It is at times like this when community leaders, news agencies, and even those with no belief in God call for things to be done. The word “pray” becomes a hashtag that trends for a few days as many use social media to state we must #PrayForJacksonville. I believe that and am even sharing that statement, but the church of Jesus Christ must not fall into the trap of seeing prayer as a weak, viral response to tragedy. While city leaders and national politicians seek to piggyback on the tragedies of Friday’s shooting at the Raines-Lee high school football game and the terrible act of violence Sunday at The Jacksonville Landing, the call for the church is to do more than declare the world as dark and sin as bad.
One Jacksonville city leader stated “We really need to talk about God. I’m asking the faith-based community to step up.” I cannot disagree with that, but the church must understand that to “step up” means we must first kneel before God together, seeking His face, His will, while confessing our sins of complacency and self-promotion.
This is not a political issue. These issues are not solely about safety and seemingly random acts of violence. This is about sin. For some the sad reality is that sin affects not just the one committing it, but others (family, friends, and sometimes bystanders with no connection to the individual.)
The Christian community should not be surprised when evil things occur. This is how it has always been. Yet, the church cannot remain sequestered in our buildings from the community we have been called to engage for the Gospel. Church, it is time to step up. It begins with prayer (real, repentant, convictional, worshipful prayer) and follows with stepping outside our buildings to engage, in love, the community we have been called and placed within to serve.
This is for the glory of God alone.
This is for the good of our city, our families, our friends.
Pray for Jacksonville please. Pray. Step up. Kneel down. Step outside and be the light in the darkness.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV)
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." Acts 17:22-23 (ESV)
The story of Paul's engagement at the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, reminds us that the message of the Gospel is not just to be held privately, but strategically taken to those in need of redemption through Jesus Christ.
While there have been many advancements regarding technology and industry in the centuries since Paul spoke to these ancient people near Athens, not much has truly changed. Humanity remains depraved and in need of rescue and redemption. The Gospel remains true. God's church continues to move forward under the mandate of the Great Commission as we go through life to engage others with the message of truth.
Comic Books and Superheroes
When I was a boy, I loved reading and collecting comic books. When I had saved up enough change (from that quarter a week allowance) I would ask my parents to stop by the 7-Eleven on the way home from church in Montgomery, Alabama so I could peruse the comic book stand for the latest issues featuring my favorite heroes. This was no comic book shop. There were no plastic bags with acid-free boards for storing the magazines. The rack was metal, spun, and sat near the door. Most of the comic books were bent as children like me would bend them down to see which issues were hidden behind. I remember when they were 25 cents, then 30 cents and 35 cents and then "Still Only 35 cents." I normally would go home with two or three issues. These would be read numerous times and added to the stack I was accumulating.
Of course, like most people my age, I would get the first issues of new comics hoping that one day they would be worth thousands of dollars like the first "Action Comics" and "Batman" issues of old. Nevertheless, most of the magazines my generation bought were stored safely and because our parents didn't throw them out like those from previous generations, we now have a plethora of books that are "Fabulous First Issues" which aren't worth much because supply (in those plastic sleeves in cardboard boxes) is so high.
Photo credit: Sam Howzit via VisualHunt.com / CC BY
Resurgence of Superheroes in Comic Books
In case you haven't noticed, after a time when comic book sales tanked and superhero films and television shows seemed to be fading, a renewal of interest in these heroes with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man has occurred.
The Golden Age (1936 - early 1950s)
Since the Golden Age of comics (1936 - early 1950s,) heroes with brightly-colored spandex have attracted the interest of children and teenagers. During the 1940s, superhero comic interest waned. Magazine publishers began to produce books with different themes such as westerns, romance, science fiction, crime, and horror. In fact, many superhero titles were cancelled at this time. Of the dozens produced in the early 1940s, the only ones featuring superheroes to continue production by DC (the industry leader at the time) through the decade were Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Detective Comics, Batman, Superboy, Superman, Wonder Woman, and World's Finest Comics.
