Four specific pillars support this thesis about the Great Commission:
Pillar # 1: The Commission Is a Command: Granting for a moment the apostles were commanded to teach Christ’s followers “to observe all that I have commanded you” (v. 20), then we can infer their instruction would include obedience to the Great Commission. If we deny this logic, the church should not teach everything nor baptize since these duties were given only to the apostles.
Pillar # 2: The Commission’s Scope: “Make disciples of all nations” (emphasis mine). Is it possible that these eleven men could circulate to “all nations”? The obvious and technical answer is ‘not-by-a-longshot.’ It’s evident that other people—a lot of people—are in view here.
Pillar # 3: The Commission’s Duration: “To the end of the age.” The Eleven may have been special, but they certainly are not eternal. That means the “you” referenced in verses 20 and 21 refers to people beyond the Eleven. Christ is speaking to the Eleven and to the church lasting to the end of the age.
Pillar # 4: The Commission’s Application: If Acts and the remainder of the New Testament chronicle the early disciples’ understanding and application of the Great Commission, local churches seem to emerge as the fruit, focus, and fuel of missions. Paul’s missionary journeys are essentially church planting ventures. From Acts to Revelation, the missiology of the New Testament is primarily church-based and church-generated. We’ll detail this more in the next section.
To summarize, the Eleven apostles received the Great Commission (v. 16), but the church must finish it. “It was not merely given to the apostles for their ministry,” says John Piper, “but was given to the church for its ministry as long as this age lasts.” A Day has been appointed where Jesus will return to personally wrap up his mission. Until that glorious moment where the heavens rend and the clouds roll back, we are instructed to ‘hasten’ his coming by the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
Entrusted to the Church
Growing up, my mom’s lasagna was a potent palette-pleaser among our clan. Mom always worked from a specific recipe—bequeathed from her mother and preserved through faint scribbling on a worn, crumpled, sauce-spattered 3X5 card. The recipe specified the exact ingredients needed for the best results. Likewise, the Great Commission is the best recipe for responding to God with our mission efforts. As with any “recipe,” the right results spring from careful attention to the Commission’s ingredients.
The Great Commission resonates with initiative and momentum: Go, make disciples, baptizing them, teaching them. The epicenter of this passage lays in verse 19 where Jesus commanded, ‘make disciples.’ As an imperative, the phrase conveys an authoritative direction or command. In fact the commission’s three participles—going, baptizing, and teaching—are weighted with imperatival force because of their semantic connection to this disciple-making command. Nothing here is optional. “Going” without “making disciples” is an aborted commission. “Baptizing” without “teaching” is birth without growth.
For the commission to be great, we need all the ingredients.
Making disciples, baptizing, teaching…where does that actually happen in the New Testament? In other words, what is the locus in Acts and the epistles where the Great Commission was uniquely embraced, embodied, and executed? The answer, of course, is the local church.
Paul the missionary was sent by local churches and received into churches. His labors resulted in more churches and his letters were addressed to churches. The aim of missions is never to separate the work of missions from the church. The aim of missions is creating new local churches through the efforts of local churches.
For Sojourn Network, this is why we believe in church planting.
Church planting establishes a mission base for believers to replicate the Great Commission. Together, we send out planters and teams (go) to reach the lost with the Gospel (baptizing), build the local church (making disciples and teaching them everything), and finally send out new planters and people into the world (go once again, re-starting the cycle). We embody the heart of Christ’s command. We reach with the gospel, build them as the church, and send them into the world as “gospel-ized” churches resulting in more local churches reproducing themselves.
Pairing missiology to a robust ecclesiology does not diminish our regard for parachurch ministries, frontier missionaries, or gifted individuals who operate extra-locally. We are, after all, a network and not a local church. But we derive our existence from local churches and exist to serve churches in their mission to plant churches. And we believe the most biblical approach to missions work will not abandon local church involvement but work instead to keep the local church engaged. Later, we will examine further how Sojourn Network partners with local churches.
