Our definition of what an “established” church is often carries with it mental images of an old stone church with stained glass that has been around for decades, or possibly centuries. Sometimes we consider an established church one that has reached a level of financial sustainability or critical mass in weekend attendance. Sometimes, “established” merely means you aren’t a brand new church, but you also aren’t a dead church. It is vitally important that our understanding of what it means to be established matches that of the first century Apostles.
Any church can gain a right definition of what it means to be established by looking at the Apostle Paul’s missionary strategy. When he planted churches, he had a very specific purpose and pattern by which he would do so. He had the end-result in mind of a vibrant, expanding, multiplying church that would be useful to the overall movement. As such, he expected that every church founded would eventually reach and continue in this way.
There are 5 “building blocks” that were central to Paul’s strategy for establishing churches. Once these blocks are in place, they continue to be developed and built upon throughout the life of a healthy church. These blocks are not stages that a church graduates from, but rather strategies that are part of any healthy established church.
The most foundational Building Block of Establishing involves the preparation, training, and calling of leaders. Acts 13:1-5 provides an excellent example for what this block might look like. Leaders of the church in Antioch, and already established church, are praying and fasting to seek the Spirit’s direction and guidance. As a result, they appoint Saul and Barnabas to be sent for the purpose of expansion. The Apostle John even accompanied them in the beginning of this missionary journey, probably for the purpose of making sure they were sent well. Together, Paul and Barnabas had strengthened the church in Antioch to the point that the church was self-led and no longer needed their ongoing presence. Both missionary and local leaders need to continue to be prepared by healthy established churches.
The second block requires sending for the purpose of starting new churches among new people groups and in unreached places. In our time, this also involves starting new churches to re-evangelize our increasingly post-Christian cultures. A church, by nature, is meant to propagate. A new church is planted when missionary leaders and teams go to a new people group for the purpose of winning people to Christ, founding new believers in their faith, and gathering followers of Christ into clusters that become a local church. An established church cultivates this block by deeply involving themselves prayer and financial support of a new church. There were hubs like the church in Antioch, which sent missionary leaders to pioneer new regions, and there were local networks of churches, like with Ephesus, which pursued mission and expansion in closer proximity and utilizing greater interdependence and a localized approach to missionary work.
As churches began to develop, local indigenous leaders emerged. It was usually at this point that Paul would leave, and charge a pastoral leader from his apostolic team to lead the church and put it “in order.” For Paul, organization meant a couple of things: 1) Leaders would be appointed who would govern and care for the church. 2) The church would be instructed in the way of living (sometimes called “household rules” or didache) that was reflective of their Gospel commitment and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s role, at this point, was to continue his missionary work of preparing and planting, but he also assumed responsibility for seeing that these churches became strengthened so they were useful to his overall apostolic movement and vision.
Organization is an important step toward becoming an established church, and it should be emphasized that a church never stops organizing. Churches should continue in the work of developing elders, deacons, and overseers, some of whom will lead that local church as it grows, some who will eventually be sent with missionary teams to start new churches, and some who will influence and lead among churches in that region or city.
Once leaders were appointed and the church became stabilized and in order. Usually this block involved further founding in the Gospel and household rules. As problems emerged within local churches, leaders would use them as an opportunity to teach and exhort the churches toward more godly living so that their witness would grow stronger. A mark that a church was strengthened was that it could lead itself without the constant on-going presence of the missionary team involved in leading it to this point. It also was strong enough at this point to release other promising missionary elders and deacons to special assignments and journeys that would expand the Church at large.
Now, the church is able to play an integral part in the overall expansion and leadership of the missionary movement. This will look different in each case, but the posture of these churches is to work through interdependence with other churches in their local area. Financial support of new church startups, sending of leaders and resources, encouraging, sharing missionary reports with the congregation, and reaching new people groups is central to the life of a gospel-centered established church.
Recapturing the Apostolic definition of “established” is important in our time for several reasons:
- It helps new church startups know what they are building toward, and gives them accurate milestones as they develop.
- It helps organized churches understand the strategy they must cultivate to meaningfully contribute to the ongoing expansion of the Church.
- It allows leaders of struggling churches to assess where their church has ceased to actualize this Apostolic vision.
- It also helps us identify a pathway for re-establishing dying churches.
An established church is one who is cultivating all five of these blocks.