Photo credit: Terry McCombs via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC
The Silver Age (1956 - 1970)
Many changes took place in the world of comic books following the Golden Age. Controversy developed over the alleged connection between comic book themes and juvenile delinquency. In 1954, the comic publishers implemented a self-regulated Comics Code Authority and a shift from crime and horror themes led to a reintroduction of superheroes. The introduction of a new Flash from DC Comics launched this era and soon upstart Marvel Comics launched the Fantastic Four and a new wave of fans was born.
Photo credit: Michael Vance1 via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA
The Bronze Age (1970 - 1985)
This next age of comic book production moved Marvel Comics to the forefront. It was during this time I was collecting those books sold at the 7-Eleven. While many of the mainstay heroes remained, newer ones were introduced and a return to darker plot lines emerged (e.g. racism, alcoholism, drug abuse, urban poverty, pollution, etc.). Many of the heroes introduced in this era became the models for newer television shows like "The Incredible Hulk," "Wonder Woman," and "Spider-Man" and movies like the Christopher Reeve helmed "Superman: The Movie" and Michael Keaton's "Batman."
Photo credit: Brian Wilkins via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC
The Modern Age (1985 - present)
As generations shift, so too do the heroes they admire. While comic sales dropped, new business models were implemented. Character licensing was sold and plans for new films have been made. It is during this era when many comic book characters were redesigned, creators gained ownership of characters through independent comics, and publishing houses became more commercialized.
Some call this the Dark Age of Comics due to the influence of writers and artists like Frank Miller and Alan Moore. Anti-heroes (like Deadpool, the Punisher, and even Batman) became more popular.
Photo credit: Asbestos Bill via Visualhunt / CC BY
The Cinematic Universes
When Christopher Reeve first put on the blue tights and red "S" a new era of marketing comic book heroes developed. The "Superman" movie from the late 1970s stated that fans "would believe a man could fly" and based on ticket sales, they did. When Tim Burton introduced a darker "Batman" to the big screen in the 1980s, many fans thought it would fail, primarily because Michael Keaton was cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman and the campiness of Adam West's Caped Crusader was the prominent screen image known. When Burton's film became a hit, it seemed like superhero movies would soon take over the multiplex. Nevertheless, sequels didn't fare as well and other films like Dolph Lundgren's "The Punisher" and David Hasselhoff's "Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D." proved that Hollywood hadn't quite figured out how to move the comic heroes en masse to the big screen.
Then Tobey Maguire became Spider-Man and soon thereafter Christian Bale moved under the cowl of the Dark Knight and, as they say...the rest is history.
Marvel and DC have created effective (at least financially) cinematic universes that have proven to connect with audiences.
Photo credit: junaidrao via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: junaidrao via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND
More Than a Weak Sermon Series Theme
Apparently there are many fans of superheroes in our communities. These run the gamut from stereotypical fanboy or fangirl who knows intricate details of multiverses to the casual fan who just saw Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and watches Sheldon and Leonard on "The Big Bang Theory."
In recent years, with attempts to capitalize on pop culture with catchy themes, some have preached sermons or themed kids events at churches with pseudo-superhero concepts. I'm guilty of having done this in the past, but the truth is as Dr. Timothy Paul Jones stated in a blog post from earlier this year:
For many Christians, the temptation seems to be to engage in what I would identify as a “thin reading” of these cultural artifacts (comic books and superhero films,) hunting for surface-level connections between the Bible and our favorite superhero tales. Pastors who become caught up in such thin readings may construct entire sermon series out of the latest films or feel compelled to drop references to movies into their messages—all to achieve a perceived sense of relevance by linking Scripture to culture. This is not authentic cultural engagement, however. In most instances, it’s closer to uncritical cultural appropriation. Full-fledged Christian engagement with the culture digs deeper than surface-level links and wrestles with the conflicting worldviews that undergird these artistic artifacts.
Jones' article goes deeper and is well worth your read. Read it here.
Engaging on Mars Hill
What is it about these heroes that not only connects generations and draws fans, but gathers groups together at Comic-Con and movie premieres? The religious undertones are not always subtle and the fact that most early superheroes such as Superman were rooted in Judaism (ever wondered why his name is Kal-El?) reveals many Old Testament themes woven into the histories, especially from the Golden Age.
