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.
It doesn't matter how much I say I'm going to plan better and be more strategic about Christmas ministry events and community connections this time of year, it always seems that when December comes, the calendar fills and things are left undone.
I'm writing this posting in a hotel room in Washington DC as I am attending a "Catch the Vision" Tour sponsored by the North American Mission Board in this city. I had dinner tonight with 30 other pastors and ministry leaders and reconnected with my friend and city missionary, Clint Clifton. Tomorrow, I will see Mike Godfrey, a church planter in the city who grew up in our church, was part of my youth group and is currently one of our sponsored and supported church planters.
Somewhere between the salad and the main course, it hit me that we (meaning our church) need to be sure to connect with our planters in the field. This is especially true this time of year. One of the greatest tools of the Enemy for those who have relocated and moved to serve the Lord on mission is the lie that "No one remembers you!" While we are striving to ensure that all our men and women serving in these capacities are remembered in prayer and through financial support, it behooves us to ensure they know they are remembered and supported.
This is a great time of year to give a tangible gift.
We have strategically partnered with a number of church planters/missionaries in our nation and throughout the world. Each has specific needs and most have spouses and children to support as well. While some have been sent from our church family or call our church family their home, all have great need and must be remembered regularly through systematic prayer and support.
It is also this time of year when people in our church are seeking ways to live generously (or as it's called in December...have the "Christmas Spirit") by helping those in need during the holidays.
Let me suggest that each day throughout the month (and it will likely continue throughout the year due to the fact a habit will be formed this month) we spend time praying for our church planters. For this posting, the information presented is clearly focused on the individuals and families supported by our church, the firstFAMILY. If you are part of another church family who has strategically partnered for Kingdom growth with other missionaries and planters, do so with those you already know.
Also, in addition to prayer, perhaps you will feel led to donate a gift to the planter/missionary and his family. If you'd like to do so through the church, you may with our e-giving option. Just click here.
Or, if you have gifts or cards or maybe toys for the children to donate, just bring them by the church office this week and we will forward them. (Remember, gift cards purchased in the US do not work outside the US.)
OUR CHURCH PLANTERS AND MISSIONARIES
Michael & Beth Adams - Grassroots Church East - Colorado Springs, Colorado
Trey & Rachael Brunson - Story City Church - Burbank, California
Mike & Carrie Godfrey - Redeemer Baptist Church - Washington, DC
Gunnar Ingi & Svava Maria Gunnarsson - Loftstofan Baptistakirkja - Reykjavik, Iceland
Mike & Tanya Hauser - Starting Point Church - Burlington, Ontario
Paul & Kristen Hoffman - Kaleo Community - Portland, Oregon
Neil & Kaytee Jimenez - Toronto Church Planting - Toronto, Ontario
Andrew & Anna Hopper - Mercy Hill Church - Greensboro, North Carolina
Since the chartering of First Baptist Church of Orange Park (the church I pastor) in 1951, the focus of our mission has been and always will be to honor and love God and to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Over the years the location of our church has changed as has leadership and models of ministry. However, our focus has never shifted from the Gospel and it never will.
(CLARIFICATION: First Baptist Church was actually begun as a Bible study class on Mrs. Carrie Clarke's front porch in 1919. In 1921, the church held its first business meeting. The sponsor of the new church in Orange Park was Murray Hill Baptist Church in Jacksonville, where Mrs. Clarke was a member. The 1951 date is when the church was officially chartered with a constitution and by-laws. The church was incorporated in 1976. So, regardless which date you choose, FBCOP has been around for quite some time.)
To state the obvious, the community where God planted our church campus has changed dramatically since 1951. I still run into some Orange Parkians (not sure that's really a word) who will tell me they remember when the four-lane, divided avenue our church is located was nothing but a dirt road with orange trees planted in the medians. Now, most all orange trees in Orange Park are just images on our street signs.
As our community has dramatically changed, we have sought to seek ways to continue reaching people for Christ in our neighborhood and beyond. Our county and nearby Jacksonville, Florida are areas that identify greatly by geographic names and community identifiers. When one speaks of living in Jacksonville to a native, the next question is "Where in Jacksonville?" and that question is a pointed one with an expected answer of a region such as "the Westside, Southside, Riverside, Avondale, San Marco, Northside, the Beaches, Mandarin, etc." Each area has a distinct identity and then within each area, there are more distinctions. In Clay County, where Orange Park is located, those distinctions often are defined by the names of housing developments or neighborhoods such as Pace Island, Eagle Harbor, Oak Leaf, the Ravines, Ridgecrest, Bear Run, Orange Park South, etc.
Yet, over time as as we have grown to be less internally-focused and have sought God's lead into areas of ministry, doors have opened for our church to begin new expressions of church in various locations throughout our county, Jacksonville and beyond.
"First Baptist Church of Orange Park" has been the name of our church since its founding. Apparently, there were no points given for creativity back in the 1950s. As is the case with many legacy churches, names prominently stated the denominational affiliation and the geographic location. In our case, it also designates that we arrived on the scene before any other Baptist churches. For those who have grown up in the Baptist world, this is normal. Yet, over the years I have been asked many times (and more recently) if all First Baptist Churches are the same. I used to joke that we were franchises like McDonald's, but have stopped due to the fact that most of the people asking believe me.
