What can an average-size, “normal” Southern Baptist church do personally to make a difference for the gospel? In an era where church attendance is declining and church resources are more limited than ever before, is there any way that the “average” church can really do anything of significance to make a kingdom impact for the gospel of Jesus Christ? In an era where most of the attention and recognition in the evangelical world goes to “mega” churches with large auditoriums and multi-million dollar budgets, can the average church in a rural area or a declining town do anything tangible to help make the Great Commission a visible reality within and beyond its walls? These are the questions that I am many pastors of smaller, normal-size churches are faced with regularly. These are the questions I sought to address in my first few years as a new pastor at a regular-old church in a typical town in the Bible-belt, Southern, evangelical culture.
When God called me to the blessed opportunity to pastor Sixth Street Baptist Church in July 2009, it was my first opportunity to sit in the first chair as a Senior Pastor after having served for 18+ years in various support ministerial roles in very different and distinct churches. As I began, I was faced with all the reasons why our ability to accomplish the Great Commission in a personal, tangible way was limited – our community was not growing because the largest employer had laid off hundreds of people, our church had been through several years of numerical decline, we were going to have to reduce our budget because receipts did not match expectations. These are the same challenges that the vast majority of pastors face every day. Most pastors are called to lead churches with smaller numerical metrics in average, rural communities. If you divide total attendance at SBC churches by the total number of SBC churches, the average worship attendance of an SBC church is about 122. Around 50% of SBC churches average less than 200 people in attendance. By these numbers, SSBC is a very normal Southern Baptist Church. On a typical day, we may average about 180 people in worship. On a good day, we might break 200.
So I ask myself often, “What can the average pastor of an average SBC church realistically expect to accomplish in a personal, tangible, measurable way to accomplish the Great Commission?” I would submit to you the answer is “more than you think at first.” When I began my tenure here, our church had been doing what most churches in our stage of life do. We were giving a generous portion of our budget through the Cooperative Program of the SBC and we occasionally put together a mission trip to go somewhere to assist in some construction needs or put together some service projects and Backyard Bible Clubs. (If you aren’t Southern Baptist, the Cooperative Program is a funding mechanism that allows every SBC church to contribute to one large fund that allows them to financially support gospel-centered work in their own state as well as support thousands of missionaries domestically and internationally and partially fund six seminaries for theological education.) I am a very firm believer in the Cooperative Program and very thankful for it. It allows the average church in the SBC to partner together with other average churches their size to do more than all of us could do separately on our own. It really is a perfect example of synergy – the sum of the whole is greater than the collective sum of the individual parts. But, I have also seen a great temptation by many churches to allow our personal support of the Cooperative Program to become an end rather than a means of our accomplishing the Great Commission. I believed that God expects more than that from our church.
So, we began a conversation from the the very beginning about how we could do more and what specifically God would have us to do, without sacrificing the Cooperative Program in the process. I believed God wanted us to accomplish two main goals – have a global footprint somewhere (or multiple places) internationally and partner with a church plant in a metro-city domestically. Since 2010, our church has had people on the ground serving in some capacity in the following countries: Dominican Republic, Guinea, Swaziland, Ukraine, Kenya, and Uganda. We helped send a family full-time to Uganda and began a partnership with Four Corners Ministries there. Since that time, FCM has planted a vibrant gospel-centered church in the African bush called Living Stones Community Church. In addition to that, in 2016, we added a directly monthly support in our budget to partner with Indian Community Church in Waltham, MA. Our church freed about $6,000 in financial resources to support these endeavors and have committed to sending teams to both of these areas at least once a year, if possible.
Here are 4 Reasons Why We Want to Have a Direct Role in Planting Gospel-Centered Churches:
- It reminds us as a congregation that the “church” is much bigger than our little corner of the world. It’s too easy in church leadership to develop a “silo” mentality where the vast majority of your mental energy and internal resources are spent on trying to build up your numbers. We must remember that lostness is a global problem and, that, as churches, we are called to impact lostness in tangible ways.
- Being able to put tangible names, faces, and stories to the Great Commission brings energy to the vision. One of the benefits of having direct partnerships is that puts a names and faces on the topic of missions. When I speak of the Acholi people or of Indian Community Church, my church members have greater energy and engagement than when I speak solely of national entities or mission funds. Since we have enlarged our missional net through direct partnerships, the amount of money our church has given to missions has increased, not decreased.
- Because we want to find ways to counter lostness directly and not just complain about it. Again, I must remind myself continually that lostness is a global problem. And much of the angst that we as believers feel about the direction of our country or the state of our world is directly tied into the problem of global lostness. Until the gospel penetrates the hearts of people, lost people will continue to think and behave like lost people. And the choices of lost people have consequences and baggage that affect all of us. So, instead of insulating ourselves in holy huddles and decrying how bad the world is getting, God has called us to go into the world and make disciples.
- Because gospel multiplication, not personal preservation, is the primary job of the church. We have heard the stats for years about declining baptisms and plateaued churches. Many of us have a weekly reminder of limited and declining resources, financial and personnel. The natural tendency in those moments is to try to keep the ship afloat. However, we need to remember that as the people of God in the kingdom of God, we don’t operate from a scarcity mentality; we operate from a kingdom mentality.
One truth became apparent to me early on in this process – We couldn’t wait until we had more money coming in before we freed up the money necessary to do missions. I believe that a greater vision of the Great Commission will free up resources that currently lie dormant in your congregation. The reality for most of us is this: all the money that you need to accomplish the Great Commission assignment that God has for your church is already in the pews of your church. We just have to find a way to free up people to see a greater vision than they currently do.