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Our Lord told His disciples, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). While the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, it is certain that the powers of hell will come against it. The Apostle Paul told the church in Ephesus, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph. 6:11).

Thus, the church will face many and varied challenges in this world. The Lord Jesus included the planting of churches in His Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20). According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, baptism is the sacrament of admission into the visible church (28.1). When the gospel is preached and people are converted, they are then to be baptized and thereby added to the membership of a local church (Acts 2:41). The planting of new churches is what the Apostle Paul has in mind when he charges Titus with the task of appointing elders in every city on the island of Crete (Titus 1:5). The Apostle Paul viewed the planting of churches as an essential part of the Great Commission. Therefore, everywhere he preached the gospel, he appointed elders and organized new churches (Acts 14:21–23).

The planting of churches is establishing the kingdom of Christ amid the kingdom of darkness and thus is always a matter of spiritual warfare. What kinds of opposition or challenges do we face when we plant churches and penetrate the darkness of death and damnation with the gospel of life and redeeming love? The challenges and opposition come in a variety of forms. Some challenges are circumstantial and arise from the very endeavor of seeking to start something new, others arise from various sources of opposition that are encountered along the way, and still others are of a more personal nature.

Among the circumstantial challenges is, first, the need to find godly, gifted men who believe themselves to be called to preach the gospel and to do the pioneer work of church planting. The Apostle Paul sought out men whom he could send out to establish new churches. He had a team of co-laborers upon whom he could depend. In Philippians he mentions Timothy, a man of proven worth (2:22), and Epaphroditus, “my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need” (v. 25). Paul sent Titus to Crete to finish the work of organizing the churches there by appointing elders in every city (Titus 1:5). It is a challenge to find such men. These men must be convinced that God has called them to the task of church planting, and the church at large must be convinced that they possess that calling. They must be men who are willing to take the risks involved with starting something from scratch. As pastors and elders of Christ’s church, they need to possess a mixture of gifts and be able to perform a multiplicity of tasks well.

Do not be mistaken: church planting is a spiritual endeavor. It involves spiritual warfare. It must be undergirded by prayer and spiritual discernment.

Second is the challenge of beginning a ministry with meager resources. Throughout the history of the church, many church planters have been bivocational or have sought to begin their work with barely enough money to receive a bare-bones salary. Even the Apostle Paul worked at times as a tentmaker to finance his church-planting labors (2 Thess. 3:8). Most church planters have limited financial resources. If a core group of families is seeking to start a new church, the tithes and offerings are usually not sufficient to finance a great variety of “programs.” There may not be much in the way of available facilities in which to meet. Many church plants have begun in places such as storefronts or local schools. These buildings are often not attractive, available only on a limited basis, and subject to a somewhat restricted use. The Apostle Paul often met first in the local synagogue, but after encountering opposition he had to relocate to a home, a school, or elsewhere (Acts 19:8–9). The church planter working in an unchurched area must have somewhat of a pioneering spirit as he begins a new work. He must be convinced that the Lord has called him to this work and must trust Him to provide the resources that are needed. He must be convinced that the fundamental ingredients of Word, prayer, and sacraments are sufficient to plant a new church that will honor Christ, gather the elect, and build up the body of Christ.

Third, besides the challenge of meager financial resources, there is the challenge of not having an abundance of human resources. In a small church-planting ministry that is just beginning, there are not enough people to carry on the multifaceted ministries of the established churches down the street. Often the church planter is the only staff person. There is no youth group, no nursery workers, and no music leader. This can be a challenge when people in the community are used to having the programs of established churches and are unwilling to do without them or to make the sacrifices that must be made to get a church plant off the ground.

In addition to circumstantial challenges, there are challenges of spiritual opposition. When Jesus said that He would build His church, He stated that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). While the gates of hell will not prevail, there will be spiritual warfare. When a person is converted, he is “delivered . . . from the domain of darkness and transferred . . . to the kingdom” of Christ (Col. 1:13). The Apostle Peter tells us that “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). This spiritual warfare is clearly more intense when believers seek to expand the boundaries of the kingdom of Christ by planting new churches. The new church, and especially the church planter, will encounter the challenges of spiritual warfare in many ways. This was the Apostle Paul’s experience when he preached the gospel in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:44–45). The devil has many strategies or schemes to employ to destroy the work of planting a new church. The Apostle instructs the Ephesian church, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph. 6:11).