Executed by Qualified Pastor-Planters
We are a commissioned church and church planting must be executed by called and qualified planters. This is the section where we tell you what we consider to be a qualified church planter. Before we go there, though, let’s establish a few preliminary ground rules for this discussion. First, Sojourn Network does not approach our profile like it’s a groundbreaking revelation carried down by Moses from Mount Sinai. Our profile represents our best take right now from the data collected, church tradition reviewed, and experienced applied. No ecclesiastical council has met to debate it and we make no promises about each tenet’s permanence.
Secondly, much of what we are looking for are qualities expected of all believers. To have godly character—for instance, to be “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable,” to be “not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money,” and to manage well one’s household, (1 Tim. 3:2–4)—these are claims from which no Christian is exempt. Still, it’s slightly unsettling to see the criteria all assembled in one place, seemingly raining down unreachable standards from a cloud of condemnation. But Sojourn Network is not looking for super-heroes. What we’re actually looking for is God’s grace. This leads to the final clarifying point…
If you are called to plant, then God will deliver the grace, gifting, and godliness necessary to lead this new church. The verb tense carried throughout the two most common passages speaking to the requirements of eldership (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9) is present tense. Paul is not looking here for potential qualities, but present ones. Assembled here are not aspirations for the pastor-planter, but preconditions which have surfaced in the man’s life through the distinct workings of God’s grace. The aim of assessment, then, is to uncover the on-going evidences of grace already present in his life. We want to partner with a candidate to search for God’s empowering activity—to discover God-charged impulses bringing forth the gifts and godliness needed for a successful church plant.
What are these evidences of grace? The Sojourn Network identifies four categories with twelve total components to aid in holistic assessment:
1. Theological Conviction – The planter aligns with Sojourn Network’s Statement of Faith and doctrinal distinctives. In broad strokes, he is reformed soteriologically, baptistic, complementarian, connectional, continuationist, and committed to planting an elder-led church by practicing plurality. For a more complete reading list on our theological convictions, please click here.
1. Holistic Vision – The planter believes all theology is practical and all practice is theological. His convictions are consistent and cognizant to the theological framework of the Sojourn Network consisting of Whole Vision (God’s Glory, Our Growth, and Great Commission) displayed by the Whole Gospel (Kingdom, Cross, Grace), forming the whole church (Worshiper, Disciple, Family, Servant, Witness) fueled into the Whole World (Home, Work, Neighborhood, Need, and Nations) and changing a the Whole Person from the inside out into every part of their lives (see Sojourn Network’s theological vision, North Star). The planter articulates a missional urgency for the holistic restoration of broken people, places, and things. Embracing a theology of presence, he is convinced his church is in this specific city/region for the glory of God and the good of that city/region. In whatever ways possible, he is committed to cultivating environments to overcome ethnic, generational, socio-economic, and gender barriers.
2. Gathered/Scattered Ministry Strategies – As the planter works his theological convictions through a holistic theological framework, certain Scripturally-rooted, local ministry strategies necessarily manifest themselves. These shared strategies in Sojourn Network churches include gathering together (Hebrews 10:25; Acts 2:46), preaching/teaching (John 21:15-17; 2 Tim. 4:1-2), scattering together (Acts 2:46-47), equipping (Eph. 4:11-12), leading the church (1 Peter 5:13), discipling the saints (Matt. 28:19), engaging the culture (Jer. 29:4-7), serving the poor (James 1:27; also, see Beyond Charity by Nathan Ivey), and multiplying the church locally, nationally, internationally (Acts 1:8). Rather than leading our churches to adopt the same local programs and practices, however, these shared biblical strategies help inform and lead to a diverse and highly contextualized suite of local church programs and ministry practices common in Sojourn Network churches. Further, these strategies reflect the theological convictions and holistic theological vision outlined above.
3. Multiplication Mindset – With a conviction about gospel saturation and possessing a robust ecclesiology, the planter seeks to multiply disciples and churches. He understands redemptive history and his God-given place within it, and he seeks to obey the Great Commission in his personal example and does the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4: 5; see Being a Gospel Witness by Daniel Montgomery). In his evangelistic and discipleship fervor, he is devoted to and dependent upon the Lord, knowing the results are in the Father’s hands (see A Theology of Church Multiplication by Jamin Stinziano).
