June 8, 2014

The Great Commission, Church Planting, and Us

Speaker: Bret Rogers Topic: Church Planting

Sermon from Selected Texts by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on June 8, 2014
Commissioning Service for Kevin Rutledge

The title of today’s message is “The Great Commission, Church Planting, and Us;” and there are at least three things I want to accomplish in this message. First of all, I want to explain why we’re breaking from our exposition of the Gospel of John to talk about church planting this morning and how you should listen to this message as Redeemer Church. Then I want to show you from just a few places in the Bible why we make establishing local churches among all peoples part of our mission as a church until Jesus returns. And then lastly, I want to leave Kevin and the Redeemer Provo team with a few exhortations that by extension apply to all of us.

Why Talk about Church Planting Today?

So first of all, why are we talking about church planting this morning and how should you listen to this message? Well, the main reason we’re talking about church planting today is very practical. In one week, we’ll send off Kevin Rutledge and his family and a few others from Redeemer to plant a church in Provo, Utah—one of the least reached cities in the US with the gospel. And with that sendoff we want our whole church to understand its role in this endeavor called “church planting,” and bring everybody onto the same page in conjunction with their sendoff and in conjunction with the support they’ll need in the coming months and years.

They may be going out to establish a new work, but we are still part of them and partners with them in the work (cf. Acts 13:3; Rom 15:24; 3 John 8). We’ve also commissioned other church planters before—such as a couple of brothers now serving in Asia and Dusty Deevers who moved to Elgin, Oklahoma last year with the same goal. But very few of you participated in those separate evening services when we commissioned them; and I don’t think we as leaders were all that effective in helping you catch the vision and see your part along the way, especially as a whole church. I hope today’s message at least starts us on a trajectory that equips you further for these partnerships in the advance of the gospel (cf. Phil 1:5).

In fact, I hope this message even awakens you to see that this sendoff need not be our last one. No, our prayer to God should be that this sendoff becomes the ongoing pattern of our labors as we preach the gospel in this city (Rom 1:14-15; Phil 1:14), as we make more disciples (Matt 28:18-20), as we train up more leaders (2 Tim 2:2), and as we commission them to other new works across town and abroad—to other states and other peoples who need the gospel and healthy congregations caring for their souls (Acts 13:3). In other words, I hope this message instills within us a Christ-trusting, grace-filled, other-oriented, missions-minded expectation for the Lord to multiply us in this city and beyond.

When you listen to these things today, don’t just listen for Kevin’s sake and Provo’s sake. Listen for your own sake, because if you’re a Christian, Christ’s priorities in building his church and spreading his gospel and seeing communities transformed with his presence, should become your priorities. Yes, we should desire to see people added to our number here (Acts 2:41; 4:4); and yes, we should aim to mature as a community here (Eph 4:1-16); but never should we pretend we’re the be-all-and-end-all of Christendom (cf. 1 Cor 4:6-12). Christ’s vision for the ongoing establishment of healthy churches worldwide keeps us from turning inward and becoming so preoccupied with our own strengths—or even our own problems—that we forget the very purpose for our existence, namely, to treasure Jesus’ glory in the gospel and spread his glory among all peoples through the gospel.

The Great Commission & Church Planting

A crucial part of this purpose is the activity of planting churches. But before you just take my word for it, let me show you from a few places in the Bible why we should keep planting local churches part of our mission as a church until Jesus returns.

1. The Great Commission Envisions the Establishment of Local Churches

First of all, we need to see that the Great Commission itself envisions the establishment of local churches. Jesus’ words in Matt 28:18-20 are likely very familiar to many of you. He says to the church, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Usually when people teach on this passage, they rightly focus on our responsibility to introduce as many individuals as we can to Jesus and to the forgiveness of sins that comes through a relationship with him (cf. Matt 24:14; Luke 24:47; Rom 1:16; 10:14-15). But many times the stress on individual conversion overlooks that making disciples includes more than initial evangelism and individual conversion.

