Good News! American Trends Show Smaller Churches

Over the last decade, the churches in America have witnessed an overall decline in size. A recent Lifeway Research study indicated that twenty years ago, churches of 100 or smaller constituted 45% of all American churches—today, that number has increased to 65%.[1] While some analysts may view the statistics as doom and gloom, I always look at things either realistically, innovatively, or optimistically. I believe we can do all three.

            As a missiologist, recognizing the continued trend of American churches becoming smaller is not a bad omen. The smaller churches paradigm opens five missional doors to propel the church for more significant cultural impact. Those five effectual doors are church multiplication, community outreach, missional giving, disciple-making, and gospel-reconciliation among diaspora. 

One of the reasons for this article is not merely to present facts and figures or theoretical knowledge but to encourage and embolden the smaller church (and pastor). For far too often and far too long, small church pastors have been viewed as less anointed, skilled, favored, gifted, or even called. Small church pastor, and small church bashing, need to cease! The church growth movement has failed in producing disciple-makers and in multiplying. 

            For clarity, you may be inclined to deduce that smaller churches mean greater Christian decline—but the Lifeway data does not make those distinctions, nor are they factors concerning innovative pioneering and church movements. To be clear, every major church movement through ecclesiastical church history occurred through smaller churches—yet, as Americans, the “bigger is better” motto consumes evangelical thinking. The Western church must view itself as a global church partner (co-laborer), not an imperialistic superior.[2] With that stated, let’s examine the five practical missional opportunities for the trending small church.   

Multiplication

Yes, multiplication is the first and most significant opportunity for smaller churches. Everyone knows that simple is reproducible; the complex is not. Smaller churches have always been viewed as multiplicative. However, missional and communal have become synonymous with small groups or house churches. While house churches and microchurches are aspects of a smaller church, generally, they are viewed as an anomaly or part of some niche evangelical fringe. We want to focus on actual evangelical congregations of smaller than 100. 

            Conferences and books have exploited the small church pastor into thinking they are not good enough; that if they do not break the 200 person-barrier, they are somewhat incompetent and should feel shame. That’s a straight Satanic lie. Neither the big church nor the small church is wrong—both can be and should be utilized, but we need to see the beauty and significance of the small church. The global church must applaud the small church pastor equally as the megachurch one. Frankly, I’m glad that this trend is occurring. Why? Multiplicative church movements will not happen by attempting to utilize the large church methodology—it just won’t. I have nothing against larger churches; I attend one. Yet, I’ve been a planter and small church pastor—it’s time to celebrate and rejoice about the small church.  

            Thus, the research indicates that American smaller churches have grown exponentially from 45% to 65%. The research is not demonstrating that Christian decline caused the smaller church movement. On the contrary, linking the other factors of higher per person financial giving, increased fellowship, missional obedience, and discipleship, the smaller church is a cultural trend that appeals to Gen Z, Millennials, and some Gen X’ers. The days of bigger is better in America is not necessarily true anymore—that was the 80s yuppie marketplace, not the 20s inclusive society. Through social media, the 20s culture has relied upon being invested in the community—having a voice, being heard, recognized, and included—smaller churches answer those needs. Likewise, culture has shifted to smaller marketplaces, organic, and intimate settings—smaller churches are multiplying because they relate to the part of culture seeking this dynamic. 

Community Outreach

The Lifeway Research indicated that smaller churches increased (per person) in volunteerism and outreach. The statistics demonstrated what we have already known and guessed that larger churches tend to cause isolationism. This means that people in larger congregations may fade into a congregation without being needed, seen, asked, or want to participate. In smaller churches, believers practice their faith by engaging in communal and individual outreach. In a small church, you will be seen. 

            For clarity, a large church may indeed have a more significant impact upon a city with its ability to provide hundreds of volunteers. Again, the article’s point is not that larger churches are wrong, but that smaller churches are good and that the trend shows great opportunity. Smaller churches showed that more of their congregants participated in community outreach than larger churches. Is there a direct correlation between larger churches and inactive faith—perhaps—but, all believers should agree that while works are not salvific, we were created “for good works” (Eph. 2:8-10)? There can be no separation from the gospel and the mission of God.   

Missional Giving

As obedient Great Commission servants (Matt. 28:18–20), believers have always been compelled to give to the mission of God. While statistics demonstrate that Americans still give more to religious values than any other association, donations have never been higher. Research indicates that of church tithers, regular church attendees provide 81% of the offerings.[3] Overall, smaller churches exhibited to have more active and dedicated members.

