Previous month:
December 2019
Next month:
February 2020

Posts from January 2020

Why We Continue to Plant Churches & Partner with Church Planters

I am not a church planter. 

Most of you probably know that. 

I pastor what has been called by various entities an "established church," a "legacy church," an "historic church," and other things. Basically, I pastor an older church. Our church was founded in 1921. I guess it was planted then, but no one was really using that term back in the 1920s. 

After decades of systematic growth featuring steps forward as well as steps backward, celebrations and crises, transitions and traditions, and all that a church of almost one-hundred years would face, we are a church that not only believes in church planting, but has taken steps to resource new pastors and church planters and help them find footing in the region they are planting. 

We don't really have to do this. I have discovered that many churches our age just do not bother with the church planting process that has been popular in western Christianity for the past decade or so. It is not that these other churches see no value in church planting (I hope) but that they just have never done so, never felt God's lead to emphasize it, have many other things requiring funding and decisions, etc. so that church planting is just not on their radar.

I'm not faulting the churches my brothers pastor, because I get it. 

It Seems Like a Trend

Church planting seems like a trend. Trends come and go. For some it seems like the latest "church growth strategy" that is just the next phase in a long history of starts and stops and programmatic church events, emphases, and functions.

Yet, for me, for our church and network of churches, something happened a number of years ago that helped us realize that church planting and supporting new work cannot be optional for a healthy church (and I am talking about a healthy established, legacy, or historic church like ours.)

You see, my natural tendency is to be self-focused, to look inward, and when deciding whether or not to do something, or to invest in something, I ask "How does this affect me?"

The local church is like that as well. Church planting is touted by many as right, needed, and necessary (I have said that) but for most churches, it is very difficult to come to grips with the reality that to support a church planter means initial loss. There's really no way around this.

Let's just say you are the pastor or a leader at a healthy, established church. You aren't perfect. Your church isn't either, but it's a good church.

A man in your church, perhaps a small group leader, elder, or deacon comes to you and shares with the church family that he and his wife feel God's leading to leave the fellowship and plant a new church. In this scenario, let's say that the new church is in the same region, maybe in the same community.

It is clear to you that this brother is not seeking to leave your church because he is upset. He is humble. He is godly. He does not have a negative or unbiblical agenda. He is not telling others (or even thinking) "I can do better than our pastor." He is not speaking badly about the style of worship, the translation of the Bible used, or the dress code expected at your church. In other words, he is sincerely seeking to follow God's lead and believes God desires him to plant a new church in the region. He comes to you for your blessing. You give it.

When he leaves, the practical losses will begin to add up. Likely, some who attend and tithe to the church you pastor will leave with him to support him, either for a short time or for the long haul. If your church decides to support and send him, you will be giving church members the "go ahead" to leave with him and you will likely send financial support as well, at least initially.

Not only has your church lost people who normally worship with you and serve at the church, you will be losing some money that previously was earmarked for other things. 

And...you have to find a new small group leader and perhaps others to step in to the roles he and his wife filled previously.

No wonder some churches push pause when being encouraged to plant churches and support planters.

And, I'm giving an example of a great experience.

Lightstock_615548_small_david_tarkington

When our church began to seek God's will regarding church planting, we did not know exactly what that would entail. Our mission board was shifting to send people to key urban areas in North America. I connected with a few leaders in such cities and began to see that there was much work to be done for the Kingdom in our nation. The concept of the Bible Belt was a façade and I knew it, but these connections affirmed it.

Then, one of our deacons and his wife (who served on our church staff) shared that God was leading them to go serve in one of these cities as support for church planters. We had talked about it earlier and I knew this was potentially something God was doing in their lives. Sure enough, a few years back they relocated to Toronto where they serve Toronto Church Planting and a network of planters in the North American Mission Board. While we haven't had anyone else uproot to move there with them, we do have a number of church members who have visited and give regularly, in addition to budgeted funds, in support. 

This began a more intentional story for our church. Now, in addition to Toronto, we now support (we're not the only supporters and we can only do little for some) planters in Portland, Oregon, Washington, DC, Orlando, Florida, Leesburg, Florida, and soon in New York City. 

