Les Stevens, 41, was a systems analyst for Terra Industries in Sioux City,
Iowa, when he sensed God was calling him to "do something different." Les had
never been to seminary or held a paid ministry position, but he enjoyed
speaking and was often asked to deliver the sermon at nearby churches.
In 1996, Les discovered there was no evangelical church in the town of
Kingsley (population 1,200) 30 miles from his home. Responding to the nudging
of the Holy Spirit, he approached his pastor and the director of missions. With
their prayerful encouragement, guidance and mentoring, Les embarked on a
whirlwind two-and-a-half-year adventure as a lay church planter.
"When people think of missions, they usually think of Africa, not Iowa," Les
said. "But the upper Midwest is full of communities that have had no
evangelical witness for years. The people are ready for the gospel message, and
the fields are ripe for the harvest."
Because of his commitment to his day job, Les devoted evenings and weekends
to the church planting venture. He began in February 1997 by visiting Kingsley
businesses to introduce himself. He also advertised, and he worked his way
through all the helpful resources.
That summer, with the help of Southern Baptist volunteers, he surveyed and
prayerwalked the entire community. He hosted a Backyard Bible Club and Vacation
Bible School where 19 people made decisions for Christ. Weeknight Bible studies
The October Sunday morning launch brought 84 people. Over the next two years
Les preached, taught, visited, administered and ministered. He led many to
faith in Christ.
In the spring of 1999 Les came to a crucial professional crossroads and had
to choose which direction his life would take. He had learned that his employer
would soon be going out of business, and he would be out of a job. At the same
time, the Kingsley group was ready to call its first pastor.
"I thought seriously about quitting my job and pastoring," Les said. He was
the obvious first choice since he loved to preach, he was an effective
evangelist and he had close relationships with the members. "But I never felt
God was calling me to do that."
Responding to Gods direction, Les applied for and found employment in his
area of training and expertise with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "I
felt strongly thats where God wanted me to go," Les said. "I was very, very
certain God was calling me to continue in computers and move to Minnesota."
Les helped the new church form a search committee and before his emotional
farewell from Iowa in July 1999 he was thrilled to see the installation of a
pastor at New Life Baptist Church in Kingsley.
Les Stevens is one example of a growing number of on mission Christians who
are helping to start new churches without changing their status as
Some lay church planters lead the effort to start a church, working mostly
alone to find and shepherd the flock that eventually may grow from a discussion
group or Bible study to become a small congregation. Other church planters
follow the lead of another person, serving as much-needed helpers. Still other
lay church planters band together, cooperating as a group to share the work and
For example, several people may join forces to start a church from a nucleus
of believers in their apartment complex. Or several families may form a team to
reach people of all ages in their community with the goal of beginning a new
In these pages you will meet many people who worked individually and in
teams to start churches. What they have in common is their enthusiasm for
building the people foundation for a new church while remaining employed in
their secular vocations. All are on mission Christians sharing Christ in the
Is leading the effort or helping to start a church in your future? Consider
the following questions to help you discern if God is encouraging you to become
involved as a church planter or a team member.
For decades Southern Baptists have applauded people of faith and vision as they
responded to Gods call, left their careers, completed a seminary degree and
then went forth to plant a churchof which they most often would become
Sometimes at great personal sacrifice and hardship to their families, these
church planters are called into ministry and out of their secular careers. A
lay church planter like Les Stevens is called into ministry, in addition to his
career. One way is not right and the other wrong, one is not better than the
other, both possibilities stand as valid choices. Both are needed.
Occasionally God calls a person into pastoral ministry, but circumstances
dictate he hold a secular job to enable (finance) that calling, hence the term
Most bi-vocational pastors plan to eventually end their secular employment
and focus all their energies on ministry. This is an important distinction: a
lay church planter is not bi-vocational, but duo-vocational, to coin a phrase.
He is equally as called to a secular career as to ministryoften seeing the
career environment and relationships as the greater mission field.
...gathers the people...
A lay church planter is not required to be a pastor but rather an on mission
Christian who takes the Great Commission seriously. A lay church planter is a
facilitator, a leader, a visionary, a dedicated student of the Bible, a
self-starter, a team-builder and much more, but not necessarily a pastor.
A church planter will initiate a gathering of
people, but often he will then hand over the resultant emerging church to a
...has the gift of leadership...
This God-given gift is distinct from the gift of pastoral leadership. The
apostle Paul is the greatest example of a lay church planter in that he found
groups, helped them assemble themselves, ferreted out local leaders and then
moved on. Lydia did the same in her local setting.
