“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Rom 1:16 ESV
It would seem that some people who are all for church planting are unaware of Romans 1:16, so I have reproduced it here for the benefit of those who think that a church is best planted by human invention.
What do I mean by ‘human invention?’ How about slick marketing programs that blanket the city? Or freebies, raffles, and give-aways that are meant to be a spiritual bait-and-switch? There are surveys meant to find out what unbelieving pagans want in a church so that a church can be tailored for them, and there are those ‘church planters’ who blanket Christian radio, Christian bookstores and encourage their core team to invite their friends over to their cool, new church that is so much better than the one they’re in now. There are other so-called church planting and church growth gimmicks I could mention, but I think that you probably know of one or two places like this.
Then there is Holy Spirit power that converts a soul from being a prisoner of darkness into a light-reflecting child of the Kingdom. Those churches that seek to grow from preaching a gospel that leads to Spirit-regeneration of the souls of men are true church plants. And those who plant churches by the power of the gospel do so in the methodology that gives all glory to God and cannot be conjured up by Madison Avenue methods.
To all my brothers out there who are holding forth the truth in faithfulness, keep it up. For those growing weary of doing good, email me and I’ll join you in prayer so that you won’t be tempted to give in to powerless quick fixes that yield a crowd, but not gospel growth.
A few days ago I wrote about the regulative principle and the way that the pandemic has forced many pastors and church leaders to think seriously about their ecclesiology. Today I’d like to address a simple question that perhaps isn’t so simple: What is the church?
Before I point to several definitions from systematic theology books, I want to point out the practicality of this question. If you took the time to look at any given church website, you would more than likely find that many of them feature photographs of their buildings, and many of those same websites would not show you the people but the structure. I find that telling. What does a website like that say about their unintentional definition of the church? I have even seen church websites that give a history of the church—laying out the expansion of their church buildings!
Even as I picked the photograph of the cross on a church steeple for this post, I knew that there would be some that don’t equate the church with the building, but that many Christians do. The church is not the gathering place, but the gathered. But this requires greater defining.
There are those that misuse Matthew 18:20 (“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”) to say that a small gathering of at least two Christians is an expression of the Church. So, in this thinking, a Christian concert is a gathering of the church. Now I’ve been a part of small churches, but there was more than just Christians that made us a church. Does a church social in someone’s backyard make that group a church? And when I was in high school and our youth group went to an amusement park, were we actually going to church—so long as two or more of us were in line for the log-ride? 😂
So, what is the church if it isn’t a building or a random group of Christians in the same room? Below I give six answers from six systematic theology books, and then I will add my own. I’m not seeking to give an in-depth, all inclusive answer, but rather hope to spark your thinking and try to give what I consider a biblical answer to this question. If you like, add your own definition to the comments.
Wayne Grudem: “The church is the community of all true believers for all time.”
MacArthur and Mayhue: “The church of God refers to the community of those who have been called out by God from their slavery to sin through faith in Jesus Christ.”
James Montgomery Boice: “The church is (1) founded on the Lord Jesus Christ, (2) is called into being by the Holy Spirit, and (3) is to contain people of all races who thereby become one new people in the sight of God.”
Robert Reymond: “The church in Scripture is composed of all the redeemed in every age who are saved by grace through personal faith in the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ, “the seed of the woman” (Ge. 3:15) and suffering Messiah (Isa. 53:5-10).”
Karl Barth: “The Real Church is the assembly which called, united, held together and governed by the Word of her Lord, or she is not the Real Church.”
Charles Ryrie: ““I will build My church,” the Lord said, and that is His special work today. Those words of Christ indicate specific distinctions about the church: (a) it was a work future to His earthly life; (b) it was not the same as the kingdom about which He also taught; (c) it must have been something different from the theocracy of Israel.””
My attempt at defining the church:
The Church of Jesus Christ was established by Christ himself, and is the community of believers distinct from national Israel and the Kingdom of God, made up of all those who have been called out of darkness by the Holy Spirit, and have placed their faith in Jesus Christ, from the Day of Pentecost to the rapture of the Church. This gathering should be led by spiritually qualified leaders and should meet regularly for the proclamation of the Word, the ordinances, and if necessary church discipline.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 851.
 John F. MacArthur Jr, and Richard Mayhue, eds., Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 740.
 James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Comprehensive & Readable Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 567.
 Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 806.
 Karl Barth in Donald G. Bloesch, The Church: Sacraments, Worship, Ministry, Mission (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1997), 4.
 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth, (Chicago, Moody, 1999), 458.
“Our Lord attracted sinners because He was different. They drew near to Him because they felt that there was something different about Him. And the world should see us to be different. This idea that you are going to win people to the Christian faith by showing them that after-all you are remarkably like them, is theologically and psychologically a profound blunder.”—D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
The Church of Thessalonica was established during Paul’s second missionary journey. It is chronicled in Acts 15:36-18:22. In this post I want to walk through this journey and then apply a few lessons that can be applied to church planting.
