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Jesus Didn’t Need a Local Church, and other poor conclusions

One of the continuing discussions about the nature of ecclesiology and missiology concerns how various New Testament figures related to their contemporary churches often comes to the conclusion  that this figure didn’t use a local church for ministry. Usually this argument is angled towards the point of the building of the local church more particularly missing.

The point goes something like this: Jesus didn’t need a church building to do His ministry.

And sometimes looks like this: Paul doesn’t invite people to his local church to preach the Gospel to them.

Jesus ApostlesI suppose the point here is that institutional buildings are not part of the original, New Testament intent for the church(es) do go about its/their ministry. Of course, this is poor way of going about making this point historically and theologically.

To begin, we note that Jesus began His ministry, according to Luke, in the religious institution, and building, of His day: the synagogue. Luke 4:16-30 shows that, following His baptism, Jesus goes to the local synagogue in Nazareth and reads aloud from the Isaiah scroll, then performs a kind of midrash on the text. This would have been the natural step for a new rabbi in the Jewish community.  Now, the response is likely not the norm, but nevertheless, Jesus begins His ministry within the established building, and form, of the religious system He came to renew.

As a second point, we also recognize that Jesus often goes to the synagogues, and even the Temple, throughout His ministry as a starting point for ministry in a community. (cf. Matthew 13:54; Mark 3:1-5; 6:1; John 6:28-59.) This is not to say that the synagogue was to become the primary organizational centers for Christianity, though they certainly informed much of what would become the local churches. The synagogue was also, for Paul, a starting point in his travels and apostolic missionary work (Acts 17:2; 19:8; etc.)

We’d also be remiss not to point out that Pentecost is the inauguration, or beginning point, of the Church. Since Pentecost happens after Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, it would have been hard to Jesus to start His ministry in an organizational form that didn’t exist.

Of course the final, and perhaps most important point, is that these kinds of statements purely earliest communitiesmisunderstand the nature of the earliest Christian ecclesial structures. Since no formal, distinctly Christian buildings appear to have existed prior to CE 300, it is hard to say that any New Testament figure either had a church building or did not have one. As Gehring has thoroughly worked out, local homes became the primary gathering places for almost all Christians by the middle the first century. This is not because the house was the preferred method, surely not the normative method, but it arose out of necessity when the earliest Christians were forcibly removed from synagogues and Temple.

So, these house based community gathering places became the epicenter of much of early Christian worship, ministry, an fellowship. The earliest Christians frequently gathered in these places, likely at multiple points during the week, and they became their “local churches.” Though they would go out to spread the Gospel and do ministry, as well as business and life, the local churches are where they inevitably returned.

If you are going to try to make the argument that the early Church, or some New Testament figure, distanced themselves from institutional forms of religion, you’re simply missing the reality of history or knowingly distorting the truth. This is not to say that monolithic, high Church Catholicism was evident in early Christianity, but it does point out that the churches of the first several centuries had more to do with local church ministry, based in a physical community, than some contemporary commenters allow for them.

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The Tension of Reviving or Birthing

There are many tensions that exist in present day church growth and health conversations. One of the more impacting ones is whether we focus on new church starts or church revitalization.

In my home denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, this tension exists in many of the conversations taking place about long term strategy. Of course, this tension isn’t limited to just Baptists, it includes most churches.

It’s easier to give birth than raise the dead.

This mantra is one which I learned early on in my ministry while interning at the mother church for the college I attended. It reflects an honest, and perhaps a bit ambivalent, assessment of the challenges confronting ministers who go into established churches that have plateaued or are in decline. Southern Baptists have measured that 72% of our churches have plateaued or are in decline. As a result we have a overwhelming majority of churches that are in need of intentional ministry to repurpose and revitalize their ministry

As a result, we have heard a continued emphasis about church planting that has led many of my peers to go out and start new churches. This has had mixed results, depending on who you talk to, but overall I believe it is has tremendous Kingdom value.

However, for many of our largest and focal churches across the US, they have moved away from either church revitalization and planting. They are favoring the expansion of their ministries through multi-site church campuses.

So a new tension is introduced into the conversation, it isn’t just reviving or giving birth, but also multiplication. These large churches (for a host of reasons) continue to grow at significant rates while medium and smaller churches are seeing decline. If a measure of ministry successfulness is found in numerical growth (I don’t think this is either a principal or sole measure) than these multi-site churches are perhaps the most “successful” churches in the land. Yet their approach to church strategic growth is to perpetuate their own existence by expanding their influence through new campuses. For many small and medium sized churches, it is having the same effect as what happens to small business when Wal-Mart coming to town.

So, is their resolution to this issue? Not immediately. However, if we consider that these existing churches (the 72%) still have worth if we become intentional about sending new ministers into their midst there might indeed be a wave new growth that continues to provoke change in our communities and culture. Far too often the conversation has moved to the church planting and multi-site options as having the better answers.

Church revitalization remains an important, and perhaps, more opportune ministry. By leveraging existing facilities, perhaps with a strategic rebranding and some updates, the actual barriers to entry into a ministry sphere become lower than both multi-site and planting. By revitalizing our plateaued and declining churches we might be able to also revitalize the communities in which they live.

Perhaps at this crucial moment in our churches we can embrace an ethos that motivates us to consider the all important starting of new churches an campuses alongside revitalizing established churches.

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The Cooperative Program: The Genius of the SBC

This week is sort of my “Ode to the SBC” week with their annual gathering in Houston. Today, I want to focus on what I believe is the genius of the SBC that rarely isn’t talked about enough.

W.W. Barnes1 once wrote, “The Cooperative Program is the greatest step forward in Kingdom finance Southern Baptists have ever taken.”

The Southern Baptist Convention (also SBC) was founded in May of 1845 as a group of autonomous churches who voluntarily cooperated to do missions and spread the Gospel from their local communities to the ends of the World. For many years following its founding, the Convention used established forms of designated and undesignated giving, as well as a former society based model of giving to fund missions and denominational ventures. This society model proved ineffective and was part of the demise of early boards and agencies (Bible Study Board and first Sunday School Board are examples) along with some other logistical issues.

In 1917, the SBC initiated a program called the “Seventy-Five Million Campaign” that sought to fund  ministry initiatives and expand receipts. The Campaign was a mixed result, but also led to some financial challenges related to a debt burden it carried. So in 1925, the SBC adopted a Co-operative Program of giving that sought to provide a systematic framework to support and fund the denominational ministry.

JE Dillard was named the chair and the program moved forward. Since that time in 1925 the Cooperative Program has remained unchanged in its fundamental principles and operations. It is also the genius of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The Cooperative Program provides the funding arm from each of the local churches (all 45,000 of

This is how the CP works out as percentage of giving.

This is how the CP works out as percentage of giving.

them) to missions and denominational agencies. As our chart shows, the process is fairly straightforward and funds move from the pew to the field with little hindrance.

Since the primary focus of the SBC has always been Gospel centered missions, the Cooperative Program has provided a stable funding source that scaled with the growth of the Convention itself. In keeping with the intent of the founders of the Convention, “The Cooperative Program brought the goal of the original constitution of 1845 closer to realization…”2 The Cooperative Program also provides a linking of the local church to the state conventions and the larger denominational programs and agencies that facilitates a growing unity and focused purpose.

Regardless of the challenges and controversies that have gone on within the Convention over the years, the steadfast commitment to the Cooperative Program has been a point of unity within the denominational work. It allows churches to see how their dollars go straight to funding the missions and ministries that they value.

This is the process of funding. Click for more detail.

This is the process of funding. Click for more detail.

Another aspect of the funding is that it has enabled Southern Baptists to create seminaries to train their pastors and missionaries at a reasonable cost. When I was considering seminary, it was an easy decision to choose an SBC seminary over other attractive options as I knew I would receive a qualified education at a cost that was reasonable and allowed me to graduate with no student loans. Most seminarians in the ATS system cannot say that; Southern Baptist should be reminded and be proud of this.

In the latest stats on the Cooperative Program, in 2011 the Cooperative Program received $500,410,514 in funds with $308 million going directly to Convention interests. That money is divided up according to an allocation budget (affirmed by the Convention meeting.) For the 2012-2013 year the proposed budget saw $94,376,000 go to International Missions and $42,845,200 go to North American Missions for a total of $137,221,200 dedicated to missions. I don’t know of a Protestant denomination that provides a more secure method of funding their missionaries. Along these lines, the seminaries (all six of them) received $41,209,600 for theological education.

