I wanted to plant a church. So I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I attended church-planting conferences, sought advice from other planters, and read many good books. All of these have aided my development as a church planter. Yet outside the Bible (specifically the book of Acts), the single greatest influence on my approach to church planting has been the witness of church history.
Modern church-planting methodology often develops faddish tendencies that come and go. Meanwhile, the witness of church history teaches tried and true approaches to gospel advance. Nevertheless, these timeless lessons necessitate contextualization. There’s a stark difference, after all, between second-century Athens and 21st-century North Carolina.
Let’s consider four lessons gleaned from church history with deep implications for church planters.
As you plant a church, you want to ensure your methodology arises from your theology. Otherwise, you may devolve from orthopraxy into pragmatism. The creeds are most helpful here. Creeds are gifts from our forebears in the faith. While allowing for diversity on non-essential issues, they prevent us from straying from biblical orthodoxy.
The single greatest influence on my approach to church planting has been the witness of church history.
The creeds also remind us that Christ’s church is bigger than the church we’re planting. By embracing the creeds, a church plant in Mascoutah, Illinois, can celebrate unity with an underground church in Iran. A 21st-century church plant can embrace unity with a third-century church in ancient Turkey.
Church planters have a unique opportunity to set their church’s discipleship agenda from day one, and church history provides us with helpful models. First, church planters seeking to develop leaders would do well to follow the models presented by Augustine of Hippo and Charles Spurgeon. Both approaches are highly relational and prioritize the quality of discipleship over the quantity of disciples. Let’s challenge ourselves to take the long view of disciple-making.
Second, parents should reclaim the ancient Christian practice of catechesis. Catechesis is a question-and-answer format to Scripture memorization and doctrinal learning. This practice was common both in the early church and also during the Reformation. We would be wise to disciple our people toward this endeavor.
A church planter’s priority must be to maintain gospel fidelity while preaching contextually. Church history provides a blueprint for this effort. For example, Tertullian (ca. 160–230) famously asked, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” His point was that we cannot allow the prevailing philosophical commitments of our day to drive our theological agenda. Scripture must always dictate the content of our preaching.
Augustine wrote one of the first textbooks for young preachers. He communicated skillfully by mastering analogies and illustrations. Augustine encouraged his students to study famous pagan orators in order to learn effective communication styles and language patterns. He didn’t intend for his students to minimize Scripture, but to communicate in a manner understandable to their audience.
Studying church history has changed my life and ministry. Through it, as well as through Scripture and fellowship, the Spirit of Christ continues to shape me more into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). The effects of studying church history are bountiful, but the one for which I’m most thankful is a growing sense of humility.
We’re not giants; we stand on the shoulders of giants.
I’m just a momentary blip in the grand story of the global church—the same church the King of heaven sought and bought with his blood. And in his kindness and love, he now entrusts and empowers me to serve.
Church planters, one of the greatest gifts we receive from the study of church history is humility. We’re not giants; we stand on the shoulders of giants. Let us shepherd in humility by learning from the faithfulness of those who have preceded us.
Church planters are forward-thinkers by nature. We envision what might be through the gospel. But perhaps the best way to reach what might be is to study what has been. By looking backward, we can both thank God for what has been and also trust him for what will be.