Archive for ‘Church Planting’


Some Should Go, Some Should Stay

Mark Dever’s recent little booklet entitled, Understanding the Great Commission, succinctly and successfully makes the case that the Great Commission is fulfilled by and results in CHURCHES.  It’s not an individual mandate to make individual converts.

But here is the section that stood out most to me (p. 53):

Just because a move might be costly doesn’t mean you should not go.  It has been costly for most of the saints who obeyed Jesus’ command to go.  And unless you live in Jerusalem, praise God that someone paid that cost and took the gospel to your nation and your city and your house so that you believe!

Is the point of this chapter to say that some of you should leave your churches?  Kind of.  Some should go to help struggling churches.  Some should plant new ones.  Some should go overseas.  And some should stay.

Of course people have to stay for any given congregation to remain a congregation.  Every church needs consistency in leadership, discipling, and long-term friendships.  In fact, staying in our culture is often the countercultural thing to do, especially among the younger generation.  With all the career or educational transitions that characterize modern urban life, the radical thing to do for some will be to stay in one place for decades.

Whatever you do, don’t make such decisions rashly.  And don’t make such decisions in isolation, but make them in prayer and conversation with your friends who know you well, and with at least one elder who knows you.


Cooperation in Theological Unity

Here’s my latest article for the Illinois Baptist newspaper.

I often find myself at denominational functions looking around the room and wondering, “What is it that really brings us together here?”  Is our unity based simply on an expressed common desire to reach the lost?  Or do we gladly join together in mission because we have deeply shared doctrinal convictions?


Did you know that there is actually a lot to be found in the little books of the Bible?  One way to read 2 and 3 John (which combine for a total of just 28 verses) is to put them side-by-side as two crucial lessons in cooperation.


Here is the background to both books: a church planting movement is taking root in the Roman world furthered by traveling missionaries who depend upon support from other Christians, primarily in the form of food and lodging.


In 2 John the tone and feel is one of caution.  “Many deceivers have gone out into the world.”  “Watch yourselves.”  The emphasis is on getting the gospel right.  Specifically, some of these traveling missionaries “do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” – what has been referred to as the “Gnostic heresy.”  John speaks soberly of remaining in Christ’s teaching and not going beyond it.  He then directs genuine believers – “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home… for the one who says, ‘Welcome,’ to him shares in his evil works.”  In other words, don’t cooperate with everyone!


The tenor is different in 3 John.  Here John is commending a “dear friend” for his generosity to certain missionaries.  The emphasis in this mini-epistle is on getting the gospel out.  “You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God.”  These missionaries “set out for the sake of the Name” and trusted God to provide through his people.  “Therefore, we ought to support such men,” says John.  He even calls out a guy named Diotrephes for his independent spirit.  “He not only refuses to welcome the brothers himself, but he even stops those who want to do so.”  Don’t be like Diotrephes.  Don’t cooperate with no one!


2 John teaches us not to make our tent too big.  3 John encourages us not to draw our circle too small.  We need both messages.  Notice the disproportionate amount of times that the words truth and love occur in these two short letters.  We absolutely cannot disconnect them.  There are people who have great drive, but do not have good doctrine.  We have to be discerning about who we partner with.  On the other hand, there are Christians who are cranky and overly separatist.  We must be large-hearted and kingdom-minded.


Because of 2 John I know that the Apostle John would applaud the “Conservative Resurgence” in the SBC.  Is it not amazing that we have six top-notch seminaries that are committed to robust and orthodox theological training?


At the same time, based on 3 John I am pretty certain that the Apostle would thoroughly endorse the concept of the Cooperative Program and be thrilled with our North American and International Mission Boards.  It is wonderful that we have state and local associations.  And is it not telling that we have Directors of Mission and not District Superintendents?  We are the people who come up with campaigns like “Million More in ’54.”  And I love that I live in what was once a Strategic Focus City, now a SEND City.


However, we have not always gotten this balance right.  At times I have seen people approved for work in the SBC based on their passion without an examination of their doctrine.  And at other times I have seen people who were well qualified turned away because of a technicality.


In all of our missional zeal, may we will never fudge on doctrinal clarity.  And in making sure we are all on the same page about what the gospel is, may we make sure we are doing whatever it takes to get the gospel out.  If we are truly faithful to Scripture we will heed the lessons of both 2 and 3 John.  But there just might be something to the fact that 2 John comes before 3 John.


Is It Baptist To Be Multi-Site?

You are probably familiar with the term “multi-site” by now. Maybe your church has already gone to the model, or is considering it. Very simply put, multi-site refers to the concept of one church that meets in multiple locations. Twenty-five years ago, there were fewer than 25 such multi-site churches in North America. Today there are over 5,000! It is a relatively recent phenomenon, yet an increasingly popular strategy for reaching more people with the gospel.

Opening up another campus allows for growth that is usually quicker and more cost-effective than building bigger or sending people out to start something new. It is in many ways simpler and more streamlined. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but can keep the same name, logo, website, 501(c)3 status, support staff, etc. Resources can be shared more readily. You can be more certain that your own “DNA” is being replicated.

