Like most churches, we order curriculum items to help us as we teach the Bible in small groups across the generations. We order material every quarter and, like many churches we often have left over or "gently-used" material at the end of each quarter.
There is this tendency to order more pieces than is needed and if your church is like ours, there are stacks of magazines and Bible studies sitting on shelves or in the corners of rooms. Even as we have strategically worked to cut-down on over-ordering, we still end up with some left overs.
Rather than just dump all the books in a recycling bin or the trash, we have partnered with missionaries in the Philippines to provide material. You see, it doesn't really matter if the dates on the front of the magazines have already passed, these missionaries and church leaders find the treasure within the pages helpful in teaching biblical truths to the people in their communities.
I recently received an email from a friend and church member (Paul Williams) who has taken it upon himself to collect these items from our church and others in our network, pack them up, and ship them to the Philippines.
To be honest, sometimes...if we even remember these items have been shipped away...we may wonder "Does this really make a difference?"
Well, look at this photos...
Bob Courson, our friend in the Philippines gave us permission to share these photos. We are thankful for his work and service in making Christ known in this nation. Praying for him and for those men, women, boys, and girls who seem thrilled to receive these items. May much be made of Jesus in the Philippines and among these dear people.
A number of weeks ago a good friend and pastor, Dres Lavanderos contacted me regarding the possibility of bringing a sister church under our wing for a season for the purpose of revitalization.
We believe in church planting and launching new campuses and churches in areas where a Gospel witness is needed. We have and are partnering with numerous church planters across the nation and internationally. We will continue to do so, believing that God blesses these new works and many are and will come to Christ through them.
The Other Side of the Coin - Revitalization
Yet, as many already know, while we celebrate the launch of new churches, there are many who are shutting their doors for good each year. Many of these churches are about forty to fifty-years-old. They were launched in a different era in communities that have changed dramatically. Many have done what came naturally and followed a prescribed schedule and programming model that was effective for years, only to discover that as times have changed, so has the community.
This is not a "good-bad" discussion regarding programming. In some cases, closure is due to poor leadership and even moral failure. However, in many cases, churches have found themselves in ruts regarding worship, planning, and missional engagement. In fact, some are "doing church" like it's 1985 and wonder why they're not growing?
This becomes an Isaachar discussion. Churches must remain faithful to the gospel and be as the men of Issachar in the Old Testament. These were men defined as those who "understood the times." Of course, the context for this tribe was much different, but the premise of being contextual and aware remains true.
While dozens of churches close for good each year, not all must.
The biggest challenge facing these churches is first the recognition that if something doesn't change, the inevitable will occur and their doors will lock, the property will be sold and a business will take it's place. I'm all for new businesses, but not at the cost of local churches in communities.
Pastor Dres is currently serving as the interim pastor at Oak Harbor Baptist Church in Atlantic Beach, Florida, near Mayport Naval Station. This church is part of our network (Jacksonville Baptist Association) and has been working through issues over the past few years that has led them to reach out for more than just prayer and pulpit supply. This has been a challenging and difficult journey for the Oak Harbor Church.
Yet, as of Sunday, December 4, the membership of Oak Harbor has agreed to partner with our church and become our Mayport campus. While retaining their autonomy, the agreement is extensive. Our church (firstFAMILY) will offer resources, leadership, strategic focus and help to shift Oak Harbor's focus and practices in ways that will hopefully see them become a vibrant, Gospel witness to the Mayport area once more.
Pastor Dres will remain at Oak Harbor as our Campus Pastor and along with other preaching team members of firstFAMILY, will work with me in planning and leading.
This is a new reality for our church and while the challenges are immense, we believe God has prepared us for this opportunity. Change is difficult and the fears are authentic. How honorable for the church at Oak Harbor to set aside their fears for this opportunity. One church member at Oak Harbor told me that it is time for him to risk change and discomfort for the sake of the Kingdom. That's a great statement. To be at the place where personal preference is pushed aside so the Gospel can be proclaimed clearly is huge.
Please pray for our church and the new Oak Harbor campus as we seek to honor God and experience revival and revitalizaton.
FYI - our agreement with Oak Harbor is available below.
Last week, as we celebrated Thanksgiving with family and those in our community, I was once again reminded of the strangeness this week now holds.
On Thursday (Thanksgiving) people gather with friends and family and pause to reflect on how blessed we are and offer thanks to God.
On "Black Friday" people fight and scrape to get into shopping centers to buy things they otherwise wouldn't just because the deals are so good. In other words, just 24 hours prior we're content and thankful and then...BOOM! WE HAVE TO HAVE MORE!
On Saturday, people go shopping at smaller stores for "Small Business Saturday" to encourage them to stay in business even though they struggle competing with the big box stores. Then, everyone goes back home to watch college football rivalry games that create division among family members and friends.
On Sunday, people (well some people) go to church.
On "Cyber Monday" people get more great deals online. This is basically Amazon's version of Black Friday.
Then, when all disposable income (a term that has never resonated in my home) is gone, it's time for "Giving Tuesday" where charities and non-profits seek to gain donations to help end-of-year expenses.
