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Posts from June 2016

Why We Plant Churches & New Campuses

Back in 2011 I attended the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Phoenix with one of my good friends. It was during this conference we began to pray about the journey of planting churches. The North American Mission Board was unveiling the "Send City" strategy and the impact of reaching people in strategic areas around the US and Canada. Our church had already partnered with a church planter—Chase Delperdang of Tucson, Arizona. The partnership was our first foray into this updated strategy of community engagement.

Over the years, we have partnered with planters in cities such as Portland, Colorado Springs, and Los Angeles. We fund as a sending church a family in Toronto and and another in Washington, DC.

Even as we have continued these relationships and seek to discover ways to support more fully, God continues to call us and challenge us to engage in our own community even more. 

We are an active support and assessing church for our local network and have recently created our own mini-network for the purpose of reaching more people in our community and surrounding towns. We know this is what we must do and yet, some, even within our church wonder why.

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Why Invest in Church Planting?

Some argue that planting churches is nothing more than a trendy movement. I have even heard some declare it to be unbiblical. Even when pointed to the unfolding of the church's expansion in the book of Acts, there are some who protest and do not see these as synonymous. Yet, I deem a church planting movement as not a new idea, but an outgrowth of cultural engagement and affirming, if not fulfilling, the words of Acts 1:8.

Granted, the term "church planting" is not in the Bible. However, disciple-making is and while some scoff that church planting is little more than institutional promotion, the reality is that healthy church plants (i.e. new expressions of local church bodies, grounded upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ) lead to the fulfillment of the Great Commission and Great Commandment. God is honored and loved. People are loved. Disciples are made.

That being said, the varied church plants we sponsor are led by men called by God to make disciples of Jesus Christ. This is about Kingdom-growth, plain and simple. When church planting fails in this area, it fails fully.

A few years ago, Ed Stetzer, then of LifeWay Research and himself a church planter wrote an article focused on why established churches should plant new works. Here is an abbreviated list of his reasons (full article may be found here.)

  • Church planting reaches lost people. Now retired Executive Director-Treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, John Sullivan stated in a denominational meeting that new churches reach lost people at a better rate than established churches. He stated that we don't know exactly why this is, but the results prove it to be true.
  • Church planting follows a biblical pattern. Church planter, John Worcester gives a good overview of church planting as a function of the New Testament church in the video embedded below. His site is churchplanting.net 
  • Church planting is essential for survival. For any movement to thrive, it must multiply. 
  • Church planting benefits the planting church. When life change occurs within the ministries and plants sponsored by a church, the Lord energizes the "dry bones" for His glory.
  • Church planting is necessary to reach North America. This is the foundation of the Send strategy.
  • There's never a good time to plant - do it anyway.

In addition to planting and supporting new church plants, we are expanding into other regions of our community with satellite campuses. Churches have done this for years and we hosted a couple of campuses in years past. We did much well, but also learned from some 20/20 hindsight as to how to map and strategize better. There are numerous options when it comes to satellite campuses. Our model is to plant these in community schools, focused on reaching families, while serving the community. Each campus will have an on-campus minister and messages will be live, not video presentations. At this time, our new campuses will meet on off-days and times from the traditional Sunday morning. Go to creek.church and island.church to see a brief preview of where we will launch.

Why Put a Campus Where There Are So Many Other Churches?

One question that continues to be raised by friends about these campuses focuses on location and "why?" In each case, there are numerous other churches (of varying flavors) around. Yet, there are some demographic realities that have become clear as we have studied the areas. The truth is that the majority of those in the communities, even with numerous other churches around, do not attend any church of any type.

Some would say, "But if they wanted to attend, there are enough options. Why plant another?"

The simple answer is because we believe God is calling us to do so.

I was talking ton one friend about the Fleming Island area where we hope to plant Island Church next spring. There are numerous churches in this highly populated area. In addition to a young, large Baptist Church there are Catholic, Methodist, Anglican and even a new, fast-growing ARC church. Each is unique and yet, many are not engaged. The lostness in the community is overwhelming, as is the case in most every area in our nation.