5. Spiritual Vitality – The planter has a clear love for Jesus. The fruit of the Spirit is growing and evident in his life. There are discernable marks of a growing dependence upon the Holy Spirit. His character is marked by faithfulness to the Lord and a commitment to pursue intimacy with him. He actively engages with God through the Scriptures, prayer, and other spiritual-disciplines. His life—physical, emotional, sexual, financial, rhythms of work and rest (see Why Retreat? by Mike Cosper) etc.—reflects this vibrancy and others appear to be spiritually provoked by him.
6. Humility –The planter is self-aware, knowing his place before the Lord as redeemed and being redeemed. He owns both his strengths and weaknesses. He embraces his dignity as an image-bearer and lives out his calling in service to Christ and others. He does not think of himself too highly, nor is there a contrived self-deprecation. He is teachable, and therefore knows the need for others to speak into his life, including his friends, spouse, and a local plurality of men in his local church (see The Plurality Dashboard: 4 Indicators For Inspecting the Health of a Plurality by Dave Harvey).
7. Pastoral Aptitude – In submission to Christ, the candidate displays leadership qualities unique to the calling of “pastor.” He senses a call for this type of caring influence and others affirm this fruit in his life. He also understands the need to equip God’s people and release them to minister in their spiritual giftedness. He is not domineering, but rather he serves those under his care.
8. Preaching Aptitude – The candidate appears able to handle the Scriptures faithfully. His preaching is empowered by the Spirit, exalts Christ, and articulates the Father’s heart. He exhibits an awareness of the biblical narrative and seems capable of communicating God’s Word in a winsome and understandable manner. Past preaching opportunities have led to others (local elders) affirming his calling and giftedness in this area.
9. Leadership Aptitude – The planter is entrepreneurial with a vision for where God is leading, a willingness to go there, and an ability to bring others along with him. He is both knowledgeable and invested in the brokenness of the community where he desires to plant. There are compelling qualities in his leadership, such as the endurance to push through setbacks, losses, disappointment, and failure. He is adaptable, able to shift priorities, and handle multiple tasks while staying focused on the mission. Further, the planter collaborates towards unity when leading teams of people.
1. The Planter’s Home – If applicable, the candidate has a flourishing marriage in which God’s glory is on display. In his grace, God is using the planter’s wife as a primary instrument to encourage, strengthen, and sanctify her husband. Both the candidate and his wife seem clear on their roles within marriage and, though not perfect, their union brings joy to the couple and others who know them. If applicable, the planter’s children are growing up in a home where they see and experience their earthly father in devotion to his heavenly Father, while also loving and serving Christ his wife, his kids, the Church, and the community. Neighbors, outsiders, and the needy are welcomed into his life and home with warm compassion.
1. The Planter’s Local Church – The candidate is currently a member of a church, has a track record of humble service and leadership in some local church, and has submitted his call to plant a church to his local church’s leadership for assessment and affirmation (see How Do We Partner [With Local Churches] to Assess Church Planters? by Dave Harvey). He is not planting reactively or impulsively, but prayerfully and in community with others who affirm his calling and gifting.
1. The Planter’s Network Chemistry – The candidate exhibits characteristics that are consistent with Sojourn Network and appears able to articulate why planting through Sojourn Network is the right decision for both his church and himself. He also appears to accurately comprehend the blessings and limitations of the network (see What We Mean When We Say Care by Dave Harvey), understands what it means for churches to partner and has faith to sign the SN Partnership Agreement. The candidate is postured to both receive from and pour into the network. He desires to partner at a local, regional, and national level and appears to connect relationally with other pastors and ministry leaders. In fact, the desire to develop meaningful relationships is a desire and priority for a potential SN planter-pastor. The category of ‘chemistry’ ultimately means that the candidate’s presence in the network would likely move the mission forward and other pastors would probably be drawn to leading and learning with him.
Contextualized to Culture
In his native city, everyone liked Sal’s preaching. But when he moved to the rolling foothills of Tennessee, Sal’s theological language and illustrations from church history fell from his lips to the sanctuary floor with a thud. He was a stellar church planting candidate. He was likeable, caring, gifted, and a distinguished graduate from a respected seminary. But what happened?
