It's Colombia, Not Columbia . . . Got That?

A man boarding the Copa Airlines flight to Bogotá wore a t-shirt that corrected a common spelling confusion of a nation in South America: It’s Colombia, not Columbia. All right, I get that. Now what?

I was flying alone to Bogotá to spend 10 days with people I didn’t know and who speak a language I don’t know. Mine was a flight of faith . . . an assurance of things hoped for and a conviction of things not seen. I’d been seeking, and failing, to find an independent, like-minded international church planter. I figured a man I met briefly at a conference two months previous could be the church planter I’d been seeking. So I coordinated plans to go to Bogotá to get a first-hand experience of the man and the church.

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Javier Beltran and his young family started Iglesia Anónima out of nearly nothing a year ago. The church began with a few people in addition to Javier’s wife, Zoad, and their children Sofie and Samuel. My late-night arrival at the Beltran family’s 10th floor apartment in crowded Bogota was awkward at first. I was alone and completely dependent on strangers in a land completely strange to me. But, in the midst of my silent prayers I repeated, This Javier knows Jesus. That will make all the difference. And it did. The visit was a joy. Sofie Beltran served as primary translator for us. Javier and his family quickly became akin to my family. 

As the days went by and I experienced the Beltran family and the people of the church . . . I saw that they worked tirelessly, shared generously and lived the gospel. On a Saturday, we fought through Bogota’s constantly horrible traffic to get to an inner-city park. There the people of Anónima brought to migrant Venezuelans church-made sandwiches as well as beverages, clothing and the gospel of Christ delivered straight from the Scriptures.

The next morning, tireless and energized, Javier, Zoad, Sofie and Samuel and several others arrived early at a local school to set up Iglesia Anónima for worship and after-service fellowship. Several mid-week discipleship groups and other ministry activities also require the entire church’s care. 

Iglesia Anónima is not yet strong enough to fully support Javier and his family, so early Monday morning, Javier took off on a tiny scooter to get to a part-time job at an advertising firm. He also teaches courses on creativity at a local college. In May 2020, Javier expects to graduate with a master’s degree from The Master’s Seminary in California. As part of the church’s partnership, FiveStone Churches is providing financial support to Iglesia Anonima.

So what brought an Anglo man, speaking only English, to Bogotá, Colombia? Javier said rightly: It has been God’s providence that has united us. I hope that God and His word will be the center of our brotherhood. We will work together so that the kingdom of Christ increases.

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The Worthy Work of Church Planting

I enjoyed a fine weekend with the people of one of our FiveStone church plants: Vanguard Bible Church in Bakersfield, Calif. Pastor Cary Nack and the core are nurturing a God-honoring congregation that has a clear and compelling vision for making and baptizing disciples of Jesus. They are boldly biblical and are working from a clearly-stated philosophy of ministry. What a joy to invest in that work. If you're interested in the weekend's Sunday sermon, here's the link:

Encountering the Lord in Kingston

Our new church plant in Kingston, Ontario, has a clear core purpose: encounter God. So, when people who want to encounter God get together, they could rightly be called Encounter Church. I like it.

I first met planting pastor Andrew DeBartolo about eight months ago. I asked him why he wanted to plant a church and what would be the purpose of the new church. We want to encounter God, he said. We want to stir our affections for Him. We want to focus on God’s goodness to us. Well said.

Andrew and I have spent several months investigating the possibilities for the church plant and preparing the ground to receive the church planting seed. Andrew and his wife, Kathryn, have gathered a core group of committed followers of Jesus Christ, and Andrew has framed a clear vision of what it would mean for the people of Kingston to encounter the Lord at Encounter Church.

That vision is expressed in the church’s four core values: 

• Holding fast to the Gospel of Christ – 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 – In every part of our lives and in every part of our church, our desire is that the Gospel is at the centre of everything we do.

• Making disciples of Christ – Matthew 28:18-20 – We are committed to teaching people what it means to follow Jesus and obey the things He has commanded us to do. 

• Passionate in worship – Psalm 100:1-5 – In our corporate gatherings, we are intentional in encouraging and teaching our people to worship God with joy, sincerity, and in truth.

• Pursuing authentic relationships – Hebrews 10:24-25 – Through fellowship, mentorship, and accountability, we will sharpen one another in intimate relationships.

The church’s core values are extensions of what the Lord has made me passionate about, DeBartolo said. I love the idea of starting a church from the ground up. Kingston has a tremendous need for the gospel. 

He said that, in this city of about 125,000 in eastern Ontario, about 100,000 are not involved in a church. I love to study and teach the Scriptures. The Lord uses His word to draw people to Himself. People who come to Encounter Church will hear God’s word and see it applied in all of our ministries. I’m hoping that people who don’t know Christ will hear the gospel and respond to it. I’m hoping that those who already know Christ will grow to become more like Jesus Christ.