In Fleming Island, at the corner of the two major roads are six pharmacies. It seems odd, but at Walmart, Winn-Dixie, Target, Publix, CVS, and Walgreens, residents can get their prescriptions filled as well as purchase other desired and needed items. Six pharmacies! Isn't that too many? Wouldn't one be enough? Well, apparently no. Each one seems to be doing well and apparently there are many, many people in our community purchasing legal drugs. The rumors are that the illegal ones are pretty rampant as well, but because it's a nice community they seem to be mostly designer drugs...but, I digress (too many cop friends, I guess.)

It's not exactly a fair comparison, but if there's a need for six pharmacies for physical ailments, surely there's a need for as many "spiritual pharmacies" that God desires to address the spiritual ailments of the people. 

So, we are planting a new campus, in Fleming Island and near Orange Park South. While these two areas are close, the demographics are vastly different. The barriers (bridges, waterways, divided highways, subdivisions, etc.) clearly create separate communities where the church is needed.

We Plant for the Sake of God's Kingdom

Tim Keller put it well in his article "Why Plant Churches"...

WE PLANT CHURCHES AS AN EXERCISE IN KINGDOM-MINDEDNESS.

All in all, church planting helps an existing church best when the new congregation is voluntarily birthed by an older “mother” congregation. Often the excitement and new leaders and new ministries and additional members and income wash back into the mother church in various ways and strengthen and renew it. Although there is some pain in seeing good friends and valued leaders go away to form a new church, the mother church usually soon experiences a surge of high self-esteem and an influx of new, enthusiastic leaders and members.

However, a new church in the community usually confronts churches with a major issue—the issue of “kingdom-mindedness.” New churches, as we have seen, draw most of their new members (up to 80%) from the ranks of the unchurched, but they will always attract some people out of existing churches. That is inevitable. At this point, the existing churches, in a sense, have a question posed to them: “Are we going to rejoice in the 80 percent—the new people the kingdom has gained through this new church—or are we going to bemoan the situation and resent the three families we lost to it?” Our attitude to new church development is a test of whether our mindset is geared to our own institutional turf or to the overall health and prosperity of the kingdom of God in the city.

Any church that is more upset by its own small losses than grateful for the kingdom’s large gains is betraying its narrow interests. Even so, as we have seen, the benefits that new church planting offers to older congregations is very great, even if not initially obvious.

A New Metric

As we move forward in our planting and campus launching, we seek to do what every church says they want to do, but few succeed. We seek to reach lost, unchurched people for Christ. While most churches affirm this, many of our traditionally "successful" church starts (and I'm talking about in my denomination and community) reach fewer lost people and more saved, disenfranchised church members from other congregations. 

Just to be clear - moving Christians from "Church A" to "New Church B" is not Kingdom-growth. It may eventually lead to such, but unless Church A is celebrating the renewed heart of these transferred members and these people are fully engaged in big picture engagement (i.e. they're not just marketing their new brand of church, but are actually living their faith and sharing Christ) this is a facade of church growth.

I feel for the pastors and campus ministers who end up with a room full of former members of Church A. What do you do? Tell them to leave? Maybe, but that becomes a distraction as well.

J.D. Payne threw this option out on the Verge website...

We don’t need more flavors

What would happen if we recognized that a wise use of our Father’s resources (e.g., money, people) should be to assist in planting churches from out of the harvest fields, instead of establishing a new work in a community to provide a different style of worship/ministry for the believers who are already there?

We do not need another flavor of church in the Baskin Robbins of North American Christianity; we need missionary bands to settle for nothing less than disciple-making that results in new churches.

What would happen if we equipped and commissioned church planters with the task of only going to the lost in the people group/community?

Yes, we say we are advocating these things, but let’s begin to question our results.