Making disciples also includes helping these converts identify themselves publicly with Jesus and his church—“baptizing them” (cf. Acts 2:41; Rom 6:3-4)—and ensuring these same converts are then regularly instructed and held accountable by the church in all that Jesus commands—“teaching them to observe.”

I say they’re held accountable to Jesus’ commands by the church, because Jesus himself says it in Matt 18:15-20. There, Jesus teaches his disciples how to practice discipline in a local church when unrepentance characterizes an erring church member (Matt 18:15-16). If a professing Christian is not following Jesus’ commands and refuses to repent again and again, the matter is to be taken before the church (Matt 18:17). The church even has the authority under Christ to excommunicate the person for their failure to submit to Jesus’ rule—“whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:18).

This was another way for Jesus to say, “The way I will demonstrate my heavenly authority on earth is through a visible, identifiable assembly of people who submit to my rule and authority in all things” (cf. Matt 16:18-19; 28:18). Essentially, baptism and teaching are part of making disciples, because the church is part of God’s plan in training and keeping disciples walking in step with their new identity in Christ.

Now hear the Great Commission of Jesus. Making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe, all envision the establishment of visible assemblies of people who’ve been freed from the power of sin, who grow daily in their love for God and his purposes, and who submit to the reigning Lord Jesus. The goal of the Great Commission is not merely the conversion of individuals, but to see “obedient disciple-making fellowships of believers within every people” group of the inhabited earth (Ralph Winter, “Finishing the Task,” 533). Jesus has church planting in mind when he charged the disciples with the Great Commission in Matt 28:18-20, because he had the church in mind when he issued it (Matt 16:18-19; 18:15-20).

2. The Apostles Establish Local Churches Where the Gospel Is Received

A second reason we make church planting part of our mission: the apostles establish local churches where the gospel is received. So not only was church planting envisioned as part of the Great Commission, but when we fast-forward to the Spirit-empowered mission of the disciples, we actually witness churches being planted. Even as early as Pentecost we see people believing the gospel and being baptized and identified with the local church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:41-47). As John Stott has put it before, “The Lord did not add them to the church without saving them, and he did not save them without adding them to the church” (Stott, Living Church, 32). So, even as early as Acts 2, we see the outworking of the Great Commission in the establishment of a church.

The ongoing mission to the Gentiles also sheds light on church planting. Later, in Acts 11:19-25, Christ establishes a church in Antioch through the preaching of those who were scattered because of the persecution over Stephen. Paul then teaches this church for an entire year (11:26); and by the time we get to chapter 13, the church in Antioch sends off Paul and Barnabas to do the Lord’s work. And what was this work?

Well, when we read chapters 13 and 14 we see that it included preaching the gospel, making disciples through baptism and instruction, and establishing them in local congregations with elders. In 13:13-47 they preach the gospel in Antioch in Pisidia, “and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (13:48-52). Then they leave there because of persecution and come across to Iconium and do the same there—preach the gospel and people believe (14:1-5). Then more persecution drives them down to Lystra and then Derbe, and they do the same in both places—preach the gospel and make many disciples (14:7, 21). Then we get this note in 14:21-23:

When they had preached the gospel to that city [Derbe] and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

They had done more than just win individual converts hadn’t they? They also taught them to gather into local assemblies, such that Paul and Barnabas could even appoint elders over those identifiable assemblies on their return. Paul then follows the same pattern on his second missionary journey. We even get another example of him planting a church in the city of Corinth (18:4-5, 8); and later on he even writes a letter to the Corinthians saying, “I planted [the gospel in Corinth (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-2)],” or, “like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation [for the church]” (1 Cor 3:6, 10). Even one of Paul’s coworkers, Epaphras, is doing the same thing alongside Paul, just in different cities like Colossae and Laodicea and Hierapolis—he’s preaching the gospel and then gathering together the disciples to form local churches (Col 1:7; 4:12-13).

And so goes the pattern as Paul and his coworkers obey the Great Commission, even to where, by the end of all Paul’s journeys in Asia and Macedonia, Paul basically says, “I’m done with the work here. There’s not enough room for me to work anymore. I need to go to Spain where there’s no access to the gospel, because no churches even exist there.” Romans 15:19, 23 say this, “from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum, I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation…I no longer have any room for work in these regions…I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain.”