That’s a fine Kingston vision. There’s a lot of ground work to do in the next several months. We’re looking for the church to emerge next spring with its first public worship service.

For more about Encounter Church, see the News article on our website.

Bakersfield Burning for Matthew 16:18

It was 109 degrees in Bakersfield, Calif., this week. It was hot like an oven is hot. It burned with smoldering intensity. It reminded me of the weeks and days before a church plant emerges for the first time. The pioneers in a church plant ought to burn with intense excitement as they prepare for that first public worship service. That excitement is what Cary and Maija Nack, their four children, and quite a few other pioneers are building as they prepare Vanguard Bible Church to emerge in Bakersfield.

The word vanguard is defined as troops moving at the head of an army or the forefront of an action or movement. The imagery of soldiers and action are biblical and excellent for church planting.

Vanguard Bible Church will be a partner in the FiveStone Churches network. We expect Vanguard to go public in spring 2015.

I've known planting pastor Cary Nack for about nine years, and I’ve appreciated both his character and his gifting. He meets the qualifications of an elder as described in Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and does the work of an elder described in 1 Timothy 4:6-16. He’s also a fine preacher and leader and administrator.

We worked extensively together in planting what developed into a flourishing church in Illinois. That Illinois plant started with about eight of us gathering for a get-acquainted dinner. This California plant started with telephone discussions and planning meetings before I made the trip to Bakersfield to meet the planting core group and get to know the city of Bakersfield. (The city of 360,000 is 110 miles north of Los Angeles and 280 miles south of San Francisco. Bakersfield is growing fast; its population was 185,000 in 1990.)

While I was in town, Cary and the team hosted a most excellent meet-and-greet Coffee with the Pastor that included the core group and about 45 others who wanted to hear more about the vision and values of Vanguard Bible Church.

Here are a several of those values:

Preaching: bold exposition with application;

Worship: contemporary, passionate, contemplative;

Discipleship: intentional; built around Word, Worship, Walk, Work, Witness;

Gospel-centered Missions: service plus evangelism;

Excellence: honors God, removes distractions, attracts people;

Holiness without legalism.

A new, life-giving work in Bakersfield will please our Lord. I’m totally fired up about the Lord using Vanguard Bible Church and FiveStone Churches to take more California ground for His kingdom. It’s Matthew 16:18 all over again.

Read more about Cary, his family and the vision for Bakersfield in this news article on the FiveStone Churches website.  

Character Before Gifting in Austin, Texas

I’d rather work with a man of A-grade character and B-grade gifting than a man of B-grade character and A-grade gifting. That’s not to diminish the value of gifts. I’d just rather work with a man who drives not only to achieve through his gifting, but drives to personal excellence as he goes about the work of achieving. Of course, this means measuring personal excellence according to the Lord’s economy, not man’s economy.

So, while the temptation seems overwhelming to evaluate the local church with the typical ABCs of success measured by Attendance, Building and Cash, the Lord uses those ABCs as secondary measures of success, not primary measures. If I understand the Scriptures correctly and Revelation 2 and 3 specifically, the Lord at His core is deeply concerned about who we are as we work for Him. That’s the genesis of the FiveStone Churches core value of Character before Gifting. Gifting is good and important, but character is better and crucial. It’s gold to the follower of Christ.

With all of that in mind, FiveStone Churches is moving toward planting a church in Austin, Texas. Aaron Reyes, a man who by every indication has A-grade character and A-grade gifting, will be the church plant pastor. Austin, home to the University of Texas and the state’s capital, is a fast-growing metropolitan area of about 850,000 people. We’re expecting to plant east of Interstate 35, where there are few dynamic, life-giving churches. Austin’s east side also has a large mix of all kinds of people. I expect our work there to flourish.

Aaron gets the importance of Character before Gifting. That’s one of the things I like best about him. Aaron’s heritage is Latino and Caucasian, and he was born and raised just north of Austin. Aaron played football at the U.S. Air Force Academy until he figured out that the Lord wanted him in vocational pastoral ministry. He then transferred to Wheaton College in Illinois, where he finished a business degree and played football. He went on for a master’s degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., while he served as the lead shepherd of a church’s young adults ministry. That’s where he and I connected.

I spent time getting to know Aaron while discerning his character, commitments, convictions and gifting. We agreed last fall to covenant together to plant a church in Austin. Aaron’s been serving as a FiveStone Churches resident at one of our partner churches, Christian Fellowship Church in Itasca, Ill., where he’s been mentored by Pastor Lucas O’Neill in shepherding and preaching. I’ve also been working with Aaron to build and prepare the plant seed to germinate and emerge this fall. Aaron has been spending time in Austin, recruiting like-minded pioneers to serve as prayer partners and point people to prepare for the first worship service.