Try this.  The next time you hear about a new church planted, a record number of new churches birthed in an area, or church planting goals reached, just ask the question, “What percent of the members of those churches recently came into the Kingdom of God?”

So, we echo the stated intention of every church planter and established church pastor I know when we say "We want to reach lost people!" Pray that we do and that we avoid the easy trap of using an old model that creates a perceived successful church, but no disciples. Pray that we live out our faith in ways that the lost are loved, even if they never come to Christ. Pray that we don't lose focus.

More to come as we continue on this journey. Please pray that much would be made of Jesus and that God alone would be glorified. 


Anxiety, Depression and the Church

I recently preached from Matthew 6:25-33. In this passage Jesus clearly commands his followers to not worry. In the ESV, the verse states "Do not be anxious about your life." It is pretty clear, as indicated in our congregation, when I asked "How many of you worry about things like money, clothing, home, your kids, etc.?" that just about everyone (and it looked like everyone) worries. Hands went up throughout the room. This may have been the most hands in the air in a Baptist church on record.

In reading the passage, Jesus speaks to his followers and basically asks "Why do you worry? God has this!"

It's true, even as Christians we tend to fall into this trap of wondering if God is going to come through. We ask "Did he get my request?" and sometimes, well, to be hones, we act like we have a better handle on what we need than God.

I mentioned that ultimately Jesus was speaking of the sin of unbelief. This is a natural drift based on the Enemy's strategy first revealed in the Garden of Eden. When the Enemy addressed Eve and Adam, he basically presented them with the possibility that God was untrustworthy and was holding out on them. That lie has been perpetuated ever since.

So, when Jesus says "Do not be anxious about your life..." he is addressing this core reality of unbelief. Do we really believe God? Do we really trust him?

To doubt and become anxious in this way is to subtly, and maybe subconsciously agree and affirm that God doesn't really care and will not come through. Jesus reveals the antidote for this sin of unbelief and it is found in verse 33 where he commands us to "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." Apparently, you cannot actively seek God and not believe God. Therefore, this action is preceded by repentance.

But What About Anxiety?

I have friends who struggle with anxiety and what has been termed a medical disorder. Anxiety, worry, and depression are not all synonyms, but there are some similarities. What about the man or woman who struggles so deeply with anxiety and finds it debilitating? What about those who know the Lord and sincerely pray for release and help? What about when those answers do not seem to arrive?

For years the church has ignored the reality of mental illness. In some cases a response of "Just pray about it" was about all pastors and fellow Christians would offer. Some actually seem to have traveled back to the first century where every physical and mental illness was the direct result of individual sin. While this may be the case at times, ultimately all illness results from the fact we live in a fallen world where sin has infected all of creation. 

So, as I preached Sunday on this passage regarding anxious living, some would rightly wonder if just "praying away" the issues is enough? 

Believe me a superficial prescription is never biblically sound. 

Since 99.9% of the congregation publicly admitted that worry was prevalent in their lives,  prayers of repentance of not believing God needed to happen. It needed to happen in my life.

As for those who have diagnosed anxiety disorders or some other affirmed mental illness (and those two words—"mental illness"—need not be forbidden by Christians) the truth remains that God is ultimately the answer. 

For my friends who ask "I keep praying and God isn't taking this away, so now what?" I cannot help but think of Paul and his "thorn in the flesh." However, I don't pretend to easily equate the two. It just comes to mind and makes me wonder. I also think of Job who suffered much. The physical suffering of God's children is not always removed in a timely fashion. The mental suffering isn't either. 

This we know...God is not absent, nor is he ignoring his children.

The crowd that heard Jesus say "Do not be anxious" apparently were much like me and many who were here Sunday. They (we) were sinfully choosing to not fully believe that God was sovereign.

Person-man-sitting-floor

I Believe, But Still Suffer

I grieve with those who seem overwhelmed by suffering, whether physical or mental. Christians are to grieve with those who grieve and to be honest, there are times when we just cannot understand what another is feeling.