I texted Dan Hilmers the other day and asked him if he was still sure he wanted to pursue going overseas instead of staying at Redeemer longer. He texted back that “He was more sure than ever” and that “if Redeemer were the only church around, and the rest of the metroplex had no access to the gospel, and there were threats against those who convert, then [he’d] consider it.” I love the way people who have this vision think. And there’s another brother, Kevin Rutledge, who’s thinking the same way about Provo, Utah: “I’ve got to get to Provo and plant the gospel in Provo, and see Christ named and worshiped by a people there.” Not just a few scattered individuals who believe, but by a people, a church, a visible assembly of people sold out for Jesus.” The world can look at these people and witness the supremacy of Jesus in all they do and say and think and feel.

3. Life under the New Covenant Necessitates Church Planting

That leads me to a third reason why we make church planting part of our mission, namely, life under the new covenant necessitates church planting. When Jesus died and rose again, he inaugurated a new covenant in which everybody who trusts in Jesus would receive the forgiveness of their sins, be given a new heart, and have the Spirit indwell them (Jer 31:31-33; Ezek 36:26-27; Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20). The Spirit would then empower them to live according to the new covenant Jesus set in place through his blood (Joel 2:28-29; Luke 24:49; Acts 2:14-21).

But here’s the thing, that new covenant has numerous commands that sound like this: “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12); “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:10); “live in harmony with one another” (Rom 12:16); “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom 15:7); “aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace” (2 Cor 13:11); “through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13); “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2); “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:32); “exhort one another every day…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13); “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25).

Question: how many of those commands can you obey as a solitary Christian? None. How can you live under the new covenant in isolation from the people of the new covenant—assuming there are other converts nearby? You can’t. How does somebody observe all that Jesus commanded, just like the Great Commission says, without the local church? You don’t. Or let me press it home a bit further with Jesus’ words in John 13:35: “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (cf. John 17:20-21). How will all people know you are Jesus’ disciples, if there’s never a persuasive, tangible expression of love for one another? They won’t.

The corporate nature of life under the new covenant precludes us from forming a mission that leads converts to believe they can enjoy salvation as a solitary believer while neglecting devotion to the gathered church. Even the Spirit gives a variety of gifts to each of Jesus’ followers, not for them to enjoy in isolation but for them to serve the well-being of the local church with whom they assemble (Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12:7; Eph 4:16; 1 Pet 4:9-11). Therefore, whenever we plan to preach the gospel among a people without it—in Provo or East Asia—we shouldn’t overlook incorporating the ones who believe into a community where new-covenant life might be enjoyed.

4. God Displays the Glory of His Wisdom through Local Churches

One last reason we want to be a church-planting church: God displays the glory of his wisdom through local churches. In Eph 3:8-11, Paul says this: “To me…this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

Why did the church in Antioch commission Paul and Barnabas to plant churches? Why did Epaphras work hard and struggle in his prayers for the churches he planted in Colossae and Laodicea? Because for them, nothing was more exciting than seeing God’s glory magnified when a people bow their knee to Jesus. People joyfully submitting to Jesus’ authority was essentially an outcropping of the age to come, when Jesus’ kingdom will cover the entire earth. When the nations embrace the gospel and are gathered into Christ’s church, the wisdom of God is made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places—both good and bad alike (cf. Eph 1:20-21; 6:12).

The church is God’s “object-lesson,” his tangible reminder to the universe that through Christ’s death and resurrection God disarmed the rulers and authorities, he broke the power of sin, and he’s bringing all things in subjection to Christ (Eph 1:9-10, 20-21; 3:10-11; Col 3:15; Heb 2:14; cf. 1 Cor 15:24). Disciples gathering in healthy local churches magnify God’s glory. Therefore, church planting is part of our vision as a church, and something we should grow to embrace more for the glory of God.

