Fellowship Places Full Support Behind Church Planting
A new day has dawned for Assemblies of God church planters. In previous decades, at times, the process has been left to inexperienced pastors, greatly restricted in an effort to preserve turf and practically forgotten. No more.
Now, the Fellowship is placing a high priority on church planting, taking the approach of the more new congregations the better. Limits on geographic locations are gone. Multiple church plants targeting various ethnic or age groups are desirable.
In 2003, the attitude is that every Assembly of God congregation, no matter how small, should be willing to plant a church, or at least partner with another church that is starting one. Officially, the General Council passed a bylaw revision on Friday emphasizing church planting as a priority at all levels of the Fellowship, signified by a new $1 million commitment to the program. Saturday night at the MCI Center, church planting served as the theme to the three-hour worship service.
"God is doing something I haven’t sensed in my lifetime: churches parenting churches," said Paul Drost, director of church planting for the Fellowship. "The days of discouraging church planters need to be over. We should send our very best as church planters."
Charles Hackett, executive director of Assemblies of God U.S. Missions, said Methodism founder John Wesley found church planting to be the most effective way to reach the lost 250 years ago and that theory still holds true.
There is unprecedented opportunity to reach the lost through church planting, Hackett said. He noted that people leave churches whether those churches plant other congregations or not. "Let’s give them a place to go with honor," Hackett said. "Church multiplication is better than church splits. Let’s get out of the quagmire of territorialism and let’s plant churches."
The Saturday evening service focused on church planting and concluded with a season of intense worship and prayer.
The local church is the instrument God has chosen to bring people to salvation, Hackett said, and it also is the answer for fixing broken families, delivering the drug addicted and reducing crime.
"Jesus set no boundary lines and excluded no neighborhoods," Hackett said. "The worse the neighborhood, the more we need to plant a church there."
On Saturday night, the General Council backed up Friday’s legislative action by collecting an offering for church planting – including a $500,000 check from the General Council – praying for church planters and showcasing recent success stories. Several Assemblies of God pastors shared how embarking on new works doesn’t mean that existing bodies will stop growing.
Ron Johnson, senior pastor of Bethel Temple in Hampton, Virginia, indicated he became a church planting advocate when he realized one local congregation couldn’t reach a community of 150,000 inhabitants by itself. A better method, he said, involved multiplying churches with similar ministry philosophies while allowing for cultural and ethnic distinctions. Bethel Temple, a culturally diverse congregation of 2,500 worshipers, is about to launch its fifth church plant, all of them started with cell groups. One is a Korean-speaking church and another is a Vietnamese congregation, which has itself planted six other Vietnamese churches across the country.
"God was calling us to stop focusing on how to get these people into our church and grow larger in our one location," Johnson said. "Rather, we were to franchise out and plant congregations in the communities where people live. Evangelism happens best and is most cost-effective through church planting. Did I want a large church, or did I want to change a culture?"
Johnson said rather than focus on supporting one megachurch, he opted to commit to building multiple congregations. Such a commitment is fraught with challenges: How will a valuable staff member going to the church plant be replaced? What if financial support for the church plant strains the budget? What if a church plant becomes bigger than the mother church?
Those shouldn’t be deterrents, Johnson said. God has a way of replacing experience staff people, of finding property at deeply discounted prices and of bringing in new members when others leave to start a new work. Bethel Temple has eight couples currently leading cell groups who intend to plant churches. The goal of church planting shouldn’t be to add to the membership rolls of the Assemblies of God, but to bring more souls into heaven, Johnson said.
Kendell S. Bridges and his wife Starla planted a church in their Houston home with 17 people. Today the Worship Center has more than 1,000 attendees in two locations, and it has established six daughter churches. "Part of my role is raising and releasing people into ministry," Bridges said.
Just as parents pour themselves into developing their biological children, pastors must build relationships with their spiritual sons, according to Bridges. Once a relationship is forged, mentors teach, train and test their students, he said. Ultimately comes the time when the equipped must be released.
"Affirmation is the greatest form of empowerment," Bridges said. "We shouldn’t hold on to those who are called to do great things for God."
John Lindell started James River Assembly 12 years ago with 60 people. Today, the church in Ozark, Missouri, has grown to 6,000 attendees. But Lindell noted that the church had three consecutive years of stagnation. Attendance didn’t increase until James River Assembly planted its first church in nearby Springfield four years ago. Today that church has 1,000 attendees. A subsequent church plant in nearby Branson has drawn 450 followers. In addition, 34 people have agreed to move to Austin, Texas, 800 miles away, to accompany a James River Assembly pastor who is starting a church. In the past four years, James River Assembly has grown 83 percent.
"The law of the harvest is not just about offerings," Lindell said. "It’s about life."
St. Clair Mitchell, director of church development and home missions for the AG Potomac District, recalled how U.S. missionaries in his native British West Indies stressed evangelism. But he found it ironic that when he moved to the United States he didn’t find such a passion for reaching Americans. The Fellowship needs to renew its commitment to starting churches — abroad and at home, he said.
"Listen, pastors, they’re not your people, they’re God’s people," Mitchell said. "You shouldn’t stand in the way if they are called into full-time service. They need to be liberated into ministry."