Theology

Essential Elements of Church Planting (Acts 11:19-30)

This account of the early Church serves as a transition in the book of Acts from a focus on the apostle Peter to a focus on the apostle Paul (at the time of this account he still bears the name Saul; cf. 13:9).

While the text says the gospel went out into the regions of Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, it is Antioch that is of central focus.  Antioch was essentially a cosmopolitan city, full of various ethnic groups and gods (Zeus, Apollos, Poseidon, Adonis, and Tyche); evangelistic opportunities are abundant in such places.  All three of these regions contained a large Jewish population.[1]  This population consisted of a large community of Hellenistic[2] Jews – Jews who adopted the Greek culture and language, while maintaining their Jewish religious customs (recall the conflict between the Hebraic Jews and the Hellenistic Jews in 6:1).

What this text shows us is the essential process of church planting: evangelizing those who have not heard the gospel; encouraging the new congregation in the faith; teaching them sound doctrine and sound living; and enabling them to be a sustainable and ministering church to others.  Following is an examination of these church planting elements.

Element One: Reaching (vv. 19-21)

Reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ is the most important element of church planting.  Why?  Well, simply because where there is no gospel there can be no church.  Christ is the cornerstone of the Church’s foundation (Eph. 2:20-22).

What prompted this outreach?  Many of the Jewish Christians were scattered due to the persecution that resulted from Stephen’s martyrdom (cf. 8:1-4).  While purposeful going and sending, such as we see in Romans 10:14-15, is the normative approach to widespread evangelism, God may and has used persecution to motivate the process.

Who were the primary recipients of this evangelism?  Verse 19 says that they were “speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone”.  This unfortunate account reveals at least two things: 1) the apostles and the rest of the church were still slow in understanding God’s salvific plan for the Gentiles, and 2) the ethnic and cultural grudges that existed between Jew and Gentile had not been eradicated.  Both of these aspects come to a fore in Peter’s encounter with the house of Cornelius in Acts 10, as well as his report of his encounter in the first part of Chapter 11.  So, at this point in Acts, we’re starting to see a transition – a broadening – in the gospel ministry of the Church as the Spirit of God leads them to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles.

Some men from Cyprus and Cyrene, however, began reaching out to the Gentile population in Antioch with the gospel: “But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus” (11:20).  Here is an interesting thing to consider.  We don’t know the names of these individuals who evangelized in Antioch, a place that would become the hub of the apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, but God knows their names.  And this may be true of you.  Your name may not go down in the annals of church history, but that does not mean your faithful service is without its reward.  It may be that these disciples of Christ never saw the full fruit of their labor in Antioch.  We may not know the full impact of our labors for God’s kingdom, but we can be content in knowing that God knows – He knows our name – and that He will be glorified through it.

Note, too, their message.  It says that they were “preaching the Lord Jesus” (v. 20).  The lordship of Christ is present all throughout the book of Acts.  In fact, I would argue that the theme of Acts is the expansion of the gospel of the kingdom.  The kingdom and Christ’s lordship of course go hand-in-hand.  Next time you read the book of Acts, keep a close eye out for references to the kingdom and Christ’s lordship.  You may be surprised at just how much this permeates the book.  A practical note for us is that we, too, should be preaching the lordship of Jesus Christ.  This is foundational to the mission of the Church.  Jesus Himself said in Matthew 28:18, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”  This is the basis of the Great Commission, and it’s what we see throughout Acts.

Further, we see here the dependence upon God for the conversion of souls through evangelism.  This is seen in that “the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord” (v. 21).  Lest the hand of God be with us, we cannot expect fruit.  We cannot do it in our own strength or with our own machinations.  We are vessels in the hands of God.

Summary: Church planting involves evangelism that is centered on the lordship of Christ, and the result of converts is in the sovereign and gracious hand of God.

Element Two: Encouraging (vv. 22-24)

Certainly, news of Greek converts in a predominantly Jewish church would travel fast.  This is exactly what happened; the news of these Greek converts travelled back to the Jerusalem church.

What was the response of the Jerusalem church?  They sent a trusted and Spirit-filled man to verify and follow up on the work in Antioch.  Upon seeing the grace of God – genuine fruit was evident – Barnabas (whose name means “son of encouragement;” 4:36) stayed to encourage the brethren to remain faithful to the Lord, to continue in the truth of the gospel.  The text also says that more people were added to the Lord through Barnabas’s ministry.

Encouraging new believers is especially important, for they often face persecution from family, friends, and others in their community for their newfound faith (cf. 14:21-22).

Summary: Church planting involves encouraging or exhorting the new congregation to continue in the way of Christ as the only means of salvation, even in the midst of trials and persecution.

Element Three: Teaching (vv. 25-26)

Next to evangelism, I find teaching to be the most important element of church planting.  Teaching new converts the fundamentals of the faith and how to live in a manner worthy of the gospel is foundational for a healthy and sustainable church (cf. Acts 2:42; 20:20, 27; 1 Tim. 4; 2 Tim. 4:1-5).