Paul’s journey began in Antioch, were Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement over John Mark, as to whether he should join them on their trip or not. Apparently John Mark had abandoned them on a previous trip and Paul did not think it was a good idea to depend upon him. Barnabas took John Mark and went to the island of Cyprus while Paul took Silas as his partner (Acts 15:36-41).
Meanwhile Paul and Silas headed to the region of Galatia to encourage the churches that Paul and Barnabas had established in the first missionary journey (Acts 15:36). The first stop mentioned was in Derbe and then on to Lystra. At Lystra Paul took Timothy with him on his journey (Acts 16:1-5).”
From Galatia Paul traveled with Silas and Timothy through the region called Phrygia, moving in a Northwest direction, avoiding Asia Minor (modern Turkey) because the Holy Spirit had forbidden that Paul should go there (Acts 16:6).
Paul then decided to go above Asia Minor into a Roman province called Bithynia, but Paul and his party were once again forbidden by the Spirit from going into this region (16:7). That meant that North and South were out of bounds to travel in. They could go back or they could press on toward Mysia along the northern border of Asia and Mysia until they reached Troas, which they did (Acts 16:8).
It was while in Troas that the Lord revealed to Paul his mission. He was given a vision of a Macedonian man who called out to him to come over and help him. Paul would have recognized this man as Macedonian from his traditional hat and clothing that had been a mark of the Macedonian people for centuries before and carries on even to today.
Although Macedon is not as well known to most of us today outside of the biblical references to it, it is important for us to know a little about its history.
The Macedonian kingdom was the “greatest empire ever known to human history.”  It was the empire of Alexander III also known as Alexander the Great.
Before he died at the age of 33, Alexander had succeeded in extending his kingdom from Egypt in the south to the Indus River in India to the east. His father, Philip II conquered the Greek city states and taught his son well many strategies that served him well as he sought to conquer the rest of the world. Alexander conquered Asia Minor, Phoenicia, Palestine, Egypt, Babylonia and India.
Alexander’s armies are pictured in Daniel 7:6 as a swift leopard with four wings. It says, “After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it.” The speed of the army was represented by the leopard’s speed amplified by four wings. The four heads refer to what happened after Alexander’s death. Since he died so young, possibly by poisoning, no plan of succession was in place.
After much turmoil, the kingdom was divided among his four generals into four kingdoms, with Antipater receiving the former Macedonian kingdom and Greece. At Antipater’s death, Cassander had the opportunity to take control and he solidified his position by marrying Alexander’s half-sister, the daughter of King Philip II. Her name? Thessaloniki.
In 316 BC Cassander founded a new city by consolidating 26 towns into the new city he called Thessalonica. This prestigious city would go through many more changes and wars by the time Paul would enter into it. When Paul came, it was a jewel to the Romans and had a population of about 200,000, which was quite large for a city in its day.
Let’s go back to Acts 16. Now we can see God’s purpose in not allowing Paul to go to Mysia or Asia or Bithynia! He wanted them to go to Macedon to bring the gospel message to the Gentiles!
Notice in verse 10 that it says “we” (cp. v.8 says “they”). What we find here is that in Troas Paul picked up another traveling companion—the author of Acts and the Gospel named for him—Luke! Paul went from Troas (in Mysia) across the island of Samothrace to the mainland of Macedonia and the city of Neapolis (16:11).
From Neapolis Paul and his friends went to the Roman colony of Philippi, named after Alexander the Great’s father King Philip II (16:12). In this city, Paul and his company met Lydia and led her to Christ. Later they were beaten with rods and thrown into jail after casting the demon out of a slave girl. (16:13-24) Welcome to Macedonia!
While in jail, God intervened and a jailer and his family were saved (16:25-40). From Lydia and the jailer’s family and any other’s saved on that trip to Philippi Paul established the first church in Europe. The letter we call Philippians was written to them.
Acts 17:1-9 tells us about the establishment of the Thessalonian church. Leaving Philippi, Paul passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, probably because they were so small (17:1) and moved to the city of Thessalonica, where a synagogue had been established by the Jewish population.”
In these 9 verses, I’d like to make three observations about the work that Paul did in planting this church and make some applications for our lives.
1. Paul “reasoned from the Scriptures with a Purpose (vv. 2-4).
Paul’s time in Thessalonica was short—he knew that. He was not on a vacation or sight seeing trip. He was literally on a mission. Because of that purpose, Paul’s time was focused, purposeful and methodical.
Verse 2 says he“reasoned”with the Jews. This word in Greek is dilegomai and it is where we get our word “dialogue.” Paul “dialogued” with them. He had deep, meaningful conversations with them about the Scriptures and their meaning. But it had a purpose and an aim. they didn’t argue about Jonah’s whale or who the Nephilim in Genesis 6 are. Paul made a bee-line to the cross and Jesus.”
Paul wanted to show them from the Old Testament that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah (v. 3). And Paul was seeking to change the hearts and minds of his listeners (v.4)! His mission had a purpose. Remember the way that Paul talked to King Agrippa? Acts 26:24-29. Paul preached for change!”
