Advent Christians Must Plant Churches- Here's What We're Doing About It
As we look at the figures on churches in America across denominational lines, we see most groups are losing ground. We are currently averaging more than three churches per year closing in the Advent Christian denomination. However, numbers are not the most important thing to consider. The real heart of ministry is sharing the message of Jesus Christ with those who desperately need to hear it. The fact that new church plants grow 12 times faster than established churches and 60 to 80 percent of their growth comes from new converts is a powerful fact we must consider as we want to reach people for Jesus Christ. Now this does not mean we should close down existing churches, sell the properties and start new ones, but we need to consider how we can reach people for Christ in the communities we are already serving and we need to get serious about planting churches.
As we considered this in our strategic plan, we realized this had been part of our plan since its foundation back in 2011. We have made a number of attempts at planting churches and have had limited success. There have been some new churches tied to churches’ splitting or replanting themselves and we do not want to take away from what God has done in these areas. But what about targeting those areas of the country that are underserved in relation to ministry by an evangelical church? Underserved areas would be those where there is a ratio of grater than one evangelical church to every 1000 people in urban areas and one to 500 in rural areas. When we look at this across the country, it is surprising how many of these areas exist and how little is being done to reach out to them.
Barna research shows that the areas of the United States with the largest share of unchurched adults included San Francisco, Calif. (44%), Portland, Maine (43%), Portland, Ore. (42%) Albany, N.Y. (42%), Boston, Mass. (43%), Sacramento, Calif. (40%), Seattle, Wash. (40%), Spokane, Wash. (39%), New York, N.Y. (38%), Phoenix, Ariz. (38%), Tucson, Ariz. (37%), and West Palm Beach, Calif. (37%). These of course are larger cities with large populations, but they are mission fields of people that need the Lord.
As we considered our desire to reach people and the fact that we need to reach out in these underserved areas, we faced the question of how to do this effectively. We realized that we needed to seek help from those who were planting churches and willing to help others. Our search led us to Converge, a group who made a major change in their direction back in the 1980s and became a group that focused on four keys areas:
1. Church Planting - helping districts and churches start churches in the U.S.
2. Church Strengthening - equipping pastors and church leaders and creating healthy church systems.
3. Missions - international outreach primarily among least-reached people groups.
4. Intercultural Ministries - starting and strengthening churches among ethnic and cultural groups in the U.S. and their nations of origin.
Converge historically comes from the Baptist General Conference, but changed its name to Converge International in 2008, and then just Converge in 2015. It has continued to grow in each of its focused areas and has come alongside other denominations to help them develop church planting and church health movements. Through my relationship with the National Association of Evangelicals, I have met leaders in other smaller denominations that have worked with Converge and realized great success. Director of International Missions Jeff Walsh participated in a Converge assessment program of potential church planters earlier this year. This four-day event staffed by trained assessors was designed to encourage and observe church planting candidates. Candidates have the opportunity to preach, cast vision, work in team settings, and meet with counselors and assessors to prepare for life as a church planter. Assessors provide a personalized and thorough assessment of church planting candidates. Jeff was extremely impressed with the scope of these assessments and the outcome of determining where the candidates were on their paths to planting churches.
We have established a consulting relationship with Converge, specifically their Executive Director of Church Planting Lee Stephenson. Brother Stephenson will be meeting with our directors and leaders in Charlotte through the year, along with being available for regular phone calls to assess and develop a plan for our churches, conferences and regions as we join together to plant churches in the underserved areas of the United States and Canada. Through this relationship, we will also have a partnership with Converge to identify church planters and make sure they have the calling and giftedness, and are prepared to plant churches. I want to share with you a part of an article written by Lee Stephenson and published in “Church Planting” Magazine.
WHY CHURCH PLANTING MATTERS
What’s at stake?
Let’s talk for a moment about why these three areas are important to understand in the context of church planting and why we do it.
1. The kingdom of God
The very first command in the Bible is “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:22). From the beginning, God commanded all living things to reproduce “according to its kind.” For lions that meant “to reproduce lions.” For plants that meant “to reproduce plants.” For Adam and Eve that meant “to have lots of children.”
Throughout the New Testament the church is described as alive and a living body. Just as everything alive will grow, mature and reproduce, the same is true of the church. A church reproduces itself by starting another church. This is all a part of God’s kingdom work. God is passionate about his kingdom and desires that it encompass every community and every tribe―and will reach every person. Fred Herron adds to this thought in his book, Expanding God’s Kingdom through Church Planting1:
“God intends the church to proclaim and demonstrate the kingdom so that his kingdom will spread to every people group on the earth. The passion in God’s heart for the expansion of his kingdom is a desire for all nations to glorify God the eternal King. He has given the church a kingly commission to go into the entire world and make disciples who are loyal worshipers of the King. The heart of God for kingdom expansion is the foundation for planting new churches.”
