Jeff Iorg Blog
Ralph Kerns died a few days ago. His passing won’t make news outside his local community. His life, however, was significant for a special reason. Ralph was the kind of person you could build a church around.
Ralph was the search committee chairman and deacon chairman of my first pastorate. He was, when I became his pastor, already retired from a career with the railroads. He was a working man, a blue-collar guy who understood manual labor. He applied that ethic to his church membership. If something needed to be done – from yard work to visiting the sick to sharing the gospel door-to-door – Ralph would pitch in to get it done.
Ralph was a founding member of two Baptist churches. He helped plant churches before it was cool! He was the kind of man who thought sacrifice, starting small, and building something was the normal way church work was done. When I became his pastor, we spent the first few weeks visiting the members – rattling around in his three-colored car (don’t ask!) just getting acquainted. Ralph paved the way for me to know the people, drawing on his credibility when I had very little. It was a privilege to be his pastor - to serve him, serve with him, and learn from him.
Ralph was also a character. He was the only man I ever met who had two hairs growing out the front of his nose. I think he kept them just because he could! He also owned a lot of junk – although he called it something else. His wife once called his collection “a lot of junk” and he, feigning shock, replied, “That’s not junk. It’s merchandise.” Once when I needed two wheels for an old Toyota, Ralph led me out through the weeds and picked out just what I was looking for. So, I guess it really was “merchandise.”
We seem to be losing appreciation for people like Ralph – greasy-fingernail guys who love the Lord, love their church, and faithfully serve both. Working class churches lack the pizzazz of church plants and the cache of the suburbs. Our denomination was built on these type churches and this type of man. We will rue the day we left them both behind.
Thanks Ralph for your investment in my life and for helping me appreciate the influence of men who help pastors build strong churches.
Unsung heroes of church planting
Jun 04 2012
My friend Mark Mackey passed away a few days ago. Mark was a layman who helped build churches. You could count on him to lead the worship, teach a class, give wise counsel in a leadership meeting, pray consistently, and give generously. Along with his wife, Jo Anne, he was a significant leader in the church we planted years ago in Oregon. His death, along with some recent questions by a church planter, has reminded me about the unsung heroes of church planting.
We put a lot of emphasis on church planters, as we should, because the leader of a new church is vital to its success. We should, however, put more emphasis on lay men and women who invest themselves in building new churches. When we look back on our church planting success, one of the most important factors in our success was some mature couples – even a few senior adult couples – who joined our church early on and helped stabilize our efforts.
Sometimes, young church planters are so focused on reaching young adults like them, they forget the power of intergenerational relationships. When a middle age or older adult commits to following a younger church planting pastor, it communicates volumes to guests of all ages investigating the new church. Their presence and commitment to following a younger leader communicates trust, underscores competence, and validates the credibility of the younger leader.
Lay men and women who commit to church planting are the unsung heroes of the effort. Their presence – including their talents and gifts – can be a major factor in whether a new church is successful or not. Many years ago, an experienced leader from Texas came to the Northwest. After a few years, he told me, “Jeff, the pastors in the Northwest are as competent and committed as pastors in Texas. What you are missing is the strength of lay people who understand how to build a church.” He further observed, “Churches in Texas are full of lay men and women who graduated from Baptist colleges, got good jobs, joined churches, and now use their leadership and financial gifts to make a huge difference.” He was right. Our shortage of church-building lay men and women was a major limiting factor in accomplishing our vision.
May God increase the number of people in the West who are committed to church planting and church health – lay men and women who see their vocation as a means to an end! More and more men like Mark Mackey are needed if we are going to plant new churches. And, the same kind of men and women are needed, in droves, to lead existing churches.
At Golden Gate, we train leaders. But without someone to lead, and to share the leadership burden, the effectiveness of the people we graduate will be limited. Thank God for the unsung heroes of church planting and church health! Thank God for men like Mark Mackey.
Church Planting Challenges - Part 2
Apr 02 2012
Last week, I wrote about the reasons why church plants fail. This was in response to a question during an interview at a retreat for about 200 church planters and their wives. My answer was based on my experience starting a church and also on my nearly ten years of leading a regional convention. Church planting couples are my heroes! It was a privilege to speak at their retreat. While the interview question focused on the negative of failed church plants, perhaps my answers can help us avoid some of these common mistakes.
The first reason church plants fail is the couple, particularly the wife, is not adequately prepared for what can be the overwhelming challenges of starting a new church from scratch. This is not a “passion” problem. It is a “preparedness” problem. Take a look at last week’s column for more on that important subject.
