Sunday, July 26

When is a church a church?

For us it is a fairly simple process. Church is not a complex institution. It is a living, growing organism. Therefore what we consider "church" is far simpler than what many think of when contemplating First Baptist Church, Bible Belt, USA.

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)
Once we have a group of people who have made professions of faith, the discipleship process continues but is done so as a group. The group meeting can be anywhere from 2-3 people, to as many as fit inside the meeting place. They are initially called an "outreach group." Outreach groups will sing, pray, study the Word, minister to one another, even collect offerings, but they are not a church.

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.


Dan said...

I can't in any way say that I was trying to plant a church on my ship (USS Antietam) because I didn't bring a single person to Christ, despite attempts. Nevertheless, I believe we had a small church, of the type you discuss, on my ship.
In fact, I baptized one of my shipmates yesterday in the Pacific Ocean.
I love what I read on your blog about churches and what they really are. Thank you.

GuyMuse said...


Do you currently serve in the USS Antietam? That is really neat about getting to baptize someone in the ocean. Thanks always for your kind comments.

Dan said...

Yes, I'm currently on the Antietam, at least for another year. Not too sure where I'm headed to next.

Thanks for your encouragement!

ian vincent said...

Dear Guy,

Isn't it up to the Head of the Church, Christ, to determine who becomes a part of a fellowship in a certain area?

If we make a rule about that aren't we playing God?

Wouldn't it be great if all those who are Christ's in each locality would fellowship together for His purpose on a daily basis?

It's a good subject, refreshing to hear someone broach it and actively doing it.

ian vincent

GuyMuse said...


Yes, Christ is the Head. He is the one who said, "I will build my church." This whole definition thing has long been a sore spot with me, as everyone seems to have some kind of idea of what a church is, and is not. You are correct in what you point out, but for those of us in church planting it is important to have some kind of understanding of what we are talking about and being able to back our "definitions" with Scripture.

Anonymous said...

Ok, then what is the Scriptural basis for believing that a new church should not comprise people from other churches and only new converts?

GuyMuse said...


The church is made up of only believers. The reason we focus on not-yet believers and/or new believers exclusively is that we have had a problem being accused of "sheep stealing" from existing churches. If a believer from an existing church wants to join one of the newly forming house churches, we don't prohibit it outright, but we do encourage them to come to a training so that they can go out and start a new church plant themselves. On a few occasions when an existing believer from a church wants to begin meeting with us, we have gone with them to talk with their pastor to make sure it is understood that they are doing so on their own, and not anything we have done to try to persuade them to leave their church. It is just a lot easier to work with new believers than existing believers coming out of churches with a lot of baggage. Hope this helps!