Our city, not unlike many others that are growing, has a rich history, numerous neighborhoods, distinct communities...and many churches in our denominational family of various ages, histories, sizes, and stages on the life cycle. Within our own denominational identity, there are over two-hundred Baptist churches who cooperate and network together in our Jacksonville Baptist Association.
Our desire as member churches of the association is to see each church engage their community for Christ, equip their members to become disciples who make disciples, and expand God's kingdom through evangelism and discipleship. There are a number of our churches that would be considered healthy. A good number have come out of the pandemic with a refined focus, a cleaner calendar, and a more strategic ministry plan. It is encouraging to see so many autonomous churches and their pastors willingly locking arms with sister churches for the sake of the kingdom.
While many are experiencing a healthy reset now, there are others who are teetering on the verge of closure. The pandemic is not why the churches may close, but it is clear that the last year has accelerated the urgency in these mostly smaller, older, pastor-less churches located in communities that have often changed dramatically over the years.
We Are Not Adding Church Campuses
In our church's recent past, we expanded by adding campuses in different communities. God used our campus expansion efforts in ways that we may not fully understand for years. At a minimum, our campus movement shifted the mindset of members from being primarily internally-focused to being more externally and mission-focused. The "normality" of sending people to serve in rented spaces, near people separated from our primary campus by barriers (such as divided highways, gated communities, railroad tracks, waterways, bridges, and other such items identified by anthropologists as being barriers to connections for people groups) for the sake of reaching more with the gospel was vital.
Yet, as the pandemic continued, we began reevaluating our strategy and while many churches have found and continue to find great success in planting campuses (you know the "one church - many locations" strategy) we believed this was not the present strategy God was leading our church to continue. Therefore, we pulled our campuses back, began gathering together in one location (and online) as family on the Lord's Day, with a more focused intentionality of helping start new church plants and to work with existing churches in need of revitalization (or replanting.)
To be clear, I am not against churches having campuses. In fact, the model is working well for many and people are coming to Christ and serving in churches who are doing this. I discovered God has not equipped nor gifted me to manage campuses well. It was a stark revelation that I need to lead where God has called me and how God has gifted me and to stop jumping ahead with "good ideas" that may not be "God's ideas" for our local church.
Thus, at this point, we do not have multiple campuses.
But, We Are Becoming a Foster Church
What is a foster church?
This was a new term for me. We are blessed to have JimBo Stewart from NAMB as part of our associational lead team. He explained the concept and is championing this in our area. Here is an overly-simplified description–it is like foster care for a child (kinda.)
In foster care, a family is vetted by the state to become temporary guardians for children at risk. In a healthy situation, these foster parents receive word that a child is in need of a temporary home. At times, it is due to an at-risk situation where a child must be removed from a home. The foster family welcomes the child, provides for basic needs, offers healthy guidelines for living, and allows the child to remain in the home until the time is proper and safe for the child to be returned to his/her home, or is adopted into a new family.
As a foster church, we come alongside a church in crisis. The church in crisis has come to a place of great need. Perhaps their membership has dwindled to just a handful of people. These faithful few are committed to bring glory to God, desire to reach their community, long for the Lord's Day to be one of gathered worship, Bible teaching, fellowship, and gospel declaration as it was in the past. Yet, they know that due to their numbers, their collective ages, their financial situation, and more, they will not be able to right the ship alone.
They need help.
That's when a foster church is introduced. It is a unique relationship, because it sustains the autonomy of both churches, but when the needy church agrees to come into such a relationship with a larger, more healthy church, they do so much like a child who is placed in a foster family.
The goal is temporary guardianship with the eventual release to a healthy, sustainable church-life.
Our Fostering Relationship
Over the next few weeks, a smaller church in great need located in Jacksonville will be deciding if they desire to come under our leadership for a season of fostering. If they do, an agreement will be signed. We will work with the membership there to make changes, start community engagement opportunities, modernize their gathering space, and ultimately to provide pastoral care for these dear brothers and sisters. One of our associate pastors will transition to the smaller church to serve as pastor. He will provide pastoral leadership for this smaller church. We will be "sending" him, his wife, and four young sons to serve there, but we will be serving alongside him. This is not unlike sending a church planter to launch a new work. In this case, we are sending a pastor/replanter to lead in revitalization of a current church.
A church revitalization effort often takes between five and seven years, so this is not a short-term journey. Our desire is to join God where he is working, to keep a gospel witness alive and well in a community that desperately needs it, and to be the church that continues to be who we must be for our community, while seeking to partner with others so that the gospel may be spread in our larger context, and throughout the world.
In this new, potential relationship (pending the smaller church's willingness to come under our wings,) other churches in our city asked to invest and participate as well. Just imagine numerous churches coming together to provide life support for a sister church who is barely hanging on! We do not step into this so that we can become the "hero" of the story. We step into this because we are our brother's keeper and not only is it the right thing to do, it is the godly thing to do. We know that when this chapter is done and the church is no longer under our "foster care" God alone will receive the glory and we can say "Look what He has done!"
This is the church at work. This is how a local network of churches comes together for the glory of God and for all our good.
If we truly love where we live, we will love those who live where we live as well.