Ken, an urban pastor, believes the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. He holds that conviction so deeply he feels like gospel preaching is the only thing his inner-city congregation really needs. After all Ken was once an opioid addict liberated from his prison by the gospel. He wants others to experience and enjoy the same power that set him free. Still, Ken is relatively unknown within his community. He rarely attends any neighborhood events and spends much of his time office-bound doing sermon-preparation. After two years, he is disillusioned and ready to give up. “Nobody listens to me,” he laments to his wife. “Why do I still feel like an outsider in my own city?”
Both Sal and Ken remind us that, to use the SN vernacular, head, heart, hands and habitat are wonderful to behold, but not necessarily enough for church planting success. Gifting, or even a great wife, do not constitute a slam-dunk in the planting world. Church planters must love their community well enough to understand it, to speak its language clearly while sharing the gospel within the culture they inhabit. In the parlance of missiology, they must be assessed for how well they ‘contextualize.’
This section is not meant to be an extensive analysis of the study, history or essentiality of contextualization. Such an endeavor, while legitimate, is beyond the scope of this paper and may already be assumed by the audience. The goal, rather, is to provide a broad overview of what kind of contextualization is necessary for church planting through Sojourn Network.
Not A Brand
Sojourn Network has a Statement of Faith and a set of values we joyfully affirm. At the same time, we are devoted to ensuring our model adapts appropriately to the specific people and cultures where God calls us. We are not seeking to ‘brand’ Sojourn Network, nor do we desire to populate our land with look-alike churches. Alas, we are a young network and we are still learning. The way we think about contextualizing as a network has not yet been tested by time, or trials, or sustained dissent.
This is not alarming, but humbling. Culture can confound and we must recognize that the gospel is never proclaimed outside of culture and all churches are planted within some culture or cultures.
Planting aware of culture, and adapting, where permissible and appropriate, is the aim of our contextualization. Towards that end, we want to affirm two applications of contextualization vital to our model.
Contextualizing, at least in the way we encourage it, begins with hearing the heart language of a people. Looking and listening are the keys. Do we hear and understand what specifically drives our new community? Are we able to exegete the culture we inhabit? A culture carries values. As you listen, ask and look: what shared beliefs and standards appear to be surfacing? What seems important to the people you are called to reach? What are their hopes, dreams, idols, fears, symbols and stories? Can we define how they understand and reach for the ‘good life’?
Don’t settle for superficial surveys; a little digging can unearth invaluable cultural treasures of insight. What are their felt needs? How does sin and brokenness express itself uniquely within this community?
Most church planters assimilate into their community; for church planters, it’s a first step, perhaps even a heroic step. But real church planting begins by arriving with eyes wide open even if our location is a familiar space. We must learn to speak the language and understand the values of the community we serve. Both Sal and Ken, our church planters above, lived within their community borders without truly understanding the people they were called to serve.
A church planter should be fluent in the community’s heart language—their values, metaphors, the way they mourn, celebrate and gather together. Luke records one day while waiting for Silas and Timothy, the Apostle Paul was strolling through Athens when, “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). The Athenians worshipped hundreds of idols. They even had one ‘to the unknown god,’ just to make sure no one was excluded.
As Paul saw this city submerged in idols, his spirit was provoked. He was deeply distressed. We often think of provocation only in negative terms. For Paul, provocation revealed perception. He was distressed because he understood that the Athenians were seduced by paganism and pantheism. They felt truth was only a voyage, never a destination. “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:20).
Paul studied Athens. He walked through the community, stopping and stooping to read the idol inscriptions. What did having an altar to an unknown god mean to them? Paul understood that culture not only carries values but reveals needs. By listening, he was able to discover those needs. The Athenians’ lostness began to take shape in Paul’s mind. He gained gospel insight. The community’s heart language began to be heard. 
For a doctor, diagnosing the illness is an essential step but not the only step. For a doctor to heal, he or she must supply the solution. Likewise, in gospel speech, contextualization supplies the solution of the gospel in a wise and loving way.
When Paul stood to speak to the Athenians, he was prepared. He informed them of what he learned (Acts 17:22-23). Then he skillfully used the ‘altar to an unknown god’ to bridge over to the gospel. Paul saw the idol as a kind of “redemptive analogy”—a gospel analogy set within the culture—to provide a bridge from the Athenians to Jesus. Paul didn’t just understand the problem of idol worship, he knew how to prescribe the solution. Knowing the heart language provided the opportunity for gospel speech.
