Monday, January 31, 2011

The Strategic Role of Associations in Church Planting

As I mentioned in my last post, I'll be spending the next few weeks on this site talking about effective church planting in the local Baptist Association. For my readers who are not part of my denominational "tribe," please excuse some of the "insider" conversation that will neccesarily be a part of this discussion. It is my hope that my non-Baptist brothers and sisters will nonetheless learn some principles that they can take back into their own affiliations and more greatly emphasize church planting. The truth is that we need all evangelical denominations and non-denominational churches thinking deeply about these issues if we hope to change North America for Christ. But since my denominational home carries the label "Baptist," expect the next several posts to deal with issues within my own tribe.

Second, I fully realize that touting an organization you simultaneously work for as a "highly strategic" entity runs the risk of heavy bias and self-promotion. I also realize that not all Baptist Associations are strategic when it comes to starting new churches, and that some will never be. My purpose in this post is simply to point out why, of all denominational entities, the local Association can play a very strategic role.

Third, I don't want this post to be interpreted as "competitive" with other denominational entities at the state and national levels. One of the highly unfortunate results of the recent GCR conversations across our convention is that there has already been quite a bit of ungodly "one-upmanship," as "fans" of the various SBC entities have taken cheap pot-shots at other entities they perceive should just "get out of the way." This is not my intention in this post. On the contrary, there is no way for Southern Baptists to be unified nationally under a continent-wide strategic framework without the help of the North American Mission Board. Additionally, the specialists in areas like ethnic church planting and context-sensitive areas like urban ministry simply can't be afforded by most local associations and therefore, without the cooperation of state conventions, we might end up "flying blind" in many of our church planting efforts.

At the same time, the local Association has its own unique and very important contribution to make in the effort to start effective, disciple-making churches in North America. In particular, our proximity, flexibility, and accountability provide the opportunity for a rich environment within which new churches can be birthed.

1. Proximity: Simply put, our state convention has to keep up with more than 500 churches in Maryland/Delaware. And the further south you go, the tougher the job. The Baptist Convention in my home state of South Carolina serves the mission of more than 3000 churches! Our association, on the other hand, serves the mission of only 58 of those congregations. Where church planting is concerned, the reality is we have a greater proximity to our churches and thus, a greater propensity to develop the relationships neccesary to develop the culture within which new churches can be launched.

This is not to say that state and national entities can't also have strong relationships with churches. I am certain, for example, that the state staffer who directs Vacation Bible School has a much closer relationship than I do to many laity within our churches. But for the most part, when it comes to church planting, I am most keenly aware of the lay of the land in my association and thus, our association is in the best position to know which relationships can be best leveraged to facilitate more new congregations. My relationships with our 58 lead pastors have different degrees of intimacy and understanding. But of those in this group who are best equipped to help us plant churches, I can say I know ALL of them very well. And after more than six years in this part of the North American mission field, I know the importance of the relational dynamics between pastors and churches in this area when it comes to church planting.

I also know my field. Our churches are located in almost every kind of context that exists in North America, from the ultra-urban to "town and country," from southern Pennsylvania to College Park, from Baltimore city west to the Frederick County line. Within this area I can tell you the three most high impact sites that needed a new church yesterday. Not only can the local Association more easily keep up with high growth areas, it has the capability to know the internal psychographics of each area better than anyone else..

In short, our proximity to the mission field, to our churches, and to relationships gives Associations a high propensity for strategic influence when it comes to planting new churches.

2. Flexibility: Another aspect of Associations that make them a strategic church planting partner is a flexible structure. State Conventions and NAMB are, by neccesity, more beaurecratic. This is not a criticism of these entities, but simply an acknowlegement that the bigger you are, the more policies and procedures are neccesary in order to function consistently.

For example, when large sums of financial support are aimed by a single entity toward a new church, it makes sense that there would be tighter parameters around how those monies are invested for the sake of accountability. At the same time, creativity is always limited in such a scenario. This is where Associations, if they are structured properly, can help compensate.

One recent example in our own association will illustrate this well. We are currently targeting a high impact area for a church plant, and have a potential planter for the job. He has passed our assessment process, but desires to intern with a church planting network with whom we are partnered for this particular effort. The internship will require him to relocate and leave his current position on the pastoral staff of one of our churches, and he is now in the process of raising support for the internship. Typically, funding at all levels of denominational life only begins once the planter has actually been deployed to plant the church. However, Associational leadership discovered that because of this internship, the planter will deploy with a sizeable "hot core," all of whom will be supporting the new church financially. With this unique scenario came the opportunity to utilize a more creative approach to funding the entire church planting effort, and since Associational funding of such efforts is not captive to highly restrictive policies, but instead at the discretion of our Missions and Multiplying Churches Team and Executive Board, we were able to quickly aprove significant funding for this planter DURING his internship should he agree to plant in the high impact area we have targeted.

