Treasuring Christ in Planting Churches and Loving the Poor

This is the third and final message in a series on Treasuring Christ Together, the name we have given to our all-church strategy for advancing the mission of our church. You recall that first there is God—absolute and uncreated and eternal and infinitely glorious and great. Under him is his word in the Bible, inspired by him and providing us with a totally inerrant, reliable revelation of himself and his ways and his will. Under that is our human effort to distill a mission statement to give coherence and guidance to our church: “We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.” And under that mission statement is the strategy called Treasuring Christ Together: We aim to fulfill that mission by multiplying campuses, planting churches, and caring for the poorest of the poor through the Global Diaconate.

Today we focus on church planting and concern for the poor—eight observations on each subject. Let’s begin with observations that relate to church planting.1 Remember, by church planting, we mean starting new churches that are not part of Bethlehem. They share the same Elder Affirmation of Faith for the leaders, but organizationally, they are separate churches, not campuses.

Observations on Church Planting

1. There are 195 million non-churched people in America, making America one of the top four largest “unchurched” nations in the world.

2. In spite of the rise of mega-churches, no county in America has a greater church population than it did ten years ago.

3. During the last ten years, combined communicant membership of all Protestant denominations declined by 9.5 percent (4,498,242), while the national population increased by 11.4 percent (24,153,000).

4. Each year 3,500 to 4,000 churches close their doors forever; yet only as many as 1,500 new churches are started.

5. There are now nearly 60 percent fewer churches per 10,000 persons than in 1920.

  • In 1920 27 churches existed for every 10,000 Americans.
  • In 1950 17 churches existed for every 10,000 Americans.
  • In 1996 11 churches existed for every 10,000 Americans.

6. “Today, of the approximately 350,000 churches in America, four out of five are either plateaued or declining.”

7. One American denomination recently found that 80% of its converts came to Christ in churches less than two years old.

8. Hence the claim of many leaders: “The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches” (Peter Wagner).

Observations on World Poverty

Then consider eight observations about world poverty.2

1. More than 1.5 billion people around the world live on less than a $1 a day.

2. More than one billion people do not have access to clean water.

3. Every year six million children die from malnutrition before their fifth birthday.

4. More than 50 percent of Africans suffer from water-related diseases such as cholera and infant diarrhea.

5. More than 800 million people go to bed hungry every day, 300 million are children.

6. Of these 300 million children, only eight percent are victims of famine or other emergency situations. More than 90 percent are suffering long-term malnourishment and micronutrient deficiency.

7. Declining soil fertility, land degradation, and the AIDS pandemic have led to a 23 percent decrease in food production per capita in the last 25 years even though population has increased dramatically.

8. A woman living in sub-Saharan Africa has a 1 in 16 chance of dying in pregnancy. This compares with a 1 in 3,700 risk for a woman from North America.

These are issues—church planting and concern for the poor—that those who follow Jesus should not ignore. Yet they are amazingly easy to ignore in America. To help us not ignore them, one of the things we have done as a church—and I stress only one of the things—is that when we give to Treasuring Christ Together, which is designed mainly to pay for the renting and purchasing and building of our campuses, we take 10% for church planting and 10% for the Global Diaconate. That would mean, if we are able to give the $4,000,000 to TCT hoped and prayed for in the next fourteen months, $400,000 would go toward reaching the lost through planting new churches and $400,000 would go toward relieving suffering and pointing people to the Jesus who is the only one who can grant relief from eternal suffering. That is what we are praying toward and hoping that you joyfully support.

One of the Ways

The reason I stress that Treasuring Christ Together, with its church planting and Global Diaconate, is only one of the ways we keep perishing people and poor people before our eyes is because the very existence and funding of Bethlehem’s campuses are the basis of a whole array of ongoing ministries, some of which have lasted for 136 years. And the aim of these ministries to children and youth and adults and men and women and singles and seniors and the disabled—worship ministries, racial harmony ministries, small group ministries, counseling ministries, evangelism and outreach ministries, mercy ministries, adoption ministries, pro-life ministries, world missions, and constantly emerging special-focus ministries—the aim of all of this is to awaken and transform thousands of people through our campuses into the kind of Christ-exalting, God-centered, radical, counter-cultural, sacrificial, risk-taking servants who are always involved in reaching the lost and blessing the poor.