I understand the appeal and practical benefits. There are many Baptists whom I respect that have gladly joined the multi-site movement, motivated by a genuine desire to penetrate lostness. But I’ve always had a lingering doubt about whether this method is entirely consistent with our Baptist principles, particularly that of local church autonomy.

Now you may be wondering why I don’t pose the question as, “Is it biblical to be multi-site?” It is because I don’t have space to make a full argument from Scripture. I am assuming that we are all Baptists here. And I am assuming that we are Baptists because we believe it is biblical. We are solidly convinced the Bible teaches that baptism is to be administered to believers only. And we believe that “a New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers” (The Baptist Faith & Message 2000, Article VI). Our views about credobaptism and congregational ecclesiology are the principal reasons why we are Baptist, and not Methodist or Presbyterian.

But while they may remain firm on the practice of baptism, Baptist practitioners of the multi-site model appear willing to compromise the autonomy of the local assembly. Each distinct location is not allowed the responsibility to receive and dismiss its own pastors and members. There is limited leeway given to determine the best programs and strategies for evangelism and discipleship. In many ways, the satellite congregations are bound by the decisions coming out of central headquarters.

When it comes to organizational structure and leadership in a multi-site operation, there may be one single pastor over all the campuses, in which case you have a hierarchy. How is this different than having a bishop? Or there might be a representative group of elders overseeing all the campuses, in which case you then have a presbytery. It seems to me that while the language may be “one church in multiple locations,” what you really have is a small denomination.

There are potential dangers in any system, but with multi-site, the pull towards empire-building and a cult of personality is extremely strong. There is also a temptation to trust in a franchise brand instead of the power of the Word and Spirit.

I can see how in true revival circumstances where massive amounts of people are being converted at once, a temporary multi-site solution might be needed. But I would rather see this as church planting in slow motion.

What all this means is that the task of pastors is not just to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5), but also to commit what we know to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2). We must be committed to raising up leaders from within our churches who could do what we do and be released from our authority to start other churches as the need arises. Hopefully these churches would retain a similarity and organic connection, without control or formal structural unity.

A growing number of like-minded yet independent congregations freely choosing to associate and cooperate together in mission…that sounds more Baptist (and biblical) to me.

Nathan Carter is pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Chicago. This article first appeared in the Illinois Baptist. Read the latest issue online.


A Non-Institutional Church? Why Are We So Dumb?

Yesterday was the PLANT Chicago quarterly.  We’ve had some outstanding speakers on important topics this year.  I was really looking forward to hearing Jared Wilson speak on the exclusivity of Christ and I was not disappointed.  I’ve appreciated his clear and compelling points in writing (The Pastor’s Justification is a must read for pastors!) and now I have a taste of his humble and genuine demeanor in person.


Here are a couple of the great quotes Wilson gave us yesterday:

This is why most southerners go to church and most northerners do not – because they’re ‘good’ people.

To reject the church is to reject the gospel because the church is something the gospel has made.

And then going along with that last one he read a longer quote from Eugene Peterson about the institutional church:

What other church is there besides institutional? There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church, because there’s sin in the church. But there’s no other place to be a Christian except the church. There’s sin in the local bank. There’s sin in the grocery stores. I really don’t understand this naive criticism of the institution. I really don’t get it.

Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows and grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death.

So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism.

In my writing, I hope to recover a sense of the reality of congregation — what it is. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. Why are we always idealizing what the Holy Spirit doesn’t idealize? There’s no idealization of the church in the Bible — none. We’ve got two thousand years of history now. Why are we so dumb?

In all our desire to see a movement of rapid church planting, let us not lose sight of the fact that we’re trying to plant institutional churches, because there really is no other kind.


Why Do We Go To Church?

We’ve been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic series to our girls at bedtime lately. It’s entertaining and historically informative. There are some great morals taught here like hard work and honesty.

The problem is: you’ll only find morals. No gospel.

In On the Banks of Plum Creek we see an example of American frontier church planting. The children – Lara, Mary, and Carrie – had never even seen a church up until this point, although the family read from the Bible and rested on Sundays. They were all so excited that a building had been erected and a home missionary – Reverend Alden – was going to preach the next day. They got all dressed up and rode the wagon to church on Sunday.

On the way home Pa said, ‘Well, Caroline, it’s pleasant to be with a crowd of people all trying to do the right thing, same as we are.’

‘Yes, Charles,’ Ma said, thankfully. ‘It will be a pleasure to look forward to, all week.’

Even my 6 and 5 year olds could sniff out the theological problem with this.

Can you?

And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” – Romans 4:5


City Vision

Wow. Wow! WOW! Tim Keller has done it again for me. Reading his article “Ministry in the New Global Culture of Major City-Centers” back in 2005 literally rocked my world. God used it to give me and our church our vision for being a ‘City-Center’ church.

But after several years fatigue sets in and you can begin to doubt whether the vision is right or realistic.