I recently saw a commercial for a medication designed for people who suffer from migraine headaches. My wife suffers from these on occasion and she said that commercial nailed it. It is hard, if not impossible, to explain to another what is being experienced during these headaches. Words do not suffice. Pain is real and those who have never experienced it can be hurtful by simply stating "Just take some ibuprofen and take a nap." 

This is similar to those who suffer from anxiety or depression. They, too, have shared an inability to verbalize exactly what they feel and are experiencing. So, "Just be happy and get over it" is not really a helpful prescription.

So to those who suffer, my prayers for you are offered (comment below if you have specific requests). Repentance of the sin of unbelief is needed in my life, and likely in most every follower of Christ. Repentance of the sin of offering superficial prescriptions rather than true prayer and love for those suffering is needed as well.

An article by Brandon Peach on the Relevant website revealed this...

Anxiety and depression don't look how we often think.

When I've opened up to Christian friends about my own depression and anxiety disorders, they're often surprised. “You seem so happy all the time!” Depressed people become really good at hiding their symptoms, even from doctors, because of the stigma attached to the illness. Churches often don't address mental illness, which gives the worship team guitarist or the elder even more incentive to keep it hidden away. Furthermore, the symptoms of depression often tend to contradict each other, which makes it really difficult for a person suffering from depression to recognize it for what it is—let alone for the Church to recognize it.



“Learning to recognize the signs” then is often a failing strategy. If churches begin responding to mental disorders as a community willing to offer encouragement and support, people suffering from those illnesses may just be able to accept the help. It may just be people you never expected.

Even churches that seek to provide a safe haven for those suffering in their midst might not have a judgment-free place to discuss their struggles. Programs like Celebrate Recovery can provide an invaluable forum for people to interact with others who experience “hurts, habits, and hangups,” and can help deal with some of the self-medication many people with depression and anxiety use to numb themselves. Without a carefully planned strategy to deal with mental illness, though, “all are welcome” might not be enough. Healing comes from a prayerful, loving community that seeks to truly understand major depressive disorder and related conditions, and one that develops a positive response.

Most churches probably have the very best intentions when dealing with issues of mental illness. Like the rest of society, however, the Church may misinterpret these clinical conditions and respond to them in ways that exacerbate them—and as a result, demoralize those suffering. Christ, the Great Physician, came to heal the sick. As His body, it's time the Church leads society in helping to do the same.

A Pastor's Look at Depression

Perhaps one of the most helpful stories regarding these issues comes from Pastor Tommy Nelson of Denton, Texas. Tommy entered into a depression that led to severe changes in his life. Even as a pastor of a Gospel-centric, Bible-believing church, he found the church's readiness to respond lacking. Below is a video of him sharing his story at a chapel service held at Dallas Theological Seminary. It's a long video, but worth the time.

 

 


When Chick-fil-A Opened on Sunday

Full disclosure: I'm a Chick-fil-A apologist.

I worked at Chick-fil-A when I was in high school. Those were the days when the restaurants were pretty much exclusively in malls and the menu included such things as deep-fried apple pies (they need to bring this back,) the Chick-N-Q and meals were served in cardboard boxes that looked like barns.

My children both worked for Chick-fil-A during high school and college.

We still eat at Chick-fil-A regularly. I even recommend students in our church to work for our local restaurants. I keep hoping for a kick-back in free nuggets for that.

image from https://s3.amazonaws.com/feather-client-files-aviary-prod-us-east-1/2016-06-14/9d15d9b35faf4919b6d6c1966e5de262.png
Photo credit: StockMonkeys.com via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

There are many people who love Chick-fil-A.

