I can’t recall a successful church plant that didn’t start off with a clear vision, mission and strategy. Strangely, I also have never seen a successful church plant that went according to the original plan! Should you plan? YES! Should you pay attention to Divine Holy Spirit detours along the way? Absolutely!
Francis A. Schaeffer’s commentary motivates me to pay attention to the Spirit:
“The central problem of our age is the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, individually or corporately, tending to do the Lord’s work in the power of the flesh rather than of the Spirit. The central problem is always in the midst of the people of God, not in the circumstances surrounding them.”
My best read of the New Testament is that the Holy Spirit is an expert church planter.
The sad news is that Schaeffer is correct about our human tendency to rely on the flesh, even in church planting. The good news is that our past is not the end of the story. The good news is also that the Holy Spirit is just as ready to guide you as he was Paul. My best read of the New Testament is that the Holy Spirit is an expert church planter. However, he has not reduced church planting into a reproducible model. Instead, he has reduced it to a dependent relationship. Since He plants every church in a very unique manner, my best advice to you church planters is that you need to develop an ever increasing, intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit. He is quite impressive. In fact, He is way more impressive than any church planter I have ever known.
In order to help you grow more aware of how the Spirit is currently trying to guide you, I want show you two things. First, I want to lay out for you the Spirit’s impressive track record in planting churches in Europe, Asia and Africa. Second, I will share with you the single best piece of advice I ever received on how to listen to the voice of the Spirit.
The Spirit’s Impressive Church Planting Track Record
The Spirit, in submission to the dictates of Jesus, began his work in Jerusalem. To say the least, the Spirit’s planting of the church in Jerusalem was quite impressive. No wonder Jesus told his disciples to WAIT for the Spirit before beginning to make disciples in the city. As they prayed in obedient submission to King Jesus, the Spirit shows up empowering courageous witness, anointing gospel preaching, and then piercing the hearts of 3000 unbelievers. WOW! I am glad these disciples listened to Jesus and waited on the Spirit. I bet they were too. What a way to launch a church plant! Yet, He never planted another church quite the same way.
So after this impressive start, what will the Spirit do next? We must remember, Jesus had laid out the plan in Acts 1:8 for this Good News to be preached in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, and then to the end of the earth. Thus, the disciples knew “where” but not “how” the gospel would advance. I highly doubt the disciples would have predicted that persecution was the church planting strategy the Spirit would use. Yet, the Spirit chooses to use persecution and a deacon named Philip to get this church planting movement moving outward. Fortunately, Philip was one of the Acts 6 leaders who were recognized by the people as being “filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” It seems the Spirit helped Philip stay on task rather than panic once persecution scattered him to Samaria. The Spirit empowered his preaching of Jesus in Samaria until their was “much joy in that city.” (Acts 8:8)
Next, to plant churches in Africa, the Spirit sovereignly planned a divine encounter between an evangelist and a seeker. Here is how He did it. One day the angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go toward the South…” Philip did his part, “he arose and went.” I bet he is so glad he obeyed because even though it was a desert road, He came upon an Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah and the Spirit said, “Go over and join this chariot.” Philip and the Ethiopian discussed Jesus, he then believed in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, gets baptized and continues his journey to Africa. Notice how the Spirit orchestrated the spreading of the gospel to the African continent. He worked in both Philip and in the eunuch. Please note Philip’s role. He listened to the voice of God and obeyed the voice of God. Amazing results. What an adventure!
Next, the Spirit orchestrated a divine encounter of a different kind that ended up with the gospel being planted among the Gentiles beginning in Caesarea. Both Peter and Cornelius were given visions that brought them together for gospel advance. While preaching Jesus in Caesarea, “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.” The believers who had traveled with Peter were “amazed” that Jesus poured out such grace “even on the Gentiles.” (Acts 10) The Holy Spirit was building quite a church planting resume: Jerusalem, Samaria, Africa, and now Caesarea.
Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe
Next, we see “the hand of the Lord” was also simultaneously with the believers who were scattered by the persecution in Antioch, about 300 miles north of Jerusalem (Acts 11:21). During one of their leaders meetings, “while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said.…” Let’s not miss this. The text makes clear “the Holy Spirit said.” He speaks! Our Acts 29 brother Sam Storms elaborates on how the Spirit communicates with his people:
“I want to suggest that God places words, phrases, sentences, and images and the like into our mind stamped with the indelible print of his voice. Although undeniably subjective and occasionally slippery they are a valid means of communication in our heart.” Storms, Convergence p. 194
To make sure he’s not misunderstood, Storms clarifies,
“Most of the directives of the Spirit are practical, suggesting what to do, where to go and with whom to speak? They are not ethical principles. The rules and regulations that bind our conscience and carry absolute universal moral authority for the Christian are provided only in the Scripture.”