And some people wonder why Thanksgiving is the forgotten holiday?
As Christians, there are many commentaries on all these marketed, hashtag days. First of all, thanksgiving should never be relegated only to one day a year. Greed should never be celebrated. Worship should never be just during one hour on a weekend day and generosity should be natural for all followers of Christ.
Yet, today is #GivingTuesday and every non-profit and ministry out there seems to be taking advantage of the moment. To be honest, I don't blame them and in fact, there are many groups we sponsor as a family and ministries we support as a church family that could use a boost in donations. Yes, this day is a marketing strategy. Yet, when compared to "Black Friday" and the like, this one focuses not on self, but on others (unless you give so you can brag about giving, which then makes it selfish.) While not an extensive list, here are some options (in addition to your local church, which BTW is a non-profit as well) that you may wish to prayerfully consider giving generously to on this day.
There are many others. Before dropping that coin or sending a donation to a non-profit, do some checking. Ensure that the organization is legitimate and if a religious or Christian organization, it would be wise to discern the theology or teaching your donations support.
Happy Giving Tuesday. Oh and if you don't get to donate today, you don't have to wait another year. Generosity isn't bounded by calendared events.
GameDay Church began in 2015 as an effort of our church’s network of campuses to engage and connect with fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars prior to home games. Live music, free BBQ and bottled water, and a brief, encouraging Gospel-centered message are the elements of a GameDay Church gathering. In Jacksonville, we meet under a tent in the parking area west of EverBank Field, near the Baseball Grounds and Old St Andrews Church (a city-owned building that houses the Jacksonville Historical Society.) GameDay Church is part of firstFAMILY and our main campus is First Baptist Church of Orange Park.
THE NFL'S GLOBAL MISSION
One of the unique things about the Jacksonville Jaguars is the annual “home game” at Wembley Stadium in London, England. The NFL has a strong, intentional global mission effort underway. The NFL desires to sell American football to the world. Following efforts of the World League and NFL Europe, it appears the NFL has succeeded in creating a fan-base.
This year, the Jaguars’ home game was set for 2:30pm (London time) on Sunday, October 2. However, the NFL was very present in London the entire weekend. On Saturday, October 1, the NFL took over Regent Street in London. This annual NFL-themed fan festival featured live music, appearances by players and coaches, and even the commissioner. Though it was misty and cool, the street was filled with fans wearing hats, shirts, and jerseys from just about every NFL team. We (Dr. Josh Dryer of the Jacksonville Baptist Association and I) attended the festival and had the opportunity to speak with our local media about GameDay Church.
PARTNERS IN ENGLAND
At first, the concept of taking GameDay Church to London seemed impossible, but the more we discussed it, the option became a realistic goal. Through pastoral and mission connections in the UK developed over the years, we reached out to a network of Baptist pastors in the nation, wondering if any would be interested in partnering for GameDay.
Andrew Jackson, Pastor of Harrow Baptist Church in London responded and dialog began. Pastor Jackson readily admitted that he knew very little about American football, but was intrigued with the idea of GameDay Church and would be interested in working together.
Wembley Stadium is just a fifteen-minute tube ride from Harrow. The setup at Wembley is much different that at EverBank. The most glaring difference is the lack of parking for automobiles. Most fans take the tube. Without being able to secure a spot near the stadium for an outdoor service, we opted to join the congregation of Harrow Baptist this year for worship. The partnership is new, so the membership of Harrow needed to not only meet us, but to understand the vision and goal of our gatherings.
I shared with the congregation the vision of GameDay and attempted to explain American football. While the football references did not always translate well, the sports illustrations did. A brief message from Galatians 1 focusing on the grace of God was shared. Pastor Jackson then brought the day’s sermon.
A group from our church also attended services at Harrow that morning. They had traveled with our partner Exploring Europe with David McGuffin and toured the city and surrounding areas. David is a member of our church and leads groups to Europe throughout the year.
Following services, we traveled to Wembley and joined 83,000 others for the football game. By the end of the game, Pastor Jackson stated that he had been won over as a fan, but also added “Your Jaguars create stress.” Amen to that.
The NFL has a global mission. The church has a deeper mission. The intent of GameDay Church is to engage an unreached people group with the life-changing message of the Gospel. That people group gathers weekly in stadiums around our nation (and at times in other nations) to cheer on football teams. While we will never abandon gathering at our main campus for services, GameDay is our intentional outlet to take the Gospel to the crowd.
Winning over people to American football is not the goal of GameDay Church, but winning fans of football over to Christ is. Our vision is to have a GameDay Church gathering at every NFL stadium weekly. Our international goal is to increase our partnerships with churches in London for the sake of engaging fans. Ultimately, we would love to see fans become followers. That’s the power of the Gospel.
Earlier this year, I attended a chapel service at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. An encouraging, challenging, gospel-centric message was presented and the story shared as an illustration has stuck with me. The speaker told of Cliff Young and his ultra-marathon run. I shared this with pastors and ministry leaders last week:
The Echo Chamber
Sometimes it is easy to fall into an echo chamber. This is true for pastors and leaders and ultimately, for just about anyone. We see these echo chambers develop at times, especially in election years. An echo chamber occurs when you surround yourself with people who only espouse the things you already believe. It is more comfortable to have friends and "amen-ers" echoing everything you already believe. However, it is also helpful to hear different points of view at times. This is not to say that all points of view are on equal footing. This is especially true when it comes to the veracity of Scripture and this little thing called "absolute truth."
