How God Used Numerous Churches (Ours Included) for His Glory in Jacksonville, Florida

A number of years ago a friend serving as an interim pastor at a church in our city reached out to me to see if our church would be open to adopting this aging and struggling church. We met and after a few discussions with church members in the church we agreed to come alongside in a foster-church relationship. This allowed the church to remain autonomous, but gave the authority over to us regarding finances, special events, renovations, and pastoral leadership. It was intended to be a temporary relationship from the beginning with the understanding if at any point either church felt the relationship was not helpful, it would cease.

Truly, the smaller church was struggling in numerous areas. They had recently had a pastor forced to leave due to moral failure. Finances dropped. The property had been impacted by storms, with numerous trees down in their back lot among other things. A number of initial shifts were instituted to allow them to be better stewards of the small amount of finances available. With funds offered for the replant through our Florida Baptist Convention, more money and resources offered by our church, numerous steps were taken to renovate facilities, repaint the worship area, install computers and WiFi in the offices, trim trees, and a number of other things, the church's needed facelift was coming along.

Pastoral leadership was stronger as the pastor serving as an interim remained for a time before coming to our church to help with other campus launches. God provided a young man to serve as pastor of this replant quickly and solid, Gospel-focused, biblical preaching continued. God was doing a work here.

Change is never easy and as slowly as we sought to institute needed changes, there remained challenges. This type of shift is never easy and over time some tragic things occurred in the church family that made it even more difficult. The two persons of peace that were seeking to help lead the congregation into this new, healthy model were deacons in the church. These faithful brothers were God's men for this church at this time. Yet, one was tragically kidnapped from his own home, thrust into the backseat of his car as the thief sought to escape police. Tragically, the chase ended in a car wreck and our deacon died days later. Our one remaining deacon in the church later succumbed to cancer. This grievous time was deeply felt by all and without these lay-leaders in the family keeping the focus on what we were seeking, it soon became clear that our partnership was no longer welcome.

Someone in the church family contacted an individual who would represent the congregation and ultimately asked us to leave. We did. It saddened me and hurt our campus pastor greatly. Yet, it was clear God had closed this door for our partnership. Thus, we dusted the sand off our feet and walked away.

Then, one month later in March 2020 the world shut down. 

The church hired an interim who is a godly man. He served them well, but would not stay long as he would be transitioning to seminary. Since the demographic of the remaining church membership was older, when other churches were beginning to meet in person again, they could not.

It saddened me to think that this church would do exactly what I had warned them they would eventually do if nothing changed. They would close their doors and a gospel witness would be removed from the Mayport area of Jacksonville, Florida.

Yet, a number of months ago I heard that a sister church in our city, River City Baptist Church led by Pastor Bryan Samms had been contacted by this church. They were desiring to give their property over to RCBC so that a new work could be launched there. River City Baptist Church was connected with this closing church after Bob Bumgarner of First Coast Churches was contacted. The smaller church had come to the point that Ed Stetzer and others often speak of—when the pain of change is less than the pain of remaining the same. Bob Bumgarner was able to connect the church with Bryan Samms and River City Baptist. And...as they say, the rest is history.

I was amazed. Bluntly put, I was shocked. 

This was what I had prayed would happen. I contacted Bryan and told him a bit of our story (the good and the challenging) and told him how excited I was for them. I truly believe that God used our time with this church to prepare them to be ready for what now is finally happening. Our church has no connection with the new work, other than as a sister church seeking to see God move greatly in our city.

But here's where it gets more incredible. The church planter who is launching this campus that will become Hope Church Mayport went through Send Network Assessment with us earlier this week. He and his wife are gifted, called, and the right people for the time. I am so glad to see what God is doing in the Mayport area.

So, what was Oak Harbor Baptist Church will be Hope Church and God is doing and will do a great work in the Mayport area. I'm humbled to think that God used us, even in a small way, in this great story.

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(L-R) David Tarkington, Annie Chan, & Aaron Chan

I implore you to pray for Pastor Aaron Chan and his wife Annie. Pray for River City Baptist Church and Pastor Samms as well. 