Yet, even anti-religious sentiment and humanistic worldviews aside, there is a sense, for the most part of good, evil, truth, justice, and other such things that at the core are religious concepts.
Many of the fictional heroes and heroines either find their root in Greek and Roman mythology or at a minimum are influenced by some of these types of stories. It is my contention that the culturally popular fictional heroes are not much different than the false gods and goddesses worshipped and adored by the ancient people of Paul's day.
Paul engaged those who were far from God strategically. He went to Mars Hill for this purpose. He did not remain silent, but talked intelligently and not condescendingly to those in the crowd.
After reading numerous articles and studying God's Word on living sent as his church to a lost and dying world, I thought of Dr. Jones' postings about worldviews as revealed in comic books and the cinematic universes of Marvel and DC.
What if the church engaged this affinity group through story-telling in ways that centers on the Scripture and the Gospel? What if rather than just continuing to add programs and events to reach the already reached, we went to this "Mars Hill" in our culture today? I have talked to a few teenagers specifically about this. Some attend church, but always seem to be on the fringes. Others have no place for church in their lives and basically have denied or ignored the message of the Gospel. I asked if they would consider joining me for a study called "The Meta-narrative of the Gospel as Revealed in the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes?" Yeah - that's what I named it, based on Dr. Jones' articles. However, I may shorten it to "Superhero Sunday Nights."
Their interest was piqued.
I asked, "Do you have any friends who may be interested in something like this?"
The answer was yes and they began to rattle off names of students I do not know. Most have no connection with a church and no relationship (or desire for a relationship) with Christ.
I am not sure what this will even look like - The Big Bang Theory meets the Bible? I hope more than that. It's just that we (the church) have done much over the decades to connect with students through affinities like athletics, drama and theater, dance, and music, but I have yet to hear of an intentionally evangelistic effort (more than a gimmick event) that seeks to connect with those whom many categorize as nerds and geeks, but most likely think deeply and love and understand the intricacies of story. Ultimately, the Story is what they need.
Some will mock. Some will ignore. Yet, I believe some will be drawn by God to Himself. It's been done before.
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. Acts 17:32-34 (ESV)
A few years ago, in one of our network's church planter assessment meetings, my wife and I served as coaches and assessors as we have done for years. At times, we meet men who are wrestling with the call into pastoral ministry. Each story is unique and as these men with their wives go through an intense two days of assessment, stories unfold and we are amazed each time how God calls us to Himself, from diverse backgrounds for His good and glory.
In some cases, our pastors/planters are men who have served on church staff, but are answering the call to leave full-time (i.e. paid) ministry to plant a new work in our city or elsewhere. At other times, these are men who have served in other venues or denominations and are joining our pastoral internship and pipeline of assessment, encouragement, and peer learning. There are also some who are basically just "kicking the tires" to see if perhaps God is calling them to such a ministry role.
As I stated, each story is unique and we have the privilege of hearing testimonials from these men and their wives about how they ended up where they are.
As the weekend comes to a close, we have the task of affirming or redirecting the men as church planters, all while praying and seeking discernment and leadership from God in these areas.
One year, a pastor and his wife joined us for an assessment weekend. This pastor is a friend and is not originally from the United States. I won't use his name or exact story, but in general, this man pastored a church in a foreign land for years. He now lives in the US and through his connections in numerous cities, basically pastors up to 70 house churches, all centered around the native culture and language.
Photo credit: OliYoung via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA
He and his wife have no children and they serve faithfully despite his physical ailments due to things that happened to him in his home country from those opposed to the Gospel.
He does speak English, as does his wife, but English is not their heart language. Therefore, the comfort level of communicating in English is not there. Nevertheless, as we assessed him I felt a bit foolish. Here is a man who has more experience than I do as a pastor. He has been through persecution - and I mean real persecution, not the typical American version of being made fun of. He has a "thorn in the flesh" that slows him down considerably, yet he doesn't complain (at least not in English.) He and his wife open their home up to visitor at all times of day and night as need may be. To open the home for a guest, in their cultural setting, means to provide a meal...every time. This happens almost daily.
