Principles for Church Planting from the Church in Antioch

The following are extracts from the recently published book: Lessons from Antioch, by Freddy Hedley who used to be part of the ACPI team.

The church in Antioch is an example of some of the most fruitful church planting activity in the early church. And despite being in an ancient middle-east context, it was a remarkably similar social and cultural context to the Western world today. Research into the available biblical, archaeological and literary evidence suggests that much like today Antioch was a network-based, money and image focused, simultaneously affluent and poverty stricken, multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-lingual, largely pagan, hard working, long hours, inner urban, power hungry, status centred, politically aware, highly pressured, sensually driven conglomeration of different peoples pressed together so tightly that their individual identities and values got lost at the expense of the overarching Roman machine.

So with this striking similarity of culture (certainly for urban contexts, at least), can we see the church in Antioch as a viable and relevant example for church planting in the 21st century? Whether we think we can fully or not, certainly there are many key lessons we can learn by looking at the values and practices of those that planted the church, and at Barnabas and Saul who were sent from Antioch to plant so many churches across Asia Minor.

There are bound to be more lessons here than I have recognised, and I do go into some of them in more depth in the longer ACPI work booklet Lessons from Antioch, but to get us started here are my top 5:

1. Be ready to listen and look to the Spirit
The fruitfulness of the church in Antioch can be attributed largely to the fact that they were ready to listen to the Spirit. They were responsive to visitors bringing prophetic words (Acts 11:27-30), and the leaders held prayer gatherings to wait on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Because of this the church were able to respond quickly when God called Barnabas and Saul to be sent out (Acts 13 1-3).

But it was looking as well as listening. When Barnabas first arrived in Antioch we are told that he “saw the evidence of the grace of God” (Acts 11:23). He went to Antioch to see what was happening with spiritual eyes, and as such he recognised what God was doing and saw where to join in.

We can learn from this by having a culture of expectation in our fellowships. We should pray and listen to the prophetic leadings of the Spirit and expect Him to send people out “to the work to which He has called them.” And we should look with faith and see the qualities He is developing, and the openings for the Gospel He is initiating. This way we are much more likely to see God leading the way into the areas He has prepared, and also to see a greater level of God working in and through us.

Of course the sacrifice we need to be willing to make is to be flexible to the point of ditching plans and preparations at a moment’s notice when we hear God say something new and unexpected (a not uncommon occurrence!). We also need to be ready to listen with faith and to have the discipline not to be sceptical when words are shared that are contrary to our hopes and plans!

2. Release Your Best
Barnabas and Saul were the best that the church in Antioch had. They were the ones that did the teaching, raised the leaders, related to Jerusalem, and were central to seeing masses of people come to know Jesus and join the church. There would have been an obvious “skill gap” were they to go, and yet the church were prepared to send them out.

This is a crucial lesson for us, particularly if we are looking to plant churches. The temptation is to keep our best leaders at the centre of church, presuming that this is the ideal place for them as they can continue to grow the ‘mother’ and raise the new leaders that can actually plant the church. Now sometimes this may well be the right approach, but the challenge of Antioch is to be ready for this not to be the standard way forwards. In any event the principle is give quality and give though it really costs.

3. Inherit the Values, Pioneer the Form
Throughout the accounts of how Jerusalem was scattered, through the emergence of the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria and in Antioch and to the planting of the Asia Minor churches, there is a constant theme of the values of the church being inherited by each new form of church that emerges. These centre on the life and death of Jesus as a way of life, the importance of prayer and worship, the power of baptism and the Holy Spirit. From the smallest house gathering in Corinth to the largest mass gathering in the temple courts of Jerusalem the church share the same core values of being Christ-like. A fact that was inadvertently solidified by the Antioch church as they were recognised for the first time as mini-Christs… Christians (Acts 11:26). So Christians could walk with ease through any church expression and know that their values and priorities would be shared, no matter how different the people.

On the other hand, the way that the church would have looked when gathered in Jerusalem to Antioch to Ephesus to Corinth to Rome, would have been dramatically different according to the culture and situation of each. At its most extreme, some churches were underground due to persecution and so had secrecy built into their form, whereas others were open and public. Some churches met in synagogues, the temple, or public places… others met in the home, or in the streets. The lesson here is that if the values are inherited, then we can have the confidence to pioneer the form so that the church has the best chances of survival and growth in any particular context.

Inheriting the values and pioneering the form is a principle that we can see happening right through Jesus’ life, and even before in the Old Testament, but still one that we shy away from now – preferring to rely on our standard models for safety and consistency. But this is not showing faith for what can happen if we stop trying to inherit the form as well as the values, which stifles the growth of the kingdom. We need to be ready to release each new generation to re-interpret the same values into a new form so that the church remains dynamic, contextual, challenging and full of movement.

4. Know Your Community
There are numerous occasions where it is clear that having an awareness of the community that you are reaching out to is a high priority. In a cross-cultural city such as Antioch, it is a multi-cultural team of missionaries that start the church among those of their own background. In Athens, Paul walks in the market square, spends time in their libraries and quotes their poets in order to communicate the gospel in a way they would understand (Acts 17). Then later he writes to Titus giving specific knowledge about the Cretans’ prophets (Titus 1:12). There are other examples if you look for them, but these alone show that a definite lesson we can learn is the importance of becoming familiar with the community we are called to be a part of.

However we choose to do this – be it a mission audit (see the mission audit section of this website), prayer walking, questionnaires, talking to people, gathering what we already know, etc, it is vital that we follow Jesus’ call for us to “open your eyes” as we consider the mission field before us (John 4:35). Only then can we have a clear idea of how we can communicate the gospel to the community, and begin to understand what it is that God is calling us into for the next season.

5. Build Mission into the Culture
Everything about the church in Antioch was about mission. The purpose of the church, its actions and message, the church plants that grew from there… they all happened as a result of a high priority of reaching into different communities and different people’s lives with the gospel.

If we learn nothing else from the church in Antioch, let us learn the need for a mission heart. Through one church God changed the best part of a continent. We may not seek the same level of impact, but if our hearts are set on mission then we can begin to step into the “life to the full” that Jesus has called us to, and we can be available to serve Him for the glory of His kingdom, seeing growth, miracles and lives salvaged along the way.


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