            Studying over 15,000 congregations, smaller churches reported higher percentages of donations given toward missions.[4] The analysis illustrated that smaller churches were invested more individually and communally. Individuals within smaller congregations tended to feel connected to their missional giving, sometimes having opportunities to witness and partake within the immediate mission. Additionally, the data demonstrated that smaller churches allocated larger percentages of cumulative giving to missions. Perhaps, the smaller church views the pastor as an example? While subjective, with their moderate to lower-income (than larger churches), means of living, and sacrifice of giving for the mission of God, it may propel the smaller church members to participate with the pastor. 

Cruciformity & Disciple-Making

Having mentioned participating with the pastor, as the apostle Paul stated to the Philippian churches, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things” (Phil. 4:9). As the more intimate fellowship of believers exists in the smaller church, the witness of example also exists. Closeness may not always imply cruciformity, but there can be no cruciformity without it. 

            Cruciform communities consist of devoted and sacrificial individuals. They engage and partake in one another’s hardships, sicknesses, trials, joys, celebrations and collectively embrace them all. While an aspect of a larger church produces excellent worship experiences, the smaller church employs intimate and communal prayer. These folks walk with one another through the daily rhythms of life. For this reason, disciple-making tends to be more genuine and engaged in smaller churches. 

Pastors of small churches should embrace this one concept if none at all. Rejoice in the participation of spiritual formation and transformation—the testimony of spiritual renewal. As the Holy Spirit begins to work within the body of Christ boldly, you can experience God’s faithfulness with each individual. You partake in each wedding, funeral, graduation, Bible study, VBS, and more. You watch infants grow into youth and from youth to adulthood—seeing the fruit of your disciple-making labor. Smaller churches instinctively produce a greater cruciform community and disciple-making environment. 

Diaspora

Diaspora are globally displaced or scattered peoples from their land of origin. Global migration has reached its zenith, whether through intentional international workplace contracts or illegal immigration. Additionally, United States immigration has reached the heights of the 1890s Ellis Island days.[5] The unreached people groups of the world have come to our shores seeking refuge, asylum, freedom, and prosperity. While some analysts see the Western church in decline, we should see opportunity! The gospel provides refuge, asylum, freedom, and wealth in God.

Due to the astronomical impact of diaspora, the American church, more specifically the smaller church, has an amazing opportunity to reach, disciple, and bring gospel reconciliation to their communities. Knowing that diaspora people tend to cultivate ethnic-cultural enclaves,[6] smaller churches can bring gospel reconciliation to these diaspora communities. As the Philippian jailer and Roman Centurion witnessed gospel reconciliation occur within their households, the intimacy and closeness of small church cruciformity and discipleship are similar. By reaching diaspora, the Western church can reach the world. 

Consequently, while the small church possesses these five effective missional open doors, I do not believe they are exclusive to the smaller church. Yet, as this trend continues to rise, the objective is to finally rejoice in the small church. We ought to applaud the consistent hard work of the small church pastor. We ought to embrace the opportunities that the Lord has blessed us with. Through multiplication, community outreach, increased missional giving, disciple-making fellowship, and diaspora enclaves, Christian decline in the West can not only be reversed but it can engage in global church partnership. The moral, whether small or large, the Lord of the harvest is seeking laborers (Luke 10:2). Collectively, we must rejoice in all components of the mission of God.  


[1] Aaron Earls. 2021. “Small Churches Continue Growing—but in Number, Not Size.” Lifeway Research. October 20, 2021. https://lifewayresearch.com/2021/10/20/small-churches-continue-growing-but-in-number-not-size/.

[2] For the record, America receives more missionaries each year threefold than any other country. America is the mission field of the world, not vice versa.

[3] Milena. 2021. “Church Giving Statistics.” Balancing Everything. January 30, 2021. https://balancingeverything.com/church-giving-statistics/.

[4] Earls, “Small Churches Continue Growing—but in Number, Not Size.”

[5] Robert Gebeloff and Miriam Jordan, “Amid Slowdown, Immigration Is Driving U.S. Population Growth,” New York Times (February 5, 2022), accessed February 12, 2022.

[6] Ethnic enclaves are concentrations of people that share culture and ethnicity within a distinct geographic location.

The Cultural Mandate’s Connection to the Great Commission

Relationships. Humans have relatedness and relationship because of the Creator. Humanity was created in the “image” and “likeness” of God (Gen. 1:26-28). Our relatedness and relationship ability define humanity as different than any other created thing. We were made for relationships. 

Through the Scriptures, the reassurance of our purpose and design in being relationship-driven is validated. The only time within the creation narrative that God mentions anything negative is in man’s isolation and loneliness (Gen. 2:18). Humanity was made for relatedness and relationship, with God and with one another. What does this have to do with a cultural mandate?

