Mark Gray’s style for recruiting church planters is a little
“If I can talk you out of planting a church, then you
probably shouldn’t plant one,” says Gray, a member of the Baptist State
Convention’s church planting team since 2005 and its leader since 2006.
He tells prospective planters the job is lonely, threatens
some people and often requires significant personal sacrifice. He wants any
church planter to go into the job with eyes wide open.
But the truth is, Gray doesn’t recruit much. Instead, he
fields calls from all over the country from men who indicate that God is
calling them to plant a church in North Carolina. Just as a diverse population is
migrating to North Carolina, Gray sees God drawing men to start churches to
reach that population.
Church planting is one of the seven pillars guiding Baptist
State Convention ministry. In the past five years 719 new churches have been
added to the Convention through planting or affiliation.
Gray, 55, describes himself as a “called servant of the Lord
who is passionate about doing whatever it takes to reach people for Jesus and
to disciple them.”
Raised in Mayodan, he was baptized in the Mayo River following
his response to God during Vacation Bible School commencement at Beaver Island
Always a hard worker like his father who worked in a mill
and directed Sunday School and VBS at Beaver Island, Gray says the two hardest
things he’s ever done are to prime tobacco and to start a church.
Analytical about people groups, assessments of potential
planters, training and procedures, Gray said that North Carolina Baptists are
beginning to see the fruits of their support for church planting. “Boot camp”
training for church planters is continually refined to be more effective.
Recent changes added emphasis on evangelism and discipleship.
No church planting prospect is funded or trained without
undergoing an assessment that will give leadership a sense of the man’s
“Our goal is to help them be where God has called them to
be,” Gray says. Even if the result shows church planting is not the best place
for an individual, “everybody wins in an assessment.”
Assessors are looking for 13 characteristics. Among them:
visioning capacity, ability to relate to the lost, spousal approval, resilience
Gray tracks “effectiveness” of church planters “to make sure
we’re not just leading a conference … we don’t want to teach material, we want
to teach people.” Effectiveness measures such tangibles as evangelistic visits,
baptisms, attendance and giving.
Gray is most interested in helping to start churches that
reach lost and unchurched people, not in creating new destinations for
disgruntled members of other churches.
Through October 2010 church plants in the current funding
cycle — which includes about 120 churches in a number that fluctuates each
month as new starts begin and others mature out of the cycle — have recorded
2,400 professions of faith and are averaging almost 8,000 in attendance.
Evangelistic contacts are up 29,000 over last year, to more
than 90,000 “because we’ve been emphasizing that,” Gray said. “What we resource
is guys who are passionate about reaching the lost and unchurched.”
In 2010 Gray projects 140 new churches will be added to the
Convention, including 18 affiliates, which were started outside the
Convention’s network, but chose to affiliate with the Convention.
While a study of 10 denominations detailed in the book Viral
Churches says 68 percent of new churches are still around after four years, the
North Carolina “success rate” over four years is 82 percent, Gray said. It is
91 percent after two years, and “we’re pleased about that.”
With 234 heart languages spoken in the state a diversity of
new plants is required to meet the spiritual needs of those people groups.
Sixty-four of the new churches North Carolina Baptists started this year were
Hispanic, multi-ethnic or Asian, Gray said.
He is also pleased that church planting by Protestant
churches in the United States is up to 4,000 per year, surpassing by 500 the
number of churches that close.
Still, to reach the need, Gray says Christians must focus on
multiplication, not just church addition. “We are looking for someone who will
plant a church that will plant churches that will plant churches,” he said.
Gray calls himself a blue collar guy, a significant identity
when you learn that a church planter relates most effectively to “the people
with whom you related at age 13.” He started a church in a country club area of
Greensboro, but it was hard work because connecting with that population did
not come naturally.
Donor churches grow
Addressing one of the fears that established churches have
over sending out families to be the core group for a new church, Gray said that
on average, a “mother” church’s attendance grows 22 percent over five years
after starting a new church.
The sponsoring church is energized by the vision recast by
its efforts to plant another.
Gray is a 1978 graduate of Mars Hill College. He graduated
in 1984 from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary after attending Asbury
Seminary in Kentucky for two years.
He is restarting his DMin process at Southeastern this year.
His wife Esther teaches at the Newcomers School in
Greensboro where refugees and immigrants first attend to become oriented to the
U.S. and to learn English. She teaches high school math and says, “I’m a
missionary and the world has come to me.”
They have two children and five acres on which Gray gardens. He fishes
“a little” on the family farm of his in-laws near Thomasville.