Gospel speech for a church planter happens as he displays a facility for connecting community brokenness to gospel hope. Gospel speech moves us beyond simply perceiving idols or protesting idols to unveiling how the gospel speaks lovingly and prophetically to a people enslaved by idolatry.
Paul continues his tutorial to us on how to contextualize by turning a cultural artifact, the ‘altar to an unknown god,’ into an Intro to Theology course: He speaks of God the Creator (v. 24), God the Sustainer (v. 25), God the Ruler (v. 26), God the Father (v. 28-29), and God the Judge (v. 31). Paul continues by referencing a popular hymn by Epimendes (v. 28), cites a stoic poet, and then lands the sermon with a call to repentance. Paul spoke Greek, thought Greek, and loved these Greeks enough to contextualize the unchanging gospel to speak to the Athenian heart.
Gospel speech means Paul was able to see what the Athenian idols revealed about their longings, desires, and sins in order to point them to Jesus. He set before them examples from their music, religious life, and books using gospel speech to trace the image of God for the Greek mind and heart. Paul was neither hip (pandering to pop culture) nor a fundamentalist (reacting to the world with rules and laws).
This is gospel speech. Sal and Ken were never assessed for it. As a result, they arrived to their mission fields with the right skills but ignorant on how to navigate the terrain.
It’s not enough to send church planters to the field. We must ensure they know the right language.
Connected Through Partnerships
Sojourn Network is a family of autonomous churches spread across the United States. While treasuring the robust eldership, local accountability, and local innovation stirred by our autonomy, our pastors still desire a well-defined interdependence and ecclesiological unity with other leaders and churches for mission effectiveness. Sojourn Network exists for this reason. Our purpose is primarily missional and relational, not hierarchical or governmental. To find the authorization for our existence, we look to the connectional nature of New Testament missions.
Paul’s ministry in the New Testament forms a beautiful pattern: Paul establishes a church in a new location, he moves on to plant another church in a new city or region, and then he returns to previously planted churches to further cultivate his connection with them. Paul’s ongoing cultivation of relationships and collaboration amongst a diverse body of churches strengthens those churches, encourages their leaders, and advances the gospel in tangible ways.
Every generation of leaders must strive to enjoy the kind of fruitful interdependence that reproduces this biblical pattern. “The narrative of Paul’s missionary work,” writes Eckhard Schnabel, “provides a paradigm, a model for the mission of the church.” 
Perhaps these churches could have survived on their own. But history proves they were better together. They gave generously to the poor together, they helped plant more churches throughout the Mediterranean together, and in the coming centuries they would contend for orthodox theology together.
Radical autonomy is never celebrated or encouraged in the Scriptures, nor within the Trinity. The need for deep connection across diverse churches does not undermine the autonomy of local churches anymore than the deep communion experienced between Father and Son diminishes the role of the Spirit. In other words, a church leadership choosing to lead with absolute independence from other churches is missing God’s design for both local and universal church.
There is room in Scripture for various ways to reflect this interdependence and we must be careful not to overly spiritualize our own preferences or traditions. “Networks”  exist to balance the tension between God’s local design for congregations and his global design for vitally connected churches. Professor of Missions, Paul Hiebert, puts it this way:
“The future of missions is based in the formation of international networks rather than multinational organizations. Networks build up people, not programs [sic]; they stress partnership and servanthood, not hierarchy; they help to build up the local church, not undermine it.”
Networks are voluntary associations, not hierarchical obligations. They are at their best when flexible, dynamic and nimble. Their focus should not be on growing the organization, but rather strengthening and equipping churches for mission. However, while we necessarily talk in terms of network ‘churches’, the primary target for network training, counseling and care is really pastors. Aiming at pastors rather than whole churches ensures the network does not create mission goals without the role or authority to achieve them. So the aim of strengthening churches is achieved primarily through the training and care of pastors. But the lines here are soft enough to allow networks to speak of ‘member churches’ or ‘churches partnering together’ over merely a club of like-minded pastors.
