SERMON MANUSCRIPT FOR MARCH 25, 2007

 

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"Why Plant a Church"

SERMON MANUSCRIPT FOR MARCH 25, 2007

 

          This week, we continue our series of vision casting messages, picking up where we left off last week with the leadership’s vision for us as a church to plant a healthy, reproducing church in our area.  Last week, we emphasized three main truths.  First, we saw from multiple sources that the Twin Ports area is a very spiritually depressed area as seen by the distinctly low percentage of people involved in any kind of religious groups, including churches.  Second, we saw that our church here at Mount of Olives, through our verifiably grievous lack of faithful outreach ministry has done almost nothing to expand God’s kingdom in our area.  Third, we saw that according to multiple studies over several years, new church plants have shown themselves to be far more reliable to reach people for Christ than established churches like our own. 

We saw that as a church, we must repent of our unfaithfulness and earnestly seek God through prayer about whether he is calling us to plant a new church.  The leadership is compelled he is doing that on the basis of what we heard last week and even more importantly, the Biblical perspective we will look at this morning. We must build our ministry on the word of God because—as impressive as the statistics may be concerning the comparative effectiveness of church planting in reaching the lost, that alone is simply not sufficient basis for making a decision requiring the kind of sacrifice and effort this endeavor would require of us.  At the end of the day, we must have something more solid to ground our faith in than studies, as helpful as those may be.  We must be firmly grounded in God’s word.

          Is there an explicit Biblical mandate that says to existing churches, “You must plant new churches.”  No—The mandate is to reach our Jerusalem—that is non-negotiable.  But here are three reasons grounded in Scripture for us to do that by planting a church.  The first reason is because: Planting churches is the only apostolic model given in Scripture for reaching the lost in a given area.  We’ll address some potential objections to that reason in a moment, but for right now we must see that in the book of Acts there is only one model the apostles used to evangelize cities and that was to plant churches.  Paul did not accomplish his missionary task by doing incidental evangelism to those he happened to meet in the market place.  He didn’t simply share his faith with people in the open square of the cities and leave town after he had made a number of contacts and won a several of people to Christ. He made a masterful apologetic speech to the Hellenists at Mars Hill, but that was not the culmination of his ministry in Athens. 

He did not consider his work to be done in a city until he had planted a believing church there.  Paul says to Titus in 1:5, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you  The logic here seems inescapable.  You don’t appoint elders apart from a church—elders shepherd churches, not individuals.  Titus was to appoint elders in every town.  Ergo, Paul planted churches in every town.

          Other verses support this as well.  After Paul and Barnabas separated in Acts chapter 15, verse 41 says that he and Silas departed and “went throughout Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”  In Acts 16:5, in response to the decision of the Jerusalem Council, it says, “The churches were strengthened in the faith…”  In Second Corinthians 8:1 Paul says, “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia.”  The New Testament knows nothing of the novel and frankly foolish notion some have today that they can be healthy believers without having a church affiliation.  Paul’s response to that based on everything we know about him and his teaching would be “HUH!!???”  The exclusive apostolic model revealed in the Scripture for growing the church of Christ is planting new churches.

          Let’s look at two possible objections to that as a Biblical basis for planting a church.  The first might sound like this: “The book of Acts is a history book and therefore the events in it are to be seen as DE-scriptive, and not PRE-scriptive.”  In other words, Acts is a narrative book that tells us what the APOSTLES did—not necessarily what WE are to do.  First, it is good to understand that simply because the Bible describes something; it is not necessarily prescribing or commanding it.  However, please don’t forget that most of the Bible is written in narrative form describing various events and it was about those parts too that Paul says in Second Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” 

That tells us that those descriptive parts of Scripture are not merely descriptive, but are intended to teach us something and here’s how they instruct us—we learn from their example.  In First Corinthians chapter 10, Paul is referring to a descriptive section of Scripture in the Old Testament and he says, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”  It just isn’t valid to dismiss history or “descriptive” books like Acts by saying that because they aren’t explicitly PREscriptive, they are somehow unsuitable to teach us how to do things like win the lost.  They set out very important examples for us to learn from. 