It costs. It costs time, resources, and people.

We Cannot Afford to Plant Churches

Though we have been immensely blessed by God, and as of December 31, 2019 we are debt-free for the first time in over forty years, the facts are that we cannot afford to plant churches. We have a pastoral staff to pay. We have administrative support and maintenance and custodial staff to pay. We have a facility requiring thousands of dollars of decades of deferred maintenance. We have unexpected expenses. We live in Florida, so a storm, flooding, trees down, etc. are often an annual possibility. We've been fortunate and blessed thus far.

We have ministry expenses and some things that church members see as expected that still cost money. We have a revitalization church we are supporting and two campuses that have expenses, rent, and other costs.

On paper...we really cannot afford to plant churches and support church planters.

We Cannot Afford NOT to Plant Churches

But here it is. While on paper it seems a big stretch to be all in on church planting and revitalization, the fact is we must do this. We know that all churches have a shelf-life. Ours is almost one-hundred years old and while I desire that it remains for centuries in the future, I have no guarantee of that. I do know we can leave a legacy for God's kingdom that will last when we are gone.

Years ago Dr. Jeff Farmer wrote his dissertation on church planting and the impact it has on the sending church. He compared seventy-five churches who were planting other churches with seventy-five who were not. The churches were of all sizes so the clear distinction was simply the planting aspect. His research found that churches that plant are healthier than those who do not. (Read "5 Reasons Established Churches Should Plant Churches" by Ed Stetzer)

I believe it is because planting forces the sending to church to look outside the walls more. When the focus is less about growing "my church" and about seeing God's church and his kingdom grow, it just makes sense to plant. 

I believe that new churches reach more people quickly.

I believe the gospel needs to go where the people are.

I believe that church plants churches and new pastors are called, commissioned, and ordained by the local church for God's glory.

I believe denominational agencies and mission boards can help fund and resource church planters, but I do not believe they are the primary resources. Churches plant churches.

I believe multiplication is better than addition.

I am convinced our church was planted here in 1921 to meet a clear need. There was no Baptist church in our community at the time, thus our name - First Baptist Church. The need was seen. The calling was clear. The work was done. I have a sneaky feeling that those who actually started First Baptist Church couldn't afford to do so either, but they did. For that I am so thankful.

For our church, church planting and revitalization has become our DNA. It is one way we make disciples and multiply them. It is one way we fulfill the Great Commission. The reach of the gospel is extended. While we continue to have focus in our own community, with various ministries, campuses, partnerships, and services, we also have been given by God the opportunity to reach the world strategically and intentionally.

We are not a perfect church. We are not a mega-church. We are not a rich (financially) church. 

We are a blessed church and we seek to see God's Kingdom expanded. Therefore, I believe by planting new churches and funding planters as best we can (even sacrificially) we are an obedient church.

While I won't be here a century from now, I pray that the legacy our church leaves will be impactful for generations to come. That is one reason we plant. That is why I encourage your church to do so as well. Be warned, it is costly. 

But it is worth it.


The Potential Church Member May Struggle with Your Membership Process

As a lifelong Baptist who grew up in a family that moved every few years due to my father's military service, I have been part of a number of Baptist churches. For the most part, during the 1970s and 1980s, the churches we joined were pretty much carbon copies of each other. Each used the same Sunday School curriculum, handed out identical bulletins, sung from the same version of the Baptist Hymnal, had the same schedule (Sunday School at 9:45am and Worship at 11am with Sunday evening and Wednesday evening events too,) and for many, the layout of the facilities were exactly the same. This was not unheard of in Southern Baptist life in that most of our material was published by LifeWay (née Baptist Sunday School Board) and the blueprints used for building were provided by the denomination. Finding sameness was comfortable and allowed for an ease of joining a new church upon relocation.