There are also many people who hate the restaurant. Most of those who declare their hatred for Mr. Cathy's restaurant online and in the news state that it is the "intolerant" beliefs of ownership and the anti-LGBT policies of the business. This stems from CEO Dan Cathy's statements regarding his personal convictions that oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage. You may remember that firestorm that hit the airwaves a number of years ago. I wrote about that here in a post from 2012. I remember squeezing into our local Chick-fil-A for a "Stand with CFA" grassroots event that drew more customers than in the history of the restaurant. Nevertheless, the cultural barrage continues to this day.

Some cities declared Chick-fil-A was not welcome to open restaurants within their municipalities. The news goes on and on and on. And Chick-fil-A continues to grow and while labeled as hateful for those who disagree with the owners religious and personal convictions, the local restaurants continue to illustrate their openness to hire qualified employees with no regard to race, religion or sexual orientation.

Sundays at Chick-fil-A

One of the most widely known characteristics of the Cathy's restaurants is that they are not open on Sundays. This was founder Truett Cathy's conviction as a Christian and active member of his local church. Though money is to be made by being open seven days a week, he refused to allow this. There are stories of individual operators who lost their restaurants when it was discovered by corporate that they were opening on Sundays. Even the powerful malls of the 1970s and 1980s could not sway Chick-fil-A to open. This is still true today. I remember a few years back as I was leading a mission team back to the US from a two-week project in Europe. We were to land in Philadelphia. We were pretty excited because we knew there was a Chick-fil-A in the Philadelphia airport. Yes! In Philadelphia there is sweet tea! It did not take long for our excitement of having our first American meal in two weeks of a Chick-fil-A sandwich, waffle fries and sweet iced tea wane due to the realization that we landed in Philly on a Sunday. 

Nevertheless, the "closed on Sundays" rule has remained. Apparently, it hasn't hurt Chick-fil-A as a business. They continue to grow and increase influence through leadership training, Winshape Camps and other ventures.

The Story Most Aren't Hearing

There are stories that hit the news and there are some that never make it on television at 6pm. Here's a good news story in the midst of a tragic event that illustrates that loving our neighbor is still the best policy.

Apparently, last Sunday in Orlando, the local Chick-fil-A opened. However, this operator is not likely to be in trouble. In fact, it seems that Chick-fil-A approved of this special Sunday opening. The opening was unique and in response to the terror attack at The Pulse nightclub.

Here's the story by Lairs Johnston:

Chick-fil-A is famous for two things…chicken sandwiches and controversy.

Like last month when the New York City Mayor urged people to boycott the restaurant because he felt they portrayed a hateful message towards the LGBT community. Well, this past Sunday, a day they’re infamously closed, they decided to do something out of character to help the victims.

Upon hearing the news of the Orlando shooting the restaurant opened its doors and fired up the grill, cooking hundreds of chicken burgers and orders of fries. The only thing is, they didn’t sell any. Instead, they donated everything to the local blood drive where people were gathered to donate and help out the victims of the massacre.

According to the DC Gazette, hundreds of people were fed and even posted about it on social media this past Sunday.

The owners of the popular Christian company have shown Christ in a time of tragedy. They didn’t compromise their beliefs, just showed them by extending love, opening their doors on a day they’re known for staying closed.

“They will know we are Christians by our love”–not for our best friends, not for our families or other Christians, but by how we love those who hurt us and disagree with us.

The Orlando shooting was an attack on the LGBT community. Let us not allow it to turn into more attacks – on the LGBT community, on the Muslim community, on each other.

Does This Really Matter?

Well, truthfully, it's just a local restaurant giving away chicken sandwiches. In the larger scheme of things, maybe it is really not that big a deal. Yet, here's why I believe this is significant. Johnston states it well when he says "They didn't compromise their beliefs, just showed them..."

Not every employee at Chick-fil-A is a Christian. Not everyone who works for the company agrees with the CEOs personal convictions. These are facts that are likely true in every corporation. Chick-fil-A is not really a "Christian company" because only people can be Christians. No restaurant goes to heaven when it finally closes. Yet, the people who work at this local restaurant (and I'm sure there were other restaurants and organizations that provided free meals and drinks as well to those in Orlando) did what Christ modeled. They actually did what the church should.

