Campus or Church Plant?

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.

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Church Planting

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.

Campus Planting (Multi-Site Planting)

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:

  1. ADDITIONAL SERVICES. Campus plants are viewed as additional services, just meeting at a different venue than the church's traditional campus.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. VIDEO OR LIVE? Though I prefer live, there are enough offering video venues that are working to discount this reality.
  7. 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. 
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

 


Oak Harbor - Our New Mayport Campus

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.

Church Planting

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. 

Oak harbor logo

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.

Download OAK HARBOR BAPTIST CHURCH PARTNERSHIP AGREEMENT

 


firstFAMILY Podcast 018: "The Insanity of God" by Nik Ripken

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.

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LifeWay Films & Nik Ripken

In the meantime, here are the videos and links referenced in the podcast.

Official Movie Site - insanityofgodmovie.com

Official Trailer on YouTube

Nik speaking at the Sam James Institute on Vimeo

Nik Ripken Ministries


Keep Shuffling Along, Even When Others Mock You

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.

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Newcastle Herald

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.)

He starts running, but his "run" was more of a shuffle. (For you Gen-Xers and Boomers, imagine Tim Conway shuffling along as the old man on The Carol Burnett Show.)

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.

Never stopped.

How?

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.

 


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. 


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.

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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."

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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?

 


Why Mother's Day Is No Longer the Big Attendance Day at Church

Mother's Day will be here soon. (That is my not-s0-subtle reminder to all you kids out there to go buy a card and a smelly candle today for mom, before all that's left are the cards that say "I like you" and the really stinky candles like "grey mist.")

I was recently in a church leadership meeting with a group of church members as we discussed the fluctuating attendance patterns at our church. At some point in the midst of the meeting, someone mentioned the BIG attendance days at church being Easter and Mother's Day.

At that point, it was clear that some of our folks were not actually considering the number of people who actually attend church on these days, but were remembering the bygone era of their early adulthood and childhood when these were the actual big attendance days.

For church leaders and pastors, planning ahead and promoting big days is not wrong. In fact, I believe it is very right. There is value in leveraging naturally high-attendance days for the sake of the Gospel. It's just that presuming that Easter and Mother's Day are the big days will reveal that the cultural calendar hasn't been checked in a while.

In full disclosure, Easter is still a pretty big attendance day for us here at our church. However, it should be noted that the total attendance this year on Easter was less than on Easter last year or in previous ones. While Chicken Little Christian will say that "We're dying! The church sky is falling!" the fact of the matter is that while we are continually seeking to find new ways to engage our community and the cultural domains, we are no more dying than any other Baptist church around. 

Wait...maybe we are dying. :-( 

Plateaued is dying, right? This will be a topic for another posting.

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Back to "big days." 

Over the years, and more dramatically, over the past five or six, the shift has been clearly made in our community regarding big attendance days. James Emery White, pastor of Mecklenberg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, recently wrote an article about community outreaches and his description of "big days" is exactly what is happening here.

A “big day” approach to outreach is simple: Seize the naturally big days in terms of cultural attendance, do all you can to reach out and invite people to attend, and do all you can to “hook” them so they will keep attending afterward.

Traditionally the two big days were Easter and Mother’s Day. The rationale behind this was that Easter was the one day everybody would still go to church, and Mother’s Day was the one day that Mom (often the only churchgoer in the family) would get her way with the rest of the clan.

A “big day” approach is still effective. The problem is that many churches haven’t updated their cultural calendar. How so? The biggest days don’t tend to be Easter or Mother’s Day anymore.

In regard to Easter, there just isn’t the cultural impetus to attend that once existed. Further, Easter is now tied to “spring break” on almost every public school and college calendar, making it one of the biggest vacation weekends of the year. There are actually healthy churches starting to dip in attendance on Easter!

As for Mother’s Day, again, moms these days are as unchurched as anyone. Further, families are so spread out geographically that this just isn’t the “big day” it used to be.

What days are? Services surrounding Christmas Eve, the fall time-change weekend and then the first weekend following the start of school (either in August or September). For example, for the past several years at Meck, we’ve consistently had more people at our Christmas Eve services than our Easter weekend services. And the spike in attendance for the weekend closest to the start of the new school year is one of the biggest spikes we experience.

In talking with other church leaders, we are far from alone.

He's right. We're in that camp as well. The Christmas Eve service here is the largest we have annually, and we really don't leverage it well. That will change this year as we will put more emphasis and energy in reaching our community on that day. In fact, we're going from one service at the main campus, to three at all our community campuses. 

Growing up in church (and I have been in church since the womb) I never remember, ever, going to to church on Christmas Eve. I don't think any of the churches we were members of (we were a military family, so many church homes over the years) had a Christmas Eve service. I do remember one having a New Years Eve service, but it was basically terrible and only a handful came to "pray in the new year" and celebrate superstitions by eating black-eyed peas.