With this in mind, church planting becomes more than a novel idea. It becomes urgent. It is through planting new churches that God’s kingdom and God’s reign are extended into communities around the world that are currently under the reign of darkness. We fulfill both the first command of Scripture and the Great Commission by multiplying churches. By planting churches, we take Jesus into the lives of needy people, we become partners with God’s mission and we actively expand God’s kingdom. God’s heart beats for church planting, and so should ours.
2. Community engagement
Planting churches is about reaching for Jesus people who seemingly are unreachable. The stark reality is that most “lost” people are best reached in a community similar and somewhat comfortable to them. This is true of groups separated by language, geography and even core identity. With this in mind, we start churches driven by the biblical conviction of reaching those far from God. We start churches because it’s a God thing.
3. The call of discipleship
The journey of discipleship is a journey to go. The more we pursue Jesus, the more we become like the One who came to “seek and save the lost.” This is a mission that requires us as Christians to go. We go to our neighbors. We go to our friends. We go to our families. We go to our coworkers. We go with the intention of carrying Jesus, the Light, into our communities, cities and world. To follow Jesus is to embrace his commission, and his commission is an expression of love.
Disciples are those who have been captured by the love of Christ. When we begin to understand what this really means, then we too must go. Starting new churches is an extension of that call to go, an extension of following Jesus.
A time to weep?
I am encouraged that we have a God who is actively working in the midst of the world’s darkness. I find hope in that our God not only knows our predicament but meets us in our weakness. Two times in the Gospels and once in the Epistles we see Jesus cry. In John 11, we first read about the death of Lazarus, Jesus’ close friend. Jesus wept as he met with Lazarus’ siblings Mary and Martha. Interestingly, Jesus did not weep over the death itself. He knew Lazarus would soon be raised and ultimately spend eternity with him in heaven. Jesus wept as he was confronted with the wailing and sobbing of his friends and other mourners. In Luke 19 we read of Jesus weeping as he approached Jerusalem. The word used in Luke 19 is the same word we find in the John 11 passage. Thus, we know that Jesus cried aloud in anguish over the city’s future. That dark future was less than 40 years distant; in AD 70 more than a million Jerusalem residents died in one of the most gruesome sieges in recorded history. Jesus wept differently in these two instances because the eternal outcomes were different. Martha, Mary and Lazarus had eternal life because they believed in Jesus, but most in Jerusalem did not believe and therefore did not have life. That reality is the same today: “Jesus said to her [Martha], ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die’” (John 11:25).
What will our battle cry be?
This is why people sacrifice financially, give their best leaders and go to forgotten places. People need Jesus, and communities all around us are desperate to have a life-giving church. It’s why we plant churches. Who is going to reach them if we don’t?
If I am honest, I don’t weep enough over my city, my community or my neighborhood. My prayer is that we will all feel what Jesus felt. We will mourn with those who mourn, and we too will anguish over the lostness of those close to us. But we must also go. Let our battle cry be, “No matter what!”
What we accept slowly creeps into the coming generations. What we preach and how we lead does also. Our actions have an even greater impact. But what we war against with our battle cry says more about us than does all the rest. What the coming generations will take up war against will be a testament to us or a judgment against us.
My hope and prayer is that as the future unfolds, Converge will become known as a family of churches that start new churches in your community and around the world, no matter what the cost. The hope of the world is Jesus, and he chose the church to exist as his vehicle for achieving God’s redemptive plan. Will you join us?
Lee Stephenson is executive director of Converge Church Planting. He earned bachelors and master’s degrees in ministry from Bethel College, Mishawaka, Indiana, and has been in pastoral ministries since 1998. Lee and his wife Melissa started and led Harvest Community Church, Mesa, AZ, from 2009 to 2015. He also served on the Vision Arizona church planting LEAD Team and is a go-to coach for church leadership and planting. Lee and Melissa have two children, Aaron and Noel. His favorite book is Courageous Leadership, by Bill Hybels, and his hobbies include cycling and anything sports related. Follow Lee on: Twitter and Facebook.
The success of our home missions’ initiative will require constant prayer and a willingness to be open to the leading of the Lord to guide us to the places and people we are called to serve. We will need to be open to partnering with those God has gifted and called to be church planters and to work together with the resources we have to reach people for Jesus Christ so that we might see lives changed and the establishment of healthy, multiplying churches that spread the message of Christ.