So that’s why we make planting local churches part of our mission and strategy as a church until Jesus returns. It’s bound up with the Great Commission; the early church gives us a paradigm to follow; life under the new covenant demands we not leave converts by themselves but gather them together as one; and the glory of God’s wisdom goes on display when the saints assemble around Jesus’ lordship.

Four Exhortations for Us (and Especially Kevin)

With that said, I now have four brief exhortations for us to consider as we move forward in this particular church plant in Provo and in coming years as we look for God to do it again—both through us and through Redeemer Provo. These exhortations are first for Kevin—since we’re appointing him as evangelist and church planter over the team heading to Utah—but you’ll find that they’re applicable to us all. So here they are.

1. Enliven Your Soul & the Souls of Others with the Glory of God

Number one, enliven your own soul and the souls of others with the glory of God. Neither you nor the people around you have the resources you need for life and ministry. Your desire to evangelize a people hardened to the truth, your zeal to plant a church in a land full of deception, your love for the neighbors around you and even for the people serving beside you—all of these good inner passions will eventually grow cold if they’re not fixed upon and rooted in and drawing from the all-satisfying, kaleidoscopic glories of the eternal God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When Peter exhorted the leaders of the churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, he said this: “I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Pet 5:1-2). The glory that comes from God under-girds his charge to the leaders of all the churches. Paul describes the Christian life as one that “rejoice[s] in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom 5:2). And then let’s not overlook that John gives the seven churches in Asia one heavenly scene after another in the Revelation to remind the church that despite what you experience down here, keep looking to God’s glory up there, because that’s what the whole of your eternity will enjoy if you persevere and cling to God’s promises in Christ (Rev 1:12-16; 4:1-5:14; 7:9-17; 11:15-19; 14:1-5; 21-22).

If you are to find sufficient food to feed your soul, your family, God’s church, and those you encounter daily, then you must be feasting on the infinite glory made available to you through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The glory of God will never disappoint, because he is the infinite wellspring of holiness and wisdom and truth and joy and love. He will never run dry when you come to him. He will never feel strapped to provide you with what you need; he will never tire of supplying you from his fullness; he will never be bothered by your coming to him for more sustaining glory and grace—even through suffering and temptations from the devil and, perhaps, seven years of not seeing a single convert like Adoniram Judson experienced in Burma. Enliven your soul and the souls of others, not with the fading satisfiers of this age but with the eternal glory of God made accessible to you by Jesus and God’s Spirit.

2. Keep the Gospel Central to the Life & Ministry of the Church

Second, keep the gospel central to the life and ministry of the church. There is one way in which we can say Paul planted the church in Corinth or Epaphras planted the church in Colossae. But a much closer look will reveal that what they actually planted was the gospel in these cities, and it was Christ who actually built his church in these cities on that gospel. Let’s take for example the ministry of Epaphras.

It was Epaphras who planted the church in Colossae: he entered the pagan city; he preached Jesus Christ; he discipled the new believers; and he labored hard on their behalf (Col 1:5-7; 4:12-13). But never once does Paul exhort the believers to build their church around Epaphras and his extraordinary gifts. Instead, Paul repeatedly exhorts the church to build themselves upon Epaphras’s message (1:5, 23; 3:16).

It wasn’t ultimately the man, Epaphras, who was effective in penetrating the darkness of Colossae, but the Lord Jesus himself as the good news was heard and the Spirit brought the new birth. Through the preached gospel, God destroyed strongholds and transferred many Colossians into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Believing the gospel also meant that God forgave their sins (1:14); he reconciled them to himself (1:22); he delivered them from the tyranny of evil rulers and authorities (2:15); and he secured their hope for heaven where Christ himself reigns as head of the church (1:5, 18).

In short, the Lord saved these pagans through his gospel. His message of truth gave birth to the church in that city; and his message of truth would also go on to transform the church in that city. The gospel message is one that is bearing the fruit of faith and love among the believers and it has continued to do so since the day they heard it from Epaphras (1:6). And, this same gospel would sustain the church till the end when each disciple meets the Lord in glory (1:21-23). Even in Col 2:6-7, we hear Paul instructing the church like this: “…as you received Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him.”

