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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

I don't often keep up with the news on various Baptist groups, but now and then I get connected to some stories and try to follow them. Once again, Mainstream Baptist has brought my attention to a matter that started me thinking. It has to do with a former employer of mine, the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It relates to church starting, which is an important topic for many of my students to learn about.

Let me say first of all that I admire the BGCT as one of the best examples of leadership, organization, and stewardship to which we can turn. I admire its leaders and its programs. As a former employee, I have found the organization to be compassionate, visionary, and accountable. Even so, in every organization, problems can arise. The test is in whether the organization deals honestly with them and learns from them. I have faith that the BGCT will do that.

The math on the supposed 258 church starts raises a red flag itself. I realize that a church can start in a home by word of mouth, and that little in the way of additional cash is required. But an organized effort to plant churches through training and supervision of leaders, with hundreds of starts as a goal in a short time, would clearly take some funds. Maybe there were other sources of funds for this effort from the Piper program, and here I am ignorant.

The BGCT's contribution, according to a little mathematical analysis of the article, was about $5,000 per church start. I wonder how many of the readers' households operate on that amount for even two months.

Like so many church leaders who have high expectations for attendance and growth and make promises of numbers, this looks like a case of wishful thinking. Building relationships takes time. Building organizations and institutions takes people and money. I don't know how many churches could be expected to start on about $5,000. If there were a movement of the Spirit, what Jonathan Edwards called a "surprising work of God," maybe dozens or hundreds would start with very little expenditure. If the process is based on good planning and organizational efforts yet do not coincide with an "irruption of the Spirit," a term from Gustavo Gutierrez, then I think more people, time, and money might be required.

I'm not saying that churches can't be started using tried and true methodologies. Where the gospel is preached and lived, people will be drawn to it. But if what is desired is measurable, structured, lasting institutional existence, then the work of the gospel can't be undergirded by being tempted by a bargain and talking a lot of wishful thinking.

By comparison, I observe academics who get grant funds and promise to have big conferences to change the way people think and reach hundreds of people with their important message, even seminaries trying to attract large numbers of ministers to a conference.

What they so often fail to do is build the relationships and do the hard ground-level work to get the public or the ministers aware of and interested in what their conference is about. So they promise even larger numbers than before, only to struggle to reach the same small number they had at their last conference. Doing the hard work of organizing takes time, effort, and money. It does not amount to a few phone calls, a mailout, a list of speakers, and a printed program.

No amount of money will start a church when the "seed falls on the road." And money may make little difference when the "seed falls among thorns" or "on rocky soil." And when the "seed falls on good soil," little or no money may do the job.

I'm just saying that anyone who claims to be able to start 258 churches in a short time using about $5,000 per church sounds like a "low-ball" bidder. Usually low-ball bidders are cutting corners and using processes that are not according to Hoyle. Sometimes we hide behind "having faith and trusting God" as a way to spend less than it takes to do a good job.

Phil Reed of Voice of Calvary Ministries in Jackson, MS, says that one of their key biblical texts is Philippians 1:9,
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God (NRSV).
In it he says that they are reminded that the church's calling is both to spread abroad the love of God and to have that love show knowledge and insight to let that love be demonstrated by doing things in the very best way. In common parlance today, that would mean that our love should learn from best practices financially, structurally, and relationally.

I know that is the way that the BGCT tries to carry out its work. The best practices must not close the door to the overflowing of love, and the wisdom of love must ever seek to do its work better.

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