There are basically three stages to becoming a church. All are undergirded by prayer.
1) engage in some type of evangelistic outreach to win people to Christ,
2) meet as an outreach group with these new converts until some are baptized,
3) become a church.
Before proceeding, just a word of clarification. We don't try to start churches with people who are already believers, or members of other existing churches. We only target non-yet believers and it is with new converts that we do all our church planting.
All that is needed to start a new church is a worker--a church planter--and a little bit of training. Therefore prayer to the Lord of the Harvest for laborers is high on our priority list.
Once we have a laborer (preferably a pair), we train them in much the same fashion as Jesus did with the 70 in Luke 10. We teach them to...
- work in pairs (vs.1)
- pray (v.2)
- go (v.3)
- don't take...(v.4)
- find the person of peace (v.5,6)
- stay in that house (v.7)
- eat and drink with the POP (v.7,8)
- heal (minister) (v.9)
- proclaim. (v.9)
New believers in outreach groups are led to understand who they are in Christ. They are shown in Scripture that new believers are baptized.
This is the first real test whether or not they have truly given their hearts to Christ. If they back out or want to postpone baptism (for whatever reasons) we continue to work with them as an outreach group. For us the key that opens the door to becoming a church is baptism. Why?
Many Latin Americans with Roman Catholic backgrounds realize that being re-baptized is a clear break with the religion of their fathers. It is a major step. Much like it would be for Baptist readers deciding to make a break with their own church to join the Mormon church. Many times new believers are hesitant to take this step. Sometimes it takes several weeks, even months for them to come around to what we would consider a genuine decision of turning one's life over to Christ.
Once one or more people are baptized, they are the church. No need to make a big deal out of what already is. There are no other in between stages (mission, Bible study, preaching point, etc.) Usually the same day as the initial baptisms, the Lord's Supper will be served to the new followers of Christ. From that point forward they are no longer considered an outreach group, but a church. They will, of course, continue the discipleship process. From the very beginning these new believers look to Jesus as the Head, and to one another for mutual edification, encouragement, nurturing, correction, etc. Church only becomes complicated when we begin adding in to the mix extra-biblical requirements.
Just as a new born baby is a real human being, a group of new born babes in Christ is a real church. As long as they have believers to nurture, lead, and guide them (a church planter), and hopefully apostolic workers behind them for backup and encouragement, the new-born church has a good chance to grow into a maturing body of believers. But as in real life, especially in the third world, many times new born babies die prematurely. The same thing is true for new churches. In our own case we have a high percentage of new church plants that die. Some of the reasons for this have been shared in an earlier post "Why do so many of our church plants fail?"
So therefore, a church is a group of baptized believers who meet regularly together where God has planted them and function as a NT ekklesia.
There is more to it than we have been able to briefly describe here, but this is essentially how we define "church." Any questions, clarifications, observations, etc. are welcome.