The Holy Spirit and Church Planting, Pt. 1

Is it possible to successfully plant a growing church in the eyes of the world and do it all without the power of the Holy Spirit? In Francis Chan’s book Forgotten God he argues that, “a group of talented, charismatic leaders can draw a crowd. Find the right creative team, musicians, and speakers, and you can grow any church. It doesn’t even have to be a Christian church…My point is that a growing and energetic gathering is not necessarily evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work.”[1]

Chan is making a profound observation. Every week there are plenty of growing and energetic gatherings that are not a result of the Holy Spirit’s power. For example, thousands of Mormon, Muslim, Unitarian, and Jehovah’s Witness gather each week for worship. Sadly, in addition hundreds of dead “Christian” churches gather each week and almost all of these theologically liberal churches have denied the gospel.

Therefore, these realities indicate it is possible to successfully plant a growing church in the eyes of the world and do it all without the power of the Holy Spirit. If a growing and energetic gathering is not necessarily evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work, then what exactly is evidence of his work? In other words, what does it look like to plant a church by the power of the Holy Spirit? In this first post I hope to provide an answer to that question by looking the work of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. In the next post I will answer the “how” question. Namely, how does someone or a group go about planting a church that is led by the Holy Spirit? What are the methods and principles that must be applied to the church planting process to ensure that it is in fact the Spirit who is leading? If these posts accomplish its purpose then it will have clearly explained not only what spirit-led church planting looks like, but also how spirit-led church planting happens.


In the book of Acts the Holy Spirit is referenced almost 60 times. We do not just see the Holy Spirit referenced all over the book from beginning to end, but we also see him referenced in some of the most important sections of the book. For example, Acts 1:8 has often been cited as the theme verse of the entire book, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Many commentators have used this verse to summarize the content of the entire book.

In chapter one we see the disciples waiting for the Holy Spirit. In chapter two we see the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. From chapter 2 to chapter 7 the text is primarily concerned with the witness of the disciples in Jerusalem. Then the gospel spreads to Samaria in Acts 8 through Philip’s ministry. Finally, the Holy Spirit gives the disciples power to spread the gospel to Caesarea, which would be representative of the Gentile world and “the ends of earth.” We should not be surprised to hear that many have described this book not as “the Acts of the Apostles” but as “the Acts of the Holy Spirit.”

Although there are plenty of reasons to describe the book of Acts this way, it seems better to go with Sinclair Ferguson’s description in his book The Holy Spirit. “The Acts of the Apostles is not so much ‘the Acts of the Holy Spirit’ but the continuing Acts of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.”[2] It is not too surprising to read a quote like this from a Presbyterian, but he makes a good point and the rest of his book makes an even greater argument to support his point. Luke wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. It fits better with the overall context of Luke-Acts to see the book of Acts more as the continuing work of Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit in Acts is the fulfillment of the promise Christ made when he said would send the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, even with Ferguson’s refocusing our attention back to the witness of Christ as the central theme of the book, the Holy Spirit is still the agent through which this witness occurs. The Holy Spirit is indeed the central force of the church in Acts. This is what Francis Chan observes as he reads Acts, “when I read the book of Acts, I see the church as an unstoppable force. Nothing could thwart what God was doing, just as Jesus foretold: ‘The gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matt. 16:18). The church was powerful and spreading like wildfire, not because of clever planning, but by a movement of the Spirit.”[3] In part two I will explain why clever and careful planning should not be put at odds with the movement of the Spirit, but for now I think Chan is right to say that the Holy Spirit was the driving force of the early church.

Consider the following ways the Holy Spirit guided the early church[4] to be a witness for Jesus Christ in Acts 2:4, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance,” to be comforted and filled with joy in Acts 9:31, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied,” to be of one mind in Acts 15:28, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements,” to choose leaders in Acts 20:28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood,” to set apart and send church planters in Acts 13:2-4, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus,” to plant churches in specific geographical areas in Acts 16:6-7, “And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them,” to exercise judgment in Acts 5:3, 9, “But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit… But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord?,” and the Holy Spirit even guides Paul into situations of persecution for the overarching purpose of proclaiming the gospel in Acts 20:22-23, “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.”

There is a direct connection between the mission of the church to be witnesses for Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. In his book on evangelism Alvin Reid points out that the Holy Spirit directly speaks four times (Acts 8:29-35; 10:19-20; 13:2; 28:25-26) and each time he says, “GO!”[5] Additionally we see a similar connection when Luke speaks in Acts about people being “filled with the Spirit.” There has been plenty of controversy about what exactly it means to be filled with the Spirit, especially in the last one hundred years as we have seen the growth of the charismatic movement.

However, there is one thing that we should not lose sight of in these debates and that is when the Spirit filled believers their immediate response was to share Christ. For this is what happened in Acts 6 and 7 when they spoke of Stephen being filled with the Holy Spirit as well as with Barnabas and Paul in Acts 11:24 and 13:9 respectively. All throughout acts we see the Holy Spirit filling people and leading the church to make a witness for Christ. This work of the Spirit led to great church growth and the start of many news churches. Some have suggested that great commission and the blessing of the Holy Spirit was given only to the Apostles. However, this could not be further from the truth. As Reid summarizes the evangelistic activity in the book of Acts he notes that all believers witnessed personally in the culture, all believers lived their faith and pursued their mission daily, they reached people and formed churches, they declared an unchanging, timeless message, they gave testimony to the gospel’s impact on their lives, they shared Christ in the face of tremendous obstacles, and they were willing to adapt their approach when needed.[6] Clearly the Holy Spirit was active in all of the church in all sorts of ways. The mission of the church to share Christ and plant churches was not at all something that limited to the apostles.

The final thing we must consider is whether or not the work of the Holy Spirit in Acts is normative for the church today. If Acts should only be understood as being descriptive and not prescriptive, then there would be no biblical basis from part one of this paper to build off as we move to part two. Again this issue has been debated much in the church and Ferguson’s summary bring a lot of clarity to these issues:

The inaugural outpouring of the Spirit creates ripples throughout the world as the Spirit continues to come in power. Pentecost is the epicenter; but the earthquake gives forth further after-shocks. Those rumbles continue through the ages. Pentecost itself is not repeated; but a theology of the Spirit which did not give rise to prayer for his coming in power would not be a theology of ruah! We have seen, then, there are these two dimensions to Pentecost: the redemptive-historical and the personal-existential. The former is once for all and unrepeatable; the latter elements should be viewed as aspects of the ongoing ministry of the Spirit.[7]

This image of an earthquake proves very useful in understanding not only the events surrounding Pentecost, but the entire book of Acts. We should understand some events as descriptive and unrepeatable because they are unique to the history of redemption. However, we should also understand many of the events in Acts as the after-shocks. This means some of these after-shocks are in fact prescriptive and normative in the church today and will continue to be until Christ returns. In conclusion, it is entirely appropriate for us to take what we have learned from Acts and develop principles or methods for church planting today.


[1] Francis Chan, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit. (David C. Cook, 2009) 141.

[2] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (IVP Academic, 1997) 82-83.

[3] Chan, Forgotten God, 155.

[4] The following list comes from Malcolm B.Yarnell III’s chapter on the Holy Spirit found in A Theology for the Church (Nashville , Tenn: B & H Academic, 2007) 617.

[5] Alvin Reid, Evangelism Handbook: Biblical, Spiritual, Intentional, Missional (B&H Books, 2009).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 91.


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Filed under Acts, Church Planting, Evangelism, God, Missions, The Church

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