Planting Without Harvesting

July 13, 2015

Dr. Rick Patrick | Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church, Sylacauga, AL

I join most of Christendom in celebrating the spread of the gospel through the planting of Bible believing churches—whether Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Charismatic, Non-denominational or of any other affiliation. But when it comes to the type of church plants I wish to financially support through the Cooperative Program and special offering gifts, my strong preference is to establish churches profoundly committed to the traditional practices and beliefs of the Southern Baptist Convention.

By this I mean churches committed to a “Billy Graham” type of salvation doctrine, a congregational type of polity, a view of God’s love that is unconditional, a view of the atonement that is unlimited, and a mission strategy that prioritizes the harvesting of souls in regions receptive to the gospel while still seeking to push back the frontier of lostness in regions that are not at all receptive.

Recent reports that Southern Baptists are planting more churches but experiencing fewer converts are troubling on many levels, not the least of which is the distinct possibility that we are measuring our progress using an inappropriate metric. Are we really better off if we plant four churches with 25 in attendance than if we plant one church with 100 in attendance? Is our commission to make as many disciples as we possibly can or to start as many churches as we possibly can?

Has our laser focus on starting new churches actually produced the kind of results envisioned when we restructured our North American Mission Board to become primarily a church-planting network? Starting new churches was never the goal, but was simply the means to the end of making more disciples. But if we are not truly making more disciples, should we not reevaluate our strategy in order to determine if there is something about our current approach we may be missing?

I am certainly familiar with research over many years indicating that new churches reach people at a faster rate than established ones. Logically, this still holds true, even in areas saturated with an artificially high number of church plants generated by an intentional and strongly funded strategy. Generally, the church planting pastor will have fewer committee meetings to attend, fewer worship services to plan, fewer weddings and funerals to perform and fewer hospital visits to make. Until you have gathered a congregation, evangelism is pretty much all you have to do all day long. It only stands to reason that you will reach people at a faster rate.

However, with regard to our historic strategy of starting new churches to produce greater evangelistic effectiveness, a few questions arise. Is it not true that all our research pointing to the great success of church planting in producing evangelism was gathered during time periods in which new starts were primarily located in areas quite receptive to the gospel? Is it not also true that at no time in our history have we ever attempted such an aggressive number of church plants using such a direct and intentional approach targeting certain geographic areas? Since this is a new approach, perhaps some of the established research is less than applicable.

On the one hand, planting new churches is something we should clearly celebrate. “Look how many churches we are intentionally planting for the kingdom!” But on the other hand, if we are not reaching more people through the planting of all of these churches, we should think critically about this fact and logically ask why. Is it possible that we are placing in our urban cities a greater number of church plants than has ever been experienced by the Spirit-led spread of the gospel in earlier periods of time? Is it possible that too many of our churches are being planted in the wrong locations if our goal is to reach the greatest number of souls for Christ?

Another worthy question concerns the type of churches we are starting in these urban areas. Some have referred to them as Starbucks churches or Hotel California churches. I do not pretend to understand all that is meant by such expressions, but I think people are trying to capture the vibe of a small, cool, edgy, somewhat more socially liberal approach to reaching a more northern and urban demographic. Such churches do not typically embrace what one might call Southern Baptist culture. They almost always shun the term Baptist in their name. It is fair to assume that they are not starting many church choirs or WMU groups. Placing great emphasis upon these types of churches may not be the best way to build our denomination.

While we may need one or two churches like these in each major city, we should think long and hard before planting a dozen or more, especially when the same resources could be applied to suburban church plants in receptive areas that might produce more evangelistic fruit and reach more people for the kingdom of God.

Many more questions exist about the prevailing theology in such churches, along with the existence of various co-sponsoring organizations outside of Baptist life that may actually exert greater influence upon the church planting pastor’s vision and ministry than his connection with the Southern Baptist Convention. These and other concerns have been expressed before, will be expressed again and can simply wait for another day. For now, it is more than enough for us to contemplate the fact that Southern Baptists are starting more churches and seeing fewer converts. That alone should tell us it is time to go back to the proverbial drawing board. Perhaps we can modify our strategy and make many more disciples in our church planting.

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Jon Estes

Where is the Baptist principle of church autonomy supported in your piece?