So, your task, Kevin—and our task as a church—is nothing short of what Epaphras and Paul practiced in “making the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints” in the gospel (1:26). Proclaim nothing less than Christ in Provo and Christ in Fort Worth, and God will be pleased to grow new churches from those gospel seeds. Then teach one another to “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel” as Paul says in Col 1:23.

3. Continue Equipping People to Speak the Truth in a Dark & Demonic World

Third, continue equipping people to speak the truth in a dark and demonic world. Kevin, that you have successfully encouraged a largely devout home-school community of youth into regular evangelism efforts in some of the hardest contexts, speaks volumes about your patient equipping with the truth and diligent leadership in helping them speak the truth boldly. Do not waver in equipping more people to do the same as you enter a very dark land full of what the apostles call false gospels (Gal 1:8-9), and “human cunning by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:14), and “the teachings of demons” (1 Tim 4:1), and “the exploitation of others with false words” (2 Pet 2:3), and doctrines that anticipate no one less than the Antichrist himself, who denies that Jesus is the eternal Son of God (1 John 2:18-25).

You know better than I that you are not entering neutral turf when you move to Provo; you are entering hostile turf disguised with a façade of piety rooted in self-righteousness. We experience nothing less when we move about in Fort Worth. The world is darkness and hostile to Jesus (John 1:5; 3:19; 8:12); and your task—like that of Paul—is to speak truth so that God “open[s] [people’s] eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in [Jesus]” (Acts 26:18). We might walk in the flesh, but “we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:4-5). Pursue this with all the might God mightily inspires within you (cf. 1 Cor 15:10).

4. Devote Yourself to Praying for God’s Light to Penetrate the Darkness

Lastly, pray for God’s light to penetrate the darkness. Paul says this of the church-planter, Epaphras, in Col 4:12: “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” Epaphras acknowledged his inadequacy to plant churches. He knew that ultimately he was unable to effect any change in the people. He could preach the gospel, but any spiritual transformation in the people was ultimately God’s doing. Standing mature and fully assured in the will of God was not something that came naturally to people, but supernaturally through prayer. And Epaphras knew it. He didn’t place his confidence in strategies or methods or models or techniques to bring results, but in the Lord. Therefore, he struggled (lit. agonized) in prayers to God on behalf of the churches he planted.

Remember that your awesome participation in God’s purposes is not laboring apart from him, but laboring in dependence on him. God saved you to serve in communion with him. We cannot produce healthy churches on our own, much less conversion. Only God has the gracious power to convert sinners, to humble saints, and to establish churches; and he is excited for you to speak with him about such work. He wants to save sinners in Provo and Fort Worth, but only through you talking to him about them. Even to his own Son he says, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps 2:8; cf. Heb 1:5). And to all united to his Son by faith, he says the same: “Pray in this way…‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’” (Matt 6:9).

So, we see Epaphras praying. Imitate his faith in this regard. Make your requests known to God. Ask him to shine in the darkness, to dismantle the enemies schemes, to open the eyes of the blind, to convert the hopeless, to humble the proud, to cleanse the church from every defilement, to raise up new leaders, to remove those who shouldn’t be leaders, and to establish healthy congregations. Don’t just ramble in prayer, struggle in prayer like Jesus did in the Garden for you (Mark 14:36). God has given the Spirit to you, too, and his groan is, “Abba!” (Rom 8:15).

Those are my exhortations to Kevin and by extension to all of us who join him for this work, whether by geographically relocating ourselves with him and Sundi or by regularly praying and giving toward the work here. Planting and sustaining healthy churches out there begins with laboring for a healthy church here—a healthy church that treasures God’s glory in Christ, centers its life upon the gospel, speaks the truth in darkness, and prays for God to accomplish much through our efforts.

At this point, I’d like to ask Kevin to come forward. While you’ve heard some of the vision before, we’ve asked Kevin to share just a bit more about God’s provision thus far and some of the goals he has in the near and distant future in Provo. After Kevin is finished, then I’d like to lead us in a time of appointment of Kevin and prayer for the work in Provo.