When Tyler Jones stood on a platform in Raleigh, N.C. earlier this year and declared that the churches in the Bible belt were dying and a vibrant evangelical witness no longer dominated America’s Southeast region, he downright angered many who heard (and later read) his words. Yet, if the statistics are correct, more churches have reached a growth plateau and are in decline than ever before in areas where traditional evangelical congregations once thrived. In order to reverse that trend, Jones believes that radical change is needed and an aggressive strategy of church planting and church revitalization must be immediately commenced or entire cities could be lost to the influence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Change of such magnitude is usually difficult. When Jeremy Freeman first arrived at Newcastle, First as senior pastor in July 2009, he found that he inherited a somewhat unique situation filled with just the ingredients to actually stretch even the best of pastoral leadership to its breaking point. Newcastle, First was one church with two campuses. Initially, church leaders expressed to him the uniqueness and difficulty of the current structure. The second campus was originally an independent congregation—Bellevue Church. Following a slow downward spiral, only six people were left worshiping in that location each week, and Newcastle, First finally assumed responsibility for the congregation.
When Freeman arrived in Newcastle, he preached at both campuses each Sunday. This created a conflict in Freeman’s mind as he sought to provide pastoral care for both congregations. He was unsure as which direction the congregation should go. After all, without a campus pastor, Freeman believed the church could not receive the pastoral care needed. Then a phone call from an old friend came.
Andy McDonald was currently the college minister at Norman, Bethel and contacted Freeman inquiring about his plans for Newcastle’s second campus. McDonald thought a church plant, or perhaps a church replant might be a possibility. This idea had been brewing in McDonald’s mind for some time. The idea never left the mind of the McDonald family as both he and his wife, Christy, regularly drove to the small church in Newcastle praying that God might use them to plant a new work in that area.
Freeman views McDonald as the right man for the task. First, McDonald has a calling evidenced by a deep love for the church and area. Second, McDonald preaches expositional, verse by verse sermons that are doctrinally sound. And, finally, McDonald was willing to sacrifice, taking a significant pay cut and less security in moving to the new church.
Freeman admits, “church planting (or replanting) was not on my radar when I came to Newcastle.” But having heard from McDonald, the idea made perfect sense. The idea of churches planting churches was fueled by the uncertainty of exactly how to do it. From the initial loss of members from the main campus to the financial resources required to establish the new congregation, Freeman committed himself to the task and to seeing it through.
In February, McDonald moved to the new church. Newcastle, First, along with help from the BGCO and Union Association, is paying McDonald’s salary and continues to take care of the church’s overhead costs. By 2011, Newcastle, First will only contribute toward McDonald’s salary, withdrawing a third of the salary for two more years until the church is fully weaned from Newcastle.
Through the process, Freeman has learned that it is a temptation for pastors to become comfortable instead of thinking differently about how to reach out beyond the bounds of the church to the surrounding community for Christ. Kingdom expansion, Freeman believes, happens as Gospel-centered and Gospel-preaching churches multiply. Freeman stressed that “this is often not the easy route and difficult decisions will have to be made, but churches that are healthy will reproduce themselves.” Continuing, Freeman said, “There is not one way to church plant, and pastors should truly seek to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit as they strive to effectively reach out to the community around them.”