“my strong preference is to establish churches profoundly committed to the traditional practices and beliefs of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

I know some churches who think the dropping of RA’s and GA’s to start an AWANA program is not within the traditionaql practice of the SBC. I am sure any church who has made such a switch has a reason to do an effective children’s ministry program other than their dying RA’s & GA’s. I guess there is a reason to drop such a tried and proven SBC traditional practice for something not even SBC? Maybe the SBC / AWANA wanna be – TEAM KID just didn’t have what it takes.

Don’y get me wrong, I support your church choosing to design and live out the ministries God leads you to, even if it is not totally SBC.

Maybe this whole SBC Traditionalist vs. SBC non-traditionalist conflict is over where each autonomous church draws the line for themselves.

Let the debate continue on the theological parameters, not the practice.

I do wonder how many of the traditionalist churches you want to look like the others are baptizing?

    Rick Patrick

    Thanks for weighing in, Jon. I think autonomy is all over the place. The primary sponsoring church in a church plant is autonomous. My church, as it sponsors through NAMB’s support, is autonomous. NAMB itself is autonomous. We used to call a “church plant” a “mission” and it would not really be “autonomous” until it was self-supporting, had “constituted” as a church, and was out from under the wing of the mother church. So I’m not really sure the church plant itself is totally autonomous while still dependent on others.

    Also, regarding Team Kid, etc., I’m not so much talking about Traditional styles vs. Contemporary ones, or for that matter, Traditional theology vs. Calvinism. I’m more concerned with the geographic placement of the church plants in areas that may be producing less fruit than they would produce if not so heavily concentrated in these urban areas. I’m just wondering if we are “leaving some meat on the bones” in our placement strategy.

    By the way, in my experience, Traditionalist churches in large, heavily populated suburban areas are baptizing tons of people, while those in less desirable locations are not. I embrace a much more location-centered view of ministry effectiveness than I do a method-centered view. If you notice, all the people who write books explaining exactly how how they grew their enormous church so you can follow their methods just happen to serve in the large suburban neighborhoods of major cities. I do think that is where SBC churches grow the best and the fastest.

    Scott Shaver

    You make a good point, Jon…and not entirely detrimental to some points Rick makes.

    AWANA was prototypical departure of SBC training away from almost catechism nature of old Baptist Sunday School Board materials especially RAs, GAs.
    Not to mention some darn fine basketball.

William Thornton

I think you raise questions that should be addressed. Those who pay the bills should always ask questions that receive answers.

That said, I thik it too early to judge NAMB’s new strategy less effective than earlier. I am also unsure of what earlier strategy maximized results by putting efforts into productive areas. NAMB’s reporting in earlier days was very soft. Their earlier record showed that much effort and funding was put into areas with sparse population and which showed declining numbers of churches over a period of years. You weren’t asking then why we continued to pour money into areas that showed fewer churches and converts.

    Rick Patrick

    William,

    As always, thanks for your perspective. I agree that it may be a little to early to evaluate NAMB’s urban strategy. Also, perhaps the new church plants started in suburban areas over the past fifty years were not really NAMB-driven at all. In other words, maybe churches relocated or started new churches “on their own.” I wonder how many of these churches are included in all the research about new church evangelism success.

    If in previous years, the strategy of NAMB was indeed more rural, in terms of reaching the frontiers of sparsely populated areas in the northwest for example, then perhaps this urban emphasis can be an improvement, for even if the results do prove to be similar, at least the urban churches have more potential converts per square mile.

    I have discovered that, for me, “balance” is a pretty strong value in my ministry philosophy. Thus, I am mostly arguing in favor of a more balanced approach in planting churches—north AND south, east AND west, rural AND urban AND suburban, traditional AND contemporary, etc. If we are putting almost all of our eggs into the basket marked “inner city cool church” then it raises a flag in my book, because I think such an approach would be a strategic mistake.

Max

“… questions exist about the prevailing theology in such churches …”

Is anybody keeping a record of theological flavor in SBC church plants? I doubt that is a check-box on the NAMB form.

While I have concerns about the troubling decline in “harvest” (every Southern Baptist should), the poor state of baptisms in the SBC is not a phenomenon limited to church plants. The evangelistic zeal and passion for souls in pulpit and pew which once characterized this once-great denomination is no longer our primary identity. Perhaps the problem is “Preaching Without Harvesting” and “Living Without Harvesting.” Perhaps it’s more of a reflection of the harvesters throughout our churches than harvest machinery … the fields are white but the harvesters are few.

Dr. Will Hall

Max, I think Gerald Harris asked that question of NAMB (theological bent of recent church plants) and he was told they couldn’t gather that information. However, it would seem the easy fix would be to add one more question to the ACP survey: Which form of church governance best describes yours? ___ Elders ___ Congregational ___ Other (describe) ___________________

    Sean

    This is a good idea, but our church would have to check both boxes. We are an elder led church with congregational polity. We as elders oversee the direction, theology, finances, membership process, and ministries of the church, but we still have members meetings where our congregation votes on many issues. There is a pretty significant differnce between an elder LED church (Baptist polity) and an elder RULED church (Presbyterian polity). I think many traditionalist Southern Baptists who do not have an elder structure sometimes either don’t fully understand SBC churches that do or think it is more like a Presbyterian form. I recommend Mark Dever’s “A Display of God’s Glory: Basics of Church Structure”, Phil Newton’s “Elders in Congregational Life” and 9 Marks book “Church Elders” by Jeramie Rinne. These describe a pluraity of elders from a Baptistic polity that combines a robust congregationalism. Simply put, my church would mark Elders and would mark Congregational and it wouldn’t be of much help for the ACP-it would be bring more confusion. If this category were to be included, I think it would need to be more specific and nuanced. Just my thoughts.

      Max

      “We as elders oversee the direction, theology, finances, membership process, and ministries of the church, but we still have members meetings where our congregation votes on many issues.”

      What does that leave for congregational input?! Color of the carpet? Who’s going to bring what covered dish?

      Congregational governance at traditional Baptist churches historically have overseen things like direction of the church (with members being there before the current leadership team), finances (with members having financed church buildings and assets before the current leadership team), membership process (members need to police membership practices, not controlled by a “process”), and ministries of the church (in the Kingdom, all members of the Body of Christ are ministers). Theology has always been up for grabs in SBC life, I suppose … but the grabbers have been controlled by congregational governance.

      Dr. Will Hall

      Sean, Perhaps you missed the “Other (describe) ____________” option I offered. “Elder” and “other” would give Southern Baptists an idea of how many church plants are not choosing to follow a traditional congregational form of governance. Nuanced options really aren’t needed. As for your resource references, I’m note sure a reader will benefit from three Reformed resources that reinforce the same idea of a plurality of elders. On that note, I would offer that neither elder-led nor elder-ruled is a biblically accurate model of governance — even if one makes an allowance for the congregation to give input on some church business. Even John Piper agrees that “elders” is a general term meaning “leaders.” In the NT governance sense (1 Tim. 3, Titus 1), I would argue, “elders” is a collective term that includes a bishop (Baptists typically refer to this person as pastor) and multiple deacons (the two offices in the church) for each congregation, and other passages include other leaders recognized for their spiritual maturity and wisdom. There is only a weak eisegesis for claiming a separate office of “elders,” but not a strong biblical argument. On that point, the New Testament consistently describes church leaders as acting “on behalf of” the congregation and not “for” it (read Acts 15:22 then 15:23, for instance; see also, Matthew 20:25-28 and 1 Peter 5:3). Acts 6 establishes the model for governance (people choose, leaders approve–or appoint from among–these congregational choices), and other instances in the NT (e.g. Acts 8, Acts 11, Acts 14 and Acts 15, etc.) do not suggest this form of governance was replaced by another (although some of these instances omit details, apparently with the presumption that the reader carries with him the knowledge of the process articulated in Acts 6).

      Jim P

      One who has experienced different church governances the bottom line will be the lead Pastor. If he has the qualifications, in the Lord, what ever governances, the church will mature. If this is so, governance is secondary. Still a qualified Pastor will lead to congregation rule since members are learning to rule themselves thereby that rule will extend outward in the church, the community and the world. Place emphasis on governance can overlook Pastor qualification in the minds of many.

Ron F. Hale

It is said that C.H. Spurgeon took the time to seek to win at least one man a day to Christ –outside his pulpit ministry. This was a holy habit for forty years. A church planter needs this same kind of passion to dig a new church out of the dirt. Blessings!

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