The cultural mandate, as it is known, states, “God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). 

The misconception about the cultural mandate is that people believe that it merely applies to human reproduction. However, in light of the continuity of Scripture, and the wholeness counsel of God, there is a link to multiplicity and a correlation to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20). Yet, as we note from the beginning of creation,  an intimacy of relatedness (to God, one another, and creation) and the primacy of love is innately encoded into our DNA, by the Creator. 

As Adam and Eve walked with the Creator in the garden, they were gaining an intimate understanding of living with God within the daily regularities of life. The proclamation “to be fruitful and multiply,” or cultural mandate, was a commission—to fill the earth as image-bearers of God.[1] 

Think of this—if Adam and Eve had not committed sin, their mandate would have driven them to expand the Garden of Eden to fill the entirety of the earth. The Garden of Eden would have possessed no boundaries. Every person, beginning at birth, would have come to know, love, worship, and serve the Creator by becoming a disciple-maker (talking about God and living for God). For this reason, we can see the correlation with the Great Commission multiplicative mandate to make disciples of every tribe and nation (Mt. 28:19-20). Life is about knowing God and making Him known (multiplying).

As a student of God’s Word, the metanarrative of Scripture is God’s story—the Scriptures reveal the One True God to humanity. As Michael Goheen notes, “The gospel places us between creation and consummation, the beginning and end of cosmic history … we find ourselves in the middle of the Bible as one story whose central thread is the missional vocation of God’s people…”[2] The Old Testament and the New Testament are not divorced from one another—nor are they separated stories, but one continual story, much like a thread of comments on an Instagram post. 

Therefore, I believe the cultural mandate is much like the Great Commission—a direct order given from the Creator to be “fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:26-28; Matt. 28:18–20). While there are some distinctions between the two, both relay a kingdom ethos. Like the cultural mandate, within Christ’s command to make disciple-makers is the tantamount awareness of relatedness and relationship—with man and with God. 

To understand the Great Commission is to understand that each person alive today has been created in the image of God and participates within God’s story. The Great Commission must compel God’s redeemed people to look beyond discipleship as conversion therapy, but as the very definition and story of what it means to be human. God’s story is “the true story of the whole world.”[3] Discipleship begins at relationship, not conversion. 

Next, the Great Commission is a divine directive for those who have been saved by grace and filled with the Holy Spirit of God to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). The church actively partakes in, and participates with, the Triune God. There is a divine koinonia, of cross-centered living and sharing of possessions, emotions, and relationships that constrict a cruciform community.[4] The Great Commission has direct kinship to the cultural mandate because God, through Jesus Christ, renews the image-bearers of God. Christ re-creates humanity (2 Cor. 5:17), breathing new breath into them (John 20:22), and placing them back into the Adamic state of relationship (yet, not yet, sinless). 

The cultural mandate is an “evangelistic mandate” and an “imperative to make disciples.”[5] I know that some scholars may disagree with me, but I can’t help to connect the dots within the metanarrative of God—that God created man in His image and likeness to know Him, love Him, and serve Him, and to fill the earth as His protectorates. 

The cultural mandate mirrors the Great Commission as Christ, God in the flesh, the reigning cosmic King, with all authority and an omnipotent presence, journeying with mankind, as disciple-makers make disciple-makers (Matt. 28:18–20). In the Garden, Jesus, the second and last Adam, lived out the mission of God, by and with obedience, something that the first Adam failed to do within his garden. 

So, we arrive at a destination—a course in which God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, is leading us and directing us in a sanctifying life of mission. As well, our end goal should be the drive, zeal, and desire to be more holy, missional, and like Christ. Jesus was the ultimate reproducible disciple-maker. He was the penultimate image of God (Col. 1:15). And, if we were created for him, to him, and through him (Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:16), then our lives must have intentionality in living out what He said and did (Matt. 28:19). 


[1] Wagner, C. Peter. Strategies for Church Growth, 111.

[2] Goheen, Michael, The Church and Its Vocation: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology), 8–9.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[4] Hastings, Ross. Missional God, Missional Church, 216.

[5] Ibid., 50, 111.

Should Christians Be Cremated: A Biblical Response.

With a topic such as cremation, it is understandable that opinions are strong. There are numerous cultural reasons for the acceptance of cremation, including financial and real estate. It is also acknowledged that God is able and capable of resurrecting humanity from the devastating effects of a fire. Assuredly, this article is not comprehensive, but I find it quite alarming with the increase of cremation. Bear with me; this article intends not to cast judgment, but to present the biblical understanding of the imago Dei, the dignity of life, rest, and theological underpinning of the preservation of the faithful. 

