Neal Eller no longer has time, patience or interest in helping churches pursue life on the plateau.
As leader of the church health team for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, Eller’s personal growth from Christian to “Christ follower” in the past five years ignites in him an urgent frustration that “we have been measuring the wrong things.”
Instead of trying to measure and grow an indefinable “spiritual maturity” Eller says now he works with pastors to evaluate effectiveness by measuring “life change.”
“What behaviors are they demonstrating?” he asks. “What’s the theology they demonstrate?”
He focuses now not on building successful church programs but on making disciples.
“How do we develop leaders? How do we develop pastors as leaders, leaders within churches, next generation leaders?” he asks. “What does a healthy pastor really look like and how do we build a fence at the top of the cliff instead of doing triage at the bottom of the cliff after they’ve fallen?”
Eller is known best in North Carolina for his 13 years in the BSC’s church music department, including eight as team leader, before shifting to church health in a reorganized Congregational Services group.
He is a “junior,” son of a Baptist minister who led churches across the state. Frequent moves as a child gave Eller the inherent ability to make friends quickly, and provided him many connections he’s found especially useful once he came to Convention staff.
Eller, who has become a voracious reader in the past five years, said churches look “too much like the world” and insists “We’ve lost our younger generation because we’ve failed to disciple them. We’ve not developed leaders.”
He encourages pastors to “pour themselves into a few leaders, just like Christ did with his disciples, with the intention of having them multiply.”
Eller benefitted from adults in his life who invested in young people.
He named high school teacher and coach Jack Musten who created opportunities and pushed young people to assume leadership.
When Eller’s father was pastor of Union Grove Baptist Church near Winston-Salem, the minster of music at First Baptist Church, Fred Kelly, created a county-wide youth choir of over 300 students called the Good News Singers.
Later the group was pared to 75 and became the unofficial ambassador group for Winston-Salem, singing at numerous civic events. Kelly is now at First Baptist Church, Goldsboro.
“It was because of Fred Kelly that I began to see maybe God is calling me into this area of ministry,” Eller said.
Eller says some churches are “self-centered and narcissistic” with “no sense of the kingdom.”
“We’re not taught to be yeast into this world, so we can be like the kingdom of heaven,” he says. “We’re not taught how to be missionaries in work and in our environment and how to disciple our families.”
The result of “biblical illiteracy” is that “a lot of our own church people may not believe that Jesus lived a sinless life, there’s a literal hell, the Bible is the inspired word of God without error, there’s a personal Satan. If they don’t believe the essentials of our faith as an evangelical, it is no wonder we look so much like the world,” Eller says.
He maintains people are hungry for declarative confirmation of biblical truth and that they are ready for leaders willing to “stand in the gap and be courageous.”
“What we find is that many churches are so stuck and have so much ungodly behavior in them that they’re not willing to be like Christ,” he says.
“It would mean a change, a transformation, and that’s what saddens me.”
Eller comes by his conviction honestly. His life was as he describes so many churches – programmed and shallow.
Then, not through any one dramatic moment, but through a series of events and interactions, “It was as if the scales on my eyes fell off and I could see how self-centered I was. I could see there was sin in my life, that I did not have the joy. Since that time, it is as if I’m alive for the first time. I have found joy I’ve never experienced in my life.”
Although he lived all over, Eller considers himself to be from Kernersville because that is where he attended high school and where he lived as a student commuting to UNC-Greensboro, where he earned a music education degree in 1976.
He is a 1978 master’s graduate in church music from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
While at UNC-G Eller directed music part-time at Bethany Baptist in Winston-Salem, a church that later called his father as pastor.
He also served at First Baptist Church Hazlewood, First Baptist Jacksonville and Winter Park in Wilmington from where he came to the Convention Jan. 1, 1991.
He acknowledges that God has burdened his heart with compassion “for our plateaued and declining congregations” and he prays daily “that the burden gets heavier.”
Eller leads one of three teams in Congregational Services. Members of the entire group, led by Lynn Sasser, intend to lead North Carolina Baptist churches in creating a disciple making culture.
“We’re about life transformation,” Eller says.
Sasser said Eller “provides excellent leadership” for his team and that he “leads out of his passion for making disciples within the context of healthy churches.”
Team members “work off the same page” so any church that calls for consultation will receive consistent input.
Eller says the teams are utilizing technology to expand their reach, establishing a pastors’ disciple making network; adding a monthly ezine called Next Steps, centered on the pastor as disciple maker.
A monthly teleconference connects pastors with leaders from across the nation, including Dallas Willard, Christian philosopher at the University of Southern California and author of Renovation of the Heart and The Divine Conspiracy in June and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Danny Akin in May.
The group sponsors conferences such as Simple Church, Essential Church and Comeback Church.
Personally, Eller, 55, actively pursues relationships so he can share Christ and his goal “is to be Christ to someone today.”
“A disciple of Christ will share the gospel, period,” Eller says. “We’re commanded to do it but we do it because of our love relationship with Christ. We want everyone to have that joy.”
He develops relationships through regular patronage of several Starbucks, and he hates lukewarm coffee.
He and his wife, Cherri, are getting into kayaking and are part of a church plant in Cary sponsored by Apex Baptist Church called The Creek Church. It launched in September 2008 and “there is nothing like” being a part of a new work, he says.
Special series — Body parts
Did you know you have a large church staff? Your gifts through the
Cooperative Program support a staff resource at the Baptist State
Convention of North Carolina that exists to serve your church.
With this issue, the Biblical Recorder begins a series — Body Parts —
featuring one of your Convention staff members, and a church which has
grown through that staff member’s ministry. Body Parts is inspired by 1
Cor. 12:12 — “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts;
and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with
Christ” (NIV). The parts of the Baptist State Convention exist to serve
This week: Neal Eller of the church health team in the Congregational Services group and North Catawba Baptist Church in Lenoir.
Coming up: Johnny Ross, consultant with GuideStone Financial Resources.
Visit Body Parts, a Biblical Recorder special series.