Planting a Church in the City: Acts 11:19-26
If there is one thing I have learned over the past three years it is how mistaken I was in my view of successful church planting. Vision and methods are great but they are not enough; hard work and faithfulness are a must but in it of themselves they still lack. In Acts 11:19-20 we witness the first church planted in the city. In my estimation, the church in Antioch is the greatest, most influential church in the New Testament. As church planters if we seek an example of a church plant that impacted the city and the world around them, then we need to look no further than Acts 11:19-26. From what we read, apparently so many people came to Christ in Antioch that the local Gentile, Pagan population came up with a new nickname for those who believed and followed the teachings of Jesus. They called them "Christians." What did the people in Antioch experience that drove them to call this church plant "Christians?"
A Church Plant is on a Mission of Love
If there was something that those in Antioch could see regarding this group of individuals they called "Christians," is that these men and women were serious about someone. In fact they were so serious about the one they loved that they were willing to suffer persecution for His namesake (Acts 11:19-20). You would think that after what they just witnessed in Jerusalem they would have learned their lesson and just given up on all the Jesus talk, right? But that’s not what they do. The end of verse 19 tells us that they were going around speaking the word. And the end of verse 20 says that they were preaching the Lord Jesus. These believers loved Jesus.
To these church planters Jesus was not just their means to a successful church plant. To them Jesus was it! To them, Jesus was their Lord. To them, Jesus was greater than their own lives. They could have left Jerusalem and gone into some city where no one knew them and just simply stayed quiet about their faith in Jesus. But that wouldn’t be a Christian, would it? A Christian has a master; a Christian has a Lord whom he loves, whom he obeys, whom he simply cannot be quiet about. These believers could not be quiet, they could not stop speaking the word and preaching the Lord Jesus because they were on Mission and the driving force of their mission is love. They Love Jesus! I hear the word mission used in church plants all the time, including mine. ‘Mission’ is a buzzword among young evangelicals in this generation. But what does it mean for a church to be ‘on a mission’? Does it just simply mean that they have all these creative ways to market their church? Does it just mean that they are looking to grow their church as much as they can? Not according to the church planters in the city of Antioch.
To be on mission primarily means to be in love with Jesus. To be so moved by the love of Christ that His Word is life to you; to be so moved by His beauty that you live for His glory to be shown in and through you; to be so sure of His love and care that you long to be involved in His mission. We can’t be a church plant for the city unless we love Jesus. And you can’t be on a mission unless that mission is founded on His love for you and through you. These believers who were scattered away from Jerusalem loved Jesus and could not be stopped from proclaiming Him, it was their nature not a church planting program.
These believers that are coming into Antioch not only love Jesus, but the very love of Jesus flows out into loving those that need Jesus. A church plant can’t just simply say “we love Jesus” and not be moved by the multitudes of lost people all around them. These men that came into the city of Antioch loved the people in the city. They carried the Gospel across cultural walls. They crossed racial, social and economic barriers. This is a church that loves those around them. They don’t discriminate according to the differences that separate them but they understand the Gospel and as a result they are a diverse church. For the people in Antioch, this bunch of people they call Christians are people who love their master, Jesus and who love those around them in spite of the dividing walls. Their love is not lip service. They sincerely just desire to share Jesus with those around them because they are moved by love.
How do we Plant such a church?
It is obvious by this account in Acts 11 that there was something special going on in Antioch. As church planters, we're all probably asking the question "what strategy do those guys have?" but what is happening in Antioch is not just simply the work of faithful church planters but it is the hand of God. Luke, the author, doesn’t even tell us the name of the church planters, because the whole deal is not about them. A true church plant is not made up of self made Christians. Miami needs church plants made up of those who have experienced the approval, power, and blessing of God in the saving work of Christ. We don’t live in our own strength we live by the grace of God.
It is the hand of God that sustains us, it is the hand of God that is powerfully at work in our midst bringing salvation and transformation in the lives of those in our church plants. I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to run through walls. That gives me so much freedom, not freedom to be a nominal Christian sitting on the sidelines watching the world go by but freedom to love people with Jesus, freedom to serve God with all my heart, freedom to proclaim Him and make much of Him wherever I go knowing the results are not up to me; because I live by the grace of God. It is His work. I’m just His workmanship and His ambassador but God is the one at work.
Church planting is not about just having a checklist to check off, but a place where God is mightily at work, sovereignly building for His glory. So check this out, when Jerusalem hears about what’s going on in Antioch they sent Barnabas out there. I love that the verse says that as Barnabas comes to Antioch the first thing he sees is the grace of God (Acts 11:23). The text doesn’t tell us that Barnabas came and saw the faithfulness of the church planters. The text doesn’t tell us that Barnabas came and saw the openness of those who believed in the Lord. The text doesn’t say that Barnabas came and saw the creativeness, or the zeal, or the awesome leadership or the coolness of this new church plant but what the text does tell us is that Barnabas came and he saw the Grace of God.
Now you can say ‘well it was easy for Barnabas to see the grace of God because the church plant was growing’. But let me tell you something, not everyone can see the tokens of God's grace in the lives of the saints, especially the newer saints. We must remember this is a church planted in one of the largest, most pagan cities of its time. The people coming to Christ here are coming with tons of baggage. I’m sure this is not just a nice group of Christians in the Bible Belt gathered together in their little bubble, every one homeschooling and everyone reading their catechisms, and everyone looking good and religiously mature, with their churchy talk, wearing their Sunday best. No, no, no that’s not what is going on in Antioch. In Antioch the church is made up of thugs coming off the streets and drug dealers and prostitutes, and pagan idol worshippers, and all kinds of people with backgrounds and rap sheets that would not be allowed in some churches today and they are getting saved and gathering together and when Barney sees this He is filled with joy at the sight of God’s Grace.
So how do we plant such a church? I’m still trying to figure out the practical strategies of church planting in an Urban setting but one thing I’m now sure of; we cry-out to God for His amazing Grace to invade our city with the love of Jesus. We place our efforts in loving Jesus by loving our city and we place our trust not in our strategies but in the Grace of God.