Someone who is "already there and loving it" makes a more effective church
planter than someone who is transplanted from outside and has to invest years
earning the trust of the local people. This especially applies to the urban
setting because the ministry area is often well definedneighborhood, apartment
complex, office, factoryand people who are already part of the culture have
A lay church planter must ask himself the question: "Do I grow naturally out
of the culture?" In other words, "Do I fit?"
...a nail-down-the-truth storyteller...
Church planters need not be eloquent pulpiteers, or seminary trained
theologiansthey need to clearly communicate the truths of the gospel. Stories,
like Jesus parables, are often the most effective.
...sees self as a sower of the gospel, not just a church planter...
He is a seed sowersomeone who sees people who need Christ, plants seeds and
then sticks around to disciple thema layperson who sees neighbors, co-workers and others in need of Christ and then
"plants the gospel." Its natural for a church to grow anywhere the gospel is
planted. A gospel sower has a love of people and of God. His ministry is in
response to a direct call from God: its an outgrowth of that love
Good training is readily available. Mentoringtraining which is on-the-job and
just-in-timeis best (see Resources sidebar on page 33).
...sees self as a layperson...
If somebody asked a lay church planter the quintessential social question"And
what do you do?"the answer would probably be secular-job related. "Im a
butcher, baker or candlestick maker." In other words the answer would reflect
the persons secular vocation. But what would likely happen next is that lay
church planters would be looking for bridges to steer the conversation toward
God as part of describing the other aspect of what they "do."
Returning to a first century strategy for starting 21st century churches,
men and women are sensing the call of God on their lives to gather
congregations in their homes, offices, apartment buildings or communities.
These lay church planters, who are not seminary trained, ordained or paid, who
do not quit their jobs or leave their homes, are on mission Christians who
simply assume personal responsibility for sharing Christ with their
Jesus said, For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with
them (Matthew 18:20).
...and here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people...
When some people hear the word "church" they conjure up mental images of bricks
and steeples and pews.
Others may see stained glass windows, organs and pulpits.
Still others envision folding chairs, a worship band and a preacher powered
by a battery pack.
Wipe the slate clean of all those ideas and replace the word church with the
word congregation, because, in its earliest biblical form, the church was
simply the people.
A church/congregation like Jesus described is not dependent on buildings,
programs or personnel. This kind of church begins, and may remain, as a
single-celled congregation meeting in borrowed or rented facilities.
Or it may change and adapt and become a church just like the kind many
Southern Baptists attend each week where people are performing what most people
agree are the functions of a church: worship, evangelism, discipleship,
ministry, missions and fellowship.
...everything old is new again...
Recognizing the changing face of "church" the Church Planting Group of the
North American Mission Board met for roundtable discussions on this very theme.
They recognized that lay-led church planting is not a new idea. It is a very
old idea that has come of age in historys natural tendency to be cyclical.
"We forget that it took Christianity
nearly three centuries before it indigenously arrived at the need for dedicated
church buildings," writes David Garrison in Church Planting Movements, a
60-page booklet published by the International Mission Board of the Southern
Baptist Convention. "During those same three centuries the gospel exploded
across much of the known world. When we instantly provide church buildings for
new congregations, we may be saddling them with an external burden they are
ill-equipped to carry."
Although this sage advice was intended for missionaries considering church
planting in foreign lands, it applies equally on home soil as indicated by the
fact that the booklet is selling furiously in North America. Many churches are
congregations without buildings or property, and they flourish because of their
lack of encumbrances. They are every bit as much a church as the sturdy brick
First Baptist Church in Anytown, North America.
Beginning on the eastern seaboard, people like Alfred Bennett contributed to
the rapid growth of Baptist churches in New York during the early 19th century.
Bennett, circa 1802, cleared forest, planted crops and gathered neighbors for
worship. Feeling unfit for the ministry due to his lack of education, Bennett
resisted the call as pastor for several years. But the congregation urged him
to assume leadership. He finally agreed, taking the role but not accepting
payment, continuing to support himself and his family by farming. He baptized
770 people during his 24-year ministry (The History of Baptists in the
Middle States by Henry C. Vedder, American Baptist Publication Society,
Philadelphia, 1898, p. 130).
The typical Baptist preacher of the early frontier came from the ranks of
the people. He farmed six days a week, held special meetings and preached on
Sundays and other days. He had little education but was not lacking in zeal
(Religion on the American Frontier: The Baptists 1783-1830 by William
Warren Sweet, Henry Holt & Company, New York City, 1931, p. 36).
Without benefit of missionary societies, Baptist churches grew and spread
west because of evangelistic lay people. "This evangelization was the work of
men who were not sent forth, but went forth to preach in obedience to a divine
call" (Vedder, p. 320).
