Ken Tilley had a “great situation in every imaginable way” and loved being associate pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Hillsborough.
Then God told him to start a new church.
About four years earlier, Ebenezer pastor Earl Echols Jr. had challenged the church to plant another. No one had come forward until Tilley realized he was supposed to lead the effort.
Today an obedient Tilley leads CrossLink, a three-year-old church meeting at Gravelly Middle School in Mebane. Baptist State Convention (BSC) church planting leadership points to Tilley, CrossLink and the nurture of Ebenezer as a church planting model.
In May 2005 Tilley told the Ebenezer congregation of his new church vision. Eventually 42 persons, including children, joined hands to create CrossLink Community Church, where the goal is to win people to faith in Jesus and to link them to God, people and service.
Although three “preview” services were held earlier, the church started meeting regularly in April 2006 with 173 people at its first service. Today more than 400 worship regularly, a number that swelled to 618 on Easter.
The middle school offers space for a café and coffee shop on Sunday mornings. Church members are active with the school, helping to landscape it using equipment they volunteered, and by proctoring students.
CrossLink “believes in linking people to the cross through authentic relationships,” Tilley said during an interview in one of four office spaces the church rents in a renovated sock mill in Mebane. In one of the spaces, the staff works out physically together every day, helping them stay fit for ministry.
Because Tilley believes all ministry is about relationships, he nurtures them, bringing study materials to hang out daily at the local McDonald’s and other places, and he works hard to memorize names.
While Mebane on paper is a “very religious place,” Tilley said many residents there “have religion but no relationship with Jesus.”
Trying to break through cultural religion is “in some ways harder than reaching a hard core person who knows he’s lost,” Tilley said.
Reaching those people is what new churches do best and is why it is so important to plant them, even if it seems there is a church on every corner and a new work encroaches on an existing church’s “territory.”
Tilley’s own reception by established churches in Mebane was “not very good,” he said.
He received only one response to his letter offering to meet with and buy lunch for each of the approximately 100 pastors in the area to share his vision and heart for a new work.
Tilley believes in change. “We’re always going to preach God’s word because that’s all we have, but we do believe the methodology at times must change,” he said.
Tilley, 39, understands that statistically a pastor attracts persons who basically are 10 years either side of his age. CrossLink skews toward the younger side.
Typical members are college grads who dropped out of church until about age 30 when they realized they need a church community for their spiritual development and in which to raise children.
The style is contemporary, with a full band. Volunteers meet early before the two services to set up preschool and children’s ministries areas, the café, InfoLink, and the band.
The church is actively looking for property to expand its vision and ideally would like 50 acres on which to build what could become a Mebane area missions hub, with a skate park, recreation fields and a coffee shop.
CrossLink makes liberal use of yard signs pointing to “life groups” in Mebane, Graham, Hillsboro and Durham.
“It gives the impression that CrossLink is everywhere,” Tilley said.
Part of the goal is to get people to the www.lifeatthelink.org web site which is attractive enough to draw the curious.
Ebenezer provided $80,000 annually for two years, and made available other resources like a van. The BSC provided church planting funds of $14,400 the first year on a declining scale for two more years.
After three years the church budget is $430,000 and growing.
The church gives $45,000 to missions, including $21,500 budgeted for Cooperative Program.
Church planting is in the church’s own DNA and Tilley is talking with Echols about another church start in two years.
He also is active with the Church Planting Network, an informal group of BSC pastors who are committed to planting new works.
“We want to get to point where we are just spinning off new churches every couple of years,” Tilley said. “I don’t have any desire for CrossLink to become a mega mega mega church. In some ways that becomes more about an individual. I’m not that kind of leader.”
Tilley earned an engineering degree from UNC-Charlotte and a master of divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1996.
He has been married to Stephanie for 17 years and they have three girls, Madison, 10, Laikyn, 7, and Emerson, 3.
While he is a “do it yesterday” person, “she is my balance,” he said. “She is like a crock pot. It’s got to cook a little while but once she gets on board, she’s full throttle.”
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