C. Peter Wagner’s now immortalized assertion that “the single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches” is not based solely on research, but also on the Acts of the Apostles. It’s called the Acts of the Apostles, after all, but what acts are we supposed to notice? At the outset of Acts, their mind-set was simply to stay put, and NOT DO ANYTHING!
“Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom?” was really the apostles’ way of saying, “Jesus, this resurrection thing is great! Can’t we just have heaven on earth now?”
Jesus told them that the schedule for kingdom restoration was none of their business—but then He said they were about to experience the power of the Holy Spirit that would fling them to the far corners of the earth to be His witnesses. The church’s business isn’t kingdom restoration but kingdom expansion, baby!
And how does the kingdom expand, according to the rest of the book?
Clear out some room, because I’m going to drop the A-bomb. When I drop this baby, apostolic shrapnel embeds itself through every square inch of the book of Acts.
Acts kicks off by recalling the founding of the world’s first megachurch in Jerusalem as a church-planting hub. Because Acts is a book about church planting, it pitches Jerusalem as the church-planting base of operations. Luke was basically saying, “Now let me tell you about church planting in this region. This is how we did it.…” The structural narrative of Acts sticks to Jesus’s words like Fat Albert on an ice cream truck: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The emphasis is outward expansion—not just westward expansion, but eastward, northward, and southward—through apostolic church planting. The train of Luke’s narrative leaves the platform at Jerusalem Grand Central Station, making its first scheduled church-planting stops in Judea, Samaria, and finally Antioch in Asia Minor. It all goes down just like Jesus said it would.
Then the rest of Paul’s journeys were chronicled as he moved north by northwest, planting churches throughout Asia Minor until he finally reached Rome, the heart of the omni-powerful empire. Each station platform in Acts 13–21 was another church plant, until the whistle blew and Paul boarded the train to the next sovereignly appointed stop on his three missionary journeys. The Acts of the Apostles could be entitled the Acts of the Church Planters, and Paul’s lesser apostles were essential to the kingdom’s expansion on earth.
Wait a second.…
If the role of apostles is essential to kingdom expansion, then why have we pretended for the last 1700 years that the office doesn’t exist anymore? Why do I say 1700 years? Because the apostolic role of church planting was up and running for the first three hundred years of the church. The apostolic church-planting role continued beyond Paul’s execution well into the second century. Eusebius said that during the second century, apostolic activity continued: “There were still many evangelists of the Word eager to use their inspired zeal after the example of the apostles for the increase and building up of the divine Word.” He added that “after laying the foundation of the faith in foreign parts as the particular object of their mission, and after appointing others as shepherds of … those who had been recently introduced [to the faith] … they went again to other regions and nations.” These guys were mobile.
The pattern continued from Paul to Timothy and others and into the second century. After that we lose the trail a bit. Do you know why? For two reasons. First, in the third century the church experienced “the Great Persecution,” which led to fragmented accounts and scattered saints. The second reason is related to something my high school history teacher Mr. Osborn used to say: “The winner rewrites history.” Eusebius was writing about church planters who continued to function like the apostles, but he had to call them evangelists because his fourth-century theology didn’t allow anything else. The church has had a nasty historical habit of calling her apostolic offspring by safer names, such as pastors or missionaries.
However, whether you call them apostles or not, if they’re serial church planters, they’re apostles. Some of my church-planting friends are clearly apostles in the vein of Timothy and Titus, but their theology of apostolic expiration doesn’t allow them to call themselves that. Nonetheless, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Functionally there were apostles “after the examples of the apostles,” and then something happened in the fourth century that put a stop to all of that.
One word: Constantine.
Jones, P. (2013). Church zero: raising 1st century churches out of the ashes of the 21st century church. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook.