Friday, July 08, 2005

Growing a Church the Old Fashioned Way

While in the Midwest for the weekend of the 4th, I took a side trip to Rockford, IL, to interview Bob Bixby for the website of the God Focused Youth Ministry Training Conference. Bob is a speaker at the conference, and we'll soon be updating the website with some fresh content, including speaker interviews.

Since we scheduled the interview for Sunday afternoon, I had the opportunity to visit the church Bob pastors, Morning Star Baptist, that morning. Rockford is a funny town. Look at a map of how the town was designed and you'll see that the growth has been massively lopsided over the years to the eastern side, which isn't too surprising since Chicago is about an hour to the east. I noticed this lopsidedness as I drove by hundreds if not thousands of acres of corn fields on my way to the township hall far to the west side of town where the church meets. Since it's a township hall, they don't have their own signage. No PR campaign either, unless you count Bob preaching on a couple area radio stations, but the sermons he preaches are more likely to incite complaints from pluralists than to attract crowds. Contemporary music? Far from it. The only musical instrument in the building was an organ. Need I say more? Oh, and the final growth killer: church discipline. Bob didn't wear it as a feather in his cap, but the fact that Morning Star practices it came up almost by accident in our conversation.

So MSBC is way out on the wrong side of town, with no signs, no ads, no CCM, and painful church discipline, and I didn't even mention the expository preaching. But the congregation has more than tripled in size in the past couple years, and the Sunday evening and Wednesday evening attendance numbers are about 90% and 75% of Sunday morning, respectively. Rick Warren, eat your heart out. (His church with 82,000 "members" only managed to get 30,000 to attend on the one Sunday they rented Angels stadium so they could try to get the whole church in the same place at the same time.)

During my drive back to my parents' home that afternoon, I wondered what it is that contributes to the numerical growth (many are new believers) as well as the spirit of community and discipleship that was so plain in the 3 hours I was at MSBC. I could take guesses, but my limited exposure probably leaves me unqualified to think too much out loud. Regardless, it's refreshing to see evidence that the "40 days" way isn't the only way. It makes a Paleoevangelical's heart warm.

Yesterday I read Jim Eliff's article, "Southern Baptists, an Unregenerate Denomination," and noticed some striking similarities between Bob Bixby and MSBC and the kind of churches and pastors Eliff thinks we ought to be noticing. (HT: Tim Challies)
We might reverse some of our proclivity to continue as normal if we introduced our preachers more accurately in our evangelism meetings and convention settings. Try using this introduction: "Here is Brother ______, pastor of a church of 10,000 members, 6400 of whom do not bother to come on a given Sunday morning, and 8600 of whom do not come on Sunday evening. He is here to tell us about how to have a healthy, evangelistic church."

It might be better to ask a man to speak who shepherds 100 members, all of whom attend with regularity and all of whom show signs of regeneration—a man who, in the last year, has baptized 5 people who stick—rather than a pastor of 10,000 members, 7000 of whom do not come—a man who has baptized 1000 in the past year, 700 of whom cannot be found. The smaller, but more consistent numbers of the first pastor reveal a far more effective ministry and thus a far better example for other churches.


joy mccarnan | said...

Wow, Ben. Those trap sets must be warping you. That, or sitting in the extreme-most back row: that is an electric piano, brother -- not an organ! (It can make organ sounds, but only if we really ask it to. Pretty please, with sugar on top.) Thanks for the "outsider's" report.

Josh said...

Did Bob mention the importance of prayer in the authentic growth and health of the church? Seeking God in prayer seems to be a lost discipline - in some places its become a perfunctory routine at the beginning of Sunday School class, the deacon meeting, or even the worship service. Ben: (Ben who? I keep asking myself - maybe my dorm sup in college?) what, in your opinion, is the greatest thing that can be said of a church?

Ben said...

My bad, Joy. I thought I distinctly remembered an organ sound. Or maybe it was just for one hymn.


Bob talked about prayer a lot over lunch. He would explain this better than I, but he's led the church to a Wednesday prayer meeting that is much more like Paul's prayers in Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians, not the typical health-travel-salvation prayer meeting. It's a thoughtful approach. I'd love to see him blog about it.

Ben said...

Forgot the second part. Whether I was your dorm sup or not would depend on what college, what dorm, and when you lived there. Maranatha-Judson-(1997-2000)=yes.

I think the greatest thing that can be said of a church is that it is sanctified by Christ, cleansed by the washing of the Word, and ready to be presented to Him in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish. (Eph. 5:26–27)

Josh said...

I was right, Wright. I was Maranatha-Judson-1998-2002. Saw you at Alumni weekend last year. Check out my blog: I've only been at it for a week. I've been reading Pyromaniac & Justin Taylor for a month.
The reason I asked about Bixby was that I know he's been exposed to the ministry of Bible Prayer Fellowship (Dallas, TX & Danville, IL) and the book written by its former director, Oliver Price, called The Power of Praying Together. I do some work for BPF on the side.

Ben said...

JN, I presume? Great to hear from you. How far are you from Kankakee? GW, your former roommate, is moving there soon.

Email me at paleoevangelical [at] gmail [dot] com sometime. Would be great to hear what you're up to—work and school.

Thanks for the heads up on the George Will article on George Allen.

Anonymous said...

