book of the Spirit’s work within the church and the Spirit is still working through the church to witness to Christ, we are now living out the 29th chapter of Acts. That begs several questions about our faithfulness to be witnesses to Jesus in this 29th chapter of Acts. This morning, we want to focus on what are we doing to reach our Jerusalem here in Duluth. Although there are many answers to that question, many of you know that the leadership will, Lord willing, soon be formally recommending to the church what we believe God is calling us to in our ongoing witness to our Jerusalem. That is—to plant a church in Duluth through Eric Svoboda who will soon be assessed as a church planter by representatives of the church planting network called, appropriately enough, “Acts 29.”
If Eric is approved as a church planter by Acts 29 and if the church approves this, we will sometime after the first of the year soon birth our second daughter church following our first-born daughter, “The Water’s Edge Community Church” that we sent out to witness to Christ about three years ago. By God’s grace, Pastor Erik Reinertsen, his wife Jess and about 50 Mount of Olives people went out and started a new church that today numbers about 100, has seen several new converts and is being used to radically transform lives—[more on that later]. It has been a fruitful and wonderful work of God that should fill our hearts with gratitude to God. In preparation for that first church plant, we taught in some detail the Biblical rationale for planting a church. There are copies of the foundational message available in the Welcome Center. This morning, we want to go over some of that ground, but a church’s second church plant is different than the first one. Before the first one, you really don’t know what to expect. There’s a sense of excitement as you do what you’ve never done before. With the second plant there are at least two factors that come into play by virtue of having done this before. First, is the joy surrounding the blessing of God on the first daughter. Since it has been three years and The Water’s Edge is completely independent of us, we don’t have opportunity to hear about all those blessings very often, so the second factor may tend to feel stronger. That is—the trials and difficulty of planting a church are no longer a mystery, but a well acknowledged fact. For many here when we planted three years ago, precious relationships were impacted because the demands of being part of a church plant compels those who go out to give most of their time to the new church and new relationships. That’s hard for both churches.
Because we have a better idea of the pain that is involved in planting a church, this morning, I want us to honestly think through some of the more common objections to planting a church, many of them rooted in this pain and try to answer them from a Biblical perspective. Before we do that, I do need to mention the impact on our church from our first plant. In a little more than a year after the plant, God had completely replenished both the number of people and the funds given by the people we sent out. He was faithful—the mother did not die in childbirth and I believe most of the leadership would testify that we are a stronger church today than we were three years ago. Recent studies indicate that churches that plant churches typically grow larger and healthier because of it. Now, let’s look at five possible objections to us planting another church. The first objection is: If we stop giving our people away to church plants, we will have the opportunity to grow larger and minister to more people in ways that a new, smaller church cannot. There is at least one thing wrong with that question and it is in the phrase “our people.” The people who left for “The Water’s Edge” were not “our people,” they were and are God’s people, purchased with the blood of his Son and we must remember that. Because they belong to him, he is free to do with them what he wants. Now, to the question. It is unquestionable that a larger church has more resources to do more and varied ministries than a smaller church, but lets’ examine that alleged benefit from a Biblical perspective to see if having more resources as a church is a priority with God who we exist to please.
God’s priority for the church is unquestionable. That is—to glorify his Son by making disciples who make disciples. Jesus says in Matthew 28, “19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The Great Commission doesn’t say anything about developing more and larger ministries, but making disciples and because Jesus mentions baptism, the emphasis is clearly on making disciples through conversion growth. That’s God’s priority and because that is HIS priority, it must also be OUR priority if we are to be faithful to him. That is why Jesus went to the cross—that’s ultimately why he brought this church into existence 46 years ago—to make disciples. It’s easy to forget that priority of reaching the lost as the church becomes more established and adds new ministries that mostly benefit the believers in the church. The tendency in established churches with well-developed, believer-focused ministries is that the priority of reaching the lost slowly, almost imperceptibly shifts from fulfilling the Great Commission to managing the resources and maintaining the ministries to the body---the church becomes ingrown.