The membership process in each church was similar, too. This is from memory and I was a child for most of these moves, but it seems that joining a church was pretty simple. Here's the process as I remember it:

  1. You attend a service
  2. Walk down the aisle during the invitation hymn
  3. Tell the pastor you want to join the church
  4. The pastor would ask if you were a Christian and if you were a member of another Baptist church.
  5. If the answers were "yes" then the new church would contact the former and "send for your letter."
  6. If the potential new member was not yet a Christian or baptized, those very important discussions were held and membership was complete upon baptism.
  7. Then there was the moment when you and your family were brought up before the church  (normally about five minutes after you walked down the aisle)
  8. The pastor would present you to the congregation and a brief business meeting took place. It went something like this: "This family wants to unite with our church. We're so excited about this. All in favor say 'Amen!'"
  9. The congregation would say "Amen."
  10. The pastor would ask if anyone thought otherwise, but most often there were no "nay" votes.

It was that easy. Boom! You're a church member.

I am sure it was not like this everywhere, but in most of the smaller churches our family attended it seemed to work this way. It could be that the church was so excited to have a young family join that they just "amened" us in before risking losing us.

Easy Membership Leads to Difficulty

As I think back I wonder if anyone at these churches ever had doctrinal discussions with my parents prior to joining? I'm sure there were some conversations, but as I stated, I was a child so I was not in those meetings.

I know my parents listened to a few sermons to determine whether or not the pastor stayed true to Scripture. I am confident that some of the things that led to joining certain churches had to do with how welcoming the people were, the opportunities for personal growth, and whether or not the children's ministry was of good quality.

Not much has changed regarding families and potential church membership today.

However, in those cases where membership is rushed, conversations do not take place, testimonies are not shared, and the potential for creating members while sacrificing the call to make disciples occurs.

Membership Classes and Covenants

When our church first instituted new members classes, most people understood the reasoning. However, some were adamant that it was unnecessary, wrong, and even "un-Baptist." Once we explained the reasonings (doctrinal clarification, salvation assurance, ordinance explanations, and clarifying member expectations) for the class, many agreed that it was needed and helpful.

Some, however, still did not like it. 

The Concept of Covenant Membership

One of the biggest pushbacks was from those who refused to sign or agree to covenant with other members. Some had previously been members of churches that were...well, toxic. Those who had gone through difficulties at other churches (or our own in the past) struggled with trusting leaders and seeing the value of committing (or covenanting as we stated) with others in the church for fear of being hurt.

I understand that fear.

Regardless how others may have soiled the concept of covenant membership, the affirmations of being one in Christ and being responsible to one another resonate throughout the New Testament. Therefore, it is biblical to be in an honest, gospel-centric, covenant relationship with other brothers and sisters in Christ as a local church.

I do know some who struggle with this due to experiences that involve abuse of power, and in some cases, traumatic sinful actions made by those who used the "covenant" terminology in unbiblical and selfish ways. I am not speaking of such instances. I do not minimize those as they are very real and impactful. That is just a subject for another article.

For the purpose of this article, I am speaking of healthy churches, led by biblically-sound, godly leaders who submit to the lordship of Christ. Healthy churches include covenant members who are redeemed by Christ, accountable to the Lord and one another, and serve well together, selflessly for God's glory alone and their own good.

Opposition to Membership Classes

Over the years, I have heard numerous reasons why potential members balk at the concept of required new members' classes.

The most common is:

I have been a member of many Baptist churches and never had to take a class before. I should not have to do so here.

Other opposition tends to fall from this train of thought. This response and similar ones come from those who have been members of other Baptist churches for years. In their mind the "send for my letter" model described above is all that should be required. A class seems like legalism to them. I heard one state that it seemed "cultish." That was a shock to me.

Truth be told, the process could become legalistic. I am sure it has at certain places.  I am not for creating extra-biblical hoops for people to jump through to become part of the body

I do value the one-on-one conversations with brothers and sisters who seek to become members. In most cases, the personal connections are needed and helpful. They are helpful for the potential members to understand who we are as a local church, how we seek to fulfill God's great commission, and how they can join in this journey of faith with us.

It is beneficial when it is determined that a person wants to join the church but has never joined God's family. Just because a person has a long tenure as a church member elsewhere does not mean that they are born again children of God. If this church attender is not a believer we gain a clear opportunity to present the gospel, answer questions, and follow the Holy Spirit's lead.

That's not legalism. That's loving.