Nevertheless, there are times when we (now, I'm talking to pastors and church leaders) do things certain ways because we have either always done them so or just don't see any other alternatives. Since many pastors tend to slide into "right-brain creativity" at times, partnered with a conviction to serve the Lord and reach people, we tend to live with "big picture" ideals.
That means that there are often times we seek to do something that may seem out of the ordinary or classified as "we never done it that way before" for many in the church. Now, make sure you get this - I'm not referring to unbiblical, immoral, or simply stupid gimmicks that may be out of the ordinary. I'm referring to strategies, ideas, community engagement and other things that come to mind and just seem like they may be worth the effort for the church to consider.
We all love comfort and familiarity. Many in the church (and just about any organization) push back against change or new ideas or out-of-the-ordinary options because of fear and uncertainty. And thus, many just plod along doing exactly the same things year after year, wondering why nothing seems to be changing.
In a culture where information is just a click away, experts on everything live on websites and sometimes on our committees and membership rolls. The urgency of the gospel motivates us through the words of the Great Commission and Great Commandment. When we experience push back on community engagement, we wonder if others feel the same urgency for the sake of the gospel.
There are a number of people in the Bible who have had those experiences. Paul is one that comes to mind. He was a missionary, apostle, church starter… and many didn’t understand why he did what he did.
His old friends didn’t understand.
He new friends weren’t sure they could trust him.
Reminds me of another guy who was misunderstood at first.
Cliff Young - An Unlikely Run
In 1983 Australia hosted it’s inaugural ultra-marathon – a 543.7-mile (875-kilometer) endurance race from Sydney to Melbourne. It is considered among the world's most grueling ultra-marathons. The race takes five days to complete and is normally only attempted by world-class athletes who train specially for the event. These athletes are typically less than 30 years old and backed by large companies such as Nike.
On the day of the race, a man named Cliff Young showed up. Cliff was 61 years old and wore overalls and work boots. To everyone's shock, Cliff wasn't a spectator. He picked up his race number and joined the other runners.
The press and other athletes became curious and questioned Cliff. They told him, "You're crazy, there's no way you can finish this race."
He was laughed at by the crowd and other runners.
Then the race began. Everyone else began to run and Cliff was still getting his shoes on (well, his boots.)
When the race started, the pros quickly left Cliff behind. The crowds and television audience were entertained because Cliff didn't even run properly. Many even feared for the old farmer's safety.
Cliff ran and ran and each day would get closer to the leading pack.
Then, on the final day, to everyone’s surprise, Cliff won the race.
He won by quite a bit.
When Cliff was awarded the winning prize of $10,000, he said he didn't know there was a prize and insisted that he did not enter for the money. He ended up giving all of his winnings to several other runners, an act that endeared him to all of Australia.
All of the professional athletes knew that it took about 5 days to finish the race. In order to compete, one had to run about 18 hours a day and sleep the remaining 6 hours. The thing is, Cliff Young didn't know that!
He ran day and night for five days.
He just shuffled along.
Kind of like the tortoise and the hare.
They told him, "You're crazy, there's no way you can finish this race." To which he replied, "Yes I can. See, I grew up on a farm where we couldn't afford horses or tractors, and the whole time I was growing up, whenever the storms would roll in, I'd have to go out and round up the sheep. We had 2,000 sheep on 2,000 acres. Sometimes I would have to run those sheep for two or three days. It took a long time, but I'd always catch them. I believe I can run this race."
God has called us to serve Him in all ways. The right thing to do is often not understood, even by those closest to us. Yet, we must press on. If every pastor abandoned the call when a loved one or friend said "Are you sure? You know, you should probably get a job to make money, just to have something to fall back on," there would be many more gaps in the history of godly church leaders, pastors, and missionaries. Sometimes in life, you do the right thing, the thing you know you must and no one gets it.
No one understands.
No one celebrates you.
Now, if you’re doing the wrong thing, that’s another story, but in Cliff’s case, he was doing what he knew he could and must.
Paul did too.
But many didn’t get it.
Many didn’t like it.
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 2 Corinthians 11:24-28 (ESV)
Not exactly the life you’d sign up for, right?
Yet, there’s an end to the story that’s worth it.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (ESV)
You may not run like the others. That which you do may be mocked by other churches, pastors, or even church members. Don’t be unbiblical, but have ears to hear and eyes to see and keep shuffling along for the glory of God. The best is yet to come.
Gather Your Sheep - There's a Storm Coming
Run well. Finish well. And pastors, you know, we’re a lot like Cliff Young. We’re running, seeking to gather the sheep, because there’s a storm coming.
Back in 2011 I attended the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Phoenix with one of my good friends. It was during this conference we began to pray about the journey of planting churches. The North American Mission Board was unveiling the "Send City" strategy and the impact of reaching people in strategic areas around the US and Canada. Our church had already partnered with a church planter—Chase Delperdang of Tucson, Arizona. The partnership was our first foray into this updated strategy of community engagement.