However, here, Christmas Eve is THE biggest service of the year for us.

Mother's Day...not so much.

Nevertheless, we will meet on Mother's Day and we even have scheduled a parent/child dedication (more on that at another time, since now not everyone is allowed to participate.)

Every community has potentially BIG days. It is the role of the missionally-minded pastor and leadership team to study the cultural calendar and know the mission field well enough to leverage these days best. 


firstFAMILY Podcast 010: Missional Theology - More Than a Church Buzzword

Last weekend I had the privilege of leading a group of pastors, church planters, and spouses in a course titled "Missional Theology." Since this term "missional" has been around for a few years now, the tendency has been for it to be relegated as just another "church growth strategy" or buzzword for doing missions. In this podcast, I seek to begin a discussion that I will touch on in future weeks as well, regarding this concept of living and leading missionally.

I reference a few resources in this podcasts. Here are direct links to these.

Missional Essentials by Brad Brisco and Lance Ford 

Breaking the Missional Code by Ed Stetzer and David Putman

The Verge Network

 

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How Legacy Churches Can Experience Church Planting

Earlier this year, our Pastor of Church Planting, Josh Dryer, along with our Director of Missions, Kenzie Allen began working on a strategy to lead people within our church family to make intentional, strategic connections with church planters in our firstFAMILY Network.

Over the past few years, our church has been sending and supporting church planters throughout the world. We have expanded mission engagement, but also have discovered a common reality for legacy churches (i.e. older, established churches) seeking to engage strategically in planting. While pastoral and mission leadership may fully embrace the church planting strategy now promoted by various networks (including our own Send Network) the average church member often feels at a loss regarding church planting.

We Need Handles

In our situation, the need for sending and supporting church planters has been promoted from me, the Lead Pastor. While there are many who "amen" the strategy and show their support by giving financially to planters and global missions, others struggle with understanding how church planting should impact their lives.

In most cases, the problem is poor communication. I am guilty of this. Many times, I find a vision for ministry or engagement that I believe God is leading us toward as a church seems so obvious...to me. Yet, many in our church may not see or hear the obvious call. This is not because they're bad Christians, or consumer Christians, or selfish, or any other negative tag often wrongly placed on church members who don't immediately jump on board every new ministry idea. It is often due to the reality that the obvious to me is obvious for a reason. As pastor, I am to equip the saints, lead, and shepherd the people. 

Leadership requires clear communication with practical "next steps" for all. I call these next steps "handles." Handles provide stability and leverage for getting where you desire. We all need a practical handle to hold to as we move forward.

Experience Trips

We have determined to expand our church family's reach by providing connections for what we call "Experience Trips." Unlike a traditional mission trip where a church leader gathers eight to twenty people together to travel to some far away location for the purpose of putting on a camp, prayerwalking, or performing as a choir or drama troupe (for Jesus, no less) these trips are only approved and coordinated through the church, but the individual or family then secures their own transportation, hotel, etc. in the church planting city.

Here's how it works. . .

  1. We contact our church planters to see when would be good time for people to come visit them. Oh, we also ask if they'd actually like someone to visit. This is a needed question because many mission teams are loved by missionaries and planters, but sometimes come with poor expectations and create a "give us a mission trip experience" the planter/missionary just cannot do. This needs to be communicated well. We're not sending "those" teams any longer...anywhere...for any reason.
  2. Based on their recommendations, we promote that time frame to the church membership.
  3. We encourage people to use their three-day weekend or holiday vacation times to visit one of our planting cities.
  4. We encourage people to enjoy their vacations in the city of choice and to "experience" the city well.
  5. While there, we will provide needed connection information so they can be in contact with our church planters. 
  6. Our desire is that families will then serve our planters for a day or maybe a weekend. 
  7. Serving a planter family is unique depending upon the family. For some, it would be offering to watch the planters' children and provide a gift card or cash so the couple could go on a date. In many cases, these opportunities are rare, so this would be a BIG gift. Our role as the sending church would be to secure background checks on the "Experience Trip" missionaries in case they do watch the children. This provides a level of security and peace of mind to the parents.
  8. Serving may include helping set up and/or tear down the set used for weekend worship. Since many of our planters meet in rented space, this is a weekly occurrence and help would be appreciated. However, most planters have a system and volunteers in place, so the care is to not get in the way, but to actually be a help.
  9. Perhaps taking the planting out to eat in an option? There are many others. These are just ideas.
  10. Most of our planters have children and in many cases, they're forgotten (unintentionally) by those coming to serve or sending financial support. We provide the names and birth dates to families seeking to engage. Then, they can send cards and gifts as they choose.

It really is simple. We're trying not to make it too difficult, but we see the win in connecting church members with planters. Once a family has dined with another, spent time with them, and viewed the realities of church planting and pastoring, our planters become more than just a name and photo on a website or bulletin. They become real. They become friends. And the church can minister as we are called to do.