Imago Dei

All people are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). This means that we are image-bearers of the one true God. As the image-bearers of God, from the beginning, life was sacred, relational, and honorable. The Lord’s response to the slaying of Abel by his brother Cain is a testimony to life’s frailty and the body’s ability to speak beyond the grave. 

The Lord asserts to Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). While one would suspect that God witnessed the killing and received Abel’s soul, the choice of words is interesting—the blood crying up from the ground is weeping. The ground receives Abel’s blood. Cain leaves his brother’s body lying on the ground. Cain has no regard for life; even after death, he neglects the body of his brother.

When John the Baptist was beheaded, news returns to Jesus. Matthew records, “And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus” (Matt. 14:12). Imago Dei. Biblically, whether in early church history or Judaism, the bodies of those that passed on were honored, sacred, and treated with dignity.

Dignity of Life

As image-bearers of God, Christians believe in the sanctity of human life, whether in birth or death. Contrary to this belief is paganism. Throughout history, the worshippers of Baal, Barbarians, pagans, and idol-worshippers burned their dead. But, that was never the case for those that believed in God Almighty. 

The promising covenants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob regarding their burials and bones were clear (Gen. 23:4; 47:29-30; Ex. 13:19; Heb. 11:22). Jacob’s lasts words to his sons, “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers” (Gen. 49:29), is a testimony to the dignity of life. There has always been an ethical and honorable treatment and preservation of the bones of the faithful. Whether it be the kings and their families (2 Sam. 21:12),  priests, or prophets (1 Ki. 13:31; 2 Ki. 23:18), the bones of the faithful were preserved. The early church was adamant about protecting the bones of the dead that they hid and buried them in the catacombs, away from Roman fire. 

However, biblically speaking, when a curse from God was pronounced, fire was to desecrate the bones of the faithless, “And the man cried against the altar by the word of the LORD and said, “O altar, altar, thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you’” (1 Ki. 13:2). The writer of 2 Kings provides the fulfillment of the prophecy, “[Josiah] burned the bones of the priests on their altars and cleansed Judah and Jerusalem” (2 Ki. 23:5). The burning of the bones of the faithless was considered a cleansing of wickedness.

Through Jeremiah, God pronounces judgment upon the bones of the kings, officials, prophets, and priests that worshipped other gods—so that their bones would not receive dignity or rest (Jer. 8). As well, when Moab transgressed by cremating the king of Edom, the Lord declared, “Thus says the Lord:  “For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because he burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom. So I will send a fire upon Moab” (Amos 2:1-2). 

The point being made is not that modern cremation is evil, or that people intend evil; the point is to illustrate that humanity ought to have more honor, respect, and dignity for the faithful. It’s alarming at the amount of Christians that no longer honor the bones of the saints to lay them to rest. Through movies and television, our current culture glorifies the burning of peoples, as if it creates dignity (more on that in a moment, see theological). 

Rest

When Christ was crucified, a person alleged to be a blasphemer by claiming to be God, was meticulously prepared for burial and laid to rest. While the disciples and His followers did not understand the resurrection (yet), they did believe in honor, respect, and rest. Judaism always adhered to the rest and dignity of the body.

Sherrie Johnson, researching and writing about the catacombs, states, 

“Many of the people living in and around Rome during the turn of modern times believed in burning the bodies of their dead. Christians of the time believed that the cremation of their dead was morally wrong. Since there wasn’t enough space above ground to store their dead, they started building tunnels underground to bury the dead, as the Jewish communities had done before them … The bodies of the dead are meant to be treated with respect. In Christianity, death is a transitory phase that leads to eternal peace in heaven for the righteous. This is one reason why people bury the dead with utmost respect and care.”[1]

Another reason why burial was important was the unwavering faith of the believer. A believer’s burial was not only a committal to the ground in which man was formed, but a resting place until the resurrection. Without a proper burial, like Abel, the body was not at rest, peace, and awaiting a return of Christ. Christians believe that God will provide new life to the mortal body. 

While some modern believers may argue, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” God is fully capable of resurrecting both. Indeed, God is, but the confronting question should be, are we treating the saints with dignity, honor, and respect as the imago Dei and as a redeemed saint? If the early Christians went to such drastic measures to avoid the burning of bodies, have we strayed so far from orthodoxy, or are we sacrificing honor for convenience? (read the invasion of 8th-century Germanic tribes into Rome and how the Christians hid their dead).