Over the years, we have partnered with planters in cities such as Portland, Colorado Springs, and Los Angeles. We fund as a sending church a family in Toronto and and another in Washington, DC.
Even as we have continued these relationships and seek to discover ways to support more fully, God continues to call us and challenge us to engage in our own community even more.
We are an active support and assessing church for our local network and have recently created our own mini-network for the purpose of reaching more people in our community and surrounding towns. We know this is what we must do and yet, some, even within our church wonder why.
Why Invest in Church Planting?
Some argue that planting churches is nothing more than a trendy movement. I have even heard some declare it to be unbiblical. Even when pointed to the unfolding of the church's expansion in the book of Acts, there are some who protest and do not see these as synonymous. Yet, I deem a church planting movement as not a new idea, but an outgrowth of cultural engagement and affirming, if not fulfilling, the words of Acts 1:8.
Granted, the term "church planting" is not in the Bible. However, disciple-making is and while some scoff that church planting is little more than institutional promotion, the reality is that healthy church plants (i.e. new expressions of local church bodies, grounded upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ) lead to the fulfillment of the Great Commission and Great Commandment. God is honored and loved. People are loved. Disciples are made.
That being said, the varied church plants we sponsor are led by men called by God to make disciples of Jesus Christ. This is about Kingdom-growth, plain and simple. When church planting fails in this area, it fails fully.
A few years ago, Ed Stetzer, then of LifeWay Research and himself a church planter wrote an article focused on why established churches should plant new works. Here is an abbreviated list of his reasons (full article may be found here.)
Church planting reaches lost people. Now retired Executive Director-Treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, John Sullivan stated in a denominational meeting that new churches reach lost people at a better rate than established churches. He stated that we don't know exactly why this is, but the results prove it to be true.
Church planting follows a biblical pattern. Church planter, John Worcester gives a good overview of church planting as a function of the New Testament church in the video embedded below. His site is churchplanting.net.
Church planting is essential for survival. For any movement to thrive, it must multiply.
Church planting benefits the planting church. When life change occurs within the ministries and plants sponsored by a church, the Lord energizes the "dry bones" for His glory.
Church planting is necessary to reach North America. This is the foundation of the Send strategy.
There's never a good time to plant - do it anyway.
In addition to planting and supporting new church plants, we are expanding into other regions of our community with satellite campuses. Churches have done this for years and we hosted a couple of campuses in years past. We did much well, but also learned from some 20/20 hindsight as to how to map and strategize better. There are numerous options when it comes to satellite campuses. Our model is to plant these in community schools, focused on reaching families, while serving the community. Each campus will have an on-campus minister and messages will be live, not video presentations. At this time, our new campuses will meet on off-days and times from the traditional Sunday morning. Go to creek.church and island.church to see a brief preview of where we will launch.
Why Put a Campus Where There Are So Many Other Churches?
One question that continues to be raised by friends about these campuses focuses on location and "why?" In each case, there are numerous other churches (of varying flavors) around. Yet, there are some demographic realities that have become clear as we have studied the areas. The truth is that the majority of those in the communities, even with numerous other churches around, do not attend any church of any type.
Some would say, "But if they wanted to attend, there are enough options. Why plant another?"
The simple answer is because we believe God is calling us to do so.
I was talking ton one friend about the Fleming Island area where we hope to plant Island Church next spring. There are numerous churches in this highly populated area. In addition to a young, large Baptist Church there are Catholic, Methodist, Anglican and even a new, fast-growing ARC church. Each is unique and yet, many are not engaged. The lostness in the community is overwhelming, as is the case in most every area in our nation.
In Fleming Island, at the corner of the two major roads are six pharmacies. It seems odd, but at Walmart, Winn-Dixie, Target, Publix, CVS, and Walgreens, residents can get their prescriptions filled as well as purchase other desired and needed items. Six pharmacies! Isn't that too many? Wouldn't one be enough? Well, apparently no. Each one seems to be doing well and apparently there are many, many people in our community purchasing legal drugs. The rumors are that the illegal ones are pretty rampant as well, but because it's a nice community they seem to be mostly designer drugs...but, I digress (too many cop friends, I guess.)
It's not exactly a fair comparison, but if there's a need for six pharmacies for physical ailments, surely there's a need for as many "spiritual pharmacies" that God desires to address the spiritual ailments of the people.
So, we are planting a new campus, in Fleming Island and near Orange Park South. While these two areas are close, the demographics are vastly different. The barriers (bridges, waterways, divided highways, subdivisions, etc.) clearly create separate communities where the church is needed.
WE PLANT CHURCHES AS AN EXERCISE IN KINGDOM-MINDEDNESS.
All in all, church planting helps an existing church best when the new congregation is voluntarily birthed by an older “mother” congregation. Often the excitement and new leaders and new ministries and additional members and income wash back into the mother church in various ways and strengthen and renew it. Although there is some pain in seeing good friends and valued leaders go away to form a new church, the mother church usually soon experiences a surge of high self-esteem and an influx of new, enthusiastic leaders and members.
