Word is out about the new GFBC church plant that is scheduled to launch January 31, 2010. GFBC launched on April 7, 2006, just over three and a half years ago. However, since then, we have seen significant growth. Most of that growth has occurred in the past year. A year ago we had a little over 140 members, and our average Sunday morning attendance was about 220. This October, our membership is about 250, and our average attendance is between 420 and 450. Of course, these are not significant numbers for churches in our area. Houston is home to some gargantuan churches (ever heard of Lakewood?).
Nevertheless, these numbers are problematic for us for a number of reasons. Without going in to all the details, just let me say we do not wish to continue down this path. For one thing, our facility will not hold more than 550-600 (uncomfortably). For another thing, our church culture and identity is already being stretched. Therefore, something has to be done.
The Options All Churches Have To Consider
Since we cannot stay our current course, we must consider at least four options that all churches face in this situation. We can go to multiple services, start satellite services, rent, buy or build a bigger facility, or we can plant a new church. Each of these options has its own set of difficulties, and none guarantees a favorable outcome. However, we do not view them as equally viable.
The most common solution to a growth problem like ours is to go to multiple services. This option is inexpensive, and has been the norm in evangelicalism for decades, if not centuries. However, it is not an acceptable solution in our situation for at least two reasons. First, whether we admit it or not, multiple services means multiple churches. The church is a gathered body (literally a gathered body or congregation); not a group of people who share the same leaders and facilities (see Mark Dever’s book, The Deliberate Church for a wonderful discussion of this from a theological perspective). In fact, most churches with multiple services admit as much by making one service “Traditional”, and the other “Contemporary”. In other words, these are people with different theologies, philosophies and cultures (at least as it relates to worship) who merely share a building and a preacher. Thus, they are at best failing to be of one mind (Rom 15:5; 1 Cor 1:10; Phil 2:2), and at worse they multiple churches pretending to be one.
Second, multiple services would undermine the very culture and spirit of our church. Our service is unique. We meet at 10:45, and are together until 3:00pm (or later). Each Lord’s Day we have a prayer time (Matt 21:13; cf. Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46), sing (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16), read significant portions of New and Old Testament Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13 ESV), preach for about an hour (2 Timothy 4:2), observe the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23–26), and share a fellowship meal (Acts 2:42–47). This simply will not fit into a pair of neat ninety minute services. Nor would we want it to.
Thus, multiple services is an option we have chosen to forego. I understand that some churches find themselves in a bind where they have no other choice. Additionally, the ubiquitous nature of this practice means most people never give it a second thought. Though we would not argue that all churches with multiple services are in sin, it is a practice with a number of theological and practical difficulties attached, and we will avoid it unless unforeseen and/or insurmountable obstacles literally force us to do otherwise.
Like going to multiple services, renting, buying, or building bigger buildings is a rather common solution to a growth trend. Hence, a rather simple solution for GFBC would be to put together a team and start looking for a facility that would accommodate our current size and give us room for growth. Then our problem would be reduced to whether we find a building that would seat 1,000 or 1,500 (depending on projected growth).
This is a feasible solution. We have plenty of cash (since we have avoided all debt, and our model has allowed us to avoid hiring full-time pastors), the downturn in the economy has provided an abundance of cheap property, and we don’t need much more than a large meeting room and a kitchen. Nevertheless, we have also decided against this option.
While we do not believe that the mega-church is always, or inherently a bad thing (if we did we’d have a problem with the first church in Acts), we do believe numbers beyond a certain point would compromise our ability to function in a manner suiting our theology and philosophy (we also note that God dispersed that first mega-church). Again, ours is an intimate, life-on-life shepherding model that is already being stretched due to our current size. We do not wish to see this growth trend continue on its current trajectory. I know that sounds strange, but we are indeed a strange bunch. We want people to know and love one another (John 13:34; 15:12, 17; Rom 13:8; 1 Th 4:9; 1 Pet 1:22; 1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11–12; 2 John 1:5), share life together (Acts 2:44; 4:32, 34–35), hold one another accountable (Matthew 18:15; Gal. 6:1), encourage one another (Heb 10:24) and know those who feed their souls. That’s right, we want our people to know their pastors (Heb 13:17). Nor do we mean we want them to know the Jr. pastors, or the counseling/shepherding pastors; we want them to know all their pastors. And we want the pastors to know them. As Peter exhorts:
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight,not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you;not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1–3 ESV)
Admittedly, this is not an issue that we can control beyond a certain point. The apostles did not have much of a choice in the matter. To one extent, when God brings increase, our ideals about ratios go out the window (Acts 2:47). In many ways that is what has already happened at GFBC. We would like to have planted before, but you can’t plant until God sends planters, or people to take over the work so planters can go re-plant. Thus, rather than waiting idly by, we created a program to train potential leaders (elders/church planters), and have raised up home-grown prospects ready to join in the work (Matt 9:38; cf. Luke 10:2).