If you're in Orlando or following the reports focusing on the community, you will notice that many churches and followers of Christ have and are serving those who are hurting. Pray for those who wear the name of Jesus as they seek to love those the culture says they hate. Pray for our churches as they seek to minister and reach those who are hurting and scared and need to know that there is a Way to Life and He is Truth.

Love wins. And that's more than a watered-down hashtag.

 


How Christians Must Respond to the Orlando Tragedy

We awakened Sunday morning to the tragic news coming out of Orlando, Florida. A man with apparent self-proclaimed allegiances to ISIS opened fire in a gay nightclub early in the morning, killing at least 50 people and injuring over 50 more.

This is now categorized as the worst mass shooting in American history. Men and women lost their lives. Parents lost children. Brothers and sisters lost their siblings. And a nation mourns.

I confess I did not read the full story until late on Sunday afternoon and therefore, unfortunately, did not mention this tragedy as our church gathered together for worship yesterday morning. When I read the story and subsequently watched some of the video coming from Orlando, emotions swirled within me.

Once again we offer a hashtag "#PrayFor" notification on social media. This time it's not Lahore or Paris or Brussels, but is for the people of a city less than three hours from my home. Maybe "#PrayForOrlando" needs to be replaced with "#ImPrayingForOrlando" to ensure that the hashtag is less a command and more a declaration of action. Yes, prayer is active, not passive.

The terrorist connection is frightening for those in our nation, our state and especially for those in Orlando. Every time a terror connection is revealed, those who can remember are thrust back to September 11, 2001 when Islamic extremist terrorism became a reality to all of us.

Pray for Orlando

 

How We Must Respond

Let's be honest, the church (and I am referring to the conservative, evangelical, Baptist flavor of which I am part) has great potential for really messing up here with response. This is clearly due to the reality that the Islamic terrorist is, well...a Muslim, and those who were killed and injured are most likely lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. Oh, and they were in a nightclub.

While posting a "#PrayForParis" or other such statement on social media just seems like the right thing to do, some Christians may initially struggle with offering a "#PrayForOrlando" statement for fear that they will be viewed as affirming things they feel strongly against (in this case, the LGBT lifestyle.)

These are just my thoughts on how Christians and the church should respond.

STOP - Seriously, just stop what you're doing for a moment. Take a pause. As news continues to pour out from Orlando and in news conferences in front of the Pulse Nightclub, stop what you're doing. Stop scrolling through trending stories on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. What has become more common as we move into a more inter-connected, technology-driven world, we find ourselves searching online to see what others are saying. I'm guilty of this and also of what many others find easy to do - vent online. Don't. Guard your hearts and stop for just a moment and think about the reality of what has happened.

PRAY 

Yes, really pray! In my life, I've discovered the intentional pause leads to deeper prayer. People are angry. People are afraid. People are hurting. Pray for the city of Orlando, but more for the people of Orlando and especially those directly touched by the tragedy. You do not have to agree nor affirm a person's lifestyle to grieve over them. Pray for the family members, friends and yes, even lovers of those killed. 

GRIEVE

Weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15) Names are now being released of those who were killed. These are not generic "extras" in a film or digital creations in a video game. These are real people. They were killed in a nightclub marketed to the LGBT community. These people are image-bearers of God who had their lives erased in a moment of hatred and terror. 

I read this morning the transcript of text messages sent from a young man to his mother as he and others were hiding in a restroom. The messages are haunting as he stated "He's coming. I'm going to die!" He has been confirmed as one of the victims and his mother is left, as are many others, grieving and questioning and now wondering "What could I have done?" As a parent, my heart goes out to the many who are being notified this morning, grieving the loss of a son or daughter and now thrust into the public spotlight as they mourn and ultimately have to plan a funeral soon.

