If Jesus Planted a Church, What Would It Look Like?

If Jesus planted a church, what would it look like?

There’d be lots of miracles and plenty of cryptic sermons, I guess.

And clergy from traditional churches would drop by to tsk-tsk about what he was doing and to ask him curly theological questions.

And you’d never run out of bread at the potluck suppers.

But, seriously, what would a church planted by Jesus look like?

Maybe one way to think about this is to ask if we only had the four canonical gospels to go by, what would the church look like? I don’t ask this to reduce the importance of any part of the New Testament, only as a mental exercise in thinking about what our founder Jesus had imagined the redeemed society of his followers would look like.

Is there enough in the gospels themselves for us to distil the raw material the other New Testament writers draw upon when addressing the church?

While it’s true that Jesus does talk about the church, his primary topic is the kingdom. And not just as subject material. Sure, he teaches about the ethics of the kingdom, and he tells scores of parables to reveal certain facets of the kingdom, but his whole life and ministry points to the kingdom and his kingship. He didn’t just preach about it, he was the bearer and the inaugurator of the kingdom of God.

On this, Timothy George writes,

“[Jesus] despoiled the reign of Satan through the exorcising of demons, he offered forgiveness to sinners and celebrated the eschatological banquet with them, and he asserted divine moral authority in many ways including the striking “but I say unto you” sayings of the Sermon on the Mount. Thus, from the beginning, the content of early Christian preaching was neither a new philosophical worldview nor a code of ethics to improve human behavior, but rather Jesus Christ himself: Jesus remembered in his words and deeds, Jesus crucified, buried, and risen from the dead, and Jesus yet to come again in glory—all of which is included in that earliest of Christian confessions, ‘Jesus is Lord!’.”

So, if we’re thinking about the church that Jesus would plant, it would have to be all about the kingdom. And what exactly is the kingdom of God, as Jesus revealed it?

In their book Kingdom Ethics, David Gushee and Glen Stassen explore the central message of Jesus’ ministry – the kingdom of God – by examining all the references to Isaiah in Synoptic Gospels. As you probably know, the Gospels refer to Isaiah a lot, either by direct quotes or allusions. As Gushee and Stassen say, Isaiah was the primary background of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom. So they line up all of Jesus’ references to the kingdom and all of Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming Messiah and derive what they call “the seven marks of God’s reign.”  Those seven marks are:

  • Deliverance/Salvation – from being oppressed to being set free.
  • Justice – whereby everyone has enough.
  • Peace and Harmony – no more hatred and deception.
  • Healing – no more sickness and disease.
  • Restoration of community as a new family.
  • Joy – people filled with life.
  • The experience of God’s presence.

Here’s what the church that Jesus built looks like – a people who acknowledge him as their king, offering all of their lives under his authority, working on living out this constellation of values:

If we only have the four gospels to go on, this is what a Christian church should look like. Indeed, the rest of the New Testament should be understood as the working out of the implications of this truth – the Messiah has come and his kingdom is at hand and the redeemed society of his followers are a sign, instrument and foretaste of his beautiful reign.  God has spoken through the rest of the New Testament to help us see the fullness of all that a community of Jesus’ followers should look like.

In the church that Jesus planted, the love feast (or Eucharist or Lord’s Supper) would be central. It would be a meal that commemorated the deliverance or salvation we have in Christ. But more than that, it would be a convivial feast (joy) that reveled in our newfound family of faith (restoration) at which everyone was fed (justice) and during which differences and disagreements would be set aside (peace) while we found healing together. And as Jesus himself promised, wherever two or three gather in this way, he is very present among us. Every gathering of believers would reinforce our understanding of God’s kingdom among us and propel us out into the world to find God’s kingdom unfurling there as well.

Of course, we don’t only have the four gospels to go by. Paul’s advice to the Corinthians about how to conduct this feast emerge from the gospels’ teaching about Jesus. Paul’s explanation of the good news to the Romans adds contextual color for a predominantly Gentile congregation. And his pastoral epistles detail the implications for a congregation seeking to live out their salvation by committing to being just, joyful, reconciled, healed, restored family that experience the abiding presence of God.

My point is that there is no disjunction between Jesus’ example and Paul’s ecclesiology. One is the outworking of the other. It’s all seminally there in the gospels themselves. The church is the gathered community of the kingdom.

