During the apostolic era, pioneering efforts pertained to missionaries visiting regions that had never heard of Jesus Christ previously. Though believers were rigorously opposed by the devil, many souls were saved and new local churches sprang up throughout the Roman Empire. Those responding to the gospel were to be discipled and cared for in local church fellowships (Matt. 28:19-20; Heb. 10:25). This generalizes the scriptural pattern for pioneering ministry.
The Modern Challenge
The present dynamic in North America is quite different than in New Testament (NT) days. The modernized Church is not persecuted and is mostly ignored. Our post-modern society already has some notion of Jesus Christ, but on the whole it has rejected Him through humanism, invented religion, or disregard. Many local churches have become places for social gatherings, entertainment, professionalism, and religious form. Paul and Barnabas planted churches with a clean slate; however, the pattern and order they established is contrary to what is accepted in “churchianity” today. So, barring another Great Awakening to revive the pampered Church from her slumber, how do we carry on the great commission today?
Evangelism is a life-style; all Christians are called to be witnesses of Christ (Acts 1:8). The Church is to actively exalt God, edify believers, and evangelize the lost. If any of these upward, inward, and outward ministries is neglected a local church will wane in time. When our assemblies decrease, we often think that stepping up evangelistic efforts will rectify the problem; but often such declines occur because of poor body-life, sin, or displacing Christ and His word. Acts chapters 2-6 show us that reproduction is a normal part of healthy church life. Proper discipleship protects new converts from falling prey to flesh-appeal and false teachers (Eph. 4:14). Upholding Christ’s Lordship resolves most church problems and keeps everyone’s focus where it should be (1 Cor. 1:1-10).
The Church has employed various outreach methods through the centuries. Scripture poses two evangelistic metaphors: the fisherman (representing one-on-one witnessing) and the farmer (who casts gospel seed over many soils or heart-conditions). When a fisherman casts a line into the water, the result is quickly known —a fish is caught or not. However, the farmer understands that there will not be a harvest in the future unless seeds are sown now. Beloved, it is wrong to neglect seed-sowing activities just because we do not see immediate results. The Church in North America has largely adopted a business mentality, and has become focused largely on enticements and numerical results rather than following the scriptural example. So our outreach ministries should include things like: backyard and after-school kids’ clubs, ESL classes, reaching out to refugees, open-air preaching, door-to-door work, and literature tables/booths at college campuses, flea markets, and county/state fairs.
Our Experience in Establishing New Testament Assemblies
My wife and I were introduced to the NT Church pattern almost 35 years ago in a hive-off work to establish a new local church. Since that time we have labored to establish new assemblies as the Lord has blessed with new converts. We have many lessons-learned, thrilling stories, and also disappointments. It is important to realize that not all outreach work is for the purpose of seeing a new assembly begin. Prison ministry, rescue missions, and attending to the poor are certainly important, but do not have this goal (nor should they). The poor and those struggling with substance abuse often respond best to the gospel (thank the Lord); however, these people require much love, time, and resources and often have a transient lifestyle. So, if the goal is to establish a new local assembly, it would be good to remember that there are just so many of these folks that can be helped, while accomplishing that objective. Later, an established assembly will be better able to reach those in need.
For us the most effective method for us of seeing people saved, discipled, and added to a new work has been through home or workplace Bible studies and children’s ministries. After-school clubs have been effective in leading several children to Christ, and in providing additional contacts for home studies. Evangelistic studies often consist of just one or two people; then after conversion, believers are placed into larger studies to build relationships. We often do not invite new believers or folks attending home studies to the local assembly for several months for two reasons: first, to build their trust in us personally (as legitimate teachers of Scripture); and second, to allow sufficient time for them to grasp and learn the truth. This is God’s work and requires patience! By introducing NT principles for gathering gradually and casually, believers begin to desire to see what a biblical church meeting looks like. Through the years, new converts have generally embraced NT principles joyfully, while those coming out of denominationalism tend to struggle, as the new pattern they are learning conflicts with what they are familiar with.
Establishing a New Testament Assembly
While having established one assembly without any outside help, I would suggest to have a starting core group of at least three like-minded families. Having other assemblies nearby is a tremendous help. Do not let the excitement of starting a new work cut short the necessary up-front dialogue of doctrine and church practices; the devil can use disagreements later to cause division and stop the effort. Established local churches have an oversight to guard the believers, so more diversity in thinking is permissible, but those in a new work must be cohesive. A detailed doctrinal statement and vision/mission statement should be developed. Then every nook and cranny of church practices should be discussed. The five “heavy-hitters” are: divorce/remarriage, Calvinism, youth ministries (including Sunday school), eschatology, and gender roles (including symbolic truth).
Other matters to be considered include: What are the meetings of the church? What type of teaching/format will be used? What type of emblems will be at the Lord’s Supper? What type of government will be formed and how should leaders be recognized? There should be agreement on charismatic issues, “easy-believism” vs. “lordship salvation”, creationism views, dispensational thinking, permissible music/instruments, Bible translations, facility goals (e.g., home, rental, or ownership of a building), and a blameless method of collecting and managing funds. Believers gather to Christ, so beware of initial clicks that can stress unity later (schooling preferences, political agendas, family clans, out-of-balance doctrine, etc.). Understand local laws and then decide whether to incorporate, pursue 501c3 status, and apply for sales tax exemption.
A church environment stressing the priesthood of all believers is important: men, women, and children should be prepared worshipers for the Lord’s Supper. Believers should be challenged to use their spiritual gifts and fulfill their callings. All should pursue holy living and be involved in church body-life.
Until the Lord returns for His Church, may we continue to pray for a reviving work of God among His people in North America, and in the interim let us be faithful to the Great Commission. We live in a dark world which desperately needs Christ and needs to see a real work of God that represents the wonder of who He really is!