Special to The Layman
The Barna Group recently estimated that there are currently 225 million unchurched people in America. Church planting would seem an appropriate and obvious response to such a statistic. But the question of who and how is perhaps as important as the remedy itself.
A recent study by Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird underlines the importance of a church planter’s expectations, leadership training and peer accountability. By the numbers, the chance of a church plant’s survivability increases by over 400 percent when the church planter has “realistic” expectations of the church-planting experience, and that odds of survivability increase by over 250 percent where leadership development training is offered in the plant. They add that “chances of survivability increase by 135 percent when the church planter is meeting with a group of church-planting peers.” Given the statistics, it’s clear that the importance of networks of planters, leadership accountability and ongoing training can hardly be overstated.
It is perhaps with such statistics in mind that the Acts 29 Network convened the “Engage the South” conference on Sept. 24 at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. A crowd of several hundred – predominantly young, white, evangelicals – gathered for the conference, seeking advice and insight about church planting in the southeastern United States. The conference was hosted by the Acts 29 Network, which defines itself as a “trans-denominational peer to peer network of missional church planting churches” and identifies as “first Christians, second evangelicals, third missional, and fourth Reformed.” Co-sponsors included The Gospel Coalition, Beeson Divinity School and Logos Bible Software.
Five well-known southern pastors spoke throughout the day: Ray Ortlund, Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tenn; Bryan Lorrits, Fellowship Memphis; Matt Chandler , The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas; Kevin Smith, New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tenn; and David Platt, Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala.
Ortlund opened the morning by preaching on John 6 and the phrase “it is the sprit who gives life.” Insisting that it is better to “fail in the Holy Spirit than succeed in the flesh,” Ortlund warned attendees of the danger of building flashy and attractive churches which ultimately result in a “total disaster disguised as a massive success.” He lamented the tendency to retool churches so that people will accept the church while still rejecting Jesus. “We need churches with theological clarity, not vague generalities,” he said.
Along a similar trajectory, Chandler preached on the life of Uzziah in 2 Chronicles 26, noting how Uzziah allowed his strength to lead to his pride and destruction. He noted his concern for young men and women with intrinsic gifts, for they are often lured away from their dependence upon the Holy Spirit, depending on their own talents and strategies instead. Chandler reminded those gathered that Acts 29 does not support church planters who do not have a sending church and older, mature Christians who support their call to church planting. Harping on humility and holiness, the mantra repeated throughout his sermon was “Honor what’s old, press into what is new.”
Platt, perhaps most well-known for his book, Radical, focused his lecture on Ezekiel 36-37 and the topic of evangelism and conversion. “What happens in conversion? I can hardly think of a more important question,” he says. Grieving over nominal, Christ-less cultural Christianity in the southern United States, Platt reminded the audience that “profession without transformation of life is not Biblical conversion.”
The highlight of the conference was the preaching of Lorrits and Smith, who each passionately and poignantly addressed systemic bias and unconscious discrimination in the church, sins which have a destructive effect on church planting, especially in urban centers.
Lorrits, preaching from Ephesians 2, addressed the necessity of a horizontal dimension of the cross, rooted in Jesus’ tearing down of the dividing wall of hostility. “The great tragedy in America is that we’ve tried to resurrect what Christ dismantled at Calvary” he said, speaking of slavery and the Jim Crow era. Lorrits encouraged planters to consider planting multi-ethnic churches, but, emphasizing the importance of cross-cultural relationships, warned that planting a multi-ethnic ministry without leading a multi-ethnic life is a mockery to the ministry of the Gospel.
Smith, drawing upon the words of the Great Commission in Matthew 28 and other New Testament passages, considered the relationship between worship and mission and directed attention toward one of the fundamental questions of the New Testament: “Do the gentiles have to become Jews in order to be saved?” Smith pointed out the analogous relationship between this question and the modern-day obstacles in the way of multi-ethnic churches, and provided five concrete ways to pursue multi-ethnic ministry: embrace dependence on Christ, be intentional, empower diverse leadership, strengthen relationships and ministry partnerships among all races and ethnicities, minister to the poor and oppressed.
As the PCUSA pursues the creation of “1001 New Worshiping Communities,” and as various groups of Presbyterians pursue planting and revitalization efforts in the ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), insights offered by the broader evangelical community will prove increasingly valuable.
One strength of the “Engage the South” conference was that it was interdenominational without having to advertise itself as such. While many of the attendees serve in various denominations around the region, there existed a sense of common purpose in ministry and mission. This shared mission across denominational and doctrinal boundaries, while a small step, is particularly encouraging as one considers the prospect of multi-ethnic ministry and other creative church planting initiatives.
For future Acts 29 events, see the calendar at http://www.acts29network.org/events/
For Information about the PCUSA’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative, visit http://www.onethousandone.org/Home.aspx
For information about the ECO’s upcoming Missional Leader Training event, visit http://fellowshippres.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/missionaltrainingevent.pdf
For information about the EPC’s Church Planters Network, visit http://www.epc.org/ministries/church-planters-network-cpn/