He serves in our city at a ministry focused on connecting and reaching internationals. He travels as need be to help churches for his people group in other cities in the nation. He mentors others.
He is not perfect. He will tell you so. Nevertheless, I am always honored to spend time with him.
At this setting, I was listening to his stories and what God is doing in his life. Along with other pastors and friends, we were inspired, but had a warning for him as well.
We told him that he must rest.
He must take a Sabbath.
He is burning the candle at both ends and in the middle.
He acknowledged this, as did his wife.
Then, he said something. He slowly and softly asked this rhetorical question - "How can I rest when so many are lost?"
And I was overcome with the reality that this brother is burdened for the lostness of our world at a level I seek to find. He did not discount the need for Sabbath, but his rest is found not in a day of the week, but in Christ.
This pastor is the epitome of living sent. He is on mission. He is missional. He is faithful.
May we be burdened for the lostness of our world as well.
Ashley O'Brien has been active in church her entire life, raised in a pastor's family and now serving on the Leadership Team of firstFAMILY (FBC Orange Park) as Director of Social Media
I genuinely get excited when someone surrenders their life to Christ. When a person listens to God and steps out to serve and be a part of something bigger makes me glad. It's inspiring and exciting when a man and wife plant a church intent on reaching the unreached. It's so exciting when Christians act like Christians! I love when people get excited about the Gospel and have to do something about it. However, sometimes it seems the steps taken seem to be focused wrongly. That's is what has led to my frustration.
Ashley and her husband Jordan
I, just like other Christians, want to reach people for Christ. I want everyone to be involved in church - a solid, biblically-focused church. I want people to know what they are getting into when they accept Christ. I believe they should feel at home when they enter the church's facility. Like many, I want to create a place that is attractive and inviting and what some would call “trendy.” Yet, I don’t want to sacrifice the Gospel for that. Jesus himself is attractional to a degree. Just look at the crowds that gathered to see him during his time of ministry around Galilee. Of course, not everyone in the crowd were truly followers. In fact, most were not followers of Jesus, just fans. Jesus' words were offensive. The religious leaders didn't like what he said. Eventually, those who were just there for the show walked away. Apparently, they were offended as well, or perhaps when they truly listened to what Jesus was saying (i.e. "Carry your cross") they decided it was too much.
Too many churches are founded on how to make church look “cool.” The flashy lights, the cool logo, the unusual name that hides the fact the group is truly a church all are part of the marketing strategy to reach Millennials. The great graphics and promos, the promise of free food and maybe a coffee mug, or whatever gets people to take a second look, to ask a question, to check it out are used by just about every new church, church plant, and legacy church seeking to engage the culture. In many cases, these things work. The room is filled. People come. Even Millennials show up. That’s the target audience is seems for most new churches now. And though it is exciting to reach this generation (my generation), the "stuff" that's offered can sometimes be nothing but "fluff." That’s the frustrating part. We fill the “church facility" (whether it's an established church building, a rented school cafeteria, a theater, warehouse, or even restaurant) but are we seeing transformations? Are we seeing people surrender their lives to Christ? Or are we filling up a room for an awesome production for people who look like they are worshipping (and in truth, many truly are) and appear to understand what God is saying through the pastor's message. But, let's be honest. sometimes the appearance or worship and engagement are based on what we think we're supposed to look like. You know, "This picture of me standing and worshipping will look great on Instagram or Snapchat!" Sorry, if that sounds cynical, but I have grown up in the era of big worship production events and while I love the music and the gatherings, it is just way too easy to fall into the trap of performance (even when you're not on stage) rather than truly worship.
It’s hard being a Christian in the world for obvious reasons. This is not earth-shattering. It's always been hard to be a Christian in the world. Why? Because the world never celebrates Christ. Believe me, as difficult as it is to be a follower of Christ in a post-Christian culture, I know what we face here in the west truly does not even compare to what our brothers and sisters in Christ face throughout the world, especially where persecution means death and not just being made fun of on social media.
Yet, I’m finding it becoming more difficult to be a Christian in the "church world." This was something I never expected. My frustration is growing in the area of church life that seems so close, but yet so far from what living missionally truly is.
