FOCUS GROUPS AND CHURCH PLANTING

PARTNERSHIP THAT LEADS TO CHURCH PLANTING Partnership – what a beautiful word! It assumes friendship but adds a practical purpose to the relationship. It assumes a common goal but does not demand a duplication of identity. A partnership includes mutual accountability and a spirit of cooperation applied to the accomplishment of the objective. However, a partnership does not infringe on the independence of the partners. Most independent Baptists have an inbred aversion to partnerships. We are fearful of a relationship that would align us too closely with someone with whom we may disagree on a wide variety of topics. But we have strong reasons, based on biblical principle, to work together as we can when we can. The disciples were a diverse group. When Paul was added to the group of Apostles, the diversity was even more evident, yet they were partners in the work of the Lord Jesus. There is no higher cause and no greater potential for churches to form partnerships around than evangelism and the planting of churches. The average Baptist church in America averages less one hundred people in attendance. It is not impossible for an average-sized church (or smaller than average-sized) to “single-handedly” reproduce another church, but it is difficult, and it is rarely done. So, how can the average-sized church get directly involved in church planting? They can do so very effectively through partnerships.

PARTNERSHIPS FROM FRIENDSHIPS Here is what God has done in our area. About four years ago, I was part of a group of pastors in West Virginia (plus a couple of Buckeyes from southeast Ohio) who got together for a non-typical pastor’s gathering. We called it a Focus Group. There was no guest speaker, no preaching, and no event or organization to promote. Our purpose was to spend a few hours together to share ideas, encouragement, burdens, experiences that relate to practical pastoral ministry. The format was a roundtable discussion. A “starter” agenda was noted to get the conversations going. This type of pastors gathering is extremely beneficial. We are able to learn from one another in a relaxed non-threatening exchange of ministry experiences. The range of topics is quite wide: missions, young adults, teaching materials, preaching helps, children’s ministry, bus ministry, promotion ideas, good books, sermon series, counseling, ushers, new construction, pastoral ethics, funerals, etc. Most guys leave these meetings with pages of notes and several good ideas. The other significant benefit of this type of meeting is that the participants become real friends with each other. The open exchange of ideas leads to better understanding of one another. We share victories as well as defeats; successes as well as failures. We pray for each other in a much more personal way. Genuine respect is established – even between those who have different opinions on some minor issues. In other words, true friendship is established. On the agenda at the meeting four years ago was this question for the group: “Is anybody doing anything with church planting?” The response was unremarkable. Most reported that their church did (or had in the past) support a distant church planter for missionary (prayer and financial) support. Although these works were in the United States, their connection to the supporting church was like any foreign missionary. _ ere was little or no physical connection or on-going personal engagement. We began to discuss regions of the country, like the Northeast, where there is a tremendous void of Bible preaching churches. We began to speculate about the practicality of physically helping a church get started in the northeast corridor from our home churches – at least six hours away. That led to a discussion about areas within our region that had little or no church impact. We noted four or five towns or counties in West Virginia and southeast Ohio where none of us could name an independent Baptist church. I summed up and concluded that portion of the agenda by saying, “I am not sure how, but I know the Lord wants my church to help start another church.” There were nods of agreement. Other pastors were feeling a similar burden. We moved on.

A DEFINING MOMENT Defining moments are rarely recognized at the time as being “defining moments.” It is only as we look back that we NOW realize that the brief discussion about the need for churches in our region was truly a defining moment.

It is too long of a story to completely tell in this article, but God used that focus group meeting and those fifteen minutes of discussion about church planting to spark an on-going partnership among those pastors (along with others who have come alongside). We determined to get seriously and directly involved in Regional Church Planting. By “regional” I mean a church plant that is within a two-hour drive so that in addition to financial support and prayer support we can give physical support.

We can put “boots on the ground” to help birth and nurture the new church. Trying to learn as much as possible about planting a new church, we learned of Dr. Jessup and Baptist Church Planting Ministry. The encouragement, counsel and helpful details they brought to our vision and burden were priceless! Hallelujah, they had a playbook! They had a “to do” list of what needed to be done. The first church plant that sprang from this coalition of friends was the Bible Truth Baptist Church of Athens, Ohio. God led our church, Maranatha Baptist in Charleston, to be the reproducing church. God had led Troy Kline to be the pastor of the yet-to-be-birthed church. Troy had been in the focus group meeting as a pastoral staff man. He had not said a word during the meeting. But God began speaking to him. The friends of the focus group immediately became partners in the church plant. They were quick to take on Pastor Kline for financial support. (Most of them on the BCPM concept of 4-year-decreasing-term support.) They were ready to engage their churches in the material preparation and the visitation on Saturation Saturdays. They committed to bringing groups and supplies for the Get-Acquainted Meetings. They even sent small ministry teams on Sundays for the first several weeks to assist Pastor Kline. Now, THOSE pastors are real friends!

Let me clarify that this group has no structural organization. We are just friends. There are no officers. We are just friends. There is no chairman, president, or director. We are just friends. There are no bylaws, letterheads, or committees. We are just friends. There are no demands, expectations, or assumptions about participation. We are just friends.

Because we are friends, we have become partners in Regional Church Planting. Because we are friends, we are eager to help one another toward our common goal: the gospel preached, believers baptized, and disciples trained. In the subsequent years, two other pastors from the group have been lead of God to be a reproducing church for a new church plant in the region. Last year, Pastor Rick Perrine and the Ripley Baptist Temple birthed the Pickerington Baptist Temple in Pickerington, Ohio, with new Pastor B.J. VanAmon. Just a few weeks ago, Pastor Charles Madaus and Bible Baptist Church, Clarksburg, WV, reproduced themselves in the Hope’s Point Baptist Church in Weston, WV, with Pastor Dan Vaughn. In each of those cases, the friends of the Focus Group became the partners to provide the core of support (prayer, financial and logistical) for the new church. Of course, other churches got involved with each of these plants through various connections. But what a thrill and encouragement it is to have a group of friends who will partner together for the cause of the gospel and planting churches.

Currently, this focus group meets two or three times per year. The agenda ALWAYS includes the topic of church planting. We get reports from the existing plants, and we discuss possibilities for future target areas.

The impact of the regional component of this initiative cannot be overstated. Church members who go to the Saturation Saturdays, who attend the Get-Acquainted Meetings, who help assemble the saturation materials are FAR MORE personally invested and passionately supportive of the church plant vision. The focus group churches have all had a tremendous increase in passion and enthusiasm for planting new churches. They are thrilled to hear the good reports from these new churches about attendance, salvations, and baptisms. We are looking forward to the Lord’s direction about the next church plant in our region. No doubt God will give a burden and vision to one of the pastors in our group. When that happens, our friendship will coalesce into a partnership. That partnership will help birth another Bible-preaching independent Baptist church. To God be the glory – great things He has done… and great things He continues to do!