In my first six months at The Church at Haynes Creek in Oxford, Georgia, three things have kept me from identifying myself as a church planter. First, we’re not your average church plant. Haynes Creek is actually a campus of First Baptist in nearby Covington, just about 35 minutes from downtown Atlanta. As our sending church, even though FBC gives us a measure of freedom in our weekly preaching and ministry and culture, we are still one church in two locations. Dr. Cody McNutt at the downtown campus is my senior pastor. Secondly, I’m not the original planter at Haynes Creek. After almost two years, Josh Cornett and his family obeyed God’s call to serve in Colombia as missionaries for the IMB. Thirdly, I’ve always been told that successful church planters needed an “entrepreneurial spirit.” As someone who was once fired from his job as a refrigerator salesman and has never owned a business, I’ve never self-identified as an entrepreneur. Nevertheless, Haynes Creek is a church plant entering its 3rd year. And as the campus pastor, I’m its planter. So you might say I’m a campus planter? Josh planted, I watered, but God gave the growth. (1 Cor. 3:6) Fortunately for me, titles aren’t worth as much in a church plant, so I simply go by “Pastor” or “Obbie” or “hey you.” And that’s precisely the first lesson I learned as a church planter: while there are resources and wise folks to help you along the way, there is no set formula for church planting. There’s flexibility. You’ve got to have faith in Christ to lead His church, insecurities and challenges and uncertainties and all.
With each passing month, church planting increasingly feels like farming. One of the most helpful words to me as a church planter has been the word “grow.” What does it mean for a church to truly “grow” and how can I as a pastor ensure that our church is growing together? When my twins start to outgrow their diapers, that’s a problem. But there’s a difference between outgrowing diapers and say, Roman pelting Ruby with his toy. One is a conflict. The other is a challenge. My first six months as church planter have been a slow and steady education in identifying the difference between the two. Last Sunday our humble church plant dedicated nine babies. Nine. We’re a fertile church. But that’s not a problem. That’s a challenge that arises in the life of a growing church. Purchasing thousands of dollars in new children’s equipment or establishing deacons or creating a website or ordering an AT&T business line for our “sanctuary” aren’t necessarily problems so much as challenges. In these instances, I’m not “putting out fires.” We’re running a race. We’re building a foundation. For the psyche of a church planter, that’s important. The agricultural language in the Bible has often been a great comfort to me. It reminds me to slow things down sometimes. It tells me to be patient and not to succumb to others’ definition of “growth.” In the words of John Piper, “The farmer must wait for the harvest. But no one works harder than the farmer.” Waiting and working. That’s church planting.
After six months, I’ve already succumbed many times to the fleshly idea that bigger, better-staffed churches don’t have the problems we do and that someday I’ll get over an imaginary hump where I can look back at these problems in my pastoral rearview. Satan sometimes preys on the church planter with the simplest, most prosaic of dreams. If only we had a youth pastor. If only we had buildings instead of “modulars.” If only we had one more small group. In these moments of weakness, Paul’s words to the Philippian church echo in my heart: “for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” (Phil. 4:11) He learned. It took time. It took some suffering. Some disappointment. And with time, every church planter who has committed his labors to the Lord will learn to be content in the Lord’s timing and progression. Live. Love. Learn. If one of my biggest temptations was my lack of contentment, one of my biggest fulfillments was diving into pastoral ministry and simply getting to know my people personally. That alone has become my biggest joy as a church planter: loving my people well with the Gospel. On my busiest of days, this must be the driving force in my ministry. Otherwise I’ve forfeited something essential.
So often a pastor can spend so much time focusing on what his church needs that he can forget what God has actually given the church. At Haynes Creek, one of our strongest features is our incredible leadership and our diversity. We have judges, pharmacists, teachers, nurses, factory workers, and engineers. We have black and white, young and old believers. All willing to serve. If I blink, I’ll miss the miracle of having black men shepherd a mostly white church. I could skip over the widows earnestly pouring into the lives of our newlyweds and new mothers. I might miss the particular blessing that the two men who preach in my absence will always rightly divide the Word of truth. (2 Tim. 2:15) I could neglect those miracles in my busyness. Church planters have to stop and intentionally take joy in these things. If not, I’ve traded piety for pragmatism.
While I sometimes get caught in the subtle numbers game of ministry, I’ve discovered the best way to combat this worldly approach is to simply connect with my flock on a deeper level. To continue getting to know them. They’re more than numbers or roles to be filled. They’re also my my brothers and sisters, my sharpeners, and my friends. The young man on Friday mornings has become more than my “disciple”; he’s now one of my best friends. The four men on Thursday mornings at Chick Fil A guard me from insecurity and fear – even when it hurts. My “shepherd leaders” protect me from the arrogance of thinking that our church’s “growth” rests solely on my shoulders. As a church planter, I have to lead and lead personally. But I also have to be willing to be molded and to let others lead. This is one of my biggest prayers for the next six months.
When I first started at Haynes Creek, the task ahead of me seemed so daunting that I filled my days more with meetings and events and less with prayer. That’s not how a church plant “grows.” At least not in a way that honors God. I see that now. And the more I prayed, the more I saw how my marriage and my family were so pivotal to my entire ministry. How could they not be? Therefore, now, when I pray for my church, I pray for my family as well. This is perhaps my biggest goal for the next six months: more consistent prayer. In some sense, I can’t take our church to places I haven’t been.
After six months, God continually reminds me that it’s not the size of the church or its budget that guarantees its joy in the Gospel. Expository preaching, weekly discipleship, steady fellowship around the Scriptures, daily prayer, consistent evangelism and service to our community, and a vibrant leadership are sufficient for the glorious work of Christ in His church. Whatever “church planting” or “campus planting” entails, it must be at least these things. After six months of pastoral ministry in Oxford, Georgia, my love for God’s people has only increased. And despite all the things I still don’t know, I do know that’s a very good thing. May the Lord give me joy to serve His church. And may the next six months of planting be filled with “growth” in the most beautiful, Christ-exalting way.