The point here is that we must “keep in step with the Spirit“.
While Acts 14 doesn’t elaborate on exactly “how” He communicated with these leaders, what the text makes clear is that these five leaders unmistakably heard and carried out the desires of the Spirit. The effect was that three leaders stayed in Antioch and two leaders, Paul and Barnabas, were sent out by the Holy Spirit on this crazy adventure of planting churches through Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. After their second visit to each city, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each city, thus launching churches in each of these cities. (Acts 13-14) Their explanation when they returned to their home church in Antioch was that “God had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” Don’t forget it was the Spirit who sent them out and it was the Spirit who unlocked the unbelievers hearts to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior. Again, the Spirit is the Impressive One on this first church planting journey.
The Spirit at times says “GO” and sometimes he says “NO” to your plans.
The Spirit at times says “GO” and sometimes he says “NO” to your plans. We read Paul had the noble desire in Acts 16 to go back on the road to strengthen the churches that had been planted. However, in the middle of that noble work, he was “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” to speak the word in Asia. (Acts 16:6) Next, the Spirit of the Lord didn’t allow them to go to Bithynia (Acts 16:8). This is a huge lesson for church planters. Pete Scazzero calls it “the gift of limits.” There is only one you. You can’t possibly carry out every desire that arises in your heart or pops into your head. You need to let the Spirit guide you away from many, many good ideas, so that you can grab hold of that one God idea.
When the Spirit says, “No”, you better believe He is up to something good. In this instance, the Spirit gave Paul a vision sending him to Macedonia. So off Paul went to Philippi, the leading city of Macedonia to plant the gospel there. Once he arrived, he discovered no synagogue existed, presumably because there were not enough godly men in that city. Paul didn’t panic. He just knew the Spirit had sent him there. So, Paul found a few God fearing women at the river. Guess what? The Lord opened the hearts of Lydia and her household. The next core group members added to the church at Philippi were a slave girl with a spirit of divination and the Philippian jailer. Again, the Spirit impressively plants a church in Philippi with an unlikely cast of characters and through an unpredictable series of events. Reading the book of Philippians with the Acts 16 backdrop is fascinating and encouraging. We could keep expanding the Spirit’s resume to what He did in Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, Rome, but I will trust you will spend some time doing that on your own.
Trusting the Holy Spirit
Hopefully you are getting a taste of how church planting works in the real world. Each city is special. Each challenge unique. Each core group unpredictable. The Holy Spirit’s guidance and the message of Jesus must be two constants in every successful church plant. Please believe the Holy Spirit is ready to lead you every step of the way. He is impressive so you don’t have to be. You have to trust Him. Jesus is building His church. Jesus has given the Church the Spirit of Christ to do all the heavy lifting in your church plant.
The Holy Spirit’s guidance and the message of Jesus must be two constants in every successful church plant.
At this point, perhaps you’re asking, “How do I listen to the Holy Spirit? How does that work?” I’m glad you asked.
Following the Holy Spirit is about character, not competence.
The best advice I ever received on “walking by the Spirit” was that it is more about character than competence. It’s about a relationship to be developed with the person of the Spirit, more than a technique to be mastered. Dallas Willard says it profoundly well:
“Perhaps we don’t hear the voice of God because we don’t expect to hear it. But perhaps we don’t hear it because we know that we fully intend to run our lives on our own and never seriously considered anything else. The voice of God would be an unwelcome intrusion into our plans. By contrast, we expect the great ones in The Way of Christ to hear that voice just because we see their lives wholly given up to doing what God wants.”
Following the Holy Spirit is about character, not competence.
It seems to me that Willard is correct. It’s about character, not competence. From the apostles in the upper room, to Phillip after the persecution, to the five leaders worshipping and fasting in Antioch, they were all “wholly given up to doing what God wants.” They were done trying to run their own lives.
Are you ready to entrust your plant back to Jesus? Are you ready to offer up your life afresh to God, regardless of the current circumstance of your church plant? Are you resolved to doing nothing more and nothing less than what God wants? I submit that we will see a huge increase in mission, directed by the Spirit, once we surrender all to Him.
To plant a successful church, you need to become disgusted with your self-leadership.
To conclude, we all must eventually choose between the Spirit’s leadership and our own. Let me say it one more time: The Spirit is impressive, so you don’t have to be. Relax! Make space in your schedule to spend time alone with God. Give him a shot at leading His church. And finally, hear these words from our Acts 29 brother Ray Ortlund Jr.:
“If our purposes rise no higher than what we can attain by our own organizing and thinking, then we should change our churches into community centers. But if we are weary of ourselves and our own brilliance, if we are embarrassed by our own failures, then we are ready for the gift of power from on high.” Ortlund, The Gospel, p104-105