However, a new church in the community usually confronts churches with a major issue—the issue of “kingdom-mindedness.” New churches, as we have seen, draw most of their new members (up to 80%) from the ranks of the unchurched, but they will always attract some people out of existing churches. That is inevitable. At this point, the existing churches, in a sense, have a question posed to them: “Are we going to rejoice in the 80 percent—the new people the kingdom has gained through this new church—or are we going to bemoan the situation and resent the three families we lost to it?” Our attitude to new church development is a test of whether our mindset is geared to our own institutional turf or to the overall health and prosperity of the kingdom of God in the city.
Any church that is more upset by its own small losses than grateful for the kingdom’s large gains is betraying its narrow interests. Even so, as we have seen, the benefits that new church planting offers to older congregations is very great, even if not initially obvious.
A New Metric
As we move forward in our planting and campus launching, we seek to do what every church says they want to do, but few succeed. We seek to reach lost, unchurched people for Christ. While most churches affirm this, many of our traditionally "successful" church starts (and I'm talking about in my denomination and community) reach fewer lost people and more saved, disenfranchised church members from other congregations.
Just to be clear - moving Christians from "Church A" to "New Church B" is not Kingdom-growth. It may eventually lead to such, but unless Church A is celebrating the renewed heart of these transferred members and these people are fully engaged in big picture engagement (i.e. they're not just marketing their new brand of church, but are actually living their faith and sharing Christ) this is a facade of church growth.
I feel for the pastors and campus ministers who end up with a room full of former members of Church A. What do you do? Tell them to leave? Maybe, but that becomes a distraction as well.
J.D. Payne threw this option out on the Verge website...
We don’t need more flavors
What would happen if we recognized that a wise use of our Father’s resources (e.g., money, people) should be to assist in planting churches from out of the harvest fields, instead of establishing a new work in a community to provide a different style of worship/ministry for the believers who are already there?
We do not need another flavor of church in the Baskin Robbins of North American Christianity; we need missionary bands to settle for nothing less than disciple-making that results in new churches.
What would happen if we equipped and commissioned church planters with the task of only going to the lost in the people group/community?
Yes, we say we are advocating these things, but let’s begin to question our results.
Try this. The next time you hear about a new church planted, a record number of new churches birthed in an area, or church planting goals reached, just ask the question, “What percent of the members of those churches recently came into the Kingdom of God?”
So, we echo the stated intention of every church planter and established church pastor I know when we say "We want to reach lost people!" Pray that we do and that we avoid the easy trap of using an old model that creates a perceived successful church, but no disciples. Pray that we live out our faith in ways that the lost are loved, even if they never come to Christ. Pray that we don't lose focus.
More to come as we continue on this journey. Please pray that much would be made of Jesus and that God alone would be glorified.
Christians are all about resurrections. At least every Spring when the pastels come out and Easter services are planned.
When we baptize individuals in our churches, we're declaring a resurrection. In fact, I tell each person I baptize that they are about to preach the most powerful sermon ever. At that point, I tend to get a worried look as the person is thinking "I didn't know I was going to have to preach?!?" Then, I tell them that the very act of believer's baptism is the greatest illustration of life from death. The immersion reminds all who watch that Jesus died and was placed in a tomb (buried.) When I pull the person back up out of the water, it is a picture of Jesus rising from the dead! What a sermon!
The baptism also shows that the individual died when he/she surrendered to the lordship of Jesus Christ and was raised up a new creature in Christ. Old is gone and the new is here!
It's a powerful image and I never grow tired of baptizing.
What About Resurrecting the Church?
But what happens when the local church is in need of resurrection?
The numbers declare the reality - churches have a life-cycle. Based on statistical analysis from the North American Mission Board, over 70 percent of SBC churches are plateaued or declining. While attendance is not the only indicator of health or life, it is a strong one. Even so, as we look across the board, only 10 - 15 percent of our churches can be categorized as healthy and multiplying.
By the Numbers
Across the SBC, we see close to 900 churches close annually
Two-thirds of these closures are churches over ten years old
Two-thirds of these closures are churches in growing, metro areas
The implications for Florida are that we see approximately 65 churches close annually
In the Jacksonville area, this means that almost 30 churches could be called "healthy," around 150 "plateaued or declining," and approximately 30 at or near risk of closing
In a meeting with denominational and regional leaders recently, we compared these statistics with known numbers of churches in our area and the data matches. Fortunately, our leaders and engaged churches are not content to see the statistics remain. We are blessed in our region to have wonderfully strategic, godly, and discerning leaders focused on these issues (Thank you - Rick Wheeler and the Jacksonville Baptist Association, especially.) Nevertheless, no denominational strategy will ever be sufficient to turn the tide. Working harder is not the answer.
We have been able so see some amazing success stories in our city relating to church renewal and revitalization. In most cases, our associational leadership has played the role of broker between churches in the healthy ten percent and those in the bottom grouping. For this we are grateful.
While it is clear that God is moving among churches in Jacksonville and through the Jacksonville Baptist Association, we know that small victories will not shift the 70 percent into the category of "healthy and multiplying."