Aaron and his wife, Michelle, expect to move to Austin early in June. Michelle, who is of Indian descent, is completing a doctorate in German literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

To read more about Aaron and the vision for Austin, click here.      

Saplings into Mighty Oaks, Mighty Maples

I planted a tree in my yard that looks something like this drawing of a sapling.

It reminds me of the public presentation of a new church. It shoots out strong and looks pretty good, like it's been around for awhile. It's already sprouted some green leaves, but they're not yet fully extended. The sapling looks good, but it also seems fragile. A bad storm might knock it down. An ugly bug attack could kill it from the inside. But there it stands, in the ground, supported, protected and nurtured by the caretaker. It's started to grow strong and tall.

It might grow slowly, like an oak, or quickly, like a maple. Doesn't matter. Either way, it's still doing what's it's supposed to do in the ground in which it's planted and in accordance with the way the Lord has designed it. I really like that.

Church planting is risky work. The plant is vulnerable to any number of attacks. As somebody said: What if your church plant fails?

Here's a good answer: What better thing is there to fail at? We need to be like King David when he wanted to build the temple. The Lord didn't let him build it, but He commended David for his heart for the Lord's glory. (1 Kings 8:18).

High risk is the nature of things that are worthwhile and make a difference in the Lord's kingdom. We won't despise the day of small things (Zechariah 4:10), and we won't be swayed by discouragement, fear, frustrations or opposition (Ezra 4:4-6).

Miracle Grow in a Seed Church

Planting a church that pops up strong ordinarily takes some time . . . maybe as long as nine months from seed stage to the day it goes public. It usually takes time to build the seed of a solid core group and get everybody ready for ministry. Why? Because the work needs to draw gifted servants and develop strong roots of relationships, leadership, service, doctrine and organization. Those roots help hold the plant in place when hard days come.

On launch day, of course you want people who visit the new church to connect with the Lord. You also want them to say, Wow, these people really know what they’re doing. This looks like a church that’s about two or three years old. That means all things are in order and done well, from the location to signage to genuine friendliness to worship to preaching to child care. Yes, better emphasize child care. It doesn’t matter how good everything else is, if parents worry that their babies and older children aren’t cared for properly, they won’t be coming back.

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I figure there’s several reasons for that. It’s true that a planting pastor who parachutes in to a new location has a tough row to hoe. Much also depends on the ground where you're throwing the seed. If there's a few healthy churches in the area, it's probably going to be tougher to grow the church. Perhaps there's maybe one Bible-preaching church in the area where we're planting. Perhaps the people of the area also already know the planting pastor, which makes things easier. But that’s far from enough. The Lord puts together a core of praying people who are gifted, mature and passionate about Christ and his church. They also know how to make connections between vision and action. And whatever they don’t know, they’re teachable to learn what’s needed and then act upon it. That’s miracle grow stuff for the seed of the church.

See What is Not Yet

Starting a new church—or strengthening any church—includes leaning into the obvious. I don’t mean quietly accepting the obvious. I mean Lean into it. OK, so you don’t have a building, a strong student ministry or high quality video and sound. Talk about it directly. It’s obvious to everyone. Challenge people to see something else. Challenge them to see what will be.

Church leaders absolutely must see the future and share it with passion. If they fail to compel people to see a strong future, then the church already is toast. Why? Because the church rises and falls on the quality of its leadership. A core leadership quality is getting people to see what is not yet. (Of course, after people see what you see, then you must deliver the vision to reality.)

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A few objections and answers:

Objection: You don’t have a building of your own. I need a church that already has a building.

Answer: Right, we don’t have a building of our own. Maybe someday we’ll have a building and it’ll be used to honor the Lord. You can help us get there. And then you’ll look back and say, ‘I helped the church. Those were amazing days.’

Objection: You don’t have much of a ministry to students. I need a church that already has that.

Answer: You’re right. Someday we’ll have a really strong ministry for students. But we’ll help you disciple your sons and daughters. For now, you and your family get the privilege of working to plant a church that honors the Lord. And then you’ll look back and say, ‘I helped the church. Those were amazing days.’

Objection: You don’t have very good video during your services and the sound quality really isn’t great. I need a church that already has that.

Answer: Right, we don’t have very good video. And audiophiles are disappointed. But we expect to get there. And you can help us. And then you’ll look back and say, ‘I helped the church. Those were amazing days.’

Maybe you really want to say, Shut up! Quit being such a baby. Stop whining and being so selfish. Give something instead of only taking. (Nah, don’t say that.)