Ben, I was out of town the weekend of your visit so I did not have the privilege of meeting you. As the newly appointed Assistant Pastor of MSBC, I am deeply interested in your observations concerning the numeric and spiritual growth of our church family. That being said, I have a few words for you – Scram! Go away! Stop writing about us! Do not tell anyone else what you observed here in the cornfields outside of Rockford. There are two reasons I want the attention to cease and desist. First, someone might ask us to explain what is going on. Should that happen, we would be exposed. As you observed – we’re doing nothing right. At least according to the experts in church growth. Some might even ask us, “Tell us what works for you. We want to copy it.” There’s the rub. There are not many church leaders who want to practice Pastor Bixby’s mantra, “The Word works.” That’s it. We’ve decided to be Word centered – nothing more. But if you run around the blog-country telling everyone that we’re not doing anything right, well, how does that make us look? Exactly! Stop it! The second reason you must immediately stop drawing attention to MSBC is directly related to the first – fear of pride. No,…let me rephrase that. It’s the certainty of pride. It has been by observation, as I’ve watched the seasons of growth come and go for us, that when I sense a spirit of pride in the leadership – a self-congratulatory, self-dependant, “look what we’ve done” spirit, that the Lord is kind enough to pull back on the reins of revival and reformation of life. When we start to feel lousy about our efforts, when we start to think we have no business leading a church, when we humbly confess our dependence on a Sovereign faith-giving and faith-growing God, when I sense a spirit of humility in the leadership – He loosens the reins and things start up again. God’s people are stirred up. Visitors somehow manage to find us. Unbelievers tune in to the radio message. Cold and dull-hearted believers drag themselves through the doors looking for a drink of fresh revival water. So, in light of our tendency to think more of ourselves than we ought in seasons of growth – please go away and never breathe another word of this to anyone. I do not want to run the risk of being reminded that, “Pride goeth before a fall.” I hope I have made myself clear. Go away! Do not mention MSBC to another soul. If you must – only if you must, please say that God is doing Great things here and leave it at that. Anything else will only get us in trouble. Mark Garard.

MarkG said...

About the above comments being annonymous - that was not intentonal. I just goofed up.

Anonymous said...

I guess this is what happens when your church is built on the cream of the crop from several church splits. Now that's a church growth method for you!

Ben said...


Maybe this will make you feel better. I deliberately did not draw conclusions about how the growth and health is taking place because I didn't think one service made me in any way qualified to judge. Maybe the anti-Warren strategy is the wave of the future and you've all stumbled onto it. Maybe the "Word centered" strategy is just a ruse—a man-centered ploy to appeal to a certain demographic. You're the new cutting-edge. The reaction to the emergents. Maybe MSBC is populated with "post-emergents."


But hey, at least you're the cream of the crop of the post-emergents. Oops, there goes the pride-inducement again.

joy mccarnan | said...

In my hallmarkedly verbose style (apologies in advance!)

For the truth's sake, and for the sake of Christ's testimony through our church, I'd like to offer clarifications and encouragement for whomever wrote, "I guess this is what happens when your church is built on the cream of the crop from several church splits. Now that's a church growth method for you!" and/or a clarification for some who might get the wrong idea from what [he/she] said.

I'm admittedly biased! =} But, in my opinion, we do indeed have some downright "cream-of-the-crop" people in our church! Given how loving and unified and earnest and generous and sensationally cool they are, it's perhaps ironic that what I enjoy most about the community of believers here is their brokenness and openness. They acknowledge openly that they are riddled with shortcomings and sinfulness and that they need God. I have found such authenticity and humility and submission to the Word in very few congregations.

Some blessings our people have found here, by God's grace...

>> a pastor submitted to the Word of Christ and dedicated to the Godward discipleship of his own and their souls

>> encouragement toward indiscriminate evangelization and Christlike salt and light in the Rock River Valley area

>> the treasuring of God-honoring exegesis of Scripture, God's work throughout church history, the motivating and enabling doctrines of grace, the urgency of authentic holiness in the inner man, unity minus uniformity, separation unto the Gospel (rather than sectarianism), and the mutual edification and sin-prevention that comes with fellowship.

* clarification 1 *
As you can see from testimony on this thread, from our website statements, or from personal visits to the church, the emphasis at Morning Star is that "the Word works." We rejoice in God's redemptive work in carving us out as a group, in carving us up as individuals. We rejoice in our mixed congregation -- from varied backgrounds, some old, some young, some longtime believers, some new converts, etc. Having been a member for three years, I think this is a church comprised of super, well-beloved, enthusiastic, thinking, theocentric people -- and I know it's comprised of people who also happen to be normal, flawed, and desperately grace-dependent. This church, though full of brilliant and brilliantly-different people, is not / could not be "built on" itself, not by any means. "The Word works!"

* clarification 2 *
Again, as evident in this thread, and as would be evident in our literature or personal visits, our church's consistent emphasis has been the promotion of God's agenda over our own. Our choices have been painstakingly submitted to the direction and provision of God for more than three years. It is true some have come from church splits (but "several" -?- No. I recall two at most). We rejoice that He rebuilds and uses us in spite of ourselves. A mentality that lauds church splits as a successful church-planting "method" reflects a deep and unfortunately derisive misunderstanding of what God did/is doing in this work. Morning Star strives together for the sake of Christ, not at His (nor His Church's) expense.

I'm humbled and grateful to have been able to be a part of Morning Star these three-years-so-far. I praise the Lord for what He's been teaching me and pray He will continue in graciousness to grow-us-up into Christ's image, both here in Rockford and in His Church at large.

And again, sorry so long. Can't seem to help it. =}