Dying Churches Need a Strategic Shift
Many of our churches throughout Jacksonville were launched in the 1950s. They experienced growth and have histories of community engagement and victories. However, in many cases, the best days are decades in the past and the community around the church changed. Unfortunately, some churches have died. Honestly, some needed to die. Yet, I personally hate to see a church turn inward, ignore the gospel, grow calloused and die on the vine, especially in communities that are so in need for a clear, loving, biblically-relevant, gospel witness.
John Mark Clifton, Lead National Strategist for Revitalization/RePlanting at NAMB, recently wrote a post about the reality of dying churches. In this post (found here), he breaks down the "Signs of a Dying Church" and all should take this to heart:
There is one reason a church dies. The church in Ephesus loved doctrine, they believed the truth, they worked hard, and they endured. But they were doomed to die if they did not return to that which they did at first. The church of Ephesus began with a bang (literally). It was birthed with a passion to reach its community and to make disciples. Over time, however, this passion waned. When a church ceases over a period of time to make disciples who make disciples and realize community transformation, that church will die.
The symptoms of a church near death are many and they include:
They value the process of decision more than the outcome of decision.
They value their preferences over the needs of the unreached.
They have an inability to pass leadership to the next generation.
They cease, often gradually, to be part of the fabric of their community.
They grow dependent upon programs or personalities for growth or stability.
They tend to blame the community for a lack of response and in time grow resentful of the community for not responding as it once did.
They anesthetize the pain of death with over-abundance of activity and maintaining outdated structure.
They confuse caring for the church facility with caring for the church members.
Most church leaders and members of local churches can see how these eight things can happen. In truth, most of us must repent for allowing these things to happen. This isn't rocket science - when we turn inward and focus on that which doesn't matter for eternity and the sake of the gospel, we begin to die. Sure, churches have life-cycles. Seriously, who's talking about the latest great things happening at the Church at Ephesus?
Yet, even with the known "life-cycles" of local churches, it is unhealthy and sinful to ignore that which God has called us to do. Is it possible that 70 percent of SBC churches have unintentionally allowed the worship of the church or the past to keep them from being who God has called them to be? Autonomy is wonderful, but we must not ignore the benefits and gospel-centered strategies (i.e. as exemplified in the book of Acts and Paul's letters) of being Kingdom-focused, community-engaged, partnered (or maybe "cooperating") churches. If the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, there is the possibility that we are only as strong in our community as our weakest church.
So, it's clear that dying churches need a strategic shift, but in many cases, they may not have the personnel or resources to do such. This is why strategic cooperation is so needed. The big church vs. small church battles that have grown in so many areas over the decades must go away. The battle is too grand to spend time focusing on issues that do not matter. So, as we check our egos at the door, we must come together for the sake of the Gospel. Is it possible? Not without divine intervention.
Some dying churches will refuse to change. In many cases, they will become a local community's new CVS or Walgreens (depending on which corner the other one is built.) While affordable prescription drugs may fill a need for a community, I still believe a sold, Gospel witness will fill a greater need.
Will it be easy? Nope! But, who said ministry was easy?
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.
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. . .
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.
Based on their recommendations, we promote that time frame to the church membership.
We encourage people to use their three-day weekend or holiday vacation times to visit one of our planting cities.
We encourage people to enjoy their vacations in the city of choice and to "experience" the city well.
While there, we will provide needed connection information so they can be in contact with our church planters.
Our desire is that families will then serve our planters for a day or maybe a weekend.
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.
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.
Perhaps taking the planting out to eat in an option? There are many others. These are just ideas.
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.)
We all seem to want the latest version of everything.
Whether it's the new iPhone, new car, latest version of Madden or maybe the latest fashion...we like "new." Even better than "New" is "New and Improved." Ever see that plastered on a product in the grocery store that you've used for decades? Makes you wonder what was wrong with the version you used to use? Just because the word "New" is attached to something does not mean it's better. Remember "New Coke"?
Nevertheless, I'm as guilty as the next person when it comes to liking the shiny, new version of stuff.
Sometimes, new is better.
Sometimes improved is a true claim, not just a marketing strategy.
When it comes to church and missions engagement, there are always newer options available. With the advent of internet, mission engagement globally can take place through an uplink to Skype or FaceTime. Emails and newsletters are sent digitally and immediately received. Even trips to far away, exotic mission fields are little more than a drive to an airport and a half-day flight away.
We truly do have some "new and improved" options when it comes to missions.
Of course, when we speak of missions engagement as evangelicals, and especially as Baptists, we know that funding is needed. Prayers, provision, and people are the three elements churches offer to missionaries in the field. Prayers are paramount. That is first in the list for a reason. Can we have new and improved prayers? I believe so. When prayer life becomes stale, we need to be like the disciples who came to Jesus and asked to be taught to pray. I go back to that passage regularly for insight into prayer and use the template offered in the Model Prayer to keep me focused.
