This is part 1 of 3.
I have not always known I was called to plant a church. In fact, I feared doing so, and for the majority of my life did not consider myself capable of doing so. In the following I will try to capture and condense the major pieces or milestones God used to draw me into church planting. In parts 2 and 3 I’ll go into greater detail about fundraising, assessments, fears, and other concerns.
Exposure to Church Planting
I wasn’t raised in church. My mother was a nominal Catholic (so we went on Christmas and Easter) and my father was a nominal Baptist (so sometimes we went on Mother’s Day). Subsequently, I had no idea how churches came into existence. I just assumed they were always there.
When I started attending Immanuel Baptist Church in Duncan, OK, I noticed a series of pictures on the wall of all the former pastors of the church. Other than the men who had served as my pastor, only one other stood out- J.J. Ward. He planted Immanuel Baptist Church where I, and many more, were told about Jesus, discipled, baptized, called to preach, licensed, and ordained.
In the sovereign plan of God, Immanuel called Dr. Jack Robbins to be their pastor in 1992. Jack had started Open Door Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC, twelve years earlier. I married his daughter in 1996. Our first year of marriage we gave twenty-five dollars a month to a friend planting a church in Las Vegas. We gave it because Lori knew how important it was. I had no clue. But, God did.
I started pastoring in December 1998, graduated seminary in 2001, and went back to my home county to pastor a small church in early 2003. God blessed this church and we steadily increased our missions giving, but did little to directly support church planting. In 2009, our family headed west to visit friends who were planting churches. I connected Brad Graves, newly planting in San Diego, with veteran planter, Chris Bennett, in Las Vegas. On the way home, we stopped in Buckeye, Arizona to visit Ray and Christina Strauss (Lori and Christina had graduated high-school together). Little did I know God was watering seeds of church-planting desire within me. I assumed I would only be involved in a church plant support role. But, God had other ideas. He was working a plan I didn’t yet see.
In 2010, our local Baptist association adopted a new strategic plan. A major piece of that plan was church planting. (I’ll write more in-depth about that partnership in my next post, but for now I’ll just say that it’s a financially substantial five-year partnership.) As an association, we sent out Brian Bowman to plant Valley Life Church in Phoenix, Arizona. I challenged our church to partner with Valley Life, along with several other churches in our association.
Brian and I had become good friends. The morning he and his family left for Arizona, I stood in the driveway watching and weeping. Weeping selfishly because I didn’t like the distance that would now be between us. Weeping joyously because I knew what was happening was so much bigger than my selfishness.
Little did I know that was only the beginning of my weeping. A few years later, God moved another friend of mine to plant the second Valley Life in Surprise, Arizona. Again, I led our church to partner financially and send teams. We traveled to Phoenix once or twice a year. We missed our friends and took every opportunity to see them again. And we were amazed at what God was doing there! There were so many lost people coming to the church. There were so many lost people in the city. There was so much more work to be done. There were so many more churches that needed to be planted.
Discerning the Call to Plant
Pastoring our small church brought both joy and pain—for them and me! The town was small and I had been there 12 years, 7 years longer than any other pastor. A deacon told me, “Preacher, we don’t know what to do with you. You’ve stayed. Every other pastor left after a few years.” Ignorantly, I took pride in that. So God dealt with my pride. A small faction developed of people who wanted me gone. I couldn’t lead our church past it. I suffered through it for a couple of years. I was fearful of being asked to resign. I worried how I would provide for my family. I got depressed. I was frustrated, discouraged, disappointed, angry and hurt. I wondered if God might be calling me to plant, but the pain of my circumstances clouded my judgment. Was I running from a tough situation?
There were new people coming that we had befriended. What would they do if I left? I was too scared to move forward in any direction. I was locked up like an engine with no oil in it. I didn’t know what to do. At the advice of trusted friends, I went to a counselor. And it helped. I saw that God was graciously bringing me to the end of my ability and asking me to trust Him.
Soon enough, God spoke. I read through Acts and saw in 8:1 that God used pain to move his people. Then I happened upon 2 Corinthians 2:12-13: “When I (Paul) came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia.” I was amazed! I had never seen this before. Apparently, Paul just wanted to be with his friend, Titus. It was as if God said to me, “Go on and go for it. I don’t mind if you want to plant a church for me with your friends.” So, in March of 2015 I went through a church planter assessment and passed. Then I told our church leaders and they confirmed the calling and supported us more than I had ever imagined possible. We moved to Phoenix in June and plugged into our sponsor church, continued to fundraise, and started building our core team.
We had our first preview service a few weeks ago. Our teams are solid. Our friends are bringing their friends. We are sharing the gospel with our friends and discipling them. We have two more preview services and a Christmas Eve service. We launch January 8th.