There is nothing simple about making disciples, and yet, making disciples should be done simply. Forming local churches from new disciples does not need to be an overly complicated affair.
In unreached areas, or among unreached people groups, to make disciples is to plant local churches. This is what Jesus communicated to us in the Great Commission:
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, [even] to the end of the age. Amen. (Matthew 28:19-20 NKJV)
The Lord Jesus commissioned His people to go and make disciples of all nations. They are to baptize these new believers in the Name of the Triune God and teach them to obey Him.
To be an obedient disciple of Jesus means that a believer becomes a significant part a local body of Christians, a local church. There they learn to put into practice the teachings of Jesus and His apostles. It is God’s design that His disciples follow Him in the context of local churches. As the author of Hebrews tells us,
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (10:23-25 ESV)
In settings where there are no Bible-believing local churches nearby, disciples of Christ must begin to meet. They must multiply themselves, make more disciples, and join together in commitment to follow their Lord.
Methods of Ministry Matter
If church planters are not careful, their ministry methods (how they “do” ministry) may create unnecessary obstacles to the congregation’s maturity. The how’s and why’s of ministry philosophy are not academic; they are intensely practical.
Here are some helpful principles to keep in mind in order to encourage healthy maturity among God’s people in a new church plant:
Remember that “Day 1 Impacts Day 100.”1
Whether we begin with one new convert or many, the best thing that a church planter could ever do to encourage growth in grace and obedience in a new church plant is to maintain a simple and reproducible ministry from the beginning.
It is true–a small group of new believers will not have mature spiritual leaders among them. Church planters must assume this role of spiritual shepherd until another takes his place. Only then should he move on, in most cases.
There are, however, many things that these disciple-makers can do from the beginning that will help posture the new church for more rapid maturity.
Use Ministry Decisions as Opportunities for Discipleship
Involve God’s people in as much decision making as possible. Instead of the church planter or missionary setting the agenda, creating programs, and determining local church life and ministry details themselves, they could allow the believers to help them decide these things. By allowing them to make these decisions (and even make mistakes), these disciples are given ownership, responsibility, and provided with continual opportunity for growth and understanding.
Some examples of such decisions: the name of the church; time and place for worship; how often to meet during the week; when to have prayer meeting; how best to perform weddings and funerals in that cultural setting; how often to have the Lord’s table and who can lead it–all these decisions could involve discussion and an open Bible.
Other examples: How about evangelism? What ideas could they come up with If given time to pray and an opportunity for discussion? How about the use of the offering money–how it is given, or even the location where it is given and kept? All of these decisions are opportunities for discipleship. Yet some church planters make nearly ALL of these decisions alone, then expect the believers to fall into line with the full program that they have already put into place.
Teach the church God’s priority for men to lead. From the beginning, have men lead singing, pray in services, take up and count the offering, and have full part in discussions about church matters. Some men faithfully discipled this way will rise to leadership.
Maintain New Testament Simplicity
The New Testament describes a very simple local church program, doesn’t it? Even as decades pass on the timeline of New Testament revelation, we see no hint of more than a simple approach to local church ministry.2 What does this imply for the cross-cultural church planter?
We observe that New Testament churches met in homes. Individual congregations did not have their own private corporate land or buildings. This is never encouraged. Buildings were never the goal or the measure by which a church was considered “planted” or mature. Conclusion: If the new congregation wants to consider a building, let them do so when they are ready and able, when they see the need and are willing to give.
The level of church organization, the level of pastoral academic expectations, the education level required to be ordained—these things must be kept at levels that a consecrated and Spirit-gifted man can attain to in cross-cultural settings.
Maintaining simplicity may even affect how the missionary preaches and teaches, for he is providing an example to follow. Sometimes, a church planter’s own preferences or desires for “excellence” can intimidate otherwise qualified men.
Remember this: The more complicated the ministry is, the more money coming from outside to sustain it, the harder it will be for a man to replace the church planter.
If you have appreciated this article and would like to consider these matters more deeply, consider reading Pioneer Missions: Meet the Challenges, Share the Blessings.
1 Johnson, Jean. We Are Not the Hero (Kindle Locations 1002-1004). Deep River Books. Kindle Edition.
2 Acts 2:42
Forrest has served as a missionary in Buddhist Cambodia in Southeast Asia since 2000. He presently serves as the Asia/Australia/Oceania regional director for Gospel Fellowship Association missions. He enjoys writing and teaching on missions and the Buddhist worldview. He and his wife, Jennifer, have 4 children.