Developing Leaders in a Church Plant
When I was 14, I received Christ. I had recently had a close brush with death as a kid in the van with me on a Boy Scout outing had died when he was thrown from the vehicle and the van rolled over on top of him. I think he was 12 when I watched him die.
I was dragged to church and during an altar call, I looked up and said, “God, if you are real, show me.” There was no dramatic or sensational miraculous sign but God began to reveal Himself to me and within a couple of months I answered “yes” to the call to follow Christ.
I was struggling in this new life when a teacher at Columbus High School asked, “How many of you are Christians?” I had mocked and ridiculed believers before and suddenly I knew I was at a crossroad. The scripture that rumbled through me was “If you deny me before men, I will deny you before my Father in heaven.” I raised my hand.
No ridicule came. Instead as I looked around me and saw the hands raised, I was shocked at who claimed Christ. I don’t think any of us were very good Christians. I cannot express how that simple question changed my life. But I became determined to live the life of Christ.
When I was 16, my dad was pressuring me to choose a direction for my life. I prayed and sought the Lord and felt He had called me to the terminally ill. I decided to seek to become a kind of medical missionary working in hospice programs. When I announced it in the church, my life changed again.
A guy named Bill Higgins, a year younger than me and Keith Dickerson, a guy a year older from another church came up to me afterwards and invited me to join them. Keith’s youth pastor was looking for a way to reach the teens in the High Schools with the love of Christ.
Looking back, Norris Gibson probably didn’t know what he was doing. He was groping in the dark, trying to find a way to fulfill the Great Commission. But he unknowingly created a second youth group made up of zealous young men from churches and denominations from all across the city and caught lightning in a bottle. We called ourselves “Christians Who Care.”
No one ever paid him to reach this group of teens. We never joined his church. But my faith and knowledge of the Word of God dramatically increased. We argued scripture and debated doctrines. We prayed all night at a cabin in the woods and the pages in one of my Bibles are still crinkly from the dew settling on it in the wee hours of the morning. We played basketball and devoured everything edible in the Gibson home. Norris taught some basic principles but didn’t attempt anything systematic. Instead, the Holy Spirit taught and we learned from one another. But Norris knew CWC was something special. He made a point of making it for guys only because the lightning didn’t flash when the girls were there (an attempt to duplicate it for the girls failed.)
CWC never did become a big outreach program to our area schools; instead it cultivated zealous young men. It was short-lived. Norris was fired as youth pastor (the youth group became larger than the congregation and the pastor felt threatened.) He went to another church in town. That didn’t last either. Then he opened a Christian book store which failed and eventually started a work in Manchester Georgia. He died at age 51 and I don’t think he ever re-captured the lightning in the bottle that he had with CWC, but the work he did with us has endured.
CWC grew as a student led organization. I remember coming back from college and being amazed to see 60 guys showing up for a student led Bible study. The six young men that began the group are active in ministry to this day (way better percentages than a Bible school.)
Bill and I started another group called the Christian Student Union that evangelized our high school. Our group bought comic book tracts and left them everywhere. We had both teachers and students come to Christ and quite a few ministers came out of our high school from that period.
My church had no youth pastor so I began preaching to the youth when I was seventeen. The text of my first sermon was Titus 1:16.
So when my son entered high school I was pretty determined that he be in a good youth group so that he could grow in God. I moved my midweek service to Thursday and used Wednesday to take my son to visit youth groups in the area. We made it to precisely one and he found where he wanted to be. Since then, my son has also said “Yes” to a life of ministry. I’ve tried to do the same for the other young people in my church but it hasn’t worked so far.
So, when I was studying the story of Peter and the Temple Tax (see Matthew 17:24-27) for a Thursday night Bible study, I became fascinated by a reference in my favorite commentary that the story of the Temple tax implied that most of the disciples were teenagers because only Jesus and Peter were old enough (20 years old or more) to pay the tax (see Exodus 30:14-15 and take a look at this blog and this follow up blog).
My first thought was “Of course!” My experience in these groups had demonstrated to me the power of a group of zealous teenage men. It makes sense to me that if you are going to invest your life in a few men, they should be young enough that your investment will produce a great return.
It also made much more sense to me for teenagers to leave their nets to follow Jesus. A man with a family to support no longer has that freedom. It also gives an obvious explanation for the three calls of Peter. There is a reason Jesus warned them of the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches and the desire for other things. The joy of youth is unhindered by the cares and concerns of those with responsibilities, but they would soon bear those burdens. Having chosen to live my life for Christ at an early age makes remaining focused on building the Kingdom much easier.
It also explained to me why James, the brother of Jesus, became the leader of the Church instead of Peter, James the son of Zebedee or John after the Day of Pentecost (see my comments in the discussion section following the blog post here.)
For a church plant to become self-sustaining, it needs deacons and elders. Once it has deacons and elders, the church planter can move on to plant another church. The church will continue even without a facility or any other permanent structures. To continue to exist indefinitely, the church really only needs to successfully evangelize her own children and train her own youth without significant losses (essentially the Amish model).
For a church plant to be successful you either need to raise up deacons and elders or start off with a group that is capable of filling these roles.
Paul went to the synagogues first where ever he journeyed because these first believers were already trained and raised up in the Word of God. This is how he managed to found the church at Thessalonica in only three weeks.
Many new churches begin as church splits and so have Sunday school teachers and people who are capable of consistent ministry and service or begin in areas that are rapidly growing and so they gain these people from transplants from other areas.
A church plant (or revitalization) apart from this is much more difficult but Jesus gives us the example to follow when He began with youth. He focused His time and energy on them and three and a half years later, the Church was alive and self-sustaining with rock solid leadership.
I do not know how to imitate Him and find a group of young men to disciple. We live in a post-Christian era and from what I’ve seen of our teenagers, their ignorance of God is profound. My latest attempt has left me feeling worn out and overwhelmed by the need. Yet I need to find a way.
Dr. Lester Sumrall said something to this effect “God is going to tell you to do something. You are going to try and fail. Don’t quit. Don’t give up. Find another way. The next attempt may fail too. It doesn’t matter. Find another way. You have to do what God has told you to do. Don’t quit. Don’t give up. Never, ever, ever give up. Just find another way.”
There is no reward in easy; but to those who persist in their pursuit of God and His will, there is always great reward.