I want to invite people to church, but I won’t apologize for when they hear the Gospel preached. If anything other than the biblical message is preached, then calling the gathering a church is debatable.
If a church spends all their capital seeking to not look or sound like God's church, then at some level either the Gospel is not being preached or the group has pulled off little more than a "bait and switch." It's one thing for the pastor to be versed in apologetics (contending for the Gospel and defending the faith,) but something totally different if the pastor is apologizing for the Gospel, seeking not to offend.
I would feel dissatisfied if all they heard was a therapeutic message. These types of messages are prominent and the crowd can listen without being able to discern if the message was from from the Bible or just a self-help book. The Gospel is offensive. It is truth. And, we all know that at times, the truth hurts. We don’t need to create churches that ignore truth. We don’t need another pastor building his kingdom and ultimately mar the Christian name. We don’t need a church that stands alone, either overtly or covertly building their crowds from those already attending solid (and maybe multi-generational) churches in the area. We need something else ... and I have no idea what that is, other than the truth and the Gospel.
New church plants are exciting. I believe they're needed. The numbers bear this out. My generation is growing less and less connected with the church. Yet, superficial fluffy entertainment-driven gatherings are not really the answer, are they?
So, from my perspective, our current churches, new campuses, and new church plants must have these:
Founded on Truth not a pastor's personality
Deemed successfully engaging not by how many Christians from other churches they can gather in a room weekly, but by how many lost are reached
Brokenness for the lost in the community, even if they don't fit the prescribed demographic of choice
Seeking the unengaged, not just the disgruntled attenders of other churches
Passion for the Gospel
Love of God
Love of people
Desire to make disciples...not just photogenic "worshippers"
As Christians, if we are obedient to what God has called us to do, God will be obedient to what He said he will do.
So, your gathering may have really cool stage lights and a smoke machine (those aren't bad...our church has them), a worship leader and band that does well, and maybe some really good coffee (free trade coffee, of course) and a bagel or even a free coffee mug or T-shirt for first time guests. In fact, there's nothing wrong with any of those things. Do it. I like coffee mugs and free T-shirts.
But...don't miss the point.
Churches don't exist for us. They're for God. They're his to begin with.
Be attractional. No issue there, just don't focus so much on the things that don't matter in eternity and miss the Gospel.
Church planting is an exciting and scary adventure for most. I pray those pastors and launch team members hold tight to the truth and the reason behind it all. Reaching lost people for Christ.
What is the difference between a campus plant and a church plant?
What is best? To plant a campus or new church?
We've been talking about both for years and yet, it is clear that the differences are not fully understood by all.
Dr. Jimmy Scroggins of Family Church in West Palm Beach recently hosted a discussion about this very thing at the Florida Baptist State Convention last fall. His honesty was refreshing as it became clear that the movement of Kingdom expansion that Family Church has embarked upon is the exact same strategy God has led our church here in Orange Park.
We are all in when it comes to church planting. While we would love to have planters in every focused area, God has clearly revealed our strategic partnerships over the years and we continue to serve as the sending church for Neil and Kaytee in Toronto and Mike and Carrie in Washington, DC. Additionally, we have been able to support others throughout the nation in cities such as Portland, Colorado Springs, Greensboro, and Tucson. Currently, we are seeking to partner with Cam Triggs in Orlando with a new plant launching this year.
We also have served as catalysts for local planters as we have served with Dr. Rick Wheeler and Dr. Josh Dryer and the Jacksonville Baptist Association in church planting assessment.
Church planting involves placing a pastor in an specified area, most often an urban area. The demographics reveal the unchurched reality of the community and the goal is to birth a new church where there is none.
The planter and wife embed themselves in the community for the sake of Kingdom growth. The strategies for engaging a community are as varied as the communities. Planters set off understanding the marathon that planting is, most often renting facilities and seeking to till up hard spiritual ground.
Our North American Mission Board has strategically focused on church planting over the past few years and we have seen many step into this story.
There is a difference between planting an autonomous church and a campus of an already established (i.e. legacy) church. The most recognizable difference is that the campus is not an autonomous church. This allows for some unique opportunities.
