Three great questions about church planting in Oklahoma
In the past nine months, 34 Baptist churches have been launched in Oklahoma! These churches are making disciples, baptizing new believers and teaching them the ways of following Jesus. Already, 130 professions of faith have been reported, and these new churches are averaging 37 in attendance.
Because Oklahoma Baptists start about 50 new churches each year, we are often asked important questions about church planting. In this article, I will address three common questions, the answers to which are vital for a proper understanding of how Oklahoma Baptists plant new churches. The questions are:
• Who can start a new church?
• How are priorities established for church planting in Oklahoma?
• And, do we need more Baptist churches in Oklahoma?
The most often asked question is who can start a church? Can only churches start churches, or can missionaries, or even laypeople, start churches? First, and most importantly, what do the Scriptures say? And, how are we applying the Scriptures in our church planting practices in Oklahoma?
In the New Testament, we see churches started almost exclusively by missionaries and unnamed believers whose status as clergy or laity is unknown. The Book of Acts records that the church in Antioch, among others, was started by believers who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen (Acts 11:19). Who these believers were, or what their status was before they were scattered by persecution, is unknown. But it is only natural, and it has been repeated throughout Christian history, that followers of Jesus plant churches wherever they come to live. The church in Rome was established in a similar manner. It was not planted by Paul or Peter, or one of the other “commissioned” apostolic missionaries of the New Testament. It was likely planted by those converted on or near the Pentecost experience of Acts 2, and who later travelled to Rome. (A comparison of Rom. 6:13 and Mark 15:21 may provide us with a fascinating clue). There is no biblical evidence that the churches of Antioch and Rome were intentional plants from the Jerusalem church or any other church.
That said, we do see church-planting missionaries commissioned and sent forth in the New Testament. Paul and Barnabas were sent by the Antioch church to do the work for which God had called them (Acts 13:2), a work consisting of preaching the Gospel and gathering new believers into churches. Church history tells us that others of the Apostles travelled great distances, from Africa to India, to proclaim Jesus and start churches.
What we do not see is a particular connection between the churches planted by these missionaries and the churches that sent the missionaries. In other words, the church at Antioch did not “oversee” the churches that Paul planted, nor did Paul ask for Antioch’s approval before entering a city to preach the Gospel and start a church. Missionaries, directed by the Spirit, and sometimes supported by existing churches, preached Jesus and planted churches among lost peoples wherever they travelled.
So, how does this apply to church planting in Oklahoma? We are a people who attempt to live in obedience to the Scriptures as best we can. We have seven church planting missionaries in Oklahoma, each of whom has been ordained and sent by a local church, commissioned by the North American Mission Board and employed by Oklahoma Baptists to lead us in planting churches. Our lead missionary is Bo Holland, with a team consisting of six other missionaries (Daniel Caceres, Eddie Lindsey, Greg Penna, Sam Scott, Gary Hawkins and Antonio Conchos).
These church-planting missionaries work with associational directors of missions, pastors, churches, church planters and potential church planters to start churches. Like the Apostle Paul, they seek to be Spirit-led as they identify peoples and places that need churches, and, like Paul, they work cooperatively with many partners to help new churches launch most effectively.
According to a study done by the North American Mission Board, 61 percent of new churches have partnering churches assisting them. Most often, church planters seek the support of existing churches. This support can involve prayer, pastoral mentoring, finances, facilities and a core group of persons from the partnering church.
In Oklahoma, we believe partnering churches can greatly aid new churches, and we encourage this. The great majority of new churches have partnering churches, and most are assisted by the local Baptist association and the state convention as well. Many of these churches receive financial support, but about 30 percent are not funded by the state convention or another church. It is important to note, however, that the initiative to plant the new church does not typically come from the partnering church. It is wonderful when it does, but the initiative generally begins in the heart of a church planter as God calls him to plant a new church, and in the hearts of the missionaries who are called to this great work.
Most often, new churches in Oklahoma have several cooperating partners involved in the work. However, because Baptist churches are autonomous, church planters are free to start churches as they think it is right for them. Churches, associations and the state convention are also autonomous in how we work with new church plants. Churches have guidelines and procedures by which they will work with a new church start, as do associations and the state convention.
A second question often asked is, How are priorities established for church planting in Oklahoma? How do we determine where and among whom new churches are planted? There are three primary ways church planting priorities are developed. The first concerns the call of God upon the church planter. Is he called to reach a certain people or the people of a certain area? Effective church planters have a strong sense of what God wants them to do. Information provided by local churches, associations and the state convention can help shape their specific call, but they must have a call from God.
We cannot minimize the call of God upon the church planter’s life. Rarely do men come to us and ask, “Where do you want me to plant a church? What language do you want me to speak? What musical style do you want the church to have?” These are not questions church planters have. If God has called them to plant a church, they have a clear idea as to what that means for them.
Second, priorities often focus on a network of people the church planter is called to reach. This network includes language groupings, but it can also involve ethnicity or matters of affinity such as the arts community, Western heritage or younger or older adults. Yes, we have churches started in or near retirement communities that focus on reaching older adults.