Studying the Bible and going to church is good. Listening to sermons and reading Christian books is good. But to what end do we do these things? Is it to seek holiness in our lives? It is to grow in Christ? Why do we share Christ? Is it to see people saved?”
2. Faithful gospel proclamation will also attract opposition from our enemy and those blinded by sin (vv. 5-9).
In a sense, these gospel preachers were turning the “world upside down” by preaching their message about King Jesus. We need to be honest. Most people like the status quo. We don’t like it when people rock the boat. And we love our sin. Listen to John 3:19-20. It says, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
Paul was trying to build a lighthouse in the darkness of Thessalonica. But the darkness wasn’t about to just roll over and let that happen. It fought back. So, we must wage war!” We too need to fight like Paul—reasoning, preaching the gospel, and persuading with the truth.
Second Corinthians 10:3-6 says,“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. “
3. Finally, Jesus must be trusted to build his own church (Matt 16:18).
It is easy to give up and be discouraged by adversity and the roadblocks that we encounter. To see all the failures and not the victories. Afterall, Paul followed Jesus’ commands and went to Macedonia, just as he said. Yet in Philippi he was beaten then jailed. Next in Thessalonica a mob formed and attacked their friend Jason in his home. When Paul left Thessalonica, he was probably only there from 3-6 months, but they had to move on!”
But a church was planted in Thessalonica. And it grew and matured…even with the absence of Paul! God gave life to that seed of a church and although Paul left when it was a weak little seedling, God would cause it to grow.”We certainly can learn from this. We need to work hard, and work smart, but we must learn as well to trust Jesus with the results. After all, it is HIS church.
 Green, Gene L. The Letters to the Thessalonians. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.; Apollos, 2002; p. 9.
If we are honest, we would have to admit that many churches in the U.S. are not growing from conversions but from transfers from other churches. I’ll admit that there are some valid reasons for a Christian to leave one church to attend another, but the Great Commission isn’t about shuffling believers from one church to another. There are many things a church can do to bolster its outreach, but one that is consistently missed in the vast majority of churches today is evangelistic visitation. What is that you ask? Keep reading and I’ll explain.
Every Saturday for many years there were at least two people from Grace Baptist Church that would go out to share the gospel with our community—myself and one of our deacons named Everett. Some Saturdays there were others that would join us, but many times it was just the two of us. Everett and I shared Christ with gang members, homeless people in the park, people in half-way houses, and everyday people that look like you and me.
We had dogs chase us, people scream at us, a couple of doors slammed in our faces, and even a few people that I am convinced were demon possessed. Although we visited door to door in order to hopefully share Christ with our neighbors, we found that this method wasn’t too successful. Instead we found that evangelistic visitation was far more productive.
Whenever a person visited our church, they would receive a bulletin and a small visitor’s card that we asked them to fill out as a record of their visit. These cards were placed in the offering plate when the offering was received. When the deacons counted the offering, they would take out these cards and give them to me for follow up.
In my discussions with many pastors and church leaders, many churches don’t do anything to record visitors anymore. I’m not sure why, but they don’t seem to even collect a card to record visitors. In my many visits to different churches, most didn’t request a card to be filled out, and of those that I have filled out, only one has ever done something with it.
On Tuesday when I came into the office, I would send out a welcome letter thanking the visitor for coming. If they wrote the name of who invited them on their visitor card, I would include that as well. Sometimes I would call the friend of our visitor and ask them some questions to find out more about what brought them to our church.
But my follow up didn’t stop there. On the following Saturday, Everett and I would take that card and drive over to the visitor’s house to pay them a visit. Yes, you read that right! We actually showed up at their front door! When we did this, we followed a few rules that worked for us:
1. We only visited on Saturdays from 10am-12pm. This is because before 10 some people were sleeping in and after noon they would be leaving for the day. Three day holidays were almost worthless as far as visiting goes.
2. We took a church flyer or business card with us to leave if they didn’t answer the door. We wanted our visitor to know we came by and missed them. A quick note on a church invite flyer or the back of my business card was slipped in the door jamb for the visitor to find when they returned home.
3. We didn’t call to make an appointment. We found that when we made arrangements we would often find nobody home. It was better to surprise our visitors. Even so, the vast majority were happy to see us.
4. We thanked them for their visit and asked if they had any questions about what they heard. Their visit showed us that they had some interest in church and the Bible. Our conversation helped us determine if the visitors were Christians or needed to hear the gospel.
5. We made sure to express that we were there because we had an important message that we wanted them to hear. We assumed God had sent us as His messengers and we were not ashamed, but bold ambassadors for Christ.
6. We invited them to come back Sunday (the next day). Many people were shocked that the man that preached the sermon had taken the time to personally visit them. This impression made them more open to come back, and it showed them in a tangible way that we truly cared for them.
Having successfully visited our visitor, we usually asked them if we could pray for them and if they had any special prayer needs. The visit often ended with smiles, laughs, and a new relationship begun. Of all the people that returned a second time, many were those that had been visited by someone in our church.
When you think about what connected you to your church, what sticks out the most? What were the things that turned you off about visiting a new church?