Additionally, strategic flexibility begins with a thorough understanding of what will be needed for effective church planting. Since every context is unique, it only makes sense to build the strategy from the Associational level.

3. Accountability: Much has been made over the past two years of the Biblical principle that "churches plant churches." I am thrilled to see this principle more practically "fleshed out" in the GCR reccomendations. And my strong belief is that the local Association can be the first resource utilized by local churches to start new churches.

For one thing, the local Association is the only entity in denominational life that is DIRECTLY responsible to local churches. Other entities throughout our SBC are neccesarily governed by Boards of Trustees. But local churches have the power to make the Association whatever they want it to be. Thus, if local churches with a passion for Kingdom multiplication desire to transform the Association into the effective tool that it can be in this area, they are free to do so.

All of the above are reasons I believe the local Association can play a vital role in the multiplication of new churches throughout North America. At the same time, I'll readily admit that not every local Association WILL play a vital role. For the realities I mention above to translate into new churches, the churches that make up Baptist Associations must have the right mindset. This requires a particular kind of culture to be cultivated within each association. In the next installment, I'll be speaking to this issue of how those who lead Associations can create a church planting culture within these vitally strategic networks.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Church Planting Systems and Baptist Associations

Two weeks ago I was invited to lead a session at the NoBA annual conference for Directors of Missions at Southwestern Seminary on Effective Church Planting in the Baptist Association. It was a privilege to talk with fellow Directors of Missions from across the country about their own efforts to facilitate church planting, and to learn from them regarding the real world issues they face in trying to cultivate a church planting culture. I was energized by their desire to do this better.

Since returning to Maryland I've received several requests for my teaching material, as well as bibliographic resources to help Associational servants do this work more effectively. In light of that interest, I've decided to dedicate the next few weeks to a blog series on the subject of church planting within Baptist Associations. My hope is that this will not only help Directors of Missions, but also local pastors and laity in churches who are passionate about seeing God's Kingdom multiplied in their own context.

In the first post, I will discuss the strategic role of the Association in denominational church planting, as well as some of the problems within denominational systems that can kill the desire and momentum for starting new churches. The Biblical pattern is that churches, not denominations, plant churches. At the same time, my very biased opinion is that Associations are in the best position of all denominational entities to empower local churches to fulfill this mandate. This is not to say that our friends at the state convention and North American Mission Board are irrelevant to the effort. On the contrary, we need ALL our partners on board for the undertaking neccesary to reach North America with the Gospel. But from a doctrinal, contextual, and ecclesiological standpoint, no one is more poised to help catalyze a movement of new churches among established churches like the Baptist Association.

In the second post, I'll discuss the neccesary work of creating a church planting culture in the Association. The best and most sophisticated support system on earth is useless if there is no passion to utilize it and no understanding of why it exists. Churches networked together in Associations must conclude that church planting is an absolute, non-negotiable neccesity. A culture of church planting understands that if an Association can't facilitate the work of churches planting churches, it has no reason to exist. I'll talk about ways to cultivate that sort of environment.

In the third post, I'll discuss the essential pieces for effective church planting strategy. I'll talk about the elements that constitute and define a "mission field," the neccesary elements of recruiting and assessing planters, and the neccesity of allowing parent churches to lead the way.

In the fourth post, I'll concentrate on a single piece of church planting strategy; funding. On the one hand, it takes money to accomplish the mission, and all the church planters reading would be very angry with me if I didn't raise this issue. On the other hand, financial support for a new church must be consistent with the strategy. Contextualization of financial support is every bit as important as contextualizing the overall strategy if you aspire to have a truly autonomous, self-supporting,and self-propogating new church.

In the final installment, I'll briefly talk about ways to ensure ongoing church planting strategy in the Association Obviously, the Director of Missions plays a vital role in catalyzing and facilitating this emphasis. At the same time, we want to "hand off" church planting to appropriate leaders in local churches, and eventually empower them as team members so that the mission continues should the DoM get run over by a bus.

My hope is that this series will be helpful to church planters, local pastors, church members, and Directors of Missions who want to see the Kingdom of God multiplied in their Association, and around the world. God willing, I'll see you in a few days with installment one.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Slander Among the Saints: John MacArthur, Darrin Patrick, and the Need for Godly, Older Examples

John MacArthur needs to repent!

That's a strong statement, I know. And before I explain why I feel this is the only appropriate response to his statements earlier this week about fellow Pastor Darrin Patrick, I should probably preface my thoughts with a few clarifications.

First of all, if you lean left theologically and you think you are about to read an attack on Dr. MacArthur's theology, save yourself the time and look for such attempts elsewhere. I love to hear Dr. MacArthur preach the Word of God. Early in my ministry, he was a shining example to me of Biblical faithfulness in the pulpit. I'm currently on my second, dog-eared copy of The MacArthur Study Bible. Although I have not always reached the same conclusions as he, I have for the most part learned much from his exegetical precision, hermaneutical skill and homiletical appeal. He is a faithful servant of Jesus, and I thank God for the incredible influence he has had on my own ministry.