Not that everyone has always seen it that way. Back in the 19th century, the liberal Catholic scholar Aflred Loisy was famous for drawing the distinction between church and kingdom in his well-known observation, “Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and what we got was the Church.”

It’s like the British spy novelist, John le Carré, who, when asked what it was like having his books turned into Hollywood movies, quipped, “It’s like having your prize ox turned into a bouillon cube.”

Is that what Loisy meant? That Jesus’ grand vision for the kingdom got turned into something small and second-rate called the church? Well, yes, in fact, that is exactly what he meant and many people have tended to agree with him. I’m not one of them, however. Sure, some churches can be mean-spirited, small-minded, and exclusive. I’ve never been backward in criticizing the church when it falls short of all it should be. But is the church a second-rate version of what Jesus had in mind per se?


The church is the gathering of those who have joined together to bend their knee before Christ their king and who are being shaped into citizens of his realm.

The renewal of the church in our time is dependent on the renewal of our understanding of the gospel. And the renewal of the gospel requires the recovery of the centrality of Jesus for life and faith and thought.

We must reJesus our theology as well as our churches.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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7 thoughts on “If Jesus Planted a Church, What Would It Look Like?

  1. I often strive to fulfill the outer values without deeply accepting the central deliverance/salvation . Your article helps me accept where I must begin every blessed day I have on this earth.

  2. This was a wonderful post! And when you mentioned the Lord’s Supper, it reminded me of a extremely astonishing book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by: Lauren Winner.
    It made me realize how lifeless we’ve made the Lord’s Supper. Having tasty, diverse bread would be a start in the right direction.
    My only quibble: you’re quoting a lot of men again. Quote some ladies next time, just to be fair?
    May add more later, got to dash.

    1. Thanks Ada. And thanks for picking me up on only quoting men in this piece.

  3. Mike,
    I agree with you that “The church is the gathering of those who have joined together to bend their knee before Christ their king ” but an increasing number of churches have drifted from this and, being seeker-focused, have deleted the Lord’s Supper altogether. My experience of convivial feasts of joy has been in the house church context where something other than just a sermon and songs are shared. Justice is manifest in every soul having the freedom to share his gift. Actual food is eaten. Life is shared. Love is exchanged. I see these as part of the evidence that Jesus has built His Church there. If a Church is planted by mere men by the will of the flesh it will not have the DNA of Jesus. It will lack all or most of those elements you mentioned.

    You are so right in underlining the nuance between the Church and the Kingdom. In His parting words to us Jesus assured of His Kingdom when he said ‘All power is given unto me in both heaven and earth” but I am struck by the fact that he then gives us our marching orders; not to go and plant churches but to make disciples. I believe with all my heart that if we do what He said we will experience the Church that He is building.

    Blessings to you

    Rob Adams

  4. Mike,
    I appreciated your focus on this. Your sentence. “The church is the gathering of those who have joined together to bend their knee before Christ, their king, and who are being shaped into citizens of his realm.

    In my view, the Bended Knee is the key. This is about Lordship. This is about which spirit/Spirit you will be ruled by. If we go back to the Garden, the key issue was who you want to lead you. The choice was made. Go back to the Garden; you would not go and preach or teach better practices or pick out specific sins of Adam and Eve; you would want what the Father wanted along with their hearts. To allow Him to lead them.

    This verse from Isa says, “Therefore the Lord said: “These people draw near to Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.

    The focus on this verse is the Heart! Who leads the Heart.

    Today we focus on the “practices” with little emphasis on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. When we read the book of Acts repeatedly, the focus was on Jesus and His Lordship. They paid little attention to the day’s practices; instead, they would address them and then lead the conversation that Jesus is Lord, and we need to yield our lives to Him and allow and desire Him to guide us.

    I was saved in the Jesus movement now at my age; I miss hearing about who he is and how by giving our lives to Him not just to ease our consciousness of wrongdoing and sins of the flesh.

    It is disheartening; the back in forth these days on “how to do church,” “how to be missional,” how to…… I see posts of Christians arguing over the “best” practices. Seeing posts on how “this” church got it wrong.

    I am broken-hearted by what I read, and I try to read little in those forums because I feel like it is an adventure in missing the point.