Over time, churches focus less and less on those who need Jesus and increasingly on how to keep the church programs and ministries running smoothly. This is one reason why the statistics indicate that church plants are far better at fulfilling God’s priority of reaching the lost. It’s also a reason why four out of five churches in America are either plateaued or declining. Studies show that churches under three years of age win an average of ten people to Christ per year for every hundred church members. Churches three to 15 years of age win an average of five people per year for every hundred church members and churches over 15 years of age win an average of three people per year for every hundred church members. That means that a new church plant the size of The Water’s Edge typically wins more converts in one year per 100 members than a church like ours will in more than three years. This has proven out in our first daughter church. The Water’s Edge, with between 50 and 100 people over the last three years has won significantly more converts than Mount of Olives with between 350 and 450 attendees. Our own experience tells us that if we are going to meet God’s priority of new convert growth, the best way to do that is to plant churches.
One reason why plants are more faithful in making disciples than established churches is because, as we have repeatedly seen in Acts, God’s preferred method of reaching people is through the planting of churches. Older, more established churches develop attractive programs and ministries with their increased resources and as a result tend to grow more by transfer growth. These churches—and Mount of Olives is one of them are called—“attractional churches.” That is—for our growth we depend primarily on those who transfer in to our church from other church. Please don’t misunderstand--we are grateful for everyone who God has led to Mount of Olives as their church home in the past three years as they have come from other churches. However, as precious as these believers are, this kind of growth does nothing to meet God’s priority of winning new converts. Transfer growth is not kingdom growth. Just because more people attend here than The Water’s Edge does not mean that we are growing the kingdom more than they are. In fact, as a church of 100, they are growing the kingdom far more effectively than we are and that is God’s priority. They do not have the ministries we have to offer so they are in some respects less attractive to many people from other churches. But their lack of programming frees them to spend more time and energy on God’s priority of making disciples.
Another reason why this objection doesn’t carry weight in our particular case is the fact that--in order for us to grow larger, we would probably need to expand our facilities here. We are already filling all our Sunday school class rooms, our foyer space is limited and our multi-purpose Worship Center is none too large and is not being used as a multi-purpose room. At some time in the future, some modifications to our facility may be necessary. However, if we were to build a new and bigger Worship Center and experience growth because we have made more room for more people from other churches, we would also find a need to build a larger foyer, more educational space and expand our parking lot. This is why building project are often divided into phases in a church. Once you start expanding in one area, the other areas become proportionately too small. That runs into several million dollars and thousands of man-hours spent by the flock to help build the church more economically. And none of that matters all that much to God because nowhere in Scripture are we called to grow larger churches to attract more already-reached believers. That means the difference is—in the case of the Great Commission, we are comparing God’s chief priority to that which is not a priority at all. As much as growing larger is a priority in many North American churches, it doesn’t make God’s radar screen. Most of the New Testament church plants were probably 40 people and less. The Biblical priority is on winning more worshippers to Christ and church plants are much more effective at doing that than are established churches. Some may want to grow larger as a church and become more expansive in our ministries, but that desire must be weighed against the Scripture and to put it on the most basic level—growing large, attractional churches is not why Jesus died—he died to reach lost people.
In light of that, an objection could be: Why not use Eric and the other people who would go out from us to make us better at evangelism? First, it is vital that we at Mount of Olives must radically revitalize and begin to look outwardly. We will not ever be healthy as a church or as individuals unless we are much more aggressively trying to reach our community. Our Wednesday night program this summer is exclusively devoted to evangelism training and doing personal evangelism. I encourage you to step out in faith and be a part of it. The question of church planting and evangelistic revitalization in our church is not an either/or question, it’s a both/and question. We must BOTH plant churches AND revitalize evangelistically. However, there are certain dynamics at pay in established churches that make revitalization a slow process. A new church plant is a bit like ski boat. They are smaller—have very little infrastructure, are piloted by one person for the first few years and as a result, can turn and maneuver and change courses with comparative ease. If a church plant is not being effective evangelistically, it requires much less work to bring about change to make it more faithful. If church plants are like ski boats, established churches are more like ore boats. They are much bigger, have more assets to manage, are more complex and they turn from their present course very slowly. An even more important factor in this dynamic is that healthy church plants are from day one formed and exist for one main purpose--reaching lost people. They can be much more focused on the lost because they are very lean in church programs and the goal in every healthy church plant is to make evangelistic outreach a core part of their church DNA—it’s just who they are. The conversations in the foyer are much more likely to be about how you are trying to reach your neighbor or co-worker because all the people have chosen that church plant (ideally) because THEY want to be part of a church that is mainly focused on reaching lost people.
