Monday, September 14, 2015

Church Pioneering in the Sportman's Paradise--Part 2

A Church Planting Success Story

By Robin G. Jordan

Before I relocated to western Kentucky in 2007, I was also involved in two successful church plants in Louisiana—a United Methodist Church plant in Madisonville and Southern Baptist plant in Waldheim. Madisonville was at one time a sleepy little town at the mouth of the Tchefuncta River where the river flows into Lake Pontchartrain. Like the neighboring communities of Covington and Mandeville, Madisonville began to experience rapid growth in its population as new subdivisions were built along the highways linking the town to Covington and Mandeville and Pontchatoula. 

As the population of the town grew, the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church would conduct a study of the area’s potential for the site of a new UMC church. The conference concluded from the study that a new UMC church planted in the area would have a high chance of success and allocated funds for a church plant in that area. The bishop for the Louisiana Conference enlisted the youth pastor at a large Baton Rouge UMC church to serve as the church planter/founding pastor for the new church. The pastor in question enjoyed a reputation of being a highly popular preacher with all ages. Land would also be purchased for the new church.

The model used to start the new church was a variation of the Hiving Off Model. The UMC churches within reasonable driving distance of the future site of the new church agreed to let the church planter recruit the nucleus of the new church from their congregations. One or more community interest meetings were also held.

After a core-group was gathered, the new church launched its first service of public worship, meeting in the chapel of an area funeral home. The church planter would negotiate with the board of a local maritime museum for the use of its facilities. The museum’s board agreed to let new church rent the meeting rooms and other space in its building for use on Sunday with the understanding that would be constructing its own building in the near future and its use of museum’s facilities was not long-term.

When I became involved in the church, it had moved to the maritime museum and had begun a new phase in its ministry.  The church planter was pursuing three goals—to grow the congregation, to raise money for the construction of a building on the land that the conference had purchased for the new church, and to construct the building. During the two odd years that I was involved in the church, the church planter met these goals. The new church would move into its own building.

My arrival at the church coincided with the arrival of an influx of area Methodists who had been attending a large UMC church in a nearby community. The church had changed pastors and this change had precipitated an exodus of its members. Their arrival would boost the size of the congregation. It would also impact the worship of the new church as a number of these people and myself had been involved in music ministry. The church planter recruited a choir director from the new arrivals and formed a choir. Before their arrival and the formation of the choir the church planter himself had been leading the congregational singing. He had enlisted his father to play the musical accompaniment for the hymns on the piano. With the formation of the choir the selection of music for the services would include newer worship songs from a UMC hymnal supplement as well as traditional hymns from the UMC hymnal.

For the two odd years I was involved in the church, its worship music would be an eclectic blend of contemporary and traditional music. Area churches that were blended or contemporary in their worship music were generally experiencing more growth than those that were traditional. However, the use of this particular blend of music was not intentional. It was simply one of the outcomes of the expansion of the church’s music program. At the time I left the church, it had acquired a new choir director who was a professor of choral music at a university in New Orleans. She would move the worship music in a more classical and traditional direction. One of the initial results of this change was that more people from outside of the church would join the choir. They apparently followed the choir director from her previous church. I do not know how the change impacted the growth of the church. A large choir and a popular preacher were major drawing cards for area Methodists. The church’s growth was largely if not exclusively transfer growth.

During my two-odd-year sojourn with that church I identified a number of problem areas that I believe impeded the growth of the church. The first of these problem areas was that the church planter had difficulty in delegating leadership responsibilities to others. As a consequence the church’s leadership circle was quite small. During that period no new leaders were added to the leadership circle. It was the same group of people who had been with the church planter from the outset.

The pastor’s reluctance to delegate leadership responsibilities to others had two major effects. He overextended himself, doing what others could have done. For example, he led the church’s youth group, taught the Bible class for older children and teens, and led the church’s CARE team. Or he did not undertake a new ministry that might have benefited the church because it would mean—as he saw it—the addition of something more on his plate.

While the central role that the United Methodist Church assigns to its pastors in the life, ministry, and worship of the local church may have been a contributing factor, the pastor’s inability to delegate was mainly a personality issue.

The recruitment and development of more leaders is essential to the growth of a new church. Delegating leadership responsibilities to newcomers is also one way of assimilating them into a congregation.

A second problem area was that the church planter did not view people outside of the membership circle of the church as his pastoral responsibility. For example, he sent a get-well card to a small child whose parents were church members when she suffered an ant bite at a church picnic but he did not attempt to reach out to my niece when her second oldest son was diagnosed with leukemia. He was acquainted with the boy as I brought him and his older brother with me to church services.

An empathetic, supportive response from a pastor would not only have helped my niece in a difficult time in her life but also it might have encouraged her to start attending church again. She would have benefited from the emotional support of caring Christians. However, she was not a church member and therefore she was not in his estimation his concern. He saw the provision of this kind of support as a service extended only to church members and as one of the benefits of church membership.

One way that a church reaches and engages unchurched people is to be there for them when they are facing a crisis. They may or may not become a part of the church. The church, however, is being faithful to the Great Commandment, loving those outside its fellowship as well as those within the congregation. Such caring may have an accumulative effect and the unchurched people to whom it is shown may in time become Christians.

The church under his leadership would respond generously to appeals from the bishop but undertook very few initiatives of its own. The church from what I could see did not do a lot of bridge-building with the community. During the two odd years that I sojourned with the church, I would not describe it as leaving a large foot print in the community.

Indeed I became aware of the church’s existence purely by accident. My oldest grandnephew and I were driving around Madisonville when we spied the large sign the church had erected on its future site.

Building bridges to the community and having sizable impact on the community are musts if a new church is going to have a strong connection to its community. It also fosters a positive image of the church within the community. This is particularly important today as the culture in North America becomes increasingly unfriendly toward Christians.

A third problem area was that the church also had no small group ministry. This was in part due to the pastor’s reluctance to delegate leadership responsibilities to others. Small groups meeting in homes and similar venues would have provided additional entry points into the congregation. The only point of entry was the one service of public worship on Sunday mornings.

While a single entry point is often typically of small churches, this particular church was actually a medium-sized church, pointing to a not uncommon dynamic of medium-sized churches. While they are no longer small, they still think and act like they are a small church.

Even small churches can benefit from small groups.  As we shall see in “Church Pioneering in the Sportman’s Paradise—Part 3,” small groups can play an important role in the gathering of the nucleus of a new congregation. 

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