Many a church plant has been sabotaged by a spirit of jealousy, envy, bitterness, or anger. If members in the core group are self-promoters and glory seekers, the peace and unity of the fledgling church will be undermined and perhaps even destroyed. The Apostle Paul instructed Titus to confront such men to prevent them from damaging the work (Titus 1:10–11). Paul faced these challenges in Corinth and had to fight those who sought to undermine his ministry in their midst (2 Cor. 10:9–12). Some church plants grow at first but then become unhealthily inward-focused. They lose sight of their mission. They cease to lift up Christ to the community, that He might draw men to Himself.

There may be differing opinions among the members of the church plant about what the new church should look like. The church planter will have to lead the way so that the core group will develop a unity of vision and philosophy of ministry based solidly on the teachings of Scripture. In the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, this means that the believers who constitute the membership of the new church must understand the biblical nature of the foundational principles and convictions of the new church. Sometimes a new church is organized too quickly, before there has been adequate time for the people to grow in their understanding of the core convictions of the new church. Sometimes there is the temptation to set Reformed distinctives aside or to water them down to make the new church appear more acceptable to a broader range of perspectives. On the other hand, there may be the temptation to make the church into a theological fortress of some sort, one that is very difficult to penetrate. The church plant must not compromise theological and foundational convictions, but it must also create an atmosphere in which people are able to ask questions, consider the teaching, and make up their minds, an atmosphere that is conducive to spiritual inquiry and growth.

Sometimes the church plant may be impatient and unwilling to wait for the Lord to raise up godly men to serve as elders and deacons. The desire to be organized quickly could lead to the selection of some who are not biblically qualified to serve as officers.

There are many and varied challenges to the work of church planting. Do not be mistaken: church planting is a spiritual endeavor. It involves spiritual warfare. It must be undergirded by prayer and spiritual discernment.

Often the church planter will experience challenges of a personal nature. He may labor long hours and see meager results. He is dependent on the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of men, but he may be tempted to employ fleshly measures to obtain the results that he wants to see. Sometimes the work will seem to drag along at an excruciatingly slow pace, and he may begin to doubt his calling and be overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy. He may feel isolated, without anyone he can call on for help. When a man begins a ministry with a small group of believers with the goal of organizing a church, the progress, or lack thereof, is evident to all. It is a very different experience from that encountered when pastoring an established church, where many may come and go while the church marches on.

In addition to the personal challenges faced by the church planter himself, there is also the stress on his marriage and family. His wife and children will have to make sacrifices as they join in this pioneering work. His wife must be on board from the start, or they may be in for some difficult sailing along the way. It is often the strategy of the devil to strike the shepherd so that the sheep may be scattered (Mark 14:27).

However many challenges there may be, the work of church planting will always be necessary and will always be worth the effort. According to a 2023 National Public Radio report, in 2019, the year before the COVID pandemic, more Protestant churches closed than opened in the United States. In addition to the churches that close every year, scores of others have so drifted away from the gospel that they have ceased to be true churches at all. Therefore, we need to be planting churches all the time. Jesus will continue to build His church, and there is no more noble endeavor than planting a new church that will promote the gospel and expand the boundaries of His kingdom. The church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the temple of the living God, the household of the faith, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. The noble work of planting churches is at the heart of Christ’s mission on the earth, whether at home or abroad. Find a faithful gospel minister who is seeking to plant a church that will advance the cause of Christ in this dark world. Give of your resources to finance the planting of new churches that are faithful to the Scriptures, manifest the compassion of Christ, and proclaim His saving gospel. Commit yourself to praying for and supporting godly, gifted men who are seeking to plant faithful churches.

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From the May 2024 Issue
May 2024 Issue