    We need to make sure we are not straining at gnats and swallowing camels. When Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, His real issue was the HEART- He was not trying to get them to improve their practices but to get to the place where they asked the question.” who/what spirit informs my practices.”

    It seems the church is trying to hit all the “hot buttons” today and shying away from His Lord Ship.

    “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

    When is the last time we have heard these words from a pulpit, post, Twitter, FB article?

    Here is a hot topic to illustrate a point – Racial Reconciliation- While I totally embrace those vast injustices that have been and being done, we are one reconciliation off from seeing this healed. Here is the reconciliation that is needed

    Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ: Be reconciled to God.

    Being reconciled to God, His Lordship being ruled by His Spirit. We are much more than a “color”; we are ALL Children. When we allow the Father to rule us, we can see things as He sees them.

    If we pick any topic to discuss, we must bring it to the point of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

    As I typed this reply, I was and am somewhat nervous, sad. Years ago, a mentor of mine said, “our emotions and our words need to match. For instance, if a preacher is speaking about someone going to Hell instead of thundering like a threat or anger, he should sob with a broken heart.

    Who can think of someone being separated from our Father and not be moved to sadness and brokenness?

    You who read this can not hear my Heart nor see the expressions on my face. It is effortless, as we all know to misinterpret the printed page/posts.

    Please know I feel broken and have felt these things over the past couple of years. In many ways, I feel like the weeping prophet.

    I will say the Lord has placed on my heart to begin to look for opportunities to Preach where doors are open. While practices very much matter. What is on my Heart is a compelling message like Jesus himself said, and this is my Life Verse.

    “My prayer is not for them alone. I also pray for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

    One with the Father, Son.Holy Spirit,

    Humbly submitted

    1. Yes, Jack, you’re right. These days, a lot of people want the kingdom (justice, joy, peace) without the king, but you can’t get the one without the other. The kingship of Jesus has to be acknowledged to unlock the beauty and benefits of his kingdom.

  5. Thanks Mike. I’m glad that this question will just not go away – as we practically try to follow Christ’s example and calling (and the gifting and empowerment of the Spirit) as individuals and churches. I’ve often wondered why we don’t have a 3 Timothy – a general church planting manual. I’ve also wondered if 1st Century churches, after receiving a copy of one of the Gospels for the first time, ever said: “Why don’t we do that?” I know there have been those, like John Wimber and the Vineyard Church, who have tried to join Jesus’ kingdom values and ministries with regular, church-based discipleship, trying to incorporate all of Christ’s gifts for equipping – Ephesians 4:12 (also compiling everything thing Jesus did for others, and the lists and descriptions of gifts in the NT, and praying for the kingdom to come). If Jesus was to plant a church now in the 21 Century? The kingdom values manifested in the group and individual disciplines that you introduced in Exiles and/or The Road to Missional I think boils down what modern-day disciples do (who have full-time jobs, families, etc.) – so therefore, what churches do, and what a church would look like from an outsider’s perspective. I used The Road to Missional with a college group and asked them to simply try grafting these practices into their “regular church life”. I think if Jesus planted a church today, he would need to incorporate the theology and practices of the Christians planting with him (like with the 12 disciples), while making entry simple for non and new followers. That is unless he planted specifically for unchurched people, and could start from scratch – but no one seems to start with evangelism and outreach, but small teams really should. I’d like to tweak your question a little and ask: “In the 1st Century, what would the church(s) look like around Jesus and the 12 disciples if he had stayed in one city for 3 years, continued to make disciples, formed congregations, appointed elders, sent out church planters, etc? – would it look different than some of the big city churches (or networks) that we think are missional?” The itinerant aspect of Jesus’ ministry has always made the simple cross-over of kingdom values and ministries to regular discipleship and church life conceptually challenging. But I think Wimber was on the right path, assuming that every-member, gift-orientated ministry would be how the (local) church gets in on what the Spirit is doing, demonstrating the kingdom reign of Christ, through simple individual and group practices. John Wimber wrote Power Points as an intro to Vineyard discipleship, and later Bill Jackson wrote Quest for the Radical Middle. Maybe you have a link to something you’ve written on Wimber’s theology, the Vineyard, kingdom ministries in the church, etc? This came up briefly in a Forge course some years back, but it could have gone much further.

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