Dr. Scroggins shared the following realities of campus plants and what they offer. I offer my commentaries on his statements within the points as well:
ADDITIONAL SERVICES. Campus plants are viewed as additional services, just meeting at a different venue than the church's traditional campus.
MULTI-SITE IS LONG-TERM CHURCH PLANTING. In some cases, the campuses may grow into autonomous churches, but this is not true for all, and not expected.
TAKES ADVANTAGE OF SYNERGY AND ECONOMIES OF SCALE. In other words, a campus may be launched in a relatively short amount of time where a church plant may require a year or more of preparation.
ACCELERATES RATE OF CHANGE. No church wants to wake up one day to realize that they are too far gone to revitalize. There are fifty Baptist churches in our city (Jacksonville, FL) that will either close or sell off property within the next two years unless change among the internal church culture occurs. This is based on visible and recognizable statistics and realities.
CAMPUS PASTORS ARE EXTENSIONS OF THE LEAD PASTOR. Therefore, there is no separate vision, doctrine, or leadership style. This allows for unity and consistency regarding programming, strategy, and vision. In many cases, campus pastors are men who were sent out from the church to serve and already have the DNA of the local church. This allows for quicker growth and launching.
VIDEO OR LIVE? Though I prefer live, there are enough offering video venues that are working to discount this reality.
THIS IS DIFFICULT! It is much easier to stay at one campus. Yet, if God opens the door for multi-site, it reminds us that he has not called us to easy service.
THIS REQUIRES THE BEST! This means that campuses cannot be launched with those who are not already serving well. J.D. Greear has mentioned on many occasions about the uncomfortable stress that occurs when the "best" leave what has been deemed in the past as the "main campus" to serve at a multi-site venue. When faithfully and prayerfully done, God always "back-fills" the positions of service at the launching campus.
THERE IS NO MAIN CAMPUS. This has been a challenging reality for me, but needed. We do not have a "main campus" in that regardless where a person attends church services, that campus, be it a school cafeteria or tent by a ball field, is their "main campus." To call the traditional site the "main campus" presents a Varsity and Junior Varsity idea.
ONE CHURCH OFFERS MUCH. To remain one church with multiple sites offers one name (in our case firstFAMILY,) one budget, one leadership structure, one constitution and bylaws. These allow for quicker movement, safer structures, and long-term stability.
The Best Strategy
The question at the beginning was whether campus or church plants should be the strategy. The answer is BOTH. We believe that church planting is vital and that is why we continue to send and support many who have answered the call to do so. Yet, we also believe there are areas and situations where a campus plant (in our case, The Creek and IslandChurch) are the best options for community engagement. Therefore, we offer these as well.
There's the third option which would come under the "revitalization" heading, I guess. That is what we are doing at Oak Harbor Church now, but as we have agreed with the leadership there, we are treating Oak Harbor as a campus site with a pastor on site.
The end game is simple - love God by loving people well and making disciples. We know it is not easy, but these strategies allow us to move forward rather than stand still (which feels like moving backward.) It's risky. We cannot afford it. Yet, God has clearly called us to this story and we press on, trusting Him.
A number of weeks ago a good friend and pastor, Dres Lavanderos contacted me regarding the possibility of bringing a sister church under our wing for a season for the purpose of revitalization.
We believe in church planting and launching new campuses and churches in areas where a Gospel witness is needed. We have and are partnering with numerous church planters across the nation and internationally. We will continue to do so, believing that God blesses these new works and many are and will come to Christ through them.
The Other Side of the Coin - Revitalization
Yet, as many already know, while we celebrate the launch of new churches, there are many who are shutting their doors for good each year. Many of these churches are about forty to fifty-years-old. They were launched in a different era in communities that have changed dramatically. Many have done what came naturally and followed a prescribed schedule and programming model that was effective for years, only to discover that as times have changed, so has the community.
This is not a "good-bad" discussion regarding programming. In some cases, closure is due to poor leadership and even moral failure. However, in many cases, churches have found themselves in ruts regarding worship, planning, and missional engagement. In fact, some are "doing church" like it's 1985 and wonder why they're not growing?