Membership Interviews

We are now at the point of adding membership interviews into our new member process. Again, this is not to create another hoop, but to help brothers and sisters unite with our church well. These interviews will be led by pastors and ministry leaders on our staff during membership classes. They are individual conversations that may take place in a large room during a time of sharing a meal together. 

What will happen in the interviews?

We will share who we are a a church and describe doctrinal distinctions of our fellowship. This will be a time of clarifying what we believe about the ordinances of the church, structure of our church, the vision and mission of our church and expanded ministries, and answer questions regarding such. The potential member will have the opportunity to share his/her personal story of how he/she came to know Christ as Lord. This personal testimony time is a key moment in that many believers are never challenged to share. During this time, key elements of one's personal story will be given to help them focus on the gracious love of God and how he rescued them. 

For those brothers and sisters who come from other churches that view baptism differently, we will have an opportunity to discuss our understanding of the ordinance clearly.

Expectations of a member will be also presented.

Additionally the expectations a member should have from his/her church will be presented.

If church membership is the next step, we move forward. If there are barriers to work through, we can prayerfully and carefully do so. It may be that we ask the candidate for membership if he/she would be open to meeting with a current church member (same gender) for a season of study to help answer some questions that may arise. There are other things that may come up, but the goal is not just to get another name on a membership roll or check off another box, but to seek God as we grow in number possibly, but most importantly, as we make disciples. 

I am sure that some will balk at the "interview" process simply because it sounds more business-oriented than church-oriented. Perhaps there's a better term. I am not sure what a better term would be, but I am certain that such conversations will not only be helpful for the individuals but beneficial for the church.

Membership requires relationships. Primarily with Christ. Secondarily with his children. We cannot do life together if we do not know one another. 

You Want to Join Our Church?

So, you want to join our church? Great. Let's talk about it. Maybe over dinner?

It sure beats having you coming down an aisle and being paraded in front of a bunch of people you don't know yet so they can "Amen" you into the family.


The Awkward Encounter with a Former Church Member

Every local church has members who decide for one reason or another to leave the fellowship. The reasons people have for leaving are varied. Some reasons are godly and prayerfully considered. Some are selfish and consumeristic. Some leave angrily and/or hurt. Others may be transferred to another city by their employer and therefore, change churches. Oh, and some leave because the church they attend is toxic, the preaching is not biblical, and compromises in doctrinal fidelity have occurred. There are more reasons, I'm sure, but you get the point.

In a community like mine, there are dozens of local church options. This has increased over the past twenty years as the community has grown, more schools have been built, and traffic patterns have changed.

Therefore, the inevitable has occurred. Our church may actually have more former church members/attenders in our community that current ones. 

We have had people leave our church for every reason listed above (well, except the one about the abandonment of good doctrine on our part, at least from my perspective.) Since I have lived here for over twenty-six years, I run into many brothers and sisters who are in the "former member" category. These encounters take place in restaurants, grocery stores, school events, and elsewhere.

6277857364_9bc20f61f3_b
Photo credit: Indiana Stan on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC

For those who didn't leave angrily or hurt, the meetings are cordial and very nice. Often there's a bit of catching up because I just don't see them as much and am not aware of the latest details in their lives. 

However, there are times when the encounter is . . . interesting.

There are some who angrily left our fellowship. Some disagreed with my teaching or doctrine. To some I am too conservative. To others I am too liberal. One was angry I was not more political from the pulpit (He found a church that tends to wrap the cross in the flag, so he's happier now.) I know some who were just turned off by my personality (I really can't blame them.) Others felt I did not minister to them as a pastor should. They're probably right, to be honest.

So what do I do?

I smile. Ask how they're doing. Sometimes force them to shake my hand and wish them well. In most cases they're going to other churches and I'm comforted to know that.

A few weeks ago I saw a brother in the grocery store. I asked how he was doing. I hadn't seen him at church in a while, but I did not ask about his attendance. I was not setting him up. I was not intending to make it awkward. The encounter wasn't awkward from my perspective. I noticed he was nervous. Then, he said, "Well, my wife and I are now attending [such-and such church, a new church in our area]." He named the church. I smiled. I know the church. It's the latest good church to pop up. While I am certain he is attending there, he said the name of the church incorrectly. I knew which one he was talking about and really wanted to say "Well, if you're going to the church, you should know the name of the church," but I didn't. It didn't matter. He was apologetic in how he spoke, but I stated quickly "That's a great church. I'm so glad you're connected and involved. Stay there. Be a member. Stay committed." He smiled and I went to get my gallon of milk.