          A second potential objection to using Paul’s apostolic ministry to encourage us to plant churches in our culture could be stated, “Of course Paul planted churches—there were no churches where he ministered—that’s all he could do.  Romans 15 says that his call was to go only to places where there were no existing churches.”  It’s true that the imperative to plant churches in a more “churched” culture like ours is not as easily seen from Paul’s example as it is in places around the world where there are no churches presently.  It would be a mistake however, to say that just because his context was unchurched and ours is “churched,” that this renders his example largely irrelevant. 

What I mean is--there are other, Biblically rooted reasons why the Holy Spirit in Acts holds up Paul’s chosen strategy to reach the lost by planting churches, beyond the fact that it was the most obvious option available to him.  In other words, Paul didn’t plant new churches only because there weren’t any existing ones.  I believe he also used this strategy because planting new churches grows out of two basic Biblical truths that Paul knew very well--First, about the fallen nature of this world and second, about the very character of God himself.  Let me explain that as we move to our second Biblical reason to reach the lost by planting healthy churches which speaks to the nature of this world we live in.

          That is:  Planting churches is blessed by God because it works to overcome the fallen tendency of this world’s institutions—including churches, to stagnate and decay over time.  The Bible in both testaments teaches us that one of the sad realities of living in this fallen world is that even the institutions God puts in place tend to decay and deteriorate over time.  In Romans 8:21 Paul is anticipating that time when his hope for this world will be realized—that time in the future when “…the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”  Paul is saying that this world is now in bondage to decay—it is subject to the corruption by the sin embedded within it. 

That’s the way it will be until Jesus comes and makes all things new.  In First Corinthians chapter 15 Paul says of these bodies “…What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.”  These bodies belong to this fallen world and as a result are rotting.   Things in this world—even the church, which is not OF this world, but is IN this world, have an inescapable tendency to eventually become corrupted over time.  Only in glory will institutions indefinitely remain healthy and unaffected by sin. First Peter 1:4 promises a future “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,” In heaven, institutions will be imperishable and undefiled and unfading, but not in this life.

We see this sad truth illustrated in the Old Testament all over the place.  In Genesis, the decaying, corrupting power of sin is so potent that just three chapters after the fall, God tells Noah the putrid sin of humanity has already reached his threshold of tolerance.  He promises to pour out his humanity-destroying wrath through a great flood on the earth.  God’s response is to begin something new with Noah.  As you move into Exodus, in chapter 14 the Israelites cross the Red Sea after God had--through repeated, miraculous acts delivered his people from the bondage of Egypt.  Within a very short period of time however, those same people who had seen Yahweh work so powerfully were sacrificing to a golden calf and proclaiming that these were “the gods who brought us up out of the land of Egypt” [Ex.32:8] What was God’s response?  He wanted to begin something new with Moses.  Only in his mercy does he agree to Moses’ prayer to continue with these wilderness rebels.

          Think of nearly all the good kings of Judah—David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Uzziah and others.  They all loved God and served him and each made a splendid beginning. They each reigned faithfully for many years.  But it’s far easier to start well than it is to persevere and finish well in the midst of a fallen world.  As a result, none of them finished nearly as well as they started. The corruptive power of sin takes its toll in a fallen world, even on people and things God has established and his response is often—to begin anew.  In the New Testament we see the same pattern, although the time span is much shorter and the falls from grace not generally as dramatic.  The best place to see this decay as it relates to the church is in Revelation chapters two and three in Christ’s letters to the seven churches.  These churches are especially helpful for us because as scholars like John Stott remind us, “the churches of Asia, though historical, represent theological churches of all ages and of all lands.” That means the Holy Spirit included these churches and what Jesus says to them in Scripture so that each generation could learn the foundational, representative lessons they teach us about Christ’s church.  The sad truth is--thanks to a combination of evil influences from sin and persecution and false teaching, five of seven of them went started to decay fairly quickly.  Church history tells us that all of them were eventually ravaged by corruption and Christ removed all their lampstands. 

The church at Ephesus is particularly instructive of the corruptive power of sin.  Jesus says in Revelation 2:4-5, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.  5Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”  Ephesus was simply a tragic example of the truth of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 about the corruptive influences of sin this world has on his church.  He prophesies about his church, “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.”  We see the reality of decay in the church, not only in the Biblical examples like the church at Ephesus, but through the sad account told by church history.  The early church within three centuries had lost most all of its initial vitality.  You have to look very hard to find any significant health in Christ’s church during the 900-year period called the middle Ages.