Theological

Animism and paganism believe that gods exist in things—trees, water, mountains, weather, rocks, etc. The burning of the dead was supposed to release the soul from the body to enter into the spiritual state of oneness with eternity. Similarly, Buddhism believes in nirvana, the state after death that a person can become one with the universe. 

This is why modern movies and television promote Barbarian and Roman warriors’ burning—they burn their remains to let them become one with the universe, to be released from the body, forever. Unfortunately, that is not Christian theology. We believe in the resurrection of the dead, when these bones will be renewed, and become like Christ (Rom. 6:5). We believe in the Holy Scriptures, which testify of our earthly bodies being transformed (Phil. 3:21).

Conclusion

As I stated in the beginning, this article is not intended to judge anyone, especially when they may have had a loved one cremated. The focus of the article is to present the biblical precedent of the imago Dei, the sanctity and dignity of life, honor, respect, and the tradition of rest. It is obvious that I am revealing my convictions, but I would hope that this article opens a conversation with loved ones, a deeper study of the Scriptures, and a more profound love of laying to rest the bones of the saints.


[1] Johnson, Sherrie. “Roman Catacombs: Origin, Purpose & Use Today.” https://www.joincake.com/blog/roman-catacombs/

St. Patrick: the Itinerant-Pioneer Apostle

Source

Working on my next book project, part of my research encompasses my favorite church planter, St. Patrick. Unveiling the likelihood that the “Apostle of Ireland” may have been the first itinerant-apostle to seriously apply the Great Commission to his missionary endeavors was encouraging.[1] The utilization of the term “Great Commission” is most notably attributed to William Carey. Still, Patrick viewed his missionary efforts to the Gaelic peoples as part of the bigger picture of “making disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19-20).

Having a passion for disciple-making, church planting, and the gifting of redeemed believers (Eph. 4:11), Patrick’s life enlightens my soul. When researching Patrick and the earlier Church Fathers, it became apparent that the contemporary church misunderstands early missions, missionary roles and attributes, and the foundational importance of the itinerant-apostle.

For clarity, contemporarily, the usage of the term apostle is not without contention. Most often, people equate an apostle with an office. Within biblical Greek, the term apostle (apostolos) means to send. While Christians tend to (rightly) denote the word apostle with the original Twelve disciples of Christ, the word serves a much broader comprehensive function. Interestingly enough, the term carries nautical weight, as a gathering of seafaring ships embarks upon a maritime expedition.[2] The role of the itinerant-apostle/prophet was much like a seafaring entity, leaving one harbor to enrich another.

Early Itinerant Apostle-Prophet

Assuredly, there has been an ample amount of scholarly research concerning the Didache, its authorship, dating, and possible influence on the Gospel of Matthew.[3] While I’ve spent a significant amount of time studying the text, missional disciple-making is the driving force for my interest. Knowing that a first-century disciple-making resource was available to the early church is more than motivational; it’s illuminating.  

Without delving into an argument, we’ll assume the abundant scholarly research on the Didache is sufficient. With that stated, the Didache and its “two ways” open the door to understanding the traveling apostle-prophet. Milavec notes, “The oral tradition of the Didache devoted so much attention to the apostle-prophets because it needed to. Thus, they were dealing not with just a rare visit but regular visits.”[4] The wandering prophet in the Didache is uncannily similar to Matthew 10:41. 

While the Didache notes the itinerant apostle-prophet should not stay longer than two days to assess honesty and integrity, it is reasonable to assume that they carried letters of authority for lengthier stays, much like that of the apostle Paul (e.g., Acts 9:2; 15:22-29). Regardless, the itinerant-apostle was a traveling servant; this is evident in Paul’s church planting and edifying travels. 

Craig Keener notes there were approximately nineteen stops of Paul’s new communities in his second journey. Of the nineteen communities that Paul’s itinerancy logged, he remained in four less than three days, seven less than seven days, and 13 communities less than 14 days.[5] The role of the itinerant-apostle-prophet was more than a mere ekklesia check-up; it was a reproducible disciple-making whirlwind with divine instruction.

It seems highly plausible that Pauls’ role became Antioch’s itinerant apostle-prophet. This credibility exists, as Luke records Paul proclaiming to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are” (Acts 15:36). The itinerant prophet made the rounds to encourage the churches and begin new ones. As recorded in the Shepherd of Hermas, “When, then, a man having the Divine Spirit comes into an assembly of righteous men who have faith in the Divine Spirit, and this assembly of men offers up prayer to God … the man being filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks to the multitude as the Lord wishes.”[6]

As well,  Luke recognized five apostle-prophets within the Antiochian church community (Acts 13:1).  Most notably, three of these “apostle-prophets were commissioned, being ‘sent out’ to plant new churches.”[7] In the spirit of the itinerant-apostle Paul’s journey to Gaul, Patrick would also employ the itinerant strategy.