BE SILENT, BUT SPEAK HOPE AND LOVE WHEN YOU MUST

Okay, this seems contradictory, but hear me out. At times the very best counsel and help a Christian can offer others is the ministry of presence. Just be there. You don't have to go to Orlando to do this. Believe me, as this story unfolds, there are many in your community and church, and even your family, who are shaken by this. Some because of the connection to the LGBT community or their own self-identity as LGBT. Others because of the affinity of age with those murdered. Some because they have friends or coworkers who may be more like the terrorist than they wanted to admit and now political correctness seems way too overrated.

Grief and fear are often bedfellows. So, as one who has hope, just BE THERE. And, when you do speak, go to Scripture, but not as the Pharisaical legalists do. In fact, I'd recommend you live out the Scripture. At this point the #LoveWins hashtag needs to not be about gay marriage, but about Christ-centered, Gospel-focused love for those who need it (and we all need it.) Questions such as "Why?" will come, and simple, man-centered answers never suffice. 

Following the mall shooting in Omaha in 2007, Erik Raymond wrote these words...

First and foremost an event like this is a heart-wrenching reminder of the devastatingly painful and absolutely brutal result of sin. The basic answer to the question as to why the trigger was pulled once, never mind 40 to 50 times, is a rebellion from and a hatred of God. At its must fundamental sense this tragedy is rooted in a rebellion from God. The fact that people had to die today in this mall is a testimony to the vicious recourse of sin. The Scripture is clear that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6.23). Death is the sword of sin, it cuts deep and far, and spares none.

How Christians respond to this tragedy should be no different than how we respond to other depraved events where it seems evil is triumphant.

It is at these moments, Christ's love must shine through. We remember clearly that we are His ambassadors. This is a heavy calling. Respond well.

 

 


firstFAMILY Podcast 016: Resurrecting the Dead Church

In this podcast, I share details related to church renewal and revitalization needed in our churches. Churches are dying. Some need to, but many just need refocusing. What would God have us do? Working harder is not the answer. Doing nothing is not an option. Join me in this discussion and check out the transcript as presented in the previous blog post here.

image from https://s3.amazonaws.com/feather-client-files-aviary-prod-us-east-1/2016-06-08/758652111f1942ddb5a50d557767780e.png
A closed-down church building in northern Wales

Resurrecting the Dead Church

Christians are all about resurrections. At least every Spring when the pastels come out and Easter services are planned. 

When we baptize individuals in our churches, we're declaring a resurrection. In fact, I tell each person I baptize that they are about to preach the most powerful sermon ever. At that point, I tend to get a worried look as the person is thinking "I didn't know I was going to have to preach?!?" Then, I tell them that the very act of believer's baptism is the greatest illustration of life from death. The immersion reminds all who watch that Jesus died and was placed in a tomb  (buried.) When I pull the person back up out of the water, it is a picture of Jesus rising from the dead! What a sermon!

The baptism also shows that the individual died when he/she surrendered to the lordship of Jesus Christ and was raised up a new creature in Christ. Old is gone and the new is here! 

It's a powerful image and I never grow tired of baptizing. 

What About Resurrecting the Church?

But what happens when the local church is in need of resurrection?

The numbers declare the reality - churches have a life-cycle. Based on statistical analysis from the North American Mission Board, over 70 percent of SBC churches are plateaued or declining. While attendance is not the only indicator of health or life, it is a strong one. Even so, as we look across the board, only 10 - 15 percent of our churches can be categorized as healthy and multiplying.

Screenshot 2016-06-08 08.51.46

By the Numbers

  • Across the SBC, we see close to 900 churches close annually
  • Two-thirds of these closures are churches over ten years old
  • Two-thirds of these closures are churches in growing, metro areas
  • The implications for Florida are that we see approximately 65 churches close annually
  • In the Jacksonville area, this means that almost 30 churches could be called "healthy," around 150 "plateaued or declining," and approximately 30 at or near risk of closing

In a meeting with denominational and regional leaders recently, we compared these statistics with known numbers of churches in our area and the data matches. Fortunately, our leaders and engaged churches are not content to see the statistics remain. We are blessed in our region to have wonderfully strategic, godly, and discerning leaders focused on these issues (Thank you - Rick Wheeler and the Jacksonville Baptist Association, especially.) Nevertheless, no denominational strategy will ever be sufficient to turn the tide. Working harder is not the answer. 

