Monday, January 07, 2013

What We are Looking For

I'm often asked, by those pursuing a call to church planting as well as those curious about the work I do, "What is the most important thing you look for in a church planter?"

Part of my work with the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware involves helping to assess candidates who seek to plant new churches with us. Our process is long and arduous, but its also effective, with the highest "success rate" in our denomination nation-wide.  Last month prior to the Christmas holidays, I dedicated two whole days to the task of assessment, along with four other assessors, two church planter candidates, and their spouses. Its a long day to say the least for the assessors themselves, not to mention the candidate, who I am sure often wonders when Dr. Rorshach is going to appear with his inkblots. It is a mentally and emotionally intense day, but it is necessary, because putting the wrong man in the field damages him, his family, the community he is seeking to reach, and the reputation of Jesus.

Lots of important issues get examined in that room, including a guys capacity to cast a compelling vision, his internal motivations, his family life, his relationships with non-Christians, and how he handles and thinks about money, authority, sex, marriage, children, friendships, enemies, structures, and the Gospel. At the end of the day, we put it all together and ask a very simple question: "Do his behaviors and attitudes match those that we know are present in a successful church planter?" Modes of dress, preferred styles of worship, philosophies of church growth, and personalities vary widely among these men, but the one thing that they all must hold in common to work with us are behaviors that are commensurate with introducing people to Jesus, and then congregating those people into new churches.

To do this sort of work, an assessor has to check many of his own personal prejudices at the door. In the end, it really doeesn't matter if this man uses the same preaching style I use, holds to my eschatology, or lines up in any particular way on the Calvinism issue.  Also irrelevant is whether I'd be personally comfortable hanging out with this guy. What really matters is whether he can connect with and successfully pastor the people he is seeking to reach. Still, there is one thing that is very personal that each assessor should keep in mind. In every assessment interview I've ever conducted, I've asked this one, simple, over-arching question:

"Would I allow this man to pastor my wife and children?"

On many occasions I've shared this publicly, challenging others to ask the same question.  When I teach church planting in a seminary classroom, or speak with denominational colleagues about what really matters, this question always comes out, and the reactions vary.   Some respond negatively, thinking I mean that his passing or failing assessment grade should be ultimately tied to whether I genuinely like him, or to how much attention my family might receive from him were we a part of his new church. Honestly, my question doesn't presume that my family and I would even be a part of his church. That is a different, though related, question. The question is one of trust: Is this a man I whose teaching I would allow my family to sit under week after week? When I ask that question, I am looking for the following:

1. His View of JesusIf I hear a candidate continually talking about the "church" in a way that is disconnected from Jesus, then I'm hearing a guy who has a woefully inadequate ecclesiology, and is consequently more interested in building an organization than in building Christ-followers. On the other hand, if everything from the growth strategy to the structure is permeated with discussion about making Jesus known, then I can be assured I have a guy who knows, ultimately, what this thing called church planting is all about. Such is the reason why theological convictions such as the virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary atonement, and bodily resurrection of Christ are so neccesary. By these things, Jesus is vindicated as the Lord of His church, which He sends out to continue His work, in the power of His spirit. Candidates who don't understand this necessary connection end up planting an organization that--blunt as it sounds--looks more like a whore than a bride. On the other hand, if a man starts with Jesus and His Gospel, and moves toward an understanding of "church" from that starting point, such is a man who will always be lifting up Jesus. That is the kind of man I want yelling at my wife and kids each and every Sunday!

2. His view of Scripture. Since Jesus is ultimately revealed in the Bible, I want a man who has a high view of the inspiration of the Biblical text. Casual observation of the best Bible teachers reveals an obvious connection: Those who teach well from the text are those who think well about the text. This doesn't mean that a guy has to use all of the conservative, evangelical "buzzwords" like "inerrancy" or "infallability" with the same regularity with which he might use common conjunctions. I know many men who "believe the Bible" yet have little to no idea what it actually says. My experiences with candidates tells me that while true "inerrantists" don't shy away from using the word, they don't speak about it nearly so much as they practice it. When conversing with a guy I would let be my family's pastor, questions, problems, objections, and guidance all start with the simple phrase "the Bible says . . ."

3. His own Family Commitment. I have a very high view of the value of family because I see an equally high view of the family in the Scriptures. Consequently, I don't want my family sitting underneath the teaching of a guy who undoes these values by mistreating his wife, being overly harsh with his children, being absent from his home too much because of "ministry," or sacrificing his family out of professional pursuits. When my wife and kids look at their pastor, I want them to see the same kind of family commitment to which I aspire.

4. His Evangelistic Practice. I am growing more certain each day of the fact that un-evangelistic pastors are the primary reason for un-evangelistic churches. Eventually, people will emulate what they see in their leaders.  This doesn't mean I want a guy to present the "four spiritual laws" to every flight attendant, or leave a tract at every restaurant table. What I do want is a pastor who naturally shares his faith in much the same way that people in love speak of their beloved. One man we recently assessed wasn't particularly eloquent, didn't have the most winsome personality, and honestly, I've heard better preachers. But he "oozed" Jesus, and literally hundreds have come to Christ because of this. So he passed!

Obviously, there are other very important things that need to be examined when we are seeking to place the best candidates in the field to start new churches. The factors I've listed above aren't the only ones we look at. But I do believe they are the most important. For that matter, every Christian family should ask these questions of the men who are presuming to lead churches they are considering being a part of. The greatest honor any man can give another is the trust that comes with placing his family in your hands. When searching for a pastor, remember that he will watch over the souls of your family, and examine him accordingly!

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