The old saying related to church planting versus church revitalization is—“it’s easier to give birth than to raise the dead.” The truth behind that statement is—established churches are generally poor in evangelism because they are larger and more difficult to turn around. There is also a high resistance to change and it takes a long time to re-establish a larger church’s DNA. The enemy will fight us every step of the way to becoming more evangelistically aggressive and frankly, we like to be comfortable and reaching lost people for Jesus is anything but that. We may all say we want to reach lost people, but when it comes to actually making the painful changes necessary to do that, many people balk. Church planting expert Ed Stetzer says, “Recent studies show that nine out of ten people who are told by doctors to “change or die” cannot do so. In other words, they are told to stop smoking, lose weight, or quit drinking in order to survive, and nine of ten die rather than change. Churches are similar; they often choose their traditions over their future.”
Right now, many people would say we are at a high water mark as a church. Our ministries have expanded and generally run well, our attendance is stronger than most evangelical churches in the community and the sound of youth, children and infants fill our hallways—many good things are happening here. However, note this--the same could have been said at one time for several evangelical churches in Duluth that are now dead and gone. They chose to sit back and ride the wave of God’s blessing instead of seeking to use their resources to better reach the lost. Like almost all churches, they eventually got older and slowly lost their appeal, the kids grew up and then old, key people moved away and they dwindled down to a handful of people who remember the “glory days” and look back and ask “What happened to our great church?” The truth is—it never was great in terms of health, it may have been a beehive of activity, but if there was no concerted effort at evangelistic outreach, the church was always terminal, doomed to die. And so is ours unless this ore boat turns around in this area.
Another objection could be stated: Duluth already has many churches—why plant one more? The Duluth Yellow Pages lists 143 churches. Of those, approximately 40 are conservative theologically and claim to want to reach the Duluth area with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. That means that we have about 40 churches (a generous number) where people could probably find Christ—and in our general area, there’s about 100,000 people. Assume that in those 40 churches are 8000 people (200 per church--which is generous) which leaves over 90,000 unchurched people in our area. That means that each of the 40 churches would need to reach over 2250 unbelievers with the gospel. Even for a church that is aggressively evangelistic, do you know how much time it would take for them to establish relationships and meaningfully share the gospel with 2,250 lost people? And the trend is not headed in the right direction. Since 1900, the number of churches in America has increased just over 50% while the population has almost quadrupled. Again, Ed Stetzer says, “This decline in church-to-population ratio helps to explain the decline in the North American church in the past century.” He continues, “It’s frustrating to evangelicals. At a minimum we should attempt to keep up with the population, but if we are truly to reach people in culture, we should want to do much more!” The point to all of that is to say that Duluth is a vastly under-churched area and is becoming more so every year.
Another possible objection is—Eric has been a great youth pastor—I don’t want us to lose him. We have been blessed with a gifted youth pastor but he, like Erik Reinertsen is gifted for far more than youth ministry. Eric is an excellent preacher and has a great deal of pastoral wisdom and insight. He is a far better pastoral candidate than most of the men I graduated with from Seminary. Using him as a Youth Pastor indefinitely would be very poor stewardship of him, his wife Jen and their gifts on our part. We are called to be good stewards, not only of our financial resources, but also of our people resources. As I believe Eric’s church planting assessment in two weeks will show, Eric is gifted for planting a church. He senses God’s call to plant a church and does not want to disobey that call of God to reach lost people in Duluth. We as a church must do what we can to support our brother who has in many ways matured here as a believer. To hold him back from all that he is gifted by the Holy Spirit to do would be to quench the Holy Spirit. We have asked Jase Tunnell—last summer’s youth intern to be our Youth Pastor and Lord willing, that will happen in August. We know Jase-- he too is very gifted, the youth love him and the leadership feels confident that the Lord has raised up yet another great youth leader for us here.
Another and final objection to planting another church we have already alluded to is: Planting a church is personally painful—I don’t want to lose more relationships. The Water’s Edge experience was painful for both those who left and those who remained—we discovered that “childbirth” is painful—there was some sacrifice involved and sacrifice is always painful. But let me ask you—How do you suppose God, who sacrificed his Son to reach lost people responds when his children object that planting a church to reach lost people is a painful sacrifice that we would rather not make? Of course church planting is painful--this is Christianity, not the Rotary Club. Carrying our cross—an instrument of death and torture is a central part of discipleship. Paul says in Philippians 1:29, “29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,” God grants faith to the believer for the sake of Christ and God also grants suffering for the believer for his sake. If you don’t want to sacrifice or suffer, you picked the wrong religion and we do it because Jesus is worth every bit of it—he died for us—he purchased us out of the slave market of sin and death with his own blood! Romans 8:18 says, “18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” The Christian life is not about avoiding suffering, it’s about comparing the suffering involved in living for Christ and reaching people for him with the glory that is to come in the next life.