Kingdom work means stepping outside the norm. It means risking engagement. It means reclaiming holidays and weekend trips for the King. What's great about the Experience trips is that the vacation still happens. Just to be clear - we like vacations. We like visiting other places. We like seeing the beauty of cities and regions outside our own.

We figure you can only go to Disney World and Universal Studios so many times (okay, for the season pass holders who seem to be there every single week, you're the exception.)

Our 2016 Cities & Regions

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I Just Wanted to Eat My Donut In Peace

I woke up pretty early this morning with a plan.

Every Wednesday, I lead a boys' mentoring group at one of our local junior high schools. That begins at 8am. It finishes around 9:15am or so and I head to my office at church. I then have a 10:30am Bible study for senior adults each week. These are two highlights of my mid-week. 

So, as is the case on Wednesdays often, I stopped at our local Dunkin' Donuts for a coffee and a French Cruller (an incredibly good donut that is low-calorie because there's so much air inside - well, that's my theory.) The employees see me coming and now, these two items are always waiting. I'm a creature of habit. One of these days, I'm going to mess with them and get a frosted donut. It'll blow their minds!

Dd coffee

Nevertheless, my plan was simple. Drink my coffee. Eat my donut. Sit in a booth, read my Bible app and study for the day's sessions.

Please Leave Me Alone So I Can Do Some Christian Stuff

Everything was going according to plan. I was not seeking to engage anyone in conversation. I simply wanted to be left alone to read. You know, like you feel on an airplane when you just want to read, watch a show on your iPad and not have to talk to the stranger seated next to you. This is why Dr. Dre invented Beats - so you can put on headphones on an airplane. These headphones declare "Leave me alone" to the rest of the passengers.

My Beats are blue, by the way.

Well, as you have probably figured out by now, a woman came into the donut shop. She sat in the booth directly in front of me, and was facing me.

Awkward!

I looked up and it felt like we were sitting at the same booth, especially since there was nothing but empty benches in between us.

I smiled and said "Hello" because that's what nice, Christian guys do.

She said "Hello" back.

Whew! That was close. I thought we'd have to actually talk. Remember... I wanted to be left alone.

Then, this woman asked if I lived near the donut shop and she began talking about the community and how nice, but different it was. She lives on the Westside of Jacksonville and was going to a doctor's appointment in a nearby office. She was just waiting at the donut shop because her taxi picked her up too early.

Oh, she's a single mother with two adult children and a teenager. She is having a tough time and is dealing with fear and worry about some life situations.

How do I know this?

You guessed it. She began to talk to me and I had to listen.

Are You A Christian?

She then said, "Are you a Christian?"

What? Why would she ask this? I'm definitely a Christian, but I wasn't reading my Bible (just the app) and am not wearing anything with Jesus fish or other churchy embroidery on it. I mean, I'm honored she asked and I said, "Yes" unapologetically, but was wondering why she asked.

I thought "I wonder what she thinks about Christians?" and yet, it wasn't going to change my answer.

I then asked, "How did you know I was a Christian?"

She said, "I don't know. I just did."

Hmmmm.

At this point, I figured I was all in on this potential divine encounter. In other words, I thought "Okay, God. I get it." 

I closed my iPad and asked her "Are you a Christian?"

She answered "Yes" and then moved into my booth.

That was unexpected and caused me a little discomfort.

Are You a Preacher?

She then asked, "Are you a preacher?"

Oh boy, now I'm caught. Do I look like a preacher? I don't slick my hair back (don't have enough to do that). I don't talk with a preacher voice. I didn't say "sister" or "amen" every other phrase. I am wearing a golf shirt and khakis. I looked like a Best Buy employee. I didn't even have the traditional preacher uniform on (I knew I should've worn my Chuck Taylors today).

I answered "Yes" and discovered that apparently caused her relief.

Nonetheless, we talked for about fifteen minutes. She shared her story a bit. I stated that I had to leave to go to the junior high. Then we prayed. We prayed for strength and for power. We prayed for the worry that had overtaken her that led to an unhealthy fear and stress would be relieved by God's Spirit. We prayed over her children. 

Then I said, "Good-bye."

I don't share this to say "Hey look at me. I did a good Christian thing."

I share this because I intently did NOT want to engage anyone in conversation. I wanted to just go through my routine. I wanted to read my Bible, not talk to someone about the Bible. I wanted to eat my French Cruller (well, I did to that) and drink my coffee in peace.

And then she showed up.

And then God nudged me as if to say "This is why you're here right now."

I wonder how many times I miss the moment? I wonder how many times my routine reigns in my life so I can just get through another day? I wonder how she knew I was a Christian, much less a pastor? I wonder where I can go to eat a donut in peace? Ha ha.

Nevertheless, I was reminded of this verse...

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15 (ESV)

So friends. Be ready. Oh, and if someone says "You look like a Christian" that hopefully, is a good thing (unless their idea of a Christian is some warped caricature. In that case, just be real and change that perspective.)