A Call to Plant Churches
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A Call to Plant Urban Churches
The church began in an urban context and spread to major cities throughout the Roman Empire. Meeks suggests that “the rapid spread of Christianity through the lands of the Mediterranean basin was facilitated in manifold ways by the urbanization that had begun there before Alexander and accelerated during the Hellenistic and Roman imperial times” (2003, 2526). Lessons learned in the establishment of these churches inform church planters today.
The birth of the church in Jerusalem was no mistake. Jesus told his disciples to wait there for the Holy Spirit, who would empower their ministry (Acts 1:4). The Spirit’s advent followed by Peter’s gospel proclamation brought rapid growth. Thousands trusted Christ for salvation and were added to the church (Acts 2).
Jerusalem was a significant city. Herod the Great worked hard to enhance the prestige of his capital. He built palaces, bridges, fortresses, and monuments. He constructed a theater and an amphitheater.
The city was small in size; its walls enclosed about one square mile. But, its population was dense. During Jesus’ ministry, about 25,000 people called Jerusalem home. And at feast times, the population swelled to more than 100,000.
The Temple in the center of Jerusalem divided the upper city from the lower city. The upper city with its large mansions was home to wealthier residents. Working families and the poor resided in the lower city.
The Temple was at the center of life, too. It fueled the economy, providing business for suppliers and creating a tourist industry. It controlled social relationships, enforcing detailed religious laws. And it became a center for political and philosophical ideas as it gathered pilgrims from around the world.
By God’s design, the gospel was first proclaimed in this urban milieu. His plan allowed thousands of people representing every nation to hear the gospel and respond in faith. Their location allowed for regular teaching and worship. The presence of people in need provided opportunities for service. They met regularly, loved each other, impacted their community and changed the world (Acts 2).
In addition, God used pressure in Jerusalem to scatter believers and spread the church. The vibrant growth of the young group caught the attention of leaders in the city. They were nervous about the growing strength of the church and sought control through persecution. The Lord used their actions to expand the church with its transforming message to other Roman cities (Acts 7-8).
Following this pattern, MetroGrace is developing gospel-centered, community-based churches in American cities. Urban centers gather people; the life-changing message impacts their thoughts and actions; and, they are scattered to new locations.
A Call to Plant Multi-ethnic Urban Churches
When persecution arose in Jerusalem, disciples were scattered. Philip began to preach in Samaria, one of the areas that Jesus had specified in his command. A Hellenistic Jew, he was well equipped to communicate the gospel to this marginalized group. Many Jews disdained the multi-ethnic Samaritans. But Philip had a broader perspective and began proclaiming the good news, baptizing those who believed.
When the apostles heard about the progress of the gospel, Peter and John came to Samaria and laid hands on those who believed so they might be baptized by the Holy Spirit. This divine validation of the apostolic affirmation initiated the spread of the message beyond the Jewish people.
Obedience to the Great Commission meant that churches were planted in Samaria.
Philip continued his evangelistic mission throughout the region. His ministry included the conversion of an Ethiopian official who had been traveling from Jerusalem. His conversion spread the seed of the gospel into Africa at a very early stage.
Empowered by the Spirit, Philip continued his mission along the coast of the Mediterranean, settling in the city of Caesarea. Caesarea was one of the most important cities in Israel during the first century. It was built by Herod the Great to be an international hub on the coast of Palestine. The city was to be his crowning achievement. Caesarea Maritima was an opulent city worthy to be named for Herod’s patron, Caesar Augustus. Caesarea became headquarters for Roman governors and the population grew to 100,000.
The Lord sent Peter to Caesarea with a specific purpose. He was called to present the gospel to Cornelius, the first Gentile convert. It was in Caesarea that Peter said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35).
The Lord used Philip and Peter to break down ethnic and cultural barriers so the gospel could spread freely throughout the world.
MetroGrace is focused on planting gospel-centered, community-based churches that gather disciples from every ethnicity and culture in the neighborhood.
Caesarea became the city identified with this open door. It was fitting for this Mediterranean seaport to be the gateway for the gospel to spread to all sorts of people.
Later Paul would return to Caesarea after his second and third missionary journeys. He would be imprisoned there for two years, preaching to Felix, Drusilla, and Festus. When he appealed to Caesar, he was sent to Rome from Caesarea.
After the persecution that began with the stoning of Stephen, believers throughout Judea and Samaria enjoyed a period of peace that allowed the newly formed churches to strengthen and grow (Acts 9:31).
A Call to Plant Urban Churches with a Global Vision
The gospel continued to flourish and spread. Some believers arrived in the city of Antioch, Rome’s administrative capital for the province of Syria. With more than a half a million residents, it was considered the third-most important city in the Roman Empire. Only Rome and Alexandria surpassed Antioch in significance. It was located on the Orontes River, fifteen miles from Seleucia on the Mediterranean Sea. Access to this busy harbor enhanced commerce, travel, and the political influence of Antioch.
The church at Antioch developed after the persecution that arose in Jerusalem. Some from Cyprus and Cyrene arrived in the city and began to share the gospel with Gentiles. The Lord blessed their witness and many trusted Christ. Barnabas, Saul, and prophets from Jerusalem came to encourage the growing church. When they learned about a famine in Judea, they demonstrated compassion by sending a financial gift to the churches there (Acts 11:19-30). The cosmopolitan culture in which the church grew provided fertile soil for the spread of the gospel around the world.
While worshipping and fasting, the leaders were directed by the Holy Spirit to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the Lord’s work. They fasted, prayed, laid hands upon the men, and sent them off to preach the gospel and establish new churches (Acts 13:1-4).
The church in Antioch had a broad vision. Its ethnic diversity gave the church an international perspective. Their compassion gave them a heart for evangelism. When directed by the Spirit, they sent their best leaders, invested finances, and prayerfully supported the expansion of the church.
MetroGrace is developing gospel-centered, community-based churches with a vision for urban mission worldwide.
A Call to Plant Urban Churches the Multiply
It is not surprising that Paul and Barnabas focused their church planting strategy on the major cities of the Roman provinces that they visited. The church began in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea. It grew in Caesarea, the most prominent city in that region. And, it spread to Antioch, the world-class capital of Syria. The missionary team visited important cities throughout the Roman Empire. Cities like Paphos, Pisidian Antioch, Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth and Ephesus all made an impact beyond their borders. They exerted influence throughout their regions and the world. Their ministry at Ephesus provides some guidance for urban church planters today.
Ephesus was a prominent city in the province of Asia. Its harbor provided access to a large shipping industry. A well-developed system of roads that led to cities throughout Asia gave Ephesus great commercial strength.
Ephesus was also the worship center for the goddess Diana. The temple built for her became a repository for money, treasures, sculpture, and art. The temple made Ephesus very prosperous. It employed many people. Others derived benefit by providing supplies. And others gained profit from the many pilgrims who came to the city.
Paul’s ministry in Ephesus began with the conversion of some disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19:1-7). He soon entered the synagogue, where he preached for three months, persuading people about the kingdom of God. When opposition arose, he went to a lecture hail nearby, where he taught daily for two years. His work was so effective that Luke says, “All the Jews and Greeks in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10).
During Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, members of the church planting team extended the effort to the surrounding region. Churches were established in satellite cities like Colosse, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. Urban churches that multiply saturate metropolitan areas with gospel-centered churches.
MetroGrace is planting churches in Philadelphia with aspirations for emerging urban centers in the region.