As any woman who has given birth before the advent of epidurals can attest—childbirth can be excruciatingly painful. But after it’s over—you get a baby!—New life comes out from the mother and its glorious! I know of very few mothers who, after having one child said—“I’m not doing that again—the pain isn’t worth it!” Part of the reason why giving birth again as a church feels so hard and sacrificial is because we don’t get to see much of our first child. Jess Reinertsen, the pastor’s wife at The Water’s Edge knew what I was preaching on this week and sent me this email. For those of you who have not kept up. Here is some of what she wanted us to know about what is happening in the life of our first child.
1. Erik’s mom. She only started coming to church to support him in this new endeavor. She came to Christ after hearing the truth preached week after week. She would’ve only come to church on special occasions if it hadn’t been for TWE.
2. Our friend who only came to church as a promise to her husband who was going to jail. She first came only out of obligation to her husband but has grown in a deepening relationship with Jesus Christ to the point that, through EXTREMELY difficult circumstances, she now knows that God has a plan for her life and she is willing to follow Him wherever that leads her. Her husband is out of jail now after one year and she recently stated, “Obviously it is God but it is also you, my church family that has gotten me through this.” She is now sharing the gospel with her unsaved family and her sister has joined her in coming to TWE.
3. A few months ago during our praise and prayer part of our service, a man who was at TWE for the first time shared that his wife of 25 years had left him. Later, he said that he just felt as though he was among people who loved Jesus and genuinely cared for each other. He was prayed for on the spot and after the service a number of men came up at different times to talk, pray, and set up times to meet with him in the upcoming week. Being a smaller church affords these kinds of unique opportunities.
4. At a recent new comer’s dessert, another man shared that he had tried churches in the past but always felt judged. He was thankful for a place where he could be received as he was-- tattoos, sweatpants, rough exterior, and all. He said the people that he encountered at TWE really live what they believe, who they are on Sunday is who they are the rest of the week. Again, because we’re smaller, he is really getting to know us and we are really getting to know him.
5. I [Jess] wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for TWE. God has changed ME in so many ways. Learning to trust Him, having a heart for those who haven’t met Him yet, going beyond my comfort zone to reach out to strangers, realizing how much God has done for me and wanting others to have that too, being stretched to serve, love, and extend grace in the name of Jesus.
6. Our older kids have said, “It was so hard to leave Mount of Olives and all of our friends but I wouldn’t be the same if we hadn’t left. I might have eventually served in the nursery, but mostly I would have been all about hanging out with my friends. I can’t do that at TWE. I’m NEEDED here to serve and to reach out to new kids. I’ve grown in my walk with God in ways I wouldn’t have if we hadn’t left.”
7. One of our members considered leaving us last summer because they wanted to go to a church where they could just attend church and serve occasionally. Thankfully, they decided to stay and they recently said, “I’m so glad we didn’t take the ‘easy’ road because we would have missed out on so much. God is changing us and growing us in incredible ways that I know wouldn’t have happened if we had left. I would have gotten into the routine of ‘doing’ church and stagnated in my faith.”
8. Erik Lofald who started coming to TWE just to be with a friend but ended up having lunch with pastor Erik where he was encouraged to read the gospels and watch some different sermons online. Erik L. came to Christ and is now leading our youth on Wednesday nights and has begun elder training.
Jess concludes, “The stories of lives touched truly are endless. When I look around on Sunday mornings, I see such a diverse crowd of people that wouldn’t fit in at a bigger or more traditional church. Yet, God has brought all of us together and made us a family. TWE was and is God’s doing and He is deserving of praise for all He is doing and all He is going to do.
That’s our baby! When you hear those kinds of stories, the pain of childbirth fades a bit. By God’s grace, let’s birth another daughter for the glory of God in Duluth and the joy and health of Mount of Olives.
1. Planting a church is painful—I don’t want to lose more relationships.
2. I don’t want to lose Eric S. as a youth pastor.
 “The Effects of Sponsoring a Church Plant on the Sponsor Church,” SBC study of 160 churches who planted in 1997.
 Win Arn, The Pastor’s Manual for Effective Ministry (Monrovia, CA, 1088) p.41 as cited in the study
 Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches, p. 11.
 Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches, p. 9.
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