Provision is a nice, alliterative way to say money. It takes money to send people onto the mission field. It requires money to build facilities, provide food, water, resources and other elements needed on the mission field. Those who look down their noses at requests for funds when it comes to mission engagement miss the practicality of sending. Don't spiritualize it and say that no missionary should seek funds. That's not spiritualization. That's just stinginess disguised as religion. Generosity is godly and when funds and resources are provided with a generous heart, the kingdom increases and all play a role.
Sending people could be in the form of support teams or short-term mission teams or the sending of long-term, career missionaries. All are vital.
As Baptists, we have cooperated in our mission giving for decades through a system known as the Cooperative Program (CP). When you study the history of the Southern Baptist Convention, the initiation of the Cooperative Program is pretty amazing. There were other names for this considered, but Southern Baptists landed on Cooperative Program. The compiling of funds together enables missionaries to serve on the field, seminaries to educate pastors and ministers, agencies to function and denominational work to take place.
Over the years, collective giving to CP has gone down.
Perhaps it's the name. To be honest, Cooperative Program sounds old. You know why? It is. Yet, old doesn't mean non-functioning. In fact, for decades CP giving has enabled the SBC to engage a lost culture more effectively than we ever could have done alone. As Baptists, we celebrate our autonomy. Yet, even in our autonomy, we affirm the value of cooperation.
While SBC agencies face difficult issues regarding funding and ministry engagement for the next generation, we (my church - firstFAMILY Church of Orange Park, FL) have continued to give through CP. In fact, we increased our collective giving to 11 percent of total receipts. Now, I readily admit there is no calling for local churches to "tithe" to denominational entities. Yet, there is a mandate to live generously. Living with the end in mind and with wide-angle glasses so we can attempt to see the larger picture, we understand the value of giving.
So, we give.
As God leads.
In 2015, we gave over $264,000 through our Florida Baptist Convention to the Cooperative Program. I'm not bragging. In fact, I'm pretty amazed at that amount and there is a part of me that says "Do you know what we could've done with that amount of money to our property? With our staff? For church programs?" and then I shake my head and come back to reality. We have been able to do so much more through giving than we ever could have through keeping.
Now, in Florida, we have a "new and improved" version of CP giving. For the first time in SBC life, a state is sending more out of the state than is kept. We now give 51 percent of all CP giving out of our home state. This is what some may call "radical."
New and Improved? Well, not so new, but improved.
We're honored to be a part of a larger story.
Watch this video to see how Florida is engaging the world for the Kingdom through CP gifts:
Churches, such as mine, have sent teams on short-term mission trips for years. These one-to-two week endeavors take adults and teenagers all over the world for the purpose of "doing missions" and serving contextually in different regions.
Recently, some writers and pastors have decried the short-term mission trip as being little more than a "religious vacation." As the mission trip season comes upon us, churches are planning, registering, getting tickets, passports and preparing once again. While there are some legitimate arguments against going on short-term mission trips, I believe the value of a properly planned and executed trip far outweigh the negatives.
Her points for not going on these types of trips are...
They are entirely too focused on how the volunteers benefit.
The lasting impact of short-term voluntourism trips is often negligible.
"Voluntourism" is offensive and can even contribute to further problems.
They're an egregious waste of money.
They promote a cycle of dependence.
There's a difference between skilled and unskilled help.
They promote the western savior complex.
Stayton's article is well-written, but with a sense of frustration coming through. Based on what she has described and what I have experienced in the past, she is right to be frustrated.
Yet, I would say that throwing out all short-term mission trips is not the answer. Rather, a reevaluation of the purpose of such trips and a proper and healthy process of preparation for team members is needed.
I remember a mission trip to Israel about fifteen years ago where I led a group of teenagers from our church who would be leading a mission camp for locals prior to touring Holy Land sites. This was a combination mission trip/camp and tourism event. One of our young men stated while at a layover in Europe as we walked through the airport, "Dave, look at all the foreigners!" It was at that moment that I realized I had not properly prepared this young man to serve on mission. I looked to him and said, "They're not foreigners. You're the foreigner!" It was as if a light came on at that moment.
I also remember decades ago when our previous senior pastor led a team to Australia on a short-term trip. (Who wouldn't want to suffer for Jesus in Australia?) The team returned and on a Sunday evening, they stood on the stage of our worship center and shared with the congregation about the trip. I don't remember much about the report. However, one portion of the report has stayed with me. One of our team members shared how she spent some time with one of the Australian Baptist pastors and his congregation. I guess this trip was to encourage and equip some of the churches down under, primarily. Anyway, as she shared of her experience, she stated that the church was preparing to observe the ordinance of the Lord's Supper and lo and behold, they pulled out a bottle of wine! Real wine! She then shared how she instructed this pastor about how wrong that was and how, here in the US, we use grape juice.
I cringed at that report and while we do use grape juice, the fact of the matter is that using wine in observing the Lord's Supper is not a sin, regardless what prohibitionists and grandma said. To tell gospel-centric, Bible-believing, missionally-engaged Christians in other cultures that by doing exactly what the Bible says to do is a sin because it doesn't match a portion of evangelical American culture's practice is ludicrous.
So, in truth, the "great western savior complex" does rear its head at times.