I am thankful for our network in this area, First Coast Churches, our Florida Baptist Convention, and our relationship with Send Network that reminds us that we don't pastor alone, we don't plant alone, and we don't serve alone.


"When the New Wears Off" - A Reality of Church Planting

I have the great privilege of working with church planters in our city and throughout our state. I call these men front-line servants as many have stepped out in faith to launch and lead a local church that only previously existed in the mind of God. The endeavor requires faith. It calls for risk (though some do not like to use that word.) It is not easy. It is not supposed to be easy. Yet, it is right.

Welcoming new churches in a community, especially one as fast-growing as ours, is a bit of a challenge for many legacy churches and established pastors. Try as we might, there is this sense of competition that often rears its head. As a long-time pastor of a one-hundred year old church (no I'm not the planter who started this church) it requires constant focus to remember that kingdom work is something I have been invited into, and the kingdom is not mine. Thus, newer churches in our community where the number of residents continues to increase should not be considered a bad thing. This is why I intentionally work with planters, seek to help them find sending churches if that is missing, and coach them through our local association of churches and our Send Network. If I simply ignore the need for these new works, I know what I will do. I know me. I will drift into a small kingdom mindset that focuses solely on the "success" and vitality of the local church where I serve. Now, I should be focused on these things, but tunnel vision will develop and I will cease to see how God is at work in our community. I do not naturally drift toward Kingdom-mindedness. I must intentionally move there.

Thus, I get to spend quite a bit of time with pastors launching new churches. Some are further along than others. Some struggle with common realities. Whether it is the gathering of the right people for the right roles in launch team or securing a facility to gather, stressors exist. 

I believe there may be more resources now than at any time in recent church history. The movement of church planting and the similar movement of church revitalization have led to the development of many helps for the fledgling pastor.

I will meet with a cohort of planters this week. It will be the final meeting of our group. These men are planting churches throughout the state of Florida and due to the great diversity of our state, each church looks different from the others. Each church's community is unique and context is varied.

The church planting factory is running 24/7 now and experts abound. Yet, once you get beyond the practical helps, the templates, the "you have to do it this way" instructions, and all that comes after being labeled a church planter, the long, tedious, hard work remains.

And eventually...the shine wears off the new toy.

It is in these moments when the church planter looks around realizing that no one wants to set up chairs any longer. The volunteers who loaded and unloaded the equipment are tired. The smiles are forced on many faces. The hours of preparation to preach the Word seem never ending. The post-sermon self-grading is horrendous because as much as you want to be Barnabas for others, you aren't for yourself.

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I love church planters.

I hate seeing them struggle.

I love church planters.

I hate when godly men who are not qualified nor called think their church planters.

I love church planters and their families.

I hate when their families suffer and the home life is not joyous.

Eventually, the shiny newness of the plant will dull. What then? There is this moment in all organizations when the question of "Are we going to keep doing this or is it time to quit?" has to be asked. Rarely is quitting the right thing. It is sometimes, but I lament when the towel is thrown in too early.

This is why sending churches and church plants must be truly connected. There must be a true relationship and not just a money funneling relationship. I fear that even some sending churches find themselves "collecting" plants for the purpose of sharing how "missional" they are, but are not truly engaging the new works well.

I have failed in far more ways as a sending church pastor than I care to share here. Yet, I know that we (our church particularly and all sending churches) must do better. 

And it is not all on the sending church. Church planters need to give permission to others (mentors, friends, fellow pastors, etc.) to speak into their lives in honest ways. The church planter needs to remember that he is not God's answer to the lost and dying world. He must remember that God is not in heaven saying "Whew! I am so glad this guy became a church planter. He can finally fix all that the other churches throughout history have done wrong." (I'm being facetious, but it is a good reminder.)

When the new wears off...if the church is God's intention, if the planter is qualified and called, he must press on (not out of guilt, but through the strength of the Spirit.) He must persevere and remember he cannot do it alone. The same is true for the sending or legacy church pastor. It is not like the older guys are not guilty of workaholism and believing everything must go through them. 

We need each other. It is God's intention that we do not do life alone. Even Paul had partners in ministry throughout his missionary journeys. Throughout history, there have always been "one anothers" in the gospel stories.

