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Lessons for the Twenty-First Century


The example of first century disciples establishing the church in major urban centers provides encouragement for urban church planters today. Several observations can be made: 

1. God planned for the church to grow in the city when he directed the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the empowering Spirit.

2. The sheer number of people living closely together enhances the opportunity for gospel witness. Jerusalem was one of the smallest cities reached; but their population of 25,000 would be like a city of 800,000 when adjusted to the world population today.

3. Cities grant acceptance to those who’ve been persecuted elsewhere. Differences are expected and accepted. Those who have been ostracized are able to fit in because there is such a varied assortment of people.

4.  People who exert widespread influence live in cities. Their conversion can impact many people beyond the urban population.

5. Many needy people populate the city. They understand that life is unmanageable and seek real answers. New, gospel-centered churches bring great hope.

6. The vibrancy of life in the city encourages the exchange of new ideas and lifestyles. Certainly sin can make this a negative principle, but by God’s grace this openness can lead to new life.

7. The movement of people to and from the city enables the gospel to expand to regions beyond the city limits. New Christians are eager to share the good news with loved ones outside the metropolitan area.

8. The diversity of the city fosters the development of new congregations in geographically, ethnically, and culturally distinct communities. The wide variety of people requires a wide variety of churches to effectively reach the city.

Under the continued direction of the Holy Spirit, the church at Antioch sent Barnabas and Saul to advance the gospel in cities throughout the Roman world (Acts 13:1). Their obedience to the call of God initiated a worldwide church planting movement that continues to this day.

The record of Paul’s church planting ministry informs urban church planters in North America:

The account so carefully given by St. Luke of the planting of the churches in the Four Provinces should have something more than a mere archaeological and historical interest. Like the rest of the Holy Scriptures it was “written for our learning.” It was certainly meant to be something more than the romantic history of an exceptional man, doing exceptional things under exceptional circumstances—a story from which ordinary people of a later age can get no more instruction for practical missionary work than they receive from the Cid, or from the exploits of King Arthur. It was really intended to throw light on the path of those who should come after. (Roland Allen 1962, 4)

That “light” would benefit urban church planters. A review of Paul’s methods provides guidance; church planters should be spirit-filled, partnered with local churches and strategic.

Be Yielded to the Holy Spirit

First, disciples must recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in calling, sending, and directing church planters. As the church gathered, the Spirit made His will clear to the church planters and the senders:

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. (Acts 13:2-4)

They responded with immediacy and obeyed the call to serve. Later, the Spirit would direct Paul to the place of service:

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Acts 16:6-10)

Those involved at every level of the church planting process must be yielded to the Spirit of God who calls, sends, and directs.

Be Partnered with a Local Church 

The local church must be actively involved in church planting. The call to plant churches comes within the context of worship and fasting, regular activities of believers in fellowship. As the Spirit leads, the church validates the call and direction of worthy servants, supporting their efforts along the way. In recognition of this partnership, church planters remain accountable to their sending church:

From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. And they stayed there a long time with the disciples. (Acts 14:26-28)

The twenty-first century needs more churches like Antioch—biblical churches in cosmopolitan centers that gather and train diverse leaders, gladly sending them into the harvest.

Greenway says: 

There was remarkable balance in the Antiochan church. Luke wrote that there were “prophets and teachers” (Acts 13:1) as well as members ready for action. In this context, prophets most likely were those who spoke God’s truth to the unsaved, to inquirers, and to those who were coming to Christ from Jewish or pagan backgrounds. Teachers were those who deepened the faith of the new believers through instruction and helped them mature in their understanding of the Scriptures and the practice of the Christian life…The strength of the church was also seen in its spiritual life and exercises (Acts 13:2-3). Worship, fasting and prayer were marks of the community which God chose to use mightily for the spread of the gospel…The clearest evidence of Antioch’ s vitality was its readiness to be a sending church. . . Without question, Antioch left an indelible mark on first-century Christianity and continues to serve as an instructive model of urban church development. (Greenway and Monsma 2003, 63-64)

Be Strategic

Evaluating Paul’s ministry, Allen notes some strategic points:

Both St Luke and St Paul speak constantly of the provinces rather than of the cities...The suggestion is that in St Paul’s view the unit is the province rather than the city... Secondly, his work was confined within the limits of Roman administration. . . From this fact we must certainly infer that St Paul did deliberately consider the strategic value of the provinces and places in which he preached...Thirdly, St Paul’s theory of evangelizing a province was not to preach in every place in it himself, but to establish centres of Christian life in two or three important places from which the knowledge might spread into the country round.
(1962, 12)

In other words, the establishment of churches in key cities enabled the gospel to spread beyond the city itself. Regions connected to the city derived benefit from the growth of the church. When Luke says, “All the Jews and Greeks in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord,” he does not mean that every member of the province passed through the Ephesian lecture hall (Acts 19:10). He means that the acclaim of God’s word was broadcast throughout the region. And, because cities draw a diverse group of people from many different cultures, there was opportunity to extend the reach of the church throughout the whole world: 

In a little more than ten years St Paul established the church in four provinces of the Empire: Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia. Before A.D. 47 there were no churches in these provinces; in A.D. 57 St Paul could speak as if his work there was done, and could plan extensive tours into the far west without anxiety lest the
churches which he had founded might perish in his absence for want of his guidance and support. (Allen 1962, 3)

Urban churches should recognize the differences between Paul’s ministry and present realities. Paul was leading a pioneer movement across a broad territory. In contrast, the gospel has been present in urban American neighborhoods for many years, and established churches are serving the Lord in that field.

Church planters can implement important aspects of Paul’s missionary method. They should seek to plant churches strategically so expansion can continue after the initial generation of church plants. They should carefully consider locations. Certain neighborhoods are natural gateways to reaching other communities. Church planters should plan to reach key ethnic groups. They must evaluate demographics like language, education, employment, age, and family make-up. Strategic placement of church plants in urban American neighborhoods will help sustain the church planting movement until gospel-centered, community-based churches transform their cities.