Other points from Stayton are valid as well. I wonder how many pieces of "Jesus junk" purchased in bulk at Oriental Trading have moved quickly to the trash heap once the missionaries have boarded their planes back to the States?
Perhaps the greatest challenge is ensuring that the people being served do not become little more than social media fodder and human souvenirs. In our case, with multiple trips to Haiti, the front-burner reality is that our children in the orphanage and in the local sponsored schools are not items to be collected in photos or video clips to be brought home as virtual souvenirs. These are real children. Some have parents living in the region who cannot afford to care for them. Others have no living parents. Our children are loved and yet they, as Stayton states, "do not need your pity, temporary attention or to be featured in your Facebook profile photo for a month." Now, she's a little harsh about Facebook here, yet the point is clear. The question must be asked "Why are we collecting photos?" (Full disclosure: We do take numerous photos of our trips and share these with our families.) I believe a photo shares a portion of a story and when I see these, I don't feel pity. I am spurred to prayer and reminded of the value of our service and love to God as we love our neighbors (whether next door or across the sea.)
Maybe we should post photos of those we are praying for locally as well? Perhaps this would eliminate the "tourism" feel of gathering pictures and push us to seeing all people with the eyes of Christ?
Arguments For Short-Term Mission Trips
I have pushed back against poor mission trips for years. Even in doing so, I readily admit we have far to go.
Why, as a pastor, would I continue to encourage and have our Missions Director plan more short-term trips? Why, especially knowing the shortfalls of such endeavors?
I do so because I have seen and believe in the value of serving God in this way. I have experienced moments where God has used a change of scenery, a portrait of need, a removal of distractions and an openness to the Spirit's leading to guide young men and women (and not-so-young as well) into a transformational place of service.
I do believe that often the most impacted people on short-term mission trips are the ones being sent, not the ones being served. Is this bad? I don't believe so. I believe that a lifetime of service and missional engagement may be birthed in the heart of a believer while on a short-term trip.
I too have seen students and adults on trips who come home totally unfazed. It's unfortunate, but it's a reality. The hardened heart is not always softened just because a week without air conditioning and overdoses of bug spray have been experienced. Yet, we trust God to do that which only he can do. Otherwise, we become behavioral manipulators.
The short-term trip can be a blessing and a ministry to those being served as well. Knowing the missionaries on the field and communicating well prior to a scheduled trip can lead to a week of refreshing and and strength to those being served.
However, the "western savior complex" must be intentionally abandoned. Maybe some of the "Jesus junk" should be left at home as well.
No missionary or orphanage director will be blessed by a team that arrives and then with a spiritual arrogance begins to tell them how to do the work they have been called to do. A team should never arrive on field with a "We're here to fix everything in two weeks" mentality or the missionaries and those being served will celebrate your departure with greater joy than they ever did upon your arrival.
Caleb Crider, in the book Tradecraft, shares the following account:
In had been a church planter in Western Europe for about six years when I began to realize just how great the divide was between churches and God's mission. Throughout the year, groups from various churches in the States would come to assist us in our ministry. For them, this was a "mission trip," but for us, it was real life. We wanted to treat them as peers - a bit of fellowship, some mutual encouragement, and then go out and engage people in gospel conversations. But for the most part, the well-meaning participants on these trips were missiologically illiterate. They were incapable of participating in international mission in any meaningful way.
One Monday morning, we sent a group of American Christian college students to hang out at the local university to learn all they could about the spiritual climate on campus. We prayed together, divided the group into pairs, and sent them on their way. Of the six teams, two had trouble navigating the metro system and never found the campus. Two teams played frisbee on the soccer field, not speaking to a single student the entire time. One team quickly put together a "survey" and approached random students to ask them spiritual questions. Because what little response they received was quite negative, this team was discouraged. None of the teams came back with any meaningful spiritual insight about national college students.
These groups were good at doing what they were told. On previous trips, they had all painted fences, handed out blankets, and played games with children. For the duration of their ten-day stay, group members were perfectly happy to sleep on the floor, walk great distances, and feel generally out of place in this "foreign" environment. But when it came to the reasons for doing these things, the whys of mission, most of them had no idea beyond some vague concept of "reaching people" and a performance-based sense of duty.
So when we asked these volunteers to go out and incarnate the gospel, they were at a loss as to what, exactly, that might mean and how, practically, to do that. They had no understanding of urban living, social tribes or persons of peace. They had no experience gathering pertinent geographical, social, or spiritual information that might assist in church planting efforts. They were unfamiliar with the unchanging gospel, and fearful of culture. Worst of all, few had any sense of why they were participating in such a trip in the first place. Without basic missionary tradecraft, a Christian is incapable of moving beyond volunteerism into partnership in mission.
Whether a trip to an orphanage or to a coffee shop in Europe, mission teams must be properly prepared and educated on living missionally. Short-term trips are valuable, but only when done well. Tourism disguised as mission trips are not only a waste of time and money, but do more harm than good for the kingdom of God.
So, sign up and go on mission. Just do it well.
You may find that you begin living missionally daily upon your return. That's the point, right?
Love God and love people, just don't give yourself a point for living missionally simply because you changed your Facebook profile picture to a smiling orphan in an under-developed country.