In some areas of our nation, the denominational tagline is a hindrance. That is not so much a problem in the area of Florida where we are located, but thanks to the protesting, pseudo-church in Kansas that uses the Baptist name, I have had to explain to a number of young men and women that we are in no way connected to that group.
Proverbs 22:1 reminds us the value of a good name and thankfully, our church has been able to develop a name in the community over the years that brings with it good connotations. This is due to our church family members and their willingness to love people and serve those in our local schools and community.
Forty New Expressions of Church
God is sending us outside Orange Park.
As we have been praying through and I have been preaching through the reality that God sends his church into a world that needs light and salt, it is clear now that we will not be limited only to the area of Orange Park. We have already experienced the sending of missionaries and church planters throughout the world, as those from our family have said "Yes" to the call and have been sent.
There will be more.
There will also be more churches birthed through the ministry of First Baptist. Our desire is to see forty new expressions of church birthed through First Baptist. These will be satellite locations, new church plants, special-event gatherings and culturally-defined churches.
The birth of the firstFAMILY
In truth, the ministry of First Baptist will be a mini-network of churches and missions founded on the Gospel and focused on implementing the "Big 3" of 1) Loving God, 2) Loving people, and 3) Making disciples.
GameDay Church at the Jacksonville Jaguars home games is one of our first new endeavors. As we began to put the pieces together for this expression of church, it became clear that we would be seeking to connect with people throughout the Jacksonville area. While the name "Baptist" may be attractive to some and a turn-off to others (and much has been written about that over the years, so I won't delve into that) we discovered that the regional name was going to be a larger barrier. Missionally-speaking, it is unwise to create barriers to reaching people with the Gospel, especially since we are called to engage the culture for the sake of God's Kingdom (not our little ones.)
So, firstFAMILY was birthed and has become the banner under which all our ministries, venues, and mission endeavors function. The name is all-encompassing and travels well.
Don't Hear What I'm Not Saying (or Don't Read What I'm Not Writing)
Here are some answers to the FAQ:
We are NOT changing the name of the church. First Baptist Church of Orange Park remains our legal name and also remains the hub of all ministries hosted as the firstFAMILY. Our offices are at FBCOP. Our primary worship services and ministries are housed at this location. In a sense, FBCOP is the headquarters for all that is firstFAMILY.
As mission support is shifting for Southern Baptists, we will continue to give through the Cooperative Program, but also will be supporting missionaries on the field who are not funded by the International Mission Board or North American Mission Board, but who are doctrinally-aligned with us. In many cases, these are missionaries who were previously serving with the IMB, but have been released recently due to financial realignment. This mission support will be under firstFAMILY Missions and will help us continue to engage the world for the sake of the Gospel, especially in areas where we have connections and a vested interest.
Satellite campuses will be tagged with the name firstFAMILY. We have opportunities now and are praying through others regarding the placement of campuses in the Northside, Oakleaf and Swimming Pen Creek areas. Since geographic titles are not bad, these will likely be named something like firstFAMILY-Northside, firstFAMILY-Oakleaf, etc. The names flow better than "First Baptist Church of Orange Park at the Northside." Not only does that have two regional names, causing confusion, it is too long. A firstFAMILY-Toronto venue is not out of the realm of possibilities either.
New expressions of church will continue to be birthed in the firstFAMILY network. GameDay Church is our first non-traditional church expression.
We are developing a Church Planting Center at our church, that will work in conjunction with the Jacksonville Baptist Association to assess, prepare and resource those called to plant churches.
Our orphan care ministry is already growing and will continue to expand services to those seeking to foster or adopt children as well as support children located in orphanages locally and internationally.
We continue to seek clarity regarding where God is at work in our area and throughout the world and will join Him there. Rather than create crowds, we will go where they already gather, taking the message of the Gospel with us and trusting God's Spirit to do what He always has. Our role is to be obedient.
There is value and power in the name "family." In fact, it is a "good name." When people join God's family, they cease to be "those people." This is a significant step. The term "family" brings with it a sense of identity and unity.
These are exciting days and I'm convinced the best is yet to come.
I was reading post this morning by Seth Godin about the Mac and how businesses and primary products seem to hit a peak. That is, there is this point where the product isn't improved dramatically, the customer base is no longer increased and creativity stalls.
Godin writes. . .
The Grateful Dead hit their peak in 1977. Miles Davis in 1959, Warhol perhaps ten years later. It's not surprising that artists hit a peak—their lives have an arc, and so does the work. It can't possibly keep amazing us forever.
Fans say that the Porsche arguably hit a peak in 1995 or so, and the Corvette before that. Sears hit a peak more than a decade ago. It's more surprising to us when a brand, an organization or a business hits a peak, because the purpose of the institution is to improve over time. They gain more resources, more experience, more market acceptance... they're not supposed to get bored, or old or lose their touch. If Disney hadn't peaked, there would never have been a Pixar. If Nokia and Motorola hadn't peaked, there never would have been a smart phone.