This becomes an Isaachar discussion. Churches must remain faithful to the gospel and be as the men of Issachar in the Old Testament. These were men defined as those who "understood the times." Of course, the context for this tribe was much different, but the premise of being contextual and aware remains true.
While dozens of churches close for good each year, not all must.
The biggest challenge facing these churches is first the recognition that if something doesn't change, the inevitable will occur and their doors will lock, the property will be sold and a business will take it's place. I'm all for new businesses, but not at the cost of local churches in communities.
Pastor Dres is currently serving as the interim pastor at Oak Harbor Baptist Church in Atlantic Beach, Florida, near Mayport Naval Station. This church is part of our network (Jacksonville Baptist Association) and has been working through issues over the past few years that has led them to reach out for more than just prayer and pulpit supply. This has been a challenging and difficult journey for the Oak Harbor Church.
Yet, as of Sunday, December 4, the membership of Oak Harbor has agreed to partner with our church and become our Mayport campus. While retaining their autonomy, the agreement is extensive. Our church (firstFAMILY) will offer resources, leadership, strategic focus and help to shift Oak Harbor's focus and practices in ways that will hopefully see them become a vibrant, Gospel witness to the Mayport area once more.
Pastor Dres will remain at Oak Harbor as our Campus Pastor and along with other preaching team members of firstFAMILY, will work with me in planning and leading.
This is a new reality for our church and while the challenges are immense, we believe God has prepared us for this opportunity. Change is difficult and the fears are authentic. How honorable for the church at Oak Harbor to set aside their fears for this opportunity. One church member at Oak Harbor told me that it is time for him to risk change and discomfort for the sake of the Kingdom. That's a great statement. To be at the place where personal preference is pushed aside so the Gospel can be proclaimed clearly is huge.
Please pray for our church and the new Oak Harbor campus as we seek to honor God and experience revival and revitalizaton.
FYI - our agreement with Oak Harbor is available below.
Yesterday, the film "The Insanity of God" had it's one-night-only showing at our local theater, as well as theaters around the nation. The documentary is based on the book of the same title by missionary Nik Ripken. While this podcast is somewhat of a review of the film, I am focusing more on the message of the book and film and the implications for the western church. There's more than could ever be covered in one podcast and we hope to have Nik and Ruth here in the future to share.
LifeWay Films & Nik Ripken
In the meantime, here are the videos and links referenced in the podcast.
Earlier this year, I attended a chapel service at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. An encouraging, challenging, gospel-centric message was presented and the story shared as an illustration has stuck with me. The speaker told of Cliff Young and his ultra-marathon run. I shared this with pastors and ministry leaders last week:
The Echo Chamber
Sometimes it is easy to fall into an echo chamber. This is true for pastors and leaders and ultimately, for just about anyone. We see these echo chambers develop at times, especially in election years. An echo chamber occurs when you surround yourself with people who only espouse the things you already believe. It is more comfortable to have friends and "amen-ers" echoing everything you already believe. However, it is also helpful to hear different points of view at times. This is not to say that all points of view are on equal footing. This is especially true when it comes to the veracity of Scripture and this little thing called "absolute truth."
Nevertheless, there are times when we (now, I'm talking to pastors and church leaders) do things certain ways because we have either always done them so or just don't see any other alternatives. Since many pastors tend to slide into "right-brain creativity" at times, partnered with a conviction to serve the Lord and reach people, we tend to live with "big picture" ideals.
That means that there are often times we seek to do something that may seem out of the ordinary or classified as "we never done it that way before" for many in the church. Now, make sure you get this - I'm not referring to unbiblical, immoral, or simply stupid gimmicks that may be out of the ordinary. I'm referring to strategies, ideas, community engagement and other things that come to mind and just seem like they may be worth the effort for the church to consider.
We all love comfort and familiarity. Many in the church (and just about any organization) push back against change or new ideas or out-of-the-ordinary options because of fear and uncertainty. And thus, many just plod along doing exactly the same things year after year, wondering why nothing seems to be changing.