Therefore, Sojourn Network’s working definition for what it means to be connected through partnership or, to be more specific, what we mean by ‘church planting network’ is as follows:
A church planting network is a group of churches joyfully partnering through pastors to start churches, train leaders, and supplement the care of pastors.
How Do We Partner In Assessment
Roles are the lifeblood of partnerships. Where they are present, clear, and readily embraced a union pulses with life. Marriage endures because the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ have clear meaning to the couple. The British music invasion of the sixties would have stalled on the beach if the Beatles had all played the same instrument. The Temptations, the Stones, the Red Hot Chili Peppers–there’s just no rock without roles. Think business or entertainment: Hewlett and Packard, Ben and Jerry, Penn and Teller; the Batman, and his lamentably-named sidekick Robin. Each alliance flourishes, not only because of a partnership but due to specific roles within the partnership.
Scratch a fruitful partnership anywhere and it will bleed clear roles. Sojourn Network partners with pastors of local churches to plant churches. Vital to this mission is the assessment of church planters. Both the network and the local church play vital roles in this glorious endeavor; both must comprehend and gladly affirm those roles. Meaningful service to the man and mission effectiveness for the network demand it.
An abridged summary of values guiding our division of roles in assessment would include:
1. When it comes to assessing leaders for mission, the local church represents the first and most circumspect eyes for assessment. This means:
1. The local church models a healthy church with healthy pastors.
2. The local church incubates and supplies church planters.
3. The local church starts assessing potential planters in vital areas (character, family, and gifting).
1. The Sojourn Network, likewise, must be clear on its unique role - to serve the local church by marshalling proven ministry experience and specialized expertise. This means:
1. Sojourn Network requires the sponsorship of a local Sojourn Network church.
2. Sojourn Network confirms theological depth and gospel grip.
3. Sojourn Network assesses the candidate for Sojourn Network DNA (12 Components, see page XX).
4. Sojourn Network corroborates character depth, marital health, and leadership breadth.
5. Sojourn Network confirms public ministries skills sufficient to plant and pastor a healthy church.
We are a new network of less than 5 years. When it comes to wise and fruitful partnerships, there is still so much to learn. Clarifying our roles in assessments is an important step along this path. Still, our trust is not anchored upon our assessment model, defined roles, or the size of our network. We stand confident and united because Another was assessed in our place and found condemned, that we might walk in freedom and liberty; that we might stand united for the mission; that we might bow together before ‘the name that is above all names’ (Phil. 2:9-10).
WHY PLANT CHURCHES?
How often does the mere subject line of an unread email grab you? It happened to me a while back when I received an email where the subject line of read “Why Plant Churches?”
The email came from a guy in a church we planted. He spoke of his father, a man entrenched in his apathy toward God. Prayers were lifted, tears were shed, but nothing seemed to penetrate the steely cynicism within his dad. Eventually a church planter came to town, God smiled on the launch, and in the process of outreach, the newly minted church came in contact with the dad who was dead in sin and lost in the world.
The grace of God through the people of God is fragrant and the father began to smell the aroma of Christ. The men of this new church were reaching out—a breakfast here, a golf game there, kind words and deeds—all simply to be a friend and communicate God’s love to this man. Slowly, God’s grace prevailed, and the gospel took hold of the father’s heart. On an evening marked from eternity past, the father bowed his knee to Jesus. Several weeks later he was baptized. Now, years later, he passed from this world into the arms of the Savior.
In relating this story through the email, the man’s son, a quiet observer of this entire odyssey, wrote to say he now understood why we labor to identify church planters. We plant churches to see dads reconciled to God and then to their kids. We plant churches to see the power of God in hearts of broken people. We plant churches because it’s about life and death, with eternity hanging in the balance.
Church planting is hardly efficient or expedient. Church planters toil in the shadows of hard places over time to reach sinners. Church planting also consumes an enormous amount of time, energy, and finances.
If you are looking for flashy or statistically impressive ways to spread the gospel, church planting would be low on the list.
But if we truly want to plant churches that will make a difference to a community—churches that multiply and that will ultimately last—the most effective way is the biblical way: one church planter at a time.
….and that’s why we plant churches.