We have been able so see some amazing success stories in our city relating to church renewal and revitalization. In most cases, our associational leadership has played the role of broker between churches in the healthy ten percent and those in the bottom grouping. For this we are grateful.

While it is clear that God is moving among churches in Jacksonville and through the Jacksonville Baptist Association, we know that small victories will not shift the 70 percent into the category of "healthy and multiplying."

Screenshot 2016-06-08 10.04.29

Dying Churches Need a Strategic Shift

Many of our churches throughout Jacksonville were launched in the 1950s. They experienced growth and have histories of community engagement and victories. However, in many cases, the best days are decades in the past and the community around the church changed. Unfortunately, some churches have died. Honestly, some needed to die. Yet, I personally hate to see a church turn inward, ignore the gospel, grow calloused and die on the vine, especially in communities that are so in need for a clear, loving, biblically-relevant, gospel witness. 

John Mark Clifton, Lead National Strategist for Revitalization/RePlanting at NAMB, recently wrote a post about the reality of dying churches. In this post (found here), he breaks down the "Signs of a Dying Church" and all should take this to heart:

There is one reason a church dies. The church in Ephesus loved doctrine, they believed the truth, they worked hard, and they endured. But they were doomed to die if they did not return to that which they did at first. The church of Ephesus began with a bang (literally). It was birthed with a passion to reach its community and to make disciples. Over time, however, this passion waned. When a church ceases over a period of time to make disciples who make disciples and realize community transformation, that church will die.

The symptoms of a church near death are many and they include:

  1. They value the process of decision more than the outcome of decision.
  2. They value their preferences over the needs of the unreached.
  3. They have an inability to pass leadership to the next generation.
  4. They cease, often gradually, to be part of the fabric of their community.
  5. They grow dependent upon programs or personalities for growth or stability.
  6. They tend to blame the community for a lack of response and in time grow resentful of the community for not responding as it once did.
  7. They anesthetize the pain of death with over-abundance of activity and maintaining outdated structure.
  8. They confuse caring for the church facility with caring for the church members.

Most church leaders and members of local churches can see how these eight things can happen. In truth, most of us must repent for allowing these things to happen. This isn't rocket science - when we turn inward and focus on that which doesn't matter for eternity and the sake of the gospel, we begin to die. Sure, churches have life-cycles. Seriously, who's talking about the latest great things happening at the Church at Ephesus?

Yet, even with the known "life-cycles" of local churches, it is unhealthy and sinful to ignore that which God has called us to do. Is it possible that 70 percent of SBC churches have unintentionally allowed the worship of the church or the past to keep them from being who God has called them to be? Autonomy is wonderful, but we must not ignore the benefits and gospel-centered strategies (i.e. as exemplified in the book of Acts and Paul's letters) of being Kingdom-focused, community-engaged, partnered (or maybe "cooperating") churches. If the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, there is the possibility that we are only as strong in our community as our weakest church.

So, it's clear that dying churches need a strategic shift, but in many cases, they may not have the personnel or resources to do such. This is why strategic cooperation is so needed. The big church vs. small church battles that have grown in so many areas over the decades must go away. The battle is too grand to spend time focusing on issues that do not matter. So, as we check our egos at the door, we must come together for the sake of the Gospel. Is it possible? Not without divine intervention. 

Some dying churches will refuse to change. In many cases, they will become a local community's new CVS or Walgreens (depending on which corner the other one is built.) While affordable prescription drugs may fill a need for a community, I still believe a sold, Gospel witness will fill a greater need.

Will it be easy? Nope! But, who said ministry was easy?