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There was a time when the Western world seemed to be saturated with churches. The diligence and prayers of former generations had led to skylines filled with steeples. Even small villages were dotted with chapels. Then, some people began to think that bigger was always better. We were impressed by massive crusades and megachurches. It was assumed that we would be best served by the most programmed church with the most articulate preacher in our region. Many people left for seemingly greener pastures, while others fell away entirely. Many faithful churches were shuttered and sold off. Some did not realize that we were retreating. In the midst of it all, we seemed to lose God’s blueprint for His mission.

Regardless of how big or small a church is, what matters is that it is faithful and fruitful. We should rejoice whenever and wherever Christ is preached (Phil. 1:18). The broader trends of the past century, however, should compel us to revisit God’s blueprint for His mission. Iain H. Murray, in his book Evangelicalism Divided, gave a careful analysis of the impact of twentieth-century evangelical missions. He showed that those who were reached by broader missions efforts needed not just to be called to repentance and faith in Christ but also to be personally discipled in the context of faithful local churches. When this did not happen, many left Christianity behind, more confused and jaded than before.

More is required than broad scattering of seeds. Watering, fertilizing, and careful pruning are also vital components of missions. Believers need to worship alongside neighbors who we know love the Lord. Office bearers need to give personalized edification, encouragement, loving rebuke, and tender restoration. There is a need to be salt and light among our neighbors. This means that existing churches need to focus their efforts on planting new local congregations that worship reverently, preach the gospel faithfully, administer the sacraments properly, and discipline their members lovingly. If the church is to regain lost ground, we need to return to God’s blueprint.

When we step back and look at the broad themes of the Bible, we see that God calls His people out again and again. He called Adam and Eve out of hiding. He called Noah to build an ark and escape an evil world. He called Abraham out of the east, away from the worship of other gods (Josh. 24:2). He called Israel out of Egypt (Hos. 11:1). Christ called His disciples to leave everything behind (Mark 10:21). God’s people are called out of “Babylon” (Rev. 18:4). A foundational part of being the church means being called out. God’s people have been summoned to the throne of grace. It means abandoning hope in this world itself and casting ourselves on Christ alone. It also means being called into a visible expression of Christ’s body: a local, faithful church.

If the church is to regain lost ground, we need to return to God’s blueprint.

Being “called out” means leaving behind sinful attachments to this world and instead being joined to the body of Christ (Eph. 2:19–22). Being the church means that we must leave behind any worldly motives or practices that are rooted in trendiness, pragmatism, or showmanship. It means putting the worship of God above all else. This does not mean, however, abandoning the lost who live around us. To seek them out and call them in brings glory to God (Luke 15:7, 10, 32). The lost need to come under a local ministry where their particular sins and struggles will be addressed. They need neighbors who love them and who will show them the love of Christ. This will mean taking up our cross and making God’s ordinary means for missions central. Being “called out,” for some believers, may also mean being called out of a larger church and into a church plant or smaller local church. It may mean a calling to an area where churches are few. It may mean becoming part of a church that is small or struggling.

Woven through the biblical theme of being called out is another theme: being “gathered in.” The Israelites were called out of their homes and gathered to worship the Lord at His house (Ex. 23:14; Ps. 95). Their calendar was designed to revolve around the routines of feasts and sacrifices. Sadly, they lost this privilege during the exile. Yet even when they were scattered across the world by evil empires, they began to meet in local synagogues to read God’s Word and pray. Usually these gatherings were Sabbath meetings held within walking distance of most of the believers in a region. It was the custom of our Lord Jesus Christ to worship in synagogues regularly (Luke 4:16). As the ancient church progressed, it became clear that God had prepared those local assemblies as part of the blueprint for His church. When we put the themes of “called out” and “gathered in” together, we see the outlines of His master plan.

The outcome of the Apostles’ mission was the planting of churches. They called people to faith and gathered them in. When the Apostles came to a city, they often brought the gospel into the Jewish synagogues. Though some listened, the Apostles were frequently driven out. They also evangelized in the marketplaces and other meeting places. Converted Jews and gentiles then gathered in homes, outdoors, or in halls. Hints in the Bible, as well as historical sources, tell us that these believers followed similar patterns to those of the Jewish synagogues. They came together to worship the Lord: to sing, read Scripture, pray, preach, break bread, and give offerings. They were called to assemble to stir one another up to love and good works (Heb. 10:24–25). They were also warned of the danger of forsaking these assemblies. When false teachers and apostates left the Christian gatherings behind, it was a sad testimony of their leaving the faith (1 John 2:19). These local church gatherings on the Lord’s Day became the foundation of orthodox Christianity (Acts 20:7).