Contextualization

While previous historians and missiologists have scoffed at Patrick’s usage of offerings or monetary gifts to gain inroads with tribal chieftains, the ends justified the means. Today, we would equate Patrick’s kingly gifts as contextualization and discernment. Patrick knew the extreme dangers of the Barbarian life. 

Having been enslaved to the Celtic people as a youth, Patrick was well aware of the endangerments ahead. Traveling the roads alone was not advisable, not with the marauders and rival tribes. Giving a gift to a tribal king would assure not only safety but a guide, translator, and ambassador. Most of Patrick’s provided emissaries became converts. 

Patrick knew the importance of receiving permission to perform discipleship among the small extant Christian communities. Permission would allow him access to the unchurched in neighboring tribes. And, as an itinerant-apostle, Patrick utilized every opportunity. 

Itinerant Church Planting

Much like the Apostle Paul’s passion, Patrick was known to move to “new areas” and regions “where the gospel had never been preached”[8] One may doubt Patrick’s journey strategy or impact but could never suspect his motive. In his Letter to Coroticus, Patrick confesses:

I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ’s truth has arrested me, I speak out too for the love of my neighbors who are my only sons; for them, I gave up my home country, my parents, and even pushing my own life to the brink of death. If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me.

Church planters are pioneers that pave the way for souls to enter eternity. The impact of the pioneering itinerant-apostle was to bring the gospel and its power to unreached peoples. While the descriptions of Patrick’s life include “many miracle stories … we see that such stories proliferate when the gospel moves into pioneer territory.”[9]

Patrick’s zeal and Confessions show that he was a pioneering itinerant as he moved “from place to place to befriend the various tribal” peoples.[10] As an apostolic-itinerant, Patrick is attributed to planting over 200 churches.[11]However, Patrick wasn’t a mere traveling evangelist; he baptized and discipled an uncountable number of individuals. Some scholars estimate Patrick to have baptized over 100,000 converts.[12] Needless to say, the church needs more like Patrick; it needs more itinerant-pioneers. 


[1] Smither, Ed. Missionary Monks: An Introduction to the History and Theology of Missionary Monasticism (Eugene: Cascade, 2016), 57.

[2] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Apostle, Apostleship,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 131.

[3] Garrow, Alan, The Gospel of Matthew’s Dependence on the Didache (NY: Bloomsbury, 2004). 

[4] Milavec, Aaron. The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities (New York, Newman Press, 2003), 441. 

[5] Keener, Craig, S. Acts : An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids : Baker, 2014), 2298.

[6] Shepard of Hermas, Book II, Commandment 11, Vol. 2, 28.

[7] Milavec, The Didache, 442.

[8] Tucker, Ruth. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 39.

[9] Fairbairn, Donald. The Global Church: The First Eight Centuries (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021), 288

[10] Fairbairn, The Global Church, 288.

[11] Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, 40

[12] Ibid., 40.

The Church Planting Lie: It’s about Numbers.

As an experienced church planter, trainer, and teacher, one of the biggest misnomers that I have witnessed is the pressure placed upon the planter or planting team to produce numbers. While proponents for “numbers” (or butts in seats) recite passages recorded by Luke in Acts (2:41; 4:4) or argue that one of the books of the Bible is labeled Numbers, the Missio Dei (mission of God) is about people, not numbers. Assuredly, Luke was writing a descriptive narrative, as was the compiler of Numbers, not a prescriptive regulation.

Any Bible student can utilize proof-texting to clarify or validate a point. For instance, if God was “all about numbers” then why was a plague sent upon Israel when David established a census to count the people (2 Sam. 24)? Clearly, God loves numbers, right? What about Jesus making purposeful statements to see how many disciples would stop following Him (i.e. “eat of my flesh and drink of my blood” (John 6:60–71)?

Don’t get me wrong, I think numbers are important, but they should never be a church’s focus. Church Planters endure serious depression and loneliness for two reasons: (1) financial burdens, and (2) numbers/growth. As for the former, the majority of church planters are bi-vocational, contributing to the burden of the new church start’s finances. As well, the bi-vocational planter cannot devote as much time, energy, and attention to the start-up, as hoped—again, causing anxiety. 

Not to be undone by finances, one week may bring ample gospel conversations, leading to twenty new guests. The church planter is elated and excited! However, the elation quickly subsides as the next week’s attendance is a gruesome six people (mainly the core group). The church planter becomes depressed. Why? Because his numbers are off. If someone asks him how many are “attending” his new church plant, he feels that he’s a failure. 