Awkward, but not bad.

Membership Matters

Like most churches, we keep a membership roll as up-to-date as possible in order to know our members, where they live, track their attendance and service, and help understand next steps for discipleship. 

Like many, we have names on the roll of people who never attend, haven't attended in years, and are likely members of other churches. We really need to deal with that.

I believe church membership is biblical and matters. I won't get into the details of the biblical justification of such, but recommend the book Church Membership by Jonathan Leeman on the subject. You can purchase a copy here.

Leeman makes this statement in the book (page 22):

If you are a Christian living in a Western democracy, chances are that you need to change the way you think about your church and how you are connected to it. Most likely, you underestimate your church. You belittle it. You misshape it in a way that misshapes your Christianity.

That's a harsh statement for some, but the truth is there. In America especially, the heightened individualization of our faith leaves the faithfulness to brothers and sisters in the local body somewhere on the back burner (if on the proverbial stove at all.) 

Leeman continues:

If you are a Christian, the local church is not a club. It is not a voluntary organization where membership is optional for you. It is not a friendly group of people who share an interest in religious things and so gather weekly to talk about the divine. Nor is a church a service provider, where the customer has all authority.

The church is God-ordained and the fellowship of believers is needed. It is needed for each believer and for glorifying the Father. 

My Responsibility to "My" Church

How I interact with former members varies depending on the former member. This is a reality for all relationships. How a brother or sister in a local church interacts with those who used to be in their church changes when they leave. This is inevitable. 

The universal church is biblical. However, the local church body is as well. These are not the same, yet both are needed. 

As a pastor I have a responsibility to God and my church to the members of my church. (I say my church here just to distinguish it as different from other local bodies. I know it is not my church, but God's.) 

I do not have that same pastoral responsibility to brothers and sisters in the universal church.

In the local church, there is a covenant relationship between members. In some ways this relationship is like the "I do" stated at a wedding. Church membership is about the church taking the biblical responsibility for its members and for each member taking responsibility for the church.

Whether you meet in a church building, a home, a school, a YMCA, or other venue, the local body of the church is where membership is held. This is because it is within the local body that accountability, discipline, discipleship, worship, the partaking of the Lord's Supper, and other needful things occur. 

Back To The Awkward Encounter

My encounters with former members are not always awkward. In most cases, the awkwardness does not resonate from me (at least not intentionally) because I no longer have the oversight/shepherding responsibility for that brother or sister. I won't need to offer them counseling. I won't officiate their wedding or speak at their funeral. I won't take them on mission trips or start a Bible study with them. Of course, I am speaking of the one now attending and a member of another local body.

For the stray sheep out there, going nowhere, seeking God, but simultaneously running from him, I pray and will continue to follow the Holy Spirit's lead of drawing him/her back into the fold.

In most cases however, it's not about getting the distant sheep back into the fold, it is about getting the lost saved.

The Awkwardness Will Likely Continue

The state of American evangelicalism means that these encounters by Christians in suburban and fast-growing areas will continue. People will join your church. They will leave and join another. Some will join who have more church memberships from local churches than Tom Brady has Super Bowl rings. Sadly, this is just how it is. While I lament when a brother or sister leaves our church, especially if it is due to sin on my part or theirs, I trust God that he will place them where they can serve and be shepherded well. 

Pastors, be encouraged in this. The awkward meetings are very real, especially in the west. It will not always be this way. It is not this way on my global mission fields. Be thankful there are others seeking to honor God and new churches are being planted. Shepherd the flock God has given you. Lead your church to seek and save the lost, not the already saved who attend elsewhere.

As for loving your brothers and sisters, regardless where they attend weekly for worship, there is no pass. Love God and love others. This is non-negotiable, whether they attend your church, another church, or no church.

And if you have the awkward encounter, smile, offer a handshake, say a brief prayer and go get your gallon of milk.