Detoxing from Manufacturing Church Growth Zach Nielsen By Zach Nielsen September 15, 2017
Acts 29 - A diverse, global family of church-planting churches

What do you need to do to plant a church? That’s what we want to know. We want a plan that will enable us to produce a new church just as surely as a new car rolls off the manufacturing line.

People certainly play an active role in church planting. But they are powerless without the Spirit.

And so we turn to the book of Acts for answers. But here the emphasis falls elsewhere. Indeed “The Acts of the Apostles” should really be called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit”. People certainly play an active role in church planting. But they are powerless without the Spirit. Without Jesus working through his Spirit, nothing will ever be accomplished of lasting significance.

This emphasis on the Spirit can make church planters a bit nervous. That’s because Jesus said: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Jn. 3:8). This means we can no more save people and build the church than we can manufacture the blowing of the wind on a hot summer day.

Throughout the book of Acts it is faithful people living in the power of the Spirit through whom God chooses to work. We don’t read about strategy meetings or target demographics. We don’t see angst about funding or buildings. Strategy and fundraising are not bad in themselves, but they aren’t the church planting emphasis we find in Acts. The “thesis” of Acts is outlined at the beginning in the final words of Jesus to his disciples: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) It’s neither the Spirit alone nor human activity alone – it’s both. But the order is significant: the Spirit of God works through the people of God to build the church of God.

What, then, does Spirit-led church planting look like? Let me identify three themes from the book of Acts. They are not tactics to manufacture “success”, but they are the means God seems to be pleased to use.

1. Passionate Prayer

  • “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” (Acts 1:14)
  • “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)
  • “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” (Acts 4:31)
  • “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:4)

Show me a person of prayer and I’ll show you a person who recognizes his dependence on God. People who pray are those who feel down in their bones that they’re incapable of manufacturing discipleship apart from the Spirit’s work. People who pray are those who feel keenly the need to continue the battle against sin. People who pray are those who feel horribly inadequate for the task they’ve been given. Do these statements resonate with you?

Faith-filled prayer must be the foundation upon which you build any church planting movement

Prayer reminds us that we desperately need God with us. Thankfully, God promises to draw near the humble (1 Peter 5:5). And nothing looks like humility as much as a man or woman alone in the small hours of the morning, crying out to their heavenly Father. Nothing smells like humility as much as a small group with no agenda other than asking the Father to move mightily in its town. Nothing sounds like humility as much as a broken sinner crying out to God for help. One of the humblest things you can do is to pray. It’s an outward manifestation of an inward conviction – the conviction that we can’t manufacture new churches, but God can. And so we ask and ask and ask.

I have four kids and they like to ask and ask and then ask some more. When they get something in their minds, they are unrelenting in their requests. “Can we go get ice cream?” “Can we have some screen time” “Can we have more dessert?” At times I find this quite annoying – not the requests themselves, but the same words repeated in my ears over and over again. But God is not a father like I am. God never becomes annoyed. Instead he invites us to wear him out with our pleading (Lk. 18:1-7)!

Since God promises to answer when we call and since the task of church planting is beyond our abilities, should we not be like the first disciples, passionately, consistently and fearlessly crying out to God in prayer? If we cannot manufacture results in church planting, but we know the One who can, should we not plead with him daily? Faith-filled prayer must be the foundation upon which you build any church planting movement.

2. Passionate Prayer for the Spirit’s Power

  • “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit …” (Acts 4:8)
  • “But he, full of the Holy Spirit …” (Acts 7:55)
  • “While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.” (Acts 10:44)
  • “But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said …” (Acts 13:9)

We can’t manufacture the Spirit’s work in our lives, but we can ask God to give us his Spirit. And Jesus has some comforting words for those who make this request:

What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Lk. 11:11-13)

Our Father is not stingy or reluctant. He loves to give gifts. And the primary gift that glorifies him and brings us joy is the gift of himself – God is the gift! The number one thing that you need in church planting is the filling of the Holy Spirit.

But how can we know if we’re filled with the Spirit? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:22-24) These character qualities are what the filling of the Spirit looks like.

How are you doing with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control? All of us have room to grow for sure, but are you finding these qualities in increasing measure in your life? Can you see more evidence of the Spirit’s fruit in your life than five years ago?

If not, then maybe you’ve been operating in the flesh. If that’s the case, take heart for today can be the day of repentance! Today can be the day when you cease your foolish attempts to manufacture growth and turn anew to the Living Water that forgives, satisfies and brings rest. Remember, Jesus said the Father loves to give the Spirit to those who ask. The filling of the Spirit is the only hope for long-term church planting.

3. Passionate Prayer for Bold Evangelism

  • “‘And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness’ … And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” (Acts 4:29, 31)
  • “But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.” (Acts 9:27)
  • “So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.” (Acts 14:3)
  • “And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)

When you pray and when you are filled with the Spirit the inevitable next step is a community characterized by bold evangelism. But again, evangelism is not a means of manufacturing conversions for only God can raise the spiritually dead. We speak to the graveyard and experience the jaw-dropping joy of seeing some shake off their prison of dirt through the working of the Holy Spirit. But make no mistake – speaking to a graveyard is certainly bold. Church planters are people who not only have the audacity to do this, but also to ask people to join them.

Again, boldness is not something you can manufacture. It is produced in you after having spent time with Jesus in his word and prayer, and after having experienced the filling of the Spirit. So don’t worry about your lack of boldness. Keep spending time with Jesus and he’ll produce it in you.

God hasn’t given us the ability to manufacture church growth so that he and he alone gets the glory.

Boldness is similar to parenting. I speak boldly about my children, whether to defend, correct or praise them. Why? Because I love them so much! We’re bold about whatever we love deeply. The same will be true in your heart and in the hearts of your people. Stir up a deep love for Jesus through being with Jesus and the boldness will come.

The first disciples were not unfailingly bold (as Peter’s experience in Galatians 2:11-13 reveals). This reminds us to be patient with ourselves and our people. But I have found that the more I pray for people and the more I ask God for opportunities, the more opportunities have come, along with the courage to seize them.

One of the main reasons church planters sadly resist emphasizing these simple, normal means of church planting is that they are out of our control. And church planters, more than most, love to be in control. Our insecure egos are desperate to manufacture success. It’s the dark side of our trailblazing personalities. But if you feel it’s your efforts or strategies that have made you successful then you‘ll eventually find you’ve been building on sand rather than on the Rock. Of course, there’s a place for rigorous thinking about strategy and structures. But most new church planters fall into the trap of getting more excited about flow charts or cultural exegesis than prayer meetings, Spirit-filled character and simple evangelism. God hasn’t given us the ability to manufacture church growth so that he and he alone gets the glory.

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Zach Nielsen Zach Nielsen

Zach is a teaching pastor and elder who oversees leadership development and preaching at The Vine Church, Madison, WI. Zach and his amazing wife Kim have four children: Taylor, Autumn, Emery, and Mya. Zach is a graduate of the University of Northern Iowa and Covenant Theological Seminary.

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