While the two evidences of church planter anxiety are separated, one of the two can be fixed by mindset, reality, and biblical adherence. If the planter lays a firm foundation in the Great Commission mandate, the pressures of growth go away. My contention: focus on people—not numbers.  

What’s It All About?

So, if not numbers then what is the biblical focus of church planting? The biblical response is that no one has ever been called to “plant a church,” but everyone has been called to make disciple-makers (Matt 28:18–20). Churches form out of the new disciples that are being produced. “While teaching church planters about church planting techniques and strategies is important, Christ mandated his followers to make disciples, not plant churches (Matt 28:19–20). Sometimes, we confuse the two.”[1]

If church planters would focus their attention on making disciple-makers from new converts, the result would be churches that naturally multiply. Instead of worrying about a sound-system, social media posts, livestreaming, kids church, order of service, set up and breakdown, worry about the mandate—are you making disciple-makers? Because, “There is no discipleship without living life together.”[2]

One of the dilemmas with starting new churches is that church planters focus so much on growth, that they really don’t care if it’s transfer growth or conversion growth—as long as it’s growth. And in doing so, they’re missing the aspect of living life with others. They’re neglecting the command of developing and establishing disciple-makers of Christ. And, that will never happen without being intentional!

Making disciple-makers takes intentionality, focus, and grit. And, yes—time and patience. Making disciples is not completed in a week or three months. In actuality, there’s really never a “completion point,” only maturity. 

Making disciple-makers is not solely about a curriculum but walking through the rhythms of life with one another—we’re to feel the hurts, pains, and victories of “withness.”  If a church planter is only focused on numbers to feel relevant or “successful” they have neglected the mandate of Christ. Inevitably, they will create a revolving door of shallow believers. 

My prayer and plea: press harder inward, onward, and upward. Create lasting relationships. Live life with the few that God has entrusted to you, instead of worrying about a platform. Obey the Great Commission. 


[1] Fretwell, Matthew. Church Planting by Making Disciple-Makers (Castlerock, Ireland: Timeless), 2020, 24.

[2] Ibid., 90

Didache: The Way of Life and The Way of Death

I have long been intrigued and captivated by the early church. What I mean by early church is the New Testament era and the first two centuries succeeding. I love the narrative of Acts and its apostolic association with “belonging to the Way” (Acts 9:2). I crave for their sacrifice, and for their disciple-making devotion. While I understand that the early was far from perfect and had vast dysfunction—they also possessed dedication, piety, and desire.

Because of my captivation, I find myself diving deeper into the depths of ecclesiastical disciple-making (See Church Planting by Making Disciple-Makers). My journey has currently positioned me within an early document known as the Didache. If you’re not familiar with the Didache (pronounced, Did-ah-key or Did­-ah-kay), it is not without its controversies, as it seems to have been lost for fifteen hundred years. 

As history notes, in 1873 a Greek Orthodox bishop named Philotheos Bryennios was in the library archives of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem sifting through the early manuscripts.[1] Bryennios wasn’t exactly sure what he had discovered, as the Didache was “sandwiched between other early church documents;” namely The Epistle of Barnabas1 and 2 Clement, 12 letters of Ignatius, and several others.[2] While Bryennios’ contemporaries had common knowledge that Origin and Athanasius had referenced the Didache, many scholars believed that no extant manuscript existed—until Bryennios.

A Little More Background

By the early nineteenth century, the universal church was not monolithic regarding the dating of the Didache. While a small debate ensued regarding the text, some even considered it to be fraudulent. However, with ongoing German and French research, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1945, and the critical work of Willy Rordorf, the dating of the Didache was credibly proposed as preceding the Gospel of Matthew.[3]

Nancy Pardee believed that the Didache’s early dating demonstrated an “important witness to the composition and development of the New Testament.”[4] She stated, “Such an early date and stature by themselves would make the Didache an important witness alongside the New Testament of the development of the early Church, but the additional fact that the text is of more utilitarian nature means that it does not merely supplement the biblical texts, but compliments them.”[5] Indeed, the Didache does compliment the synoptic Gospels. 

Breaking It Down

The Didache itself is only sixteen short and concise chapters (a quick 20 minute read), instructing in the ordinances of the church, prophets, apostles, bishops, and deacons within the church, and some brief eschatological views. I found the section on the Eucharist, “breaking the loaf,” to be incredibly illuminating and missional. With the disciple reciting back the words during the Lord’s Supper (I paraphrase):

“As the seed that produce the loaf is scattered over the mountains,

And then gathered in and became one,

So may your church be gathered together into your kingdom,

From the very ends of the earth.”[6]

The Didache is truly an amazing document, but it was never intended to be equated with Scripture, as it was a practical learning tool (orally taught) for new converts. Perhaps this is the reason for its disappearance? Yet, as someone that thrives to reach the world’s lostness, the Didache’s practical guidance regarding reproducible disciple-making is what I find the most intriguing. 