This is also important for us since a number of our people now travel great distances to be a part of our church. While some churches see this as a feather in the cap (like some who have adopted the slogan, “A Church Alive is Worth the Drive”), we see it as a tragedy, and a pressing need to plant churches in areas where we have pockets of people commuting. Bigger buildings would not solve this problem, and would in fact make it worse.
While multiple services and bigger buildings are the mainstay among growing churches today, satellite services is the flavor of the month. Numerous churches have decided to hang up a shingle, send out a live band and a “campus pastor,” and pipe in video sermons from their indispensable “communicator”. This not a feasible option for GFBC for myriad reasons.
First, we are a Baptist church. Thus, our polity does not allow for a pastor who functions as a Bishop over multiple congregations. We believe in the autonomy of the local church. The Second London Baptist Confession (our church’s confession of faith) states in chapter XXVI (“On the Church”) :
5. In the execution of this power wherewith he is so entrusted, the Lord Jesus calls out of the World unto himself, through the Ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father; that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribes to them in his Word. Those thus called he commands to walk together in particular societies, or Churches, for their mutual edification; and the due performance of that public worship, which he requires of them in the World.
6. The Members of these Churches are Saints by calling, visibly manifesting and evidencing (in and by their profession and walking) their obedience unto that call of Christ; and do willingly consent to walk together according to the appointment of Christ, giving up themselves, to the Lord & one to another by the will of God, in professed subjection to the Ordinances of the Gospel.
7. To each of these Churches thus gathered, according to his mind, declared in his word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is any way needfull, for their carrying on that order in worship, and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe; with commands, and rules, for the due and right exerting, and executing of that power.
Hence, we view the idea of a satellite congregation with a “campus pastor” as being completely outside our theological ethos. Were we an Episcopal, or a Methodist congregation, this may be considered differently. However, as confessional Baptists, this simply cannot be borne. There are no Bishops here (of course we recognize that the New Testament uses the term interchangeably with elder/pastor. I am referring here to the office as it is viewed by congregations with an episcopal form of church government).
Additionally, we wish to avoid the “Cult of Personality” these satellites inevitably promote (1 Cor 1:10–13). We realize that God raises up different men for various tasks at strategic points in history (1 Sam 2:7). As such, there have always been men whose popularity overshadowed their contemporaries. Nevertheless, we do not believe that one man is so indispensable that he must be heard even by satellite, if necessary. God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34; Rom 2:11; Eph 6:9; Col 3:25; James 2:1; 1 Pet 1:17).
That is one reason that, although I serve as Pastor of Preaching at GFBC, I have never preached more than half the time. Let me hasten to say that we do not believe this is normative for all churches. However, we knew from the beginning that if we wanted to be a church planting church, we would have to avoid (as much as possible) creating dependence upon a single man. Hence, we have utilized other preachers with a view toward facilitating church planting. Does this guarantee our success? absolutely not. However, we wanted to be purposeful in our efforts, and this approach made sense.
We also reject the satellite option because of it’s propensity for separating preaching from shepherding. The satellite model reinforces the idea that the pastor/teacher is no more than a hired gun who mans the pulpit on Sunday and dazzles the crowd with his unparalleled rhetorical gifts while others get their hands dirty in people’s lives. Thus, people are more than willing to have a “campus pastor” who shepherds their soul (and marries them, buries them, and visits them), and a preaching pastor who (via satellite) engages in what they have come to see as the completely unrelated practice of teaching them God’s word. Again, this is not the biblical model (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2).
This major flaw is not limited to the satellite model. In fact, there are many pastors who view themselves this way in a single-service, single-location church. They are often seen as untouchable, unapproachable herald (unless you have enough money, influence, or status to get a meeting). We, on the other hand, believe preaching is a function and extension of true pastoral ministry, not a separate task.
This practice was soundly, and almost universally rejected by conservative (especially Reformed) evangelicals until Bethlehem Baptist Church took the plunge not long ago (yes, Virginia, John Piper preaches to some of his services via satellite). Since then, many observers have avoided criticizing the practice openly (though there have been exceptions). It must be noted, however, that Dr. Piper was and is uncomfortable with the idea even though he concedes it’s ‘inevitability’ at this unique moment in his ministry (and the life of the church).
I have talked with John about this, and he is absolutely not a champion of the satellite model. They tried to plant churches, but the uniqueness of his current position made it difficult to say the least (people simply would not go to the other campuses and forego the opportunity to listen to John Piper preach). I do not envy him his current dilemma. However, it does not change the aforementioned problems inherent to the model. I love and respect John Piper. I consider him a friend and mentor. Nevertheless, I cannot endorse the satellite model (even though I must admit I don’t know what I would do if faced with his situation).
That leads to the final alternative; the one we have chosen. Our plan is to take 1/3 to 1/2 of our people (along with two of our four elders) and plant another autonomous church. More about that in my next post.