Second, I write this post on my 39th birthday. While I'm not sure a guy who is now officially less than a year from being 40 can still be called a "young leader," I am writing from that perspective nonetheless. As such, I admit taht my initial reaction to MacArthur's words were more visceral than the words you will shortly read, primarily because I believe older men should set an example for younger men, and I believe Dr. MacArthur dropped the ball. Big time.

Third, this post isn't an attempt to defend Darrin Patrick or his book (which I have recommended highly to anyone aspiring to start a church, or even pastor an established one!). I'm certain Darrin can take care of himself. Furthermore, MacArthur's attack on its contents should be automatically suspect to any thinking person who discovers that this same work bears the endorsements of Albert Mohler, Mark Dever, and Tim Keller. This post isn't about the book. This post is about John MacArthur's responsibility to practice what he has so often faithfully preached.

The simple fact is that Dr. MacArthur ripped a statement from Patrick's book completely out of context and in the process, falsely accused a brother in Christ and fellow pastor of doctrinal error. Patrick's point in saying that young pastors and planters should develop their own theology was not to encourage reckless and niche-marketed doctine, and anyone who reads the context of his work sees clearly that Patrick emphasizes sound doctrine saturated with Scripture, and in the vein of historic Christian orthodoxy. His point was not to encourage pastors to create their own truth. His point was to encourage deep, Berean reflection on EVERYTHING one hears--even if it comes from the lips of your spiritual heros--and in the process to develop onesself theologically in a way that moves one closer to Jesus and more in harmony with the text of Scripture.

But MacArthur obviously read something very different into Patrick's words, and in the process reacted strongly:

"You know, there's a new book on church planting written by a guy named Darrin Patrick and it says if you want to be an effective church planter, develop your own theology.

You know when I read that I just almost fell off the chair. What? I mean, can you think of anything worse than to have some guy develop his own theology? This is ultimate niche marketing. Develop your own style, your own wardrobe, and then your own theology."

If you listen to the entire interview with Phil Johnson, a strange irony becomes apparent. Prior to this charge against Patrick, MacArthur was sharing how the thinking of theologians such as J. Gresham Maechen, B.B. Warfield, and Cornelius Van Til had helped him, in essence, "develop his own theology." In short MacArthur spends several minutes describing his own development as a theologian, only to conclude by blasting a younger pastor for doing exactly the same thing! Apparently, developing your theology is OK as long as its done in a way that doesn't include cultural relevance or efforts to contextualize the Gospel so that its offense is crystal clear to those who will hear it.

MacArthur's statement is the classic example of the "cheap shot," leveled in an attempt to emphasize in a negative way a point you are trying to make. But to make matters worse, MacArthur goes on to address the "buzz" created by his remarks by again arguing against a point that Patrick never makes; namely, that theology should be developed at least partially from the perspective of entrepreneurial business principles.

So here is my big suggestion: No more explaining or clarifying. John MacArthur should simply apologize to Darrin Patrick for misrepresenting Patrick's words in order to score points with his audience at Grace Community Church. John MacArthur should repent, and for several reasons:

1. It is the right thing to do: When you misspeak, you should correct yourself. When you mischaracterize someone else's position, your should rectify your mistake by simply saying "I got this one wrong." Yet admitting wrongdoing, or wrongthinking, is something that seems to come very hard for MacArthur. Listening to the podcast interview, I picked up on a subtle hint of this issue.

2. It sets the right example: Frankly, there are a lot of older men in ministry who preach repentance but do not practice it. From personal experience I can testify that many pastors and denominational leaders from the "builder" and "boomer" generations simply have a hard time admitting when they are wrong. Instead, they "explain" or "clarify," when a simple "I'm sorry" would suffice. Then these same men scratch their heads in bewilderment wondering why most younger men refuse to follow them. Thankfully, this is not true of some older men, and there are many who set the right example for the next generation. The fact is, young leaders are hungry to be mentored by older, godly men, but they need more than words. They need an example. (Hebrews 13:7)

3. It illustrates Grace: We don't have to always be right, but when we are wrong, we need to state it plainly and seek forgiveness from the One who IS always right, as well as others we may have offended. As followers of Jesus, we are trophies of the grace of God, and when we are transparent about our own mistakes, we display a supreme confidence in that grace.

Again, I love John MacArthur. My desire is to see him repent, not for any vindication on my part or anyone elses, but for the sake of greater cooperation with others who preach the same Gospel. We need men like John MacArthur. Spiritual fathers are rare, and over the years, he has been one of the best. I pray he does the right thing.