The "new" will wear off. There will be days when ministry is not fun. We know this, but when we experience them, we often wonder if it is worth the effort to press on.

It is.

Oh, and you can take a day or two (or more) off. I hope my wife doesn't read this because I'm not good at doing this, but I know it is right. And if you have brothers in your city whom you trust, that pastor nearby, who love you dearly...you will have someone who can "fill the pulpit" for you every so often. 

 


What I Wish I Knew Earlier About Planting Churches & Sending Church Planters

Church planting is considered trendy by some.

Church planting is a term that has become used greatly in the past decade or so, but in truth is not new. In fact, it is how the gospel has spread throughout the world, from city to city, community to community, and family to family since the birth of the church in the book of Acts. Church planting is so much more than a trend. If it is a trend, it has been trending for two-thousand years.

I am thankful for the men I know who are now planting churches and supporting church plants throughout our nation and world. Intentional and strategic church planting in regions and areas where local expressions of church are needed continue to happen. Our goal as a church and mine as a pastor has been to help identify the men God has called to this amazing task, to equip them, enable them, and encourage them as they serve.

Church planting is not easy. It is exciting and it always looks great on video clips and promotional pieces, but the daily grind can be very difficult. Many of the planters and families we serve with have expressed those moments of isolation, feeling forgotten by their sending church, ignored by supporters, and wondering if they may have missed God's call.

That is why encouragement and continued support is needed.

Knowing Then What I Know Now

As a pastor of a legacy church (a nice term used to describe an old church) I have sought to help church planters, and call out men in our own church family to lead the way in this endeavor for the past decade or so. It has been a learning experience for me. The good news is that we have families serving on the field now, exactly where God desires them to be, in other cities, states, and even nations. They are truly on the front lines of gospel service as they have answered the call of God.

As I review our church's history of church planting and preparing church planters, it is clear that all who have surrendered to this call and continue to serve in this capacity were blessed by God greatly and serve well due to many factors, in spite of our help. In other words, we did not know what we did not know, but if we had it to do over again, we (as a church and leadership) would be more strategic and intentional for the sake of our planters. In many cases, as I review each, it is clear that we may have been so enamored with the concept of planting churches and campuses that we did not rightly pray for and prepare those God placed before us.

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Sadly, we helped some step into planter positions who should never have done so (at least not as soon as they did.) As a Send Network Trainer, I now go through many weeks of teaching and study with local church planters that provide information and expose blind spots early on. This type of training was mostly unavailable or ignored in our past. Therefore, our campuses and plants suffered unnecessarily. 

Scott Ball, writing for the Malphurs Group lists "Ten Deadly Church Planting Mistakes" in a blog post. It is a hard read because I recognize a number of mistakes I have made in the past with our planters. 

The ten mistakes are:

  1. Not going through assessment
  2. Planting without a coach
  3. Launching too quickly
  4. Leading without a team
  5. Launching too small
  6. Relying too heavily on outside funding
  7. Neglecting solid assimilation plans
  8. Installing local governance too quickly
  9. Waiting too long to implement a leadership pipeline
  10. Neglecting the process of strategic planning.

These are delineated in the blog post here. Some of these seem basic, and they are. Yet, in the excitement and joy of planting something new, often a few of these items are left to the wayside, only to be discovered to be needed and important later. Sadly, often too late.

Church Planting Goals

It is important to have vision and clarity when it comes to planting a church, but it also must be understood that there are times when our vision for a new work will help launch a church, but not sustain. In other words, the vision may seem set in stone, but after a year or so of engaging a community, attempting to grow disciples, and be the church needed in a community, that vision may change. 

Anson McMahon, lead pastor of Emmaus Church near Atlanta shared his thoughts on church planting and truths discovered in the journey here. One point that resonates with me is that as a pastor I must remember that Jesus knows what he's doing even when I often do not. 

To be flexible as a church planter and pastor is an understatement. It is required because change is the only constant (well, other than God) in the journey.

What Feels Like a Failure May Be a Win

We all want to win. Winning means accomplishing the task at hand well and doing so better than others. It's about crossing that finish line first. Yet, in church planting, what we often see as failure may actually be a victory.

