This Sunday, October 23, St Matthew’s Anglican Church, Wanniassa, in Canberra, Australia’s Capital, is celebrating its 40th Anniversary. From small beginnings St Matthew’s has not only grown in maturity and in number, but has equipped and sent out many to serve the gospel in other places in Australia and overseas.

As I have been invited to preach at the anniversary service, let me take the opportunity to set out some thoughts about church planting from my experiences both in Canberra and in New York.

God’s plan. The establishment of churches is God’s expectation as people respond to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The ‘church’ in Jerusalem was formed in response to Peter’s preaching on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:42-47). And churches were established in every place where people responded to Paul the Apostle’s preaching (Acts 13ff).

But churches are not simply formed as an outcome of gospel proclamation. Setting up churches can be a strategic means of reaching into new communities or people groups. In Canberra, St Matthew’s Church was set up alongside the city’s expansion. Christ Church New York City was set up in the context of a crowded, long established city as a strategy to reach more people within the city.

The raising up of ministry workers and the development of churches is an application of Jesus’ words: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2).

Colleagues – ‘church planters’. Jesus is saying that because the news of the kingdom of God is for all people, the disciples would not be able to do the work by themselves. Even seventy (or, seventy-two) would not be enough. The work requires far more workers than his followers could have imagined. So, the first task in gospel work is to look, not for converts, but for colleagues. Indeed, the colleagues may form the nucleus of a church that will reach more people.

Prayer. We often forget the picture the Book of Revelation unveils: a vast multitude will inherit the kingdom of God. People, as countless in number as the stars in the sky, will be drawn from every nation and tribe and from every generation. A crowd of this size can’t be reached by a few. Thousands of people will be needed – people who are willing to leave their comfort zones and serve the cause of Jesus Christ. We need to pray to the Lord of the harvest for workers.

Challenges. Jesus is also realistic: ministry will not always be straightforward and acceptable. He warns his first followers that if they and their message are not welcome, they are to warn their hearers of the reality of God’s ultimate judgment (Luke 10:10-11). Ministry can be unpopular, even dangerous work.

Gratitude to God. Luke records the excitement of the seventy when they returned from their mission trip. Many lives had been changed through their ministry. But let’s notice Jesus’ sobering words. As well as alerting his young followers to times of gospel disappointment, he also warned them of the perils of missionary success.

Taking them aside he points out that the arrival of God’s kingdom heralds the downfall of Satan and all his hosts. Preachers of God’s good news will see signs of Jesus’ victory and consequently, changing lives. ‘But’ Jesus says, ‘don’t let this go to your head. Satan fell because of spiritual pride’. ‘Rejoice rather,’ he continues, ‘that your names are written in heaven’ (Luke 10:20).

St Matthew’s Wanniassa in Canberra city is a wonderful example of the way the Lord Jesus Christ works, fulfilling his promise that he will build his church notwithstanding challenges and opposition (Matthew 16:18).

The experience of the small group that came together in those early years verified what the Bible teaches: God uses churches which have effective gospel-centered ministries to reach more people.

Recent research suggests that seventeen percent of the non-churchgoing community would accept an invitation to go to church if invited. Further, thirty-four percent of that number would continue to go to church, many of them inviting others to join them.

Thanks be to the Lord who has mightily provided for St Matthew’s over the years. Despite the challenges and the difficulties at different times – no church is perfect – men and women have come to know the riches of God’s love in Christ. To God Alone be the Glory!

© John G. Mason