One reason for peaking turns out to be success.
One does not have to look too far to find articles and blog posts about the rise of the "Nones" in American religious life and the stories of the marginalization of local churches.
Since the early 1980s, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of megachurches in the United States. The most common definition of a megachurch is a church that averages over 2,000 attenders weekly. There were approximately fifty megachurches in the US in 1980. Today, there are over 880. One statistic states that a new megachurch emerges in the US every two weeks in today's culture.
As America has become a predominantly urban and suburban culture, the growth of such places of worship was inevitable, it seems. The impact of these fellowships has been good, for the most part, and attractive for those seeking to be part of a larger story.
However, even with the rise of the megachurch, church attendance and participation in our culture seems to be going the opposite direction.
One can trace the history of most churches through the swing of a bell curve. Birthed out of a need, it progresses upward through vision, commitment, enthusiasm, growth, and reputation, peaking at pride of achievement. Then the church slowly declines through tradition, dwindling attendance, indifference, bureaucracy, cynicism, and eventually death.
In a conference I attended years ago, Reggie McNeal stated "All churches have a shelf-life. That's why we're not talking about the church at Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, etc. as modern pictures of a health and growth."
It's a wake up call for most pastors and church members.
Even in the suburban community where the church I serve is located, we have had to address the amazing demographic changes that have happened in just the past decade. To continue to program and plan to reach people as we did ten to fifteen years ago means that within ten to fifteen years, we may be struggling for survival.
No church wants to be known as the "Sears" of the church-world, or even worse - the "Montgomery Ward."
Has Your Church Peaked?
A strategic and honest analysis of the health of your church is needed. To believe that everything is okay simply because there are people attending today is not enough. Since disciple-making is the goal of, and commission to the local church, it behooves us to ensure we (pastors and leaders) are equipping the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12).
Equipped saints are not equipped just to maintain status quo.
Disciples are not called out and ransomed just for the here and now.
I think about the twelve whom Jesus called out as apostles. For three years he taught, led and poured truth into them. This was done for their present situations, but he had a larger story in mind. Peter, James, John, Andrew, Bartholomew and the rest had no idea that the work they would be commissioned to do for the sake of the Gospel would ever be more than the "holy huddle" of the twelve plus Jesus. Then, as he equipped them, he revealed to them their calling.
He is still doing this.
The Local Church Is Valuable
The expression of the local church is valuable and God's design for impact in a community and ultimately the world. While His church will prevail, even when faced against the "gates of Hell" and the power of the Enemy, the reality is that numerous local churches no longer exist. This is not threatening to God or cause for distress. It is, however, a potential wake-up call for the fellowship of local believers.
We have a calling for now. The local church is still viable. However, the local church that becomes so inwardly focused and content to remain in small stories that ultimately do not matter, a funeral is coming. By the way, this is the truth for the mini-church and the mega-church.
We are wise to heed the words of Christ to the seven churches in Revelation (Bob Russell):
“Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (2:5).
“Be faithful even to the point of death” (2:10).
“Hold on to what you have until I come (2:25).
“Be earnest and repent” (3:19).
“Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die…” (3:2).
The adage is true - "Death comes when memories of the past exceed the vision for the future."
Your Church Has Peaked. . .Now What?
In this age where church planting is celebrated in the evangelical world, many established and "legacy" churches are struggling to discover their identity in a changing culture. While some may have to shut their doors and eventually sell their property, not all have to go this route.
Revitalization is key.
To revitalize a dying church requires strategic "heart surgery." I have heard of far too many churches still gathering in old buildings, with rusty baptismal pipes (Baptist churches) and just a handful of senior adult ladies and one or two senior adult men gathering on Sunday mornings wondering what will happen in just a few years.
Until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change, nothing will likely happen.
However, I have also had the privilege of watching a handful of dying (actually these churches weren't dying - they were actually dead and had been for years. I call them Zombie churches) churches swallow the pride of yesteryear and seek partnerships with growing, healthy and new expressions of church in their community. In some cases, the skin tone of the leadership had to change to better impact the changing community. In other situations, the heart language was different as immigrants have moved into an area. It's the same old story - the community changed and the church didn't respond. The wonderful thing is that in these cases, it wasn't too late.
The original expression of church peaked, but then was re-introduced through a healthy partnership and a newer, strategic vision. This is more than a fresh coat of paint on a broken-down building. This is a rebirth.
These churches have been born again.
Time ran a story a while back on "10 Companies That Radically Transformed Their Businesses" with illustrations of corporations who used to sell certain products then shifted and remain impactful today. IBM still exists because they realized at some point the business of creating punch-cards and tabulating machines would end. Nokia used to be a paper mill that sold rubber and cable works. Now, they make cell phones (though they may have to shift that too as Apple and Samsung seem to have cornered that market.)
The difference in these businesses and the church is that the "core product" is the only thing that will never change for the church. The Gospel is unchanging and always relevant. The means for sharing this Word changes over time, yet the Word never changes.
The local church may peak, but the Gospel never does.
The word to the wise is to know the Gospel, learn from the past, live in the present and look forward to the future. Just don't water-down or change the message.