Chuck Register came to North Carolina to plant his life in soil that grows new churches.
Register, who taught evangelism at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and led the First Baptist Church of Gulfport, Miss., during and after Hurricane Katrina, has been the Baptist State Convention’s (BSC) executive leader for church planting and missions development since Jan. 1.
He is charged with building the fourth of the seven pillars in North Carolina Baptist Executive Director-Treasurer Milton Hollifield’s long-range plan for leading the Convention.
Church planting is North Carolina Baptists’ primary growth strategy because new churches win more people, especially more people with no previous church background.
“The principle of being able to spend the rest of my ministry on totally reaching lost people is what attracted me to North Carolina,” Register said during an interview in his office in the BSC staff building in Cary.
He was joined by church planting team leader Mark Gray.
Reaching “people groups” identified by language, geography and ethnic demographics has long been the language of international missions.
But Register said many people groups exist within North Carolina’s borders and he intends to identify them, and create a strategy to reach them.
“Church planting is a key strategy for us because it is a biblical priority,” said Hollifield.
“When we read the book of Acts it is clear that the Apostle Paul established local churches in every region and those churches, in turn, helped plant other churches.”
Register believes North Carolina Baptists will respond when they “understand the vastness of lostness in our state.”
He said there is a “healthy environment for church planting” because the pastors he’s met “want to reach lost people” and “they understand how important church planting is to that.”
Church planting team
North Carolina Baptists have five church planting consultants — Gray, and four in the field: Frank White, Amaury Santos, Ralph Garay and Pam Mungo, who was recognized as 2005 national church planting consultant of the year by the North American Mission Board.
Five others are under contract to work with specific people groups: Vijay Kumar Allampalli, Asian-Indian; Florentino Yanez, Hispanic; Phiet Nguyen, Vietnamese; Lonnie Hall, African-American; and Bud Wrenn, Anglo.
This group led the starting of 108 new churches in 2008, and each of the fulltime consultants works with 40 or 50 people at a time who are in some stage of investigating, planning or working with a church start.
There currently are 175 churches in the funding cycle. New work is “counted” as a church start when the association where the church is located includes it in the annual associational report.
The “new church” definition is “a biblical community that seeks to fulfill the Great Commission.”
“We’re battling against the idea that you have to have a facility, or be a certain size before you are counted as a church,” Register said. “We go to the New Testament and see that a biblical community is living according to scripture, preaching the word, seeking the Father.”
“We used to focus on planting new churches,” said Gray. “Now we’re focused on planting new churches that plant new churches.”
This “multiplication churches” strategy greatly increases the likelihood that church planting will become a “movement” in North Carolina, resulting in new churches springing up almost virally. Geographic associations of Baptist churches will be important partners in the strategy.
“Our desire is to partner with associations,” Gray said, “to work hard with associations to where they’re open to a church planter.”
Historically, churches within associations could prod associational leadership to veto BSC funding for a new church within the association.
“That model is shifting,” Gray said, as the Convention begins to work also with other networks, some that are not geographically based, such as Acts 29 and the Church Planting Network, made up of aggressive church planting BSC pastors.
“The younger generation of Christ followers really has passion for church planting,” Register said. “They will form networks on their own.”
“There is a great openness to contemplate the possibility in partnering with church plants now,” Gray said. “Education precedes support and we’ve worked diligently to educate pastors and directors of missions in the state about different people groups. There was some sense in the past of ownership of a geographical area. But we’re helping people understand that in an area there might be 15 people groups” unreached by current churches.
Ethnic church plants
BSC ethnic church planting consultants Santos and Garay are “exceptional,” Register said. Santos was instrumental in starting 26 churches in 2008.
With 180 identifiable language groups in North Carolina, ethnic starts are “vitally important” to reaching the state, Register said.
Last year the BSC started 27 Anglo churches, 27 Hispanic churches and 17 Asian churches.
Language churches face a host of unique difficulties. One group from a former communist area was meeting regularly together but was reluctant to become a church, Gray said, because members did not want to attract attention.
“We have to be sensitive to their cultural issues,” he said.
Newcomers are more open to the gospel before they become westernized and more self sufficient, Register said.
“Self sufficiency is anathema to the gospel,” he said. “A self-sufficient person is less willing to bow the knee to the lordship of Christ.”
As churches mature in awareness, more ethnic churches are taking responsibility to plant churches in their people groups, rather than leaving that to Anglo churches, Gray said.
The Convention is focusing resources on church planting and “brings a lot to the table” Register said.
According to Hollifield, “The entire Baptist State Convention staff realizes that church planting is not only the task of the church planting consultants, but that each member of our staff has a contribution to make towards church planting efforts.” Each program area resources new churches for growth and development.
BSC staff also is vitally interested in the spiritual health of existing churches, which are the “key to forming and sustaining a church planting culture,” he said.
“We are finding that more North Carolina Baptist associations and their churches are catching a fresh vision of the necessity to start new churches to reach more lost people and more of them are open to helping plant new churches as they see their participation in this process as a critical component to the advance of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ,” Hollifield said.
Anyone interested in Convention assistance in church planting goes through an assessment process. Those who pass are invited to a week-long basic training that builds a foundation. Planters receive coaching and certain funds.
The BSC will give a maximum $14,400 annually toward support initially, if the church planter raises matching funds of twice that amount. Some church planting enthusiasts criticize the BSC contribution as far too small.
Gray said, however, “Studies show that church planters involved in raising their own funds are more effective than those who are fully funded.” Fully funding a new church start “creates dependency,” he said.
“As a church planter you have to be able to sell your vision to individuals,” Register said.
Church planter Ken Tilley calls that the WOO factor, “win others over” that is an essential ingredient in church planting success.
His plant in Mebane was funded by BSC and by $80,000 annually for two years by his sponsoring church, Ebenezer Baptist. Early funding of more significant amounts enables a church to start with multiple staff members.
About half of church planters each year work another job. The BSC is currently funding 59 fulltime and 44 part-time planters. Church planters that do not request funds from the BSC still receive all the training and coaching the BSC offers.
Finding fertile soil
One strategy to open eyes to people groups in an area and the potential need for more churches is what Gray calls Operation Reach. Consultants will spend a day with a pastor, a staff member and a lay leader to reconnoiter their area. After a morning of learning, they will travel in a van and identify people groups that would not be likely to attend their church.
Those rides illustrate the need for new churches to reach those people. “That creates buy-in,” Gray said. “It’s not the state convention or director of missions that is saying, “You need a new church here, it’s themselves.”
Gray really pushes “cluster partners” for a new church plant. That would include the planter, a primary sponsoring church, several other sponsoring churches or an association to pledge support in money, resources or special events and the Convention.
The BSC process has been phenomenally successful, with a 96 percent success rate of new plants operating two years after their launch, according to Gray.
Part of that success is attributable to the assessment of potential church planters before they are ever brought on board, and then the basic training of those who are embraced.
During a weeklong basic training, planters are not told what their new church should look like.
“We help them identify the vision God has given them and develop a strategy to carry it out,” Gray said, recognizing that each new church is unique. Like medical doctors, Convention staff tries to inject each new church with a church planting gene in their DNA.
Register is “convinced God’s heart and passion is to reach and congregationalize this state.”
“We have to decide if we are going to be obedient to that heart, to that calling,” he said. “When God speaks, when He gives us a vision, are we going to be obedient to that?”
With about 4,100 churches now and about 100 new churches being sown each year, how many churches will it take to win North Carolina to Christ?
“More than we have now,” Register said. “We’re committed to planting churches until this entire state is won to the Lord.”
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