In a culture where information is just a click away, experts on everything live on websites and sometimes on our committees and membership rolls. The urgency of the gospel motivates us through the words of the Great Commission and Great Commandment. When we experience push back on community engagement, we wonder if others feel the same urgency for the sake of the gospel.
There are a number of people in the Bible who have had those experiences. Paul is one that comes to mind. He was a missionary, apostle, church starter… and many didn’t understand why he did what he did.
His old friends didn’t understand.
He new friends weren’t sure they could trust him.
Reminds me of another guy who was misunderstood at first.
Cliff Young - An Unlikely Run
In 1983 Australia hosted it’s inaugural ultra-marathon – a 543.7-mile (875-kilometer) endurance race from Sydney to Melbourne. It is considered among the world's most grueling ultra-marathons. The race takes five days to complete and is normally only attempted by world-class athletes who train specially for the event. These athletes are typically less than 30 years old and backed by large companies such as Nike.
On the day of the race, a man named Cliff Young showed up. Cliff was 61 years old and wore overalls and work boots. To everyone's shock, Cliff wasn't a spectator. He picked up his race number and joined the other runners.
The press and other athletes became curious and questioned Cliff. They told him, "You're crazy, there's no way you can finish this race."
He was laughed at by the crowd and other runners.
Then the race began. Everyone else began to run and Cliff was still getting his shoes on (well, his boots.)
When the race started, the pros quickly left Cliff behind. The crowds and television audience were entertained because Cliff didn't even run properly. Many even feared for the old farmer's safety.
Cliff ran and ran and each day would get closer to the leading pack.
Then, on the final day, to everyone’s surprise, Cliff won the race.
He won by quite a bit.
When Cliff was awarded the winning prize of $10,000, he said he didn't know there was a prize and insisted that he did not enter for the money. He ended up giving all of his winnings to several other runners, an act that endeared him to all of Australia.
All of the professional athletes knew that it took about 5 days to finish the race. In order to compete, one had to run about 18 hours a day and sleep the remaining 6 hours. The thing is, Cliff Young didn't know that!
He ran day and night for five days.
He just shuffled along.
Kind of like the tortoise and the hare.
They told him, "You're crazy, there's no way you can finish this race." To which he replied, "Yes I can. See, I grew up on a farm where we couldn't afford horses or tractors, and the whole time I was growing up, whenever the storms would roll in, I'd have to go out and round up the sheep. We had 2,000 sheep on 2,000 acres. Sometimes I would have to run those sheep for two or three days. It took a long time, but I'd always catch them. I believe I can run this race."
God has called us to serve Him in all ways. The right thing to do is often not understood, even by those closest to us. Yet, we must press on. If every pastor abandoned the call when a loved one or friend said "Are you sure? You know, you should probably get a job to make money, just to have something to fall back on," there would be many more gaps in the history of godly church leaders, pastors, and missionaries. Sometimes in life, you do the right thing, the thing you know you must and no one gets it.
No one understands.
No one celebrates you.
Now, if you’re doing the wrong thing, that’s another story, but in Cliff’s case, he was doing what he knew he could and must.
Paul did too.
But many didn’t get it.
Many didn’t like it.
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 2 Corinthians 11:24-28 (ESV)
Not exactly the life you’d sign up for, right?
Yet, there’s an end to the story that’s worth it.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (ESV)
You may not run like the others. That which you do may be mocked by other churches, pastors, or even church members. Don’t be unbiblical, but have ears to hear and eyes to see and keep shuffling along for the glory of God. The best is yet to come.
Gather Your Sheep - There's a Storm Coming
Run well. Finish well. And pastors, you know, we’re a lot like Cliff Young. We’re running, seeking to gather the sheep, because there’s a storm coming.
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.
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 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.
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.
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."
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:
They value the process of decision more than the outcome of decision.
They value their preferences over the needs of the unreached.
They have an inability to pass leadership to the next generation.
They cease, often gradually, to be part of the fabric of their community.
They grow dependent upon programs or personalities for growth or stability.
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.
They anesthetize the pain of death with over-abundance of activity and maintaining outdated structure.
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?