If we are honest about the New Testament, we will say that much of it is actually a church-planting history and manual. The titles of many of the New Testament letters are the names of ancient cities, and the letters are addressed to the fledgling churches in those places. Apostles spent months, and sometimes even years, helping these congregations get on their feet (see Acts 20:31). The personal greetings and individual rebukes found in their letters tell us that these were intimate gatherings. The New Testament Epistles also show that new churches face challenges. Corinth struggled with immorality, Galatia with heresy, Colossae with strange philosophies, and Thessalonica with troubling ideas about the end times. The next generation of pastors, including Timothy and Titus, was equipped to edify and lead in these new churches. Elders were to be appointed in every town (Titus 1:5). In church plants, guidance and advice will be needed from a body of elders. Outside encouragement and advice may also be needed. If we are to do well at church planting, denominations, presbyteries, synods, or networks will be needed for spiritual, prayerful, and financial support.

When Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70, God’s plan continued to be revealed. Christians fled Judea. The temple could no longer be the focal point of assembly. The church was decentralized, and this proved to be a blessing. The many small local churches were places of hospitality and refuge for Christians, who were increasingly being persecuted. Local churches became known for their love and good works and for their care for slaves, widows, orphans, and the weak. In time, those churches would grow and would begin to send out missionaries to continue the cycle of life. Churches were planted across Europe and well into Asia and Africa. Though these churches may have seemed small, scattered, and insignificant, they would eventually change the world. The evil and perversion of the Roman Empire would lead to its own downfall. The truth and grace of God’s Word would sustain and strengthen His churches.

Christianity needs to recover this blueprint. Many of our neighborhoods, and entire sections of some cities, are now unfamiliar with the preaching of God’s Word. Many of us are surrounded by immigrants and refugees from around the world. They need to be called into faithful local churches that are willing to disciple them. It is also in the context of new church plants that many believers testify that they learned to be more than “consumers.” Church plants and small churches often bring meaningful opportunities for the acts of service, fellowship, and hospitality that the New Testament Epistles call us to. It is in this context that many have had to bear burdens, forge new relationships, and stir up love. They have learned to interact closely with people from different backgrounds. In smaller assemblies, it may become more evident that “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22). We can relearn to value the real, living network that is forged through worshiping together and fellowshipping together with neighbors.

This does not mean that church plants will be painless places. There may be a perception that the preaching or the programs are not quite as polished as in other places. Less-than-ideal venues and curious visitors may make for challenging days. Financial struggles can add stress. Discontentedness can easily spread where there is less predictability. A brother once said to me: “An established large church can feel more like a passenger ship: some waves may hardly be felt, and the movement of a passenger has little effect; it may be more comfortable for longer seasons. But a church plant can feel like a small boat: pulled around by currents, tossed by small waves, easily rocked by individuals, and difficult to get up and going.” Though this may be true, it is precisely such challenges that have been used to sanctify God’s people and cause them to cast their cares on Him. The challenges of church planting testify loud and clear that it is only God who gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:7).

God’s plan for missions is not merely to distribute free passes out of hell and then leave individuals to their own devices. His plan does indeed rest on the beautiful hope of redemption from the wrath of God, and this is good news. His ultimate aim, however, is to seek and shape true worshipers by His Word and Spirit (John 4:23). The means that He gave for this is local churches and church plants, where neighbors gather for communion with Him and one another. Christ called His disciples to make disciples and to teach them “to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). Churches are to use the ordinary means of grace in the ingathering and upbuilding of saints. They are to be continually looking to spread the gospel to more neighborhoods, more cities, and more rural areas. They are to focus on simple, Word-centered worship. We are to sing God’s Word, pray according to God’s Word, and preach from God’s Word. Such gatherings will seem small and foolish to some and may at times be a little less polished and a little rougher around the edges than in established churches. Where the Word is opened, however, the Spirit will be working. Let us pray for nations that are soon saturated with faithful, ordinary-means-of-grace church plants.

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