The second reason church plants don’t make it is failure by the planter to successfully acculturate in their setting. Domestic church planters often underestimate the cultural adjustments they must make to become effective communicators in a new setting. While international missionaries work hard on cultural adjustments, national missionaries wrongly assume Americans are about the same everywhere. Wrong!
One church planter insisted on flying his favorite football team’s flag, rather than adopt the local team as his own. This may seem shallow – but it shouted to his neighbors, “I’m from the South where we play real football (and are a little better than all of you).” Another planter complained people weren’t friendly because they responded negatively to unannounced door-to-door visitation. He failed to understand “folksy hospitality” wasn’t a cultural value or practice in his new locale.
Another complained about how people dressed for church, not acknowledging the casual way people dressed for all activities (and expecting to do the same at a church meeting in a public school).
While these might seem like trivial examples, they symbolize the larger problem of failing to learn the cultural language of the people the church plant is trying to engage. Effective church planters learn to dress like their new friends, enjoy the activities their new community values, and get in sync with the scheduling rhythms and other idiosyncrasies of their area. Resistance on these issues contributes to church planting failures.
The third reason church plants don’t make it is failure to stay resolutely focused on reaching lost people with the gospel. Conversion growth is hard, slow, and often frustrating. Yet, it is the lifeblood of a truly new church – not just a recycled church collecting disgruntled or disaffected Christians.
The pattern leading to this mistake unfolds this way. The planter tries to evangelize. The results are slow. The planter redoubles his efforts. The result remains slow. The planter starts spending more and more time reaching out to available Christians. The church grows a little. Assimilating these Christians becomes the primary focus with the planter convinced they will become effective partners (despite their contradictory track record from past churches). Soon, the new church is a stagnant pool of collected Christians with little focus on reaching new people. The planter must now focus on keeping them happy, not reaching new people with the gospel.
The solution, and it is difficult, is to keep the focus in the early years of every church plant on conversion growth. If a few Christians join the church along the way, that’s good – as long as they adjust to and accept the church’s focus on reaching the lost and don’t reshape the agenda to meet their needs. Effective church planters use every means possible to reach lost people and build their new church on that foundation.
Church Planting Challenges Part 1
Mar 26 2012
It was my privilege to participate in a recent retreat for church planters – some of my heroes. Although my church planting days are a distant memory, the experience is and remains the defining work of my ministerial experience. After planting the church, I then served as executive director of a regional convention. One of my roles was facilitating new churches being started. Part of the retreat included an interview in front of about 200 planters and their wives. Many of the questions were insightful, but one was particularly important in light of our denomination’s renewed focus on church planting.
The question was, “Over the years, what have been the primary reasons church plants or church planters have failed?” There are three primary reasons – all observed over and over in the years I served in the Pacific Northwest.
First, the wives of church planters were ill-equipped for the challenges of church planting and unable to cope with the stressors they encountered. As a result, church planting couples eventually had to choose marital health over missional effectiveness and return to more suitable ministerial settings. This is not a critique of these women! They were almost always passionate Christians with sacrificial attitudes who thought they were prepared for the challenges they would face. But, sadly, they underestimated the isolation, loneliness, financial challenges, and cultural adjustments entailed in church planting. In most cases, their husbands had no idea the true cost a wife was paying and how to support her through the process.
At the end of my presentation, a woman came forward and validated everything I had said. She was a ministry veteran, with a proven track record of past success and a loving husband with similar proven experience. But the move across four states, far from family, to a strange setting, where people were “different,” had caused, in her words, “the longest and worst year of my life.” She was unprepared and overwhelmed. We talked about some strategies they could implement to overcome the challenges. Hopefully, in her case, it isn’t too late.
Let me emphasize again, the problem is not in the passion, commitment, zeal, or willingness to sacrifice among these women. The problem is lack of adequate preparation for the challenges they face. Our denomination is improving its capacity to solve this problem. Events like the aforementioned retreat are evidence of this. Better assessment of church planters and their wives, both to select and de-select planters, is being done. This prevents some people from making the mistake of trying to plant a church when they are unsuited for the job. Books and other materials on the challenges of church planting, from the wife’s perspective, are being produced. In some associations, mentoring networks make sure no one is left to “go it alone” when they start a new church.
All this, and more, is needed to provide the support needed for these spiritual storm troopers – aka, church planting couples. Let’s do all we can to make sure this reason for failed church plants is eliminated.
What about the other two reasons? Next week!