Connie Cavanaugh, Scott Ott, Eric Ramsey
The Annual Church Profile report of the Southern Baptist Convention
demonstrates that younger churches have a better per member baptism rate than
For example, churches 3 to 5 years old baptize one new member for every 12
resident members while churches from 41 to 50 years old baptize one new member
for every 28 resident members. Clearly, evangelism is effective in the setting
of a new church plant. New churches reach new people.
The latest buzzwords in the church "bizz" are centered on the health of our
churches. We no longer count cars in the parking lot on Sunday morning as an
indicator of our churchs health. "Instead, we ask whether the church is
reproducing disciples, leaders and other churches," says Van Kicklighter,
Church Planting Group, NAMB. "And we question whether that reproduction is by
multiplication rather than addition."
...in order to multiply, you have to simplify...
The best Bible study is one that even a non-Christian or new Christian can
understand and freely participate in. New leadership is easier to find when
growth demands multiplication (forming two groups) and if the group leader isnt
required to have a seminary background.
...the difference between multiplication and division...
Dividing a large group into two every few months is healthy, Kingdom-building
and forward-looking. It means the church is growing. In this case dividing is
...small is big...
Complementing the recent growth of mega-churches, these lay-led congregations
often stay small because of a strong commitment to reproduce. Intentionally
dividing on a regular basis, small groups of believers actively take the gospel
to their friends and neighbors.
Results from an international survey of 1,000 churches indicate that
churches with an average membership of 51 were 1,600 percent more effective in
winning the lost than churches with an average membership of approximately
2,900. Over a five-year period, the smaller churches saw 32 people come to
Christ while the larger churches gained 112 through conversion (Natural Church
Development, Church Smart Resources, 1996). New churches tend to gain members
through non-Christians who come to faith as part of coming to the church. Older
congregations often provide a more developed environment for discipleship and
If a layperson called by God can plant a church, and if a church is a group of
people who worship and fellowship together as they participate in discipleship,
missions, ministry and evangelism, and if new churches are a great way to
penetrate the culture with the gospel, and if a healthy church is one that
reproduces itself, then why arent more laypeople planting churches? Part of the
answer is that North Americans in the new millennium are accustomed to
deferring to the "paid professionals." Instead of telling the plan of salvation
to our friends, we often invite them to church and expect our pastor to do the
job. Also, we are so accustomed to the "called out" model of ministry that it
may not occur to us that anyone can plant a church right where he is.
2. Your workplace and neighborhood are your mission fields and great places
3. Church planting appeals to your entrepreneurial spirit.
4. You can create a legacy that will outlast you, investing your life, not
just your money, in Kingdom work.
5. You can continue in your secular career. You dont have to have a seminary
6. Church planting is one of the most effective evangelism tools.
7. An abundance of resources is readily available to help you plant a
8. Lost people need Gods love.
9. New churches are effective at producing disciples.
10. You can sow the gospel right where you are.
The most compelling reason laypeople should consider church planting is
simply because well never be able to hire enough people to start enough
churches to significantly impact our culture. If we think we can pay enough
professionals to plant enough churches to make even the smallest dent in North
Americas unreached community, we are sadly misinformed. Laypeopleteachers,
lawyers, nurses, waiters, computer technicians, welders, doctors and
homemakersmust take up the torch and run with it.
"Southern Baptists largest untapped resource for church planting leadership
lies within its lay leadership that already exists in churches all across the
convention," said Richard Harris, vice president, Church Planting Group, NAMB.
He points to the biblical examples of Moses, David and the disciples of Jesus
as models of laypeople shepherds, fishermen and laborers who took the gospel to
their world. Dennis Hampton, missionary strategist and passionate proponent of
this lay church planting movement adds: "When it comes to finding leaders to
plant churches theres a huge pool of laypeople out there."
Dennis was appointed to north central Nebraska as a missionary 18 years ago
where he discovered one church in a county seat with about 40 resident members.
He soon realized the best wayprobably the only way to reach the people of his
area was through lay church planters. Today there are 18 churches of every size
and description. But there arent 18 pastors.
To manage their vast distances and sparse populations, Nebraskans have
introduced a prototype non-geographic church called A Church of Fields. It
consists of three rural congregationsGreen Valley Sunday School, Dorsey Sunday
School and Center Home Fellowshipspread out over 150 miles. In addition to
their weekly local congregating, the larger group gathers once a month to
celebrate, train, worship, baptize or hear missionaries speak. This fluid
group, led totally by laypeople, moves from ranch house to barn to riverside
depending on the weather and the need.
Dennis definition of a healthy church includes the fact that it will
"If Christians want to see church planting movements weve got to use Jesus
models and do it His way," he says.
Connie Cavanaugh is a writer and speaker living in Cochrane,
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