If the dating of scholars is true, as one reads the Didache, the Gospels are immediately apparent. As well, the writer of the Didache notably assumes the reader understands the Sabbath days, rejecting the Roman days of the week with “second” and “fifth days of the Sabbath” being set aside as fast days.[7] Most noteworthy is how the two ways of life are taught to a new convert; once learned, the “disciple-maker” baptizes the new convert, after a day or two of fasting. The reason I find this so noteworthy is its implication for rapid multiplication.

The Way of Life

The first several sections of the Didache are the two main aspects of the “teaching.” In perspective, we shouldn’t be surprised with the Way of Life and the Way of Death as central tenets, as a latter title for the Didache was “The Lord’s Teaching to the Nations through the Twelve Apostles.”[8] The Didache is missional, devotional, and multiplicative. Yet, within the two ways they provide a glimpse into an early devoted and dedicated community—devoted to holiness and dedicated to Christ and one another.

The Didache begins with the introduction consisting of the two ways (1:1) but immediately proceeds with the first four succinct chapters describing the Way of Life. As a believer, I instantly see the value of guiding of a new convert through these first thirty-seven “verses.” The Way of Life begins with the greatest commandment, “You shall love God who created you; second, your neighbor as yourself; all those things which you do not want done to you, you should not do to others” (1:2).[9]  

The abstention from “carnal desires” and how to practically treat others is resounding (1:4). Giving is not a motto for the Way of Life but emphasizes God’s generosity to the adherent (1:5). It is easy to see the Ten Commandments interwoven throughout the Way of Life (2:2–7), as well as humility, patience, justice, hard work, and respect for the image of God. The new convert is reminded not to neglect the “Lord’s commands, but to hold fast to what has been handed down to you” (4:13); the very nature of disciple-making! 

The Way of Death

Contrasting with the Way of Life, the Didache does not possess any gray area for the believer. You either walk in the Way of Life, or you’re cursed by wickedness—most notably, the Didache does not sugarcoat lasciviousness. Those who follow the Way of Death “do not know their Maker” (5:2). The warnings for the new converts, not to be led astray from the Way of Life, are foundational. 

One might assume that the Didache is merely a set of rules and regulations, a means of legalism, but to the contrary: 

“If you are able to bear the whole of the Lord’s yoke, 

you will be complete. 

However, if you are not able to bear that yoke,

then do what you can” (6:2).

In reflection, the Way of Death denotes the “old self” and the ways of the world, but as a student of the Bible, the Didache reads as a mixture between Jesus’ words and Pauls’ epistles. The Way of Death ends in chapter six and is much shorter than its counterpart, the Way of Life. The Way of Death is utilized as a practical guide of admonition, encouragement, and sanctity.

Conclusion

Spending the last several months researching the Didache has been more than rewarding; it’s been enlightening and informative to view an early community of steadfast believers. Without Scriptures, Paul’s epistles,[10] the Gospels, and Revelation, it is eye-opening that such a document could have existed and point to biblical values (i.e. Great Commission teaching). The Didache demonstrates that the early church was not merely concerned with “Jesus loves me this I know” and that’s enough, but with multiplication, perseverance, righteousness, and humility. 

            The remaining chapters of the Didache are no slouch, either. Understanding its views of baptism, the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist, church administrative structures, and end times may not be prescriptive or inspired, but they are revealing as to how the early ekklesia communities lived out the rhythms of life. Any time the modern church can utilize documents like the Didache, I believe it to be edifying. Again, while the Way of Life and Way of Death are not inerrant and inspired, they are definitely biblical—there’s no doubting their veritas


[1] O’Loughlin, Thomas. The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2010), 4–5.

[2] Milovec, Aaron. The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. (Newman Press: NY, 2003), 4.

[3] Ibid., xxxi.

[4] Wilhite, Shawn, J. The Didache: A Commentary (James Clarke & Co.: UK, 2020), 4. 

[5] Pardee, Nancy. Genre and Development of the Didache, 1.

[6] O’ Laughlin, Didache, 167.

[7] Didache, 8.1

[8] O’ Laughlin, 5.

[9] Ibid, 161.

[10] Even though there is ample evidence that Paul’s letters were circulated among the early churches, early dating of the Didache would predate the over a third of the New Testament, including the Gospels.