Who did Barnabas seek out to help teach these new converts?  He sought the apostle Paul (still named Saul here), a man who had shown himself knowledgeable in the word of God.  Barnabas had earlier interaction with Paul after his conversion.  Barnabas testified of Paul’s conversion to the Jerusalem disciples, for the disciples were reluctant to accept him, as he once played a vital role in persecuting the Church (9:26-27).  Further, Barnabas was certainly familiar with Paul’s advanced knowledge of the Scriptures, as well as his ability to teach the Scriptures, as seen in Acts 9:19-31.  What is more, as an apostle, Paul held a highly authoritative position in the church.  Having an apostle reside over the care of a church would certainly affirm God’s work among them to the Jewish Christians.  It is likely that Barnabas sought Paul’s help for some, if not all, of these reasons.

This brings us to a very important point.  Who should churches send out for missions?  While there are many services that missionaries can perform (e.g. medical, building water wells), and therefore many kinds of missionaries, the primary focus of missions is the making of disciples through the proclamation of the gospel, and subsequently teaching and training the new disciples in the Scriptures.  This means that we ought to primarily send men who fit the qualifications of an elder in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  Although a missionary is not necessarily an elder, in the strict sense of the word, to the people they minister to, their role is closely related, and they do essentially serve as an elder to the new church prior to establishing or appointing elders from within the congregation itself (cf. 14:23).  I believe this is further validated from Jesus’ words in the Great Commission, specifically verse 20 of Matthew 28.  Jesus says that part of the Great Commission is “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  The word is from didaskō, which means “to teach, instruct,” and is performed by a didaskalos (“teacher”).  These terms are used for those in a unique position or office of teaching (e.g. Jesus, apostles, Pharisees, teachers in the church).[3]  In other words, this kind of teaching isn’t for anyone.  It is for those who have a gift for teaching God’s word and have been recognized in doing so by the church.

Allow me to make one last point here.  Our text says that Paul and Barnabas taught the church for a period of one year.  That is a long time!  However, it demonstrates the great importance of this element in the church planting process.  Unfortunately, this element is frequently left out by many missionaries today.  In the name of reaching the world for Christ, many missionaries and missions organizations view teaching as an unnecessary aspect that only slows down the expansion of the gospel.  What ends up happening is that many churches remain ignorant of biblical doctrine, of the proper methods of Bible interpretation, and of Christian ethics.  In fact, many of these churches die off quickly.  Brethren, the leaders of the early church saw teaching as an important and essential aspect of church planting; so should we!  For a more in-depth study on this point, I recommend the book, Reaching and Teaching: A Call to Great Commission Obedience, by M. David Sills.

Summary: Church planting involves teaching the new congregation in the whole counsel of the word of God, that they may be firmly rooted in the truth, grow up to maturity, and serve more effectively.

Element Four: Enabling (vv. 27-30)

To enable is to give power or ability to; to make ready or equip.  The enabling in this context is the self-sufficiency of the local church, being able to support its own ministers and contribute from its own resources to the aid of others and the furtherance of the Great commission.  The enabling process begins with teaching the new congregation in the things of God, for a church cannot do that which is expected of them if they remain in ignorance.

Now, when news was brought to the church in Antioch of the coming famine, they knew they had a responsibility to assist the brethren, especially since the Jerusalem church blessed them with spiritual things (the gospel and faithful teachers).  The Antioch church did not think it too much to assist them with material things since they had been blessed with spiritual things (cf. 1 Cor. 9:11).  In the church planting process, we ought to prepare the church to be self-sustainable, so as to be ready and equipped to do good in times of need.

The self-sufficiency of the Antioch church is further seen in their sending of missionaries in Acts 13:1-3.

Summary: Church planting involves establishing a self-sustainable congregation that will be able to assist its own members and like-minded churches in times of need, as well as send out missionaries for the proclamation of the gospel.

Conclusion

Planting a church is a complex endeavor.  The cultural atmosphere will also play a part in the church planting process.  Various challenges are sure to spring up.  However, I believe Acts 11:19-30 provides for us four essential elements that need be present in a church plant: evangelism (or reaching), encouraging, teaching, and enabling.  These elements are not only essential in the initial planting of a church but are sure to continue throughout the life and growth of the church.  After all, a biblical church continues to preach the gospel to its members and community, encourage its members, teach its members, and enable its members to do good.


[1] Bock, Darrell L. Baker Exegetical Commentary On the New Testament: Acts (MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 411-414.

[2] Hellenism refers to the ancient Greek culture, ideals, and language.  Hellenization refers to the spread of Hellenism, in large part due to the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC).

[3] Mounce, William D. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (MI: Zondervan, 2006), 708-710.

About Drew Mery

Drew is a husband, father, Reformed Christian, blogger, and business intelligence developer, living just outside of Tampa, FL. He has a BS in Religion from Liberty University and is currently working on a MA in Humanities from American Public University (based on the Great Books program). He is a board member of Pietas Classical Christian School in Brevard County and a Charlotte Mason education advocate. Upon completing his degree, he desires to teach, write, and develop curriculum.

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