In other words, Treasuring Christ Together does two things: It directly pursues the lost and the poor through church planting and the Global Diaconate, and it indirectly does that by providing the campuses where, God willing, people are being molded into that kind of sacrificial servants.

So where did the leadership turn in the Bible to find illumination and inspiration for church planting and concern for the poor? Let me give you two illustrations of what we saw. First, a church-planting experience in Acts 16 and, second, how that very church became passionate for the poor in 2 Corinthians 8:1-4.

A Church Planted

The church in Jerusalem that we saw last week helped plant the church in Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:19-26). The leaders of that church prayed and fasted and sent out Paul as a church-planting missionary (Acts 13:1-5). Watch how God uses him to plant the church in Philippi. Philippi is the chief city in Macedonia in northern Greece—you see that in Acts 16:12.

1. A Business Woman

When Paul arrives there are no Christians that we know of and no churches in Philippi. Paul arrives, and the first place he goes is to a women’s prayer meeting by the river. Verses 13-15:

On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

So there is the first cluster of members in this new church that is coming into being—a business woman, probably well to do, and her household.

2. A Former Fortune-Telling Slave Girl

Second, Paul encounters a demonized girl who is enslaved by her owners and used by them to make money by fortune-telling. Verses 16: “As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling.” She discerned that Paul and Silas were servants of God. So in verse 17, she keeps hollering, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” Verses 18-19 say this went on for days: “This she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers.”

We are not told what became of the girl. But let’s assume she was filled with gratitude and attached herself to Paul’s team and became part of the first church of Philippi. So now there is a business woman and her household and a former fortune-telling slave girl.

3. The Jailer

The uproar over Paul gets him and Silas thrown in jail. But God knows what he is doing. There is one more founder of the church plant in Philippi that he wants included, namely, the jailer. So in verse 25-33, we read:

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.

That is all we hear about the first members of the first church plant in Philippi: a business woman and her household; a former slave-girl; and a city employee, the jailer, with his household. That’s the church plant in Philippi. We found it inspiring because God did it, and he did it with such diverse people. Luke says the Lord opened Lydia’s heart (Acts 16:14); and the name of Jesus delivered the demonized slave girl (Acts 16:18); and the Lord shook the jail with an earthquake. The same power that created the church in Philippi is present by the Word and the Spirit of God today, and we are bold to believe that God will raise up Paul-and-Silas-type church planters that we can fund in the Twin Cities and beyond.

The Poor Cared For

Now turn to 2 Corinthians 8:1-4 for a picture of how this very church loved the poor. Paul is writing to the Corinthians to motivate them to give money for the poor in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:3). To motivate them, he describes what God had done in the church in Macedonia—most notably the Philippian church. Here is what he says about them in 2 Corinthians 8:1-4:

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.

Life had been hard for the little church in Philippi. Verse 2 says they were in a “severe test of affliction” and says that there was “extreme poverty.” But most amazingly, this poverty and affliction overflowed in a “wealth of generosity.” “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.”

Our Dream

So there you see the sort of glimpse that Bethlehem’s leadership got when we turned to the Bible for inspiration and guidance. Churches planted by the power and grace of God. And perhaps just as miraculous, a poor and afflicted people in that new church plant overflowingly free from selfishness and lavishly generous to the poor. This is our dream for Treasuring Christ Together. Being that kind of people. Planting those kind of churches.

The brochure explains what we hope $4,000,000 will do in the next fourteen months. It would help our planning if you would tell us how much you hope to give to TCT this year and next year. That is what the response card is for in the brochure. Thank you so much for doing this. May the Lord grant us to treasure Christ together so deeply that we are freed to be like the Macedonians.

  1. These statistics are taken from a paper by Dave Earley. 

  2. These statistics are from Wikipedia's article on extreme poverty