Then God brings Martin Luther onto the scene.  The gospel is recovered and sound Biblical theology is re-discovered and put into practice.  The Reformation spreads like wild-fire over Western Europe and the church is brought out of her Babylonian captivity.  The Puritans build on the Reformation and institute more reform in England and a fledging country called the United States.  What do you find today when you go looking for Christ’s church in Western Europe?  Mostly, you find many awe-inspiring church buildings built to the glory of God that are today antique shops and museums—relics of a bygone era.  The church in Western Europe is in ruins.  Though there are some pockets of life in the church in Great Britain, it too is a pale shadow of its former self.  Likewise, without another Reformation in America, apart from God doing a “new thing” here, we too will join the ranks of the formerly faithful church.  Does this mean God has failed?  No, he’s doing a new thing—he’s bringing a harvest—he’s placed new lampstands in Asia and Africa, which is by far where most of his activity in Christ’s church is seen today.  Over the past 100 years, he has started tens of thousands of new local churches in Asia and Africa.

Don’t misunderstand.  This doesn’t mean God can’t pump new life into existing churches. Two of the ways Scripture teaches that God brings life is through birth and resurrection.  Both of those metaphors are used to describe how God imparts spiritual life. “You must be born again.”[John 3:7]  You have been raised up with Christ” [Eph. 2:6].  God desires to continually re-infuse existing churches with new resurrection life and we must earnestly seek that here at Mount of Olives.  We must not however bury our head in the sand to the lessons that the Bible and church history clearly teach.  That is--though God does bring new life to existing churches, much of the new life and vitality comes from birthing new things, not resurrecting old things.  The power of corruption is seen less in new things than in established things.  The lesson of the church in Ephesus clearly illustrates that reality.

Why is that?  Why do even these creations of God tend to become corrupted?  Romans eight tells us they do, but why?  One answer is--because maintaining spiritual health in this world is a fight. We live in a world that is constantly pushing against us—constantly challenging us.  We are swimming upstream every minute of every day and the moment we stop working against the corrupting flow of this world, we begin to be carried away by the opposing currents.  The Bible consistently describes the life of faith as a fight.  Paul in First Timothy chapter six tells Timothy, “Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” The evangelical church MUST understand that you do not fight—you do not live a radical, faith-filled life in order to become a super saint, you fight to because that’s how you spiritually SURVIVE!  Paul tells the Colossians in chapter one that Christ has done the work of reconciliation on the cross, “…in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you have heard…”  Those verbs, “stable,” “steadfast,” “not shifting,” all imply that you must remain firmly anchored in the truth and holding fast against the opposing current of this world that seeks to sweep you away.

The Biblical way to fight the fight of faith is not to buckle yourself into a static church and get comfortable.  No—faith is exercised in the risks implicit in our obedience to the Great Commission. We were reminded last week of William Carey’s description of this process entailed, “attempt great things for God, expect great things from God.”  Obedience is the fruit of faith.  In Romans chapter one, Paul tells us that he was called by God to “bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.  So, what must churches do in order to remain steadfast in faith?  Stop trying to get comfortable in this world and FIGHT, OBEY--do radical things that absolutely require God’s provision if they are to succeed.  Given the fact that we live in a corrupting world that requires us to fight the fight of faith--given the fact that God has told us to exercise our faith through our obedience in areas like reaching our Jerusalem—given the fact that the only apostolic model we have is planting churches—why would planting a church NOT be a good thing for us to consider?

A third Biblical reason to plant a church is:  Planting new churches is consistent with the creative, life-giving character of God and his gospel.  Therefore, church planting uniquely provides God a showcase to reveal his glorious character.  When I say that God is creative, I am referring to the fact that he is the Creator and we must never forget that God did not create the world simply because he had to start somewhere.  He created because creating is part of his essential character—that unmistakably influences HOW he does things—he does them as the Creator.  The terminology surrounding the gospel is replete with language that speaks of God’s native creative character.  When Jesus saves a person, according to Second Corinthians 5:17, they become a “new creation.”  In Matthew 9:17, Jesus speaks of the new kingdom that he will be inaugurating and how it is qualitatively different than the old one and he speaks of this as “new wine.” “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins.”  "New" means, newly given by God.  The new relationship with him that will be established within this new kingdom is called “the New Covenant.”  Paul in Romans 6:4 says that we who are in Christ “walk in newness of life.”  After this age is over, Revelation 21 tells us there will be a “new heaven” and a “new earth” and a “new Jerusalem.” 