These numbers, which are all public, aren’t meant to brag about size but absolutely meant to show how God’s people provide and remind us of the task before us. The Cooperative Program is a genius system that allows each member of our churches to directly fund the work of God at home and abroad. 

From a strategic vantage point (since that is a focus of this blog), the Cooperative Program provides a consistent and scalable funding arm to support and sustain prioritized ministry activities. Its simplicity (relatively speaking) is its genius. For the many new missions and church networks that are growing, mostly among free church ecclesiological models, this is the kind of funding program that would help them grow.

One of the many things that I am proud of as a Southern Baptist is how the Cooperative Program works. I remember to this day putting my $10 bill into the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering envelop, placing it in the offering plate, and knowing it went directly to funding missions across the world. That is a great thing for the Kingdom of God.


  1. 1. The Southern Baptist Convention 1845-1959, 1954 pg 230 

  2. 2. Robert Baker The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People, 1974 pg 404 

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On the Southern Baptist Convention

Well it is that time of the year when we hear about the largest Protestant denomination in America, the Southern Baptist Convention.

The beginning of June marks the annual trek to a city by faithful Southern Baptists for the annual convention. This is a yearly assembly that takes place in differing locales for the purpose of voting on a budget…and a few other things. This week I’ll be focusing on some specific Southern Baptist issues, but initially I’ll quickly parse out some thoughts on my home denomination.

It is easy to go negative when talking about church stuff, or any stuff, because we are mired in a kind of cultural torpor that validates the bitingly negative opinion…that everyone has. So that isn’t my purpose. Instead I want to briefly talk about what I like about the SBC.

Often when I describe my affiliation to the SBC I begin by noting that “I’ve been a Southern Baptist since 9 months before I was born.” That is a true statement. I was raised by faithful Southern Baptist parents who served in Southern Baptist churches. My grandfather was a Southern Baptist pastor who, literally, built churches in Oklahoma and Michigan from the ground up. I’ve had a rich heritage of faithful people who have done their best to serve God and honor Jesus while being filled (but not too filled) with the Holy Spirit. Much of my theological formation happened in the cinderblock wall and tiled floors rooms of my home church; rooms that were separated by orange vinyl retractable room dividers. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior (with all the evangelical theology embedded in that statement) in the pastor’s study of that church on March 27, 1985.

I was (and will always be) an RA…that’s Royal Ambassador. My sister was a GA (Girl in Action) and, later, an Acteen. Missions was the embedded formation tool for our upbringing, and it made us stronger Christians.

The heart of the SBC has always been missions and ministry. We can look historically and note that the first two boards established by the founders of the SBC (who were a diverse theological lot) were the Home and Foreign Mission Boards. Southern Baptists continue to support missions with annual offerings and an intentional emphasis. We have a strong and well trained missionary force across the world bringing the Gospel to people and places far and wide.

Nationally, Southern Baptists have developed a tremendous Disaster Relief Ministry that goes right into damaged areas and provides basic needs (meals, shelter, and resources) that deploys thousands of volunteers at a higher and faster rate that state and national agencies. That is something to remember.

Our seminaries train and send out hundreds of new pastors and ministers every year and, because of the generous and ingenious support of the Cooperative Program, makes it affordable for the students. The seminaries have long been established as top tier theological institutions and have had the largest student bodies of most ATS schools in the United States.

Central to the SBC is that they are a people lashed to the Cross by the power of the Bible.

They are Gospel centered, Bible honoring denomination that seeks to condition their actions first by Scripture and then by application. The theological and spiritual formation lessons I gained growing up as a Southern Baptist were always rooted in the Scripture. This is something that has stayed with me through several stages of education.

There are many things about the SBC that make me proud to be part of the convention. It is a good group of earnest people that often are distorted for any number of reasons. As we move towards an era of marked post-denominational life, the SBC continues to see aspects of growth and continued commitment to their core beliefs and practices.

During their annual gala this week here in Houston, the SBC will likely take up motions and make declarations. Yet at the center of their daily activities will be constant prayer, fervent preaching, honest worship, and Gospel centered efforts.

For that I continue to be thankful. The Kingdom of God is larger because of the continued ministry and missions of Southern Baptists.

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