I’ve been reading slowly through Keller’s new magnum opus, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Zondervan, 2012). I just finished Part 4: City Vision. It is much of the stuff I had read and heard from him before, but more fully developed and honed. Reading this section has re-convinced me that this is indeed God’s calling on my life and our church and re-invigorated me to rally people around this vision.

Listen to this conclusion to chapter 13 – “The Call to the City” (p. 162):

We can be confident that the cities of the world will continue to grow in significance and power. Because of this, they remain just as strategic – if not more so – than they were in the days of Paul and the early church when Christian mission was predominantly urban. I would argue that there is nothing more critical for the evangelical church today than to emphasize and support urban ministry.

The need is great, as is the cost – ministry in city centers is considerably more expensive on a per capita basis than it is away from the urban core. But the church can no longer ignore the profound and irreversible changes occurring in the world today. If Christians want to reach the unreached, we must go to the cities. To reach the rising generations, we must go to the cities. To have any impact for Christ on the creation of culture, we must go to the cities. To serve the poor, we must go to the cities.

Many people who are not naturally comfortable in the city will have to follow the example of Abraham. Abraham was called to leave his familiar culture and become a pilgrim, seeking the city of God (Gen. 12:1 – 4; Heb 11:8-10). And while Christians should not deliberately seek difficulty for its own sake, can we not follow the example of the incarnate Christ, who did not live in places where he was comfortable but went where he was useful (Matt 8:20; John 4:34; Rom 15:3)? Can we not face difficulty for his sake (cf. Heb 11:26), embracing both the difficulties and the riches of city living?

While difficulties exist, there are many riches to cities and urban life, as Keller and my own experience show.

Later, Keller clarifies (p. 166):

I am not saying that all Christians should pack up and go live and minister in urban areas. What I am saying is that the cities of the world are grievously underserved by the church because, in general, the people of the world are moving into cities faster than churches are. And I am seeking to use all the biblical, sociological, missiological, ecclesial, and rhetorical resources at my disposal to help the church (particularly in the United States) reorient itself to address this deficit.

This he does masterfully.

Yet I am a Midwestern farm boy at root. Through unmistakable and unexpected Providence I find myself pastoring a church in the ‘City-Center’ of Chicago. But I feel pulled. Many times have I read Wendell Berry and his tales of Port William with a mixed sense of longing and nostalgia as he writes about rural/small town life. Many times have I wondered what this means for me living away from my roots and in an urban setting. Could the best of small town life be replicated in the city. And could our church be part of realizing that?

I literally cried when I read these words in Center Church (p. 170; emphasis mine):

Even those (like Wendell Berry) who lift up the virtues of rural living outline a form of human community just as achievable in cities as in small towns…. [Berry speaks of the ‘agrarian mind’ as] holding a commitment to a particular place for a lifetime and to conducting one’s work, recreation, family life in the same place and within a web of thick, long-term, local personal relationships…. What this means, I believe, is that a person with an ‘agrarian’ mind can live in a city very well. It is illuminating to compare the seminal work of Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of the Great American Cities) with Berry’s work. Jacobs was as committed as Berry to the importance of neighborhood – of local economies in which members of the neighborhood knew each other, had regular dealings with each other, and identified their own interests with the interests of their neighbors.

On the next page Keller quotes political theorist Mark Mitchell as saying (p. 171):

Ultimately, healthy communities will only be realized when individuals commit to a particular place and to particular neighbors in the long-term work of making a place, of recognizing and enjoying the responsibilities and pleasures of membership in a local community. These good things are not the unique provenance of agrarian or rural settings. They can and have been achieved in urban and town settings.

Wow. Wow! WOW! This section is a must read. And I must learn to communicate it better to those in our church who won’t read it. I desire so passionately that this would be achieved in the UIC Area, for the glory of God and the good of us.


When Others Are More Fruitful

Our church has recently helped plant another church. They meet in our space on Saturday nights and have packed the place out. Yesterday they launched another site on Sunday mornings. The space seats 159 and they had 187 in attendance! Many non-believers were present and many conversions are happening!! It’s awesome!!! It really is.

Meanwhile, I’ve been going at it for almost nine years and seem to be preaching my church into a remnant 🙂 I finished reading Zack Eswine’s Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being this weekend and was so blessed by it. This section pokes at the heart of a pastor and displays our ludicrous temptations:

Two men left home to plant a church in a city of need. One arrived prior to the other. He dreamed of a city reached for Jesus with the gospel. Through this prior pastor, people came to know Jesus, believers gathered, and a community of Jesus followers was born. It was slow work, but it was happening. His prayers were being answered.

In time, he began to meet with the one who arrived later, in order to encourage the newcomer. The old-timer and the newcomer prayed for Jesus to reach the city for the gospel. Through the newcomer pastor, people came to know Jesus, believers gathered, and a community of Jesus followers was born.

Ten years later, the one who had come first pastors an ordinary church. Its two hundred-plus members demonstrate the love of Jesus in ways that did not exist there ten years earlier. The newcomer who came second pastors a famous church. Its thousands of members and multiple sites around the city demonstrate the love of Jesus in ways that did not exist there ten years earlier. The prayers of both men were answered. Why then is one of them sad?

From page 282.