All that newness is not simply because the old wasn’t good enough, but also because God is the Creator God who by his nature delights in doing new things. This is not just a characteristic of the gospel.  The Bible verse that is projected onto our wall nearly every week is Isaiah 43:19 and it isn’t speaking directly to the gospel.  “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”  This is who God is.  None of this absolutely mandates us to plant a church. But it more than refutes the tired notion that just because there are existing churches in town, God doesn’t want to birth many more, especially when only 15% of the population is attending existing Twin Ports churches.  Each new healthy church uniquely places God’s character on display. 

Let me quickly give three ways in which new, local churches uniquely expand the opportunity for God’s glorious character to be seen.  If that is true from Scripture and if we are a church that prizes God’s glory above all things, then this should have a profound impact on our thinking in this area.  The first way God’s glory is magnified through the planting of new churches is found in the truth that the church is the body of Christ.  When Paul uses this term for the church, he uses it to refer not only to the universal church as Christ’s combined body of believers, but also the local church.  In 12:27 he says, “Now you [Corinthian church] are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”  If each local church is an expression of Christ’s body on earth, intended to display his glory through the manifold gifts and attributes and ministries and relationships as each church works in dependence upon the Holy Spirit—if that’s true, and if you yearn for God’s glory to be magnified, why wouldn’t we want MORE glory-reflecting expressions of Christ’s body?  Don’t you want more local expressions of Christ’s body that can by God’s grace show the dazzling, manifold character and ministry of the body of Christ?

A second way God’s glory is magnified through planting new churches is seen in the truth that the church is the bride of Christ.  Again, the Bible uses this term to refer not only to the universal church, but also to local assemblies of believers.  Paul says to the church in Corinth in Second Corinthians 11:2, “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.”  The church at Corinth--that local outpost of believers was the bride of Christ betrothed to her husband and called to be a pure virgin.  Given that local churches are his bride, what do you suppose is Jesus, the bridegroom’s disposition toward planting more expressions of his bride?  Do you think that would delight Him as the bridegroom?  With each new church he would have another expression of his bride to love and care for and before which he can show himself strong and mighty.  Shouldn’t we as his loving, faithful bride want him to be delighted?

A third way God’s glory is magnified through planting more churches is found in the truth that the church is the temple of God.  Again, this speaks to local churches, not only the universal church.  First Corinthians 3:16-17 says, “Do you not know [local church Corinthians] that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?  17If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.” [cf. Eph 2:21-22]  If God dwells in his temple (and we know he does) and those dwellings are expressed through local churches, not just his universal church, then why would we not want to increase the number of God’s dwelling places on this earth?  We know God has always desired to dwell with his people.  He did so in the garden, in the midst of his people in the tabernacle, in the Jerusalem temple, as he tabernacled in the Person of Jesus and finally, as he lives within his temple the church.  If God has shown a continual desire to dwell among his people and each new church is a new dwelling place for God, why would we not want to be used of him to provide more dwellings for him from which he can make his glory known both locally and to the nations? 

In my estimation, a big part of the reason for the overwhelming statistics I presented last week as to why new church plants are so much more effective in reaching the lost than established churches, is because God blesses things that bring him glory and are rooted in the Bible.  Planting healthy churches qualifies on both counts.  My conclusion is simple—given the Biblical truth that planting a new church is the only apostolic model for reaching lost cities—given the Biblical truth that this strategy flows out of the character of God as he works to create newness out of the inherently corrupting institutions in this world—given the Biblical truth that his glory is magnified in new expressions of his body, his bride and his temple—the question for us at Mount of Olives to me is NOT—“Why should be plant a church?”  The more Biblically rooted question seems to be, “Why on earth wouldn’t we be anxious to do this and then keep planting them until Jesus comes for his bride and brings us to his new temple in the New Jerusalem?” May God give us the grace to thirst for the glory of God and do whatever we can to manifest that glory in the best, most Biblical way possible as we at Mount of Olives fight the fight of faith as Christ’s church here in Duluth

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