So, planters and pastors building a stronger church need to lead eyes away from what is not yet and help people see what will be. Church planters need spiritual pioneers, the brave souls who get it.

At the same time, there always are people who throw doubts on the work. Maybe this is good answer for them: If you can’t see what we’re trying to build, then don’t help us. But you’ll miss the blessing that comes with throwing yourself into building the Lord’s church. If you do join us, you’ll look back and say, ‘I helped the church. Those were amazing days.’

Cast Compelling Vision

There are many reasons—some good reasons—why people won’t get involved in a church plant or, for that matter, an existing church. Any number of reasons will keep people away in the days before a public launch of a new church. Maybe the core group doesn’t have enough people with young children. Or maybe the group has too many people older than 40. Or maybe the plant doesn’t yet have a someone to lead a children’s ministry. Whatever.

In the face of many objections, we know two things for sure:

1. The Lord loves His church and wants it to flourish by making, baptizing and teaching disciples of Jesus Christ;

2. Compelling vision for a life-giving church knocks down self-centered objections.

Whatever the reason for not joining a church plant, it’s really bad if people won’t join because the church planting pastor fails to cast compelling vision. That’s inexcusable.

So, the question is: Why do we need another church around here? The planting pastor must have a compelling reason for a new church. If he has a compelling reason, then objections will fall and there will be people eager to join the work. People need to get a grip on the vision for something better than what they have. Whether they’re spending their evenings and Sundays watching TV or drinking beer or even attending church, compelling vision for the Lord’s church casts out shallow living.

There are churches everywhere. Some do good work. But some others are dead placeholders. They’re often led by the comfortable who seek the uninspired to give money to the ineffective. Jesus demands something different and something more. His church rises and falls on the quality of her leadership.

I was sitting with a senior pastor who was stuck in a dormant church filled with people who had no heart or understanding of the purpose of the church. Tears welled in his eyes as we agreed, There must be more than this.

Church leaders must lead to different and more. Whatever the pastor’s failures in casting compelling vision for the church, he finally saw the picture. He needed either to resign as pastor or cast compelling vision that shakes the church’s cage. That would stir some people to try to kick him out. Even so, in the midst of that rejection, there will be others who will want him to stay and lead them to fulfill the church’s mission.

Those who stay are the people who can renew a church or plant a new church that becomes a life-giving work. It starts with a leader who casts compelling vision for the Lord's glory. That vision fuels others for the work of ministry in the local church. And that is simply supernatural.

Give Me No Pudgy Christians, Give Me Pioneers

When it comes to church planting, I’ll always take one pioneer over 20 pudgy Christians. Pioneers are the drivers of church planting. (Yes, of course I know that the Lord powers the work, but He works through pioneers to plant churches.)

Church planters must have spiritual pioneers. If a few spiritual pioneers join the work, then the plant has a good dose of the right stuff for a healthy and strong church.

A pioneer is different from an ordinary person. A pioneer doesn’t demand commonly expected conveniences and comforts. He knows the road will be bumpy and dirty. There won’t be air conditioning or hot showers. No refrigerators and no microwave ovens. Pioneers build their own shelters and hunt their own food. They expect hardship.

Pioneers aren’t pioneers because they love hardship, but because they have vision for something better than what they left behind. They look to the reward. They endure hardship because they can see the picture of the future they’re building. They want a hand in building that future. They’re excited to do the heavy lifting.

It’s the same with spiritual pioneers.

The very best Christians are excited about church planting. They may not actually be the ones go out to plant a church, but they understand that church is not about their comfort. It’s not about cushy chairs and eye-popping videos. It’s not about giggly passion for a rock star preacher or infatuation with Broadway-quality stage production. Church is about hard-edged, dusty and bumpy disciple-making for the fame of the Lord.

There’s nothing better in this world than throwing yourself into the work of a life-giving church. That church is defined by making, baptizing and teaching disciples of Jesus Christ. Spiritual pioneers get that. And they infect others with the vision. That’s why church planters—from the get-go of their work—need to look for spiritual pioneers.

Brooks Atkinson, who was a movie critic and journalist, had a comment on what made America great: This nation was built by men who took risks—pioneers who were not afraid of the wilderness, business men who were not afraid of failure, scientists who were not afraid of the truth, thinkers who were not afraid of progress, dreamers who were not afraid of action.

In church planting, that quote might look like this: The church is built by men and women who take risks. They're pioneers. They're preachers with no fear of rejection, fanatics with no fear of failure, seekers unafraid of the truth, leaders driven by spiritual progress, visionaries brave enough to act.

What the Lord could do with a holy handful of spiritual pioneers. Acts 4:29-31. The Lord honors the proclamation of His Word. He wants pioneers to deliver it and live it.