Church planters often start churches by reaching people within their own network. An oil field worker from western Oklahoma probably won’t be called to plant a church in Norman near the university. Most likely, God will call him to reach the community of people from which he comes. This is not always the case, but it often is. The missionary term for this is “indigenous,” meaning of the same environment or background. For example, among Spanish language churches, some are comprised mostly with people of Mexican background, while others may be Guatemalan or Peruvian. We have churches that reach mostly South Asian Indians, just as we have church planters working to reach cowboys in Altus or military personnel in Lawton. Does this mean that these churches don’t welcome all comers? No! Of course not. But it does recognize that each of us has a network of relationships, and even a particular style or culture, with which we interact most naturally.
And remember, when you start a new church, you are attempting to reach lost people, not the already saved who ought to know better. We expect the “saints” to love their neighbor as they love themselves, but we can’t expect lost people to love like that. So, new churches often begin by reaching people in a certain network. As the church matures, the congregation becomes more diverse.
Third, priorities are established by associations and the state convention based on demographic information. For example, which areas of the state have the fewest number of Baptist churches per person? Answer: the area between Piedmont, northwest Oklahoma City and Edmond which has more than 8,500 persons per Baptist church. The second least-churched area centers on South Tulsa, Bixby and Jenks, which has more than 5,000 persons per church.
Another way to set demographic priorities is to look at the percentage of people attending church in the area. By this measure, the interior of Oklahoma City has half as many in a Baptist church as the suburbs, as a percentage of the population. Sequoyah County has fewer people attending church, as a percentage of the population, than any other county. Dewey County has the highest percentage in church on a typical Sunday. Or, we can look at ethnic demographics. If you are called to start a church that reaches mostly African-Americans, that will help determine where you will plant the church.
A third, and final question we are often asked is, “Do we need more Baptist churches in Oklahoma?” The emphatic answer to this question is “Yes!” and for several reasons. First, Oklahoma has an estimated 2 million lost people. The great number of lost people in Oklahoma is by far the biggest reason we need more churches. Second, we have fewer churches per person in Oklahoma than we did in 1960 because our growth in churches has not kept pace with the growth in population. Third, as Oklahoma becomes more diverse linguistically, ethnically and culturally, we must start a greater variety of churches.
In recent years about 40 percent of our new churches speak a language other than English, with the majority of these speaking Spanish (we have 40 languages spoken in Oklahoma Baptist churches each Sunday!) There are also cultural differences that new churches can address. Some of these cultural differences are rather subtle, but more powerful than you might imagine. Every church develops a culture, which includes a mindset, style, leadership structure and focus of ministry.
Sometimes, it is suggested we should work to grow our existing churches rather than start new churches. This should not be an either/or, but both/and. However, there are two important matters to note. First, the typical church virtually anywhere in the world has about 50 people. I learned this several years ago while on a mission trip to South Asia. When I returned, I checked and discovered that in Oklahoma, half of our churches averaged 52 or less in Sunday School, and that average has now dropped to around 50. That means 880 of our Oklahoma Baptist churches average 50 or less. Most churches never average 100, and that is perfectly fine, as long as they are sharing Jesus and making disciples.
Second, no association or denomination of churches have grown numerically simply by growing existing churches. To reach a greater number of people, we must grow the number of churches. Every place in the world where the number of believers is growing as a percentage of the population, the number of churches is growing. Where the number of churches is static or declining, the number of believers is declining as well.
For example, the American Methodists were at their peak in 1850. They had achieved a virtual miracle of growth, rising from less than 3 percent of the nation’s church members in 1776 to more than 34 percent by 1850, after which they began to decline.
Baptists eclipsed Methodists by 1906 because of a church planting methodology that did not require formal training, and allowed for lay people to plant churches. In fact, the first Baptist church in Oklahoma was planted by a federal government surveyor, Isaac McCoy, in 1832. To plant that church, McCoy did not need permission from the denomination, as he would have in the Methodist or Congregational system. Baptist theology, and the resulting methodology, literally allows for any Blood-washed, baptized Jesus follower to start a church. It’s then up to the rest of us to determine whether we will cooperative and fellowship with the new church.
The objective in the planting of new churches is to reach and disciple lost people, period. The more churches we have, the more people we will reach. Sometimes the objection is made, “If we plant more churches, it increases competition with existing churches,” or, said another way, “new churches will suck the people out of our church.” When you understand that about 80 percent of Oklahomans are not in church on Sunday morning, you begin to realize we are competing with the devil, not other churches. Tragically, he’s got most of the people.
The goal of church planting is to grow the Kingdom, push back the darkness, take the offensive against the evil one and make it hard to go to hell from Oklahoma, not create an environment for every existing church that allows it to operate without the “competition” of other local expressions of Christ’s Body. I think in our better selves we understand this is how it should be. In China, where the church is growing most rapidly, the typical church has about 30 people in attendance. Some are larger, but most are small. The secret, however, is they have millions of such churches, with multiplied hundreds beginning every day!
When Oklahoma Baptists plant 100 churches every year, we might just be able to reverse our decline (yes, we have declined in attendance and evangelistic impact). Please, would you join us!? Would you pray for church planters? God has called them to a great work, and it is worthy of every support we can give.
Randall Adams is leader of the Church Outreach Team of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.