It is not a failure to admit the plan is not working.

It is not a failure to shift focus.

It is not a failure to move to another area of ministry.

It may feel like failure, but it does not have to be.

Every church has a shelf-life. While the gates of hell will not prevail on Christ's church, the local body of believers gathered as church may change or shift over time. In fact, as is the case in our city, many will find their season of service coming to an end. This has been true in America for decades. We have seen it throughout Europe for centuries. The church of Jesus Christ prevails, but sometimes, the season of service of a local body in a specific place comes to a close. This should not be so that ministry ceases, but so the next chapter of gospel-centered ministry may flourish. 

As Baptists we are well-equipped in starting things like programs, events, ministries, or even church plants. We often do not recognize well when a season has ended. That is why some churches continue to have varied ministries attempting to function that were perfectly designed to reach and minister to a population who no longer exists. Thus the church lives under the banner of "We've always done this" wondering why there are no longer any positive results.

Sometimes a church plant (or a campus plant) served its purpose and has impacted a community well. A healthy church plant will shift from "plant" status to "church" status and engage as an autonomous family of believers. Yet, sometimes this does not happen. There are numerous reasons. Sometime blame must be placed at the foot of leaders. Sometimes this is due to outside impacts that leaders have no control over (you know, like a pandemic or increased facility rental costs.) 

Regardless, the church and leaders must seek to learn from each experience. It is too easy to allow bitterness, negativity, and feelings of failure to grow. 

I have seen churches and planters ignore or avoid church planting assessment. In such instances, problems have arisen in leadership that could have been addressed prior to the launching. When these issues arise months after the launch, the damage may be so severe the entire plant ceases.

This grieves me. Especially because it is avoidable.

Did You Plant a Church Or Just a Service?

This is something that I fear often creeps into our journeys of church planting. If the church plant is intended to reach an unchurched community by engaging one-on-one in the neighborhood, offering Bible studies, relationships, worship encounters, and the fullness of church to an area void of such, it means more must be done than just relocating a group of faithful servants to a new facility.

In other words, if the church plant is little more than a worship service, you have not planted a church. You have just relocated a gathering of believers to a new building. That can be a great start, but it is not a church.

Tim Keller says it best (full article here) ...

You might be passionate about expositional preaching and having really good preaching, and so you want to start a church. But, if all you want is your own pulpit, that is a horrible reason to plant a church. There are plenty of other pulpits out there that you can go to, but don't plant a church just so you can have your own. Or if you're passionate about good liturgy or good music, don't plant a church in order to have that.  Instead, find a church that you can plug into and be a part of that because church planting is so much more than just having the desire or the ability to plan and to prepare for what makes a really good worship service. You are not an event planner; you're a church planter, and these are two very different things. Now, planning a good worship service is of course going to be a part of church planting, but for those of you who have just started church planting or are thinking about it, you are gonna be surprised by how little of your time is actually devoted to that.

If I knew then what I know now...

Like many churches who jumped on the latest iteration of church planting in recent years, we have enjoyed the journey. We have seen lives transformed. We have heard the gospel proclaimed by those who were more silent in their personal witness prior to the new work. We have seen righteous risks taken. We have seen communities changed and great, godly things have happened. 

It has been good.

Yet, we also acknowledge that there were times we ran too quickly, even ahead of our prayers and God-given vision and strategy. As a friend used to tell me "Good is the enemy of best" and we settled for good (with moments of great) but should have been wise enough to wait for best. 

The Future Is Bright

We still plant churches.

We still send church planters.

We hope to do this even more in our church in the coming years. In fact, we are praying to be the sending or supporting church for forty church planters by 2040. Some megachurches can do that in about six months. For us, it will take longer. This means we must do more than drop a few dollars in the mail to a planter every now and then. It will require more than sending a mission team to another city on occasion. It will require strategic prayer and planning to send, support, and sustain church plants in our city and beyond for the long-term. 

We are learning from our past. We are thankful for the lessons. We long to be wiser as we move forward. 

We are reminded that God has a mission. His mission has a church. We are that church. To God be the glory.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. - Matthew 16:18 ESV