Queue’s and Limbs in Church Planting and Renewal

Today we welcome Dr. Mark Coppenger as a guest writer on Baptist21. Dr. Coppenger is Professor of Christian Apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and managing editor of the online Kairos Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at @mcoppenger.

When I sensed God’s call to pastoral ministry, some thought it odd that I would go to seminary for the M.Div. after years of Christian college teaching, doctorate in hand. But I needed every bit of what Southwestern had; and, indeed, it was like drinking out of a firehose. But there was more to learn in the pastorate, and I’d like to mention two principles that occurred to me – what I call the “queue” and “limb.”

My first church was an antebellum, county-seat, First Baptist in Arkansas, with some great people, programs, and facilities. But they’d suffered something of an “ensmallment campaign” over the last two decades under the leadership of a gifted but theologically “moderate” pastor.

Thanks to seminary, I was able to bring book-by-book expository preaching to bear, and thanks to our state and national denomination, I was able to draw on some great “off the rack” programs in discipleship, evangelism, and missions.  Early on, I’d ruffled some congregants’ feathers with my treatment of divorce and remarriage, the conflict arising during January Bible Study, when I came to chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians and took an Erasmian, two-exception, approach. (My predecessor had a pretty-much-wide-open policy.) So a fair number were leery of my leadership, but I pressed on and was helped by these phenomena:

1. The Queue. I introduced Continuing Witness Training (with home visits to prospects, we “armed” with a 15-minute, 21-verse account of the gospel), figuring there would be at least some enthusiasm for this program, even though they’d not done such a thing in recent memory, and, indeed, may well have heard it disparaged. But after a month of promotion, none signed up. But the Monday after the Sunday deadline, an anointed layman, who’d been speaking in a church the previous day, came by the office to ask if it was too late to sign up. I assured him I could find him a slot, and he soon had another volunteer. Despite the initial letdown, we were off and running with our humble two.

We saw some fruit and told the story, and when time came for a new round of witness, we had new people to train. And so the program grew exponentially, with dozens finally on board. It occurred to me there was something of an invisible queue, a line wherein those at the front were eager to join you, and those in the back couldn’t care or dare. But the line inches up, slowly, slowly, and given time, the most unlikely people appear at the head of the line to say, “Count me in.” And the same thing happened with revival committee service, public testimony and prayer, and tithing.

2. The Limb. It’s important to stretch your people. I think particularly of our volunteer mission trips to the interior of Brazil. The whole thing sounded exotic and edifying, and we had some takers early on. We publicized their participation and then began to train them, where they learned of the need for a 150-word conversion testimony for translation into Portuguese; a battery of shots, from yellow fever to dengue, plus mefloquine pills for malaria ; minimalist packing (in a 10 pound bag) to accommodate the small airplane in which we’d land on a dirt strip; the enlistment of prayer partners; health protocols, including brushing your teeth with bottled water; and public before hundreds of people through a translator. Gulp!

Some were excited to take this on. Others may have been terrified, but too embarrassed to back out. Whatever the case, off we went, and they performed beautifully. And though the point was preaching, house-to-house witness, church construction, and medical care, we also saw great gains in discipleship. As one of our trainers put it, “Get your people overseas on a mission trip, and they’ll discover they’re eagles instead of turkeys. And when they get home, it’ll be hard to keep them out of the air.”

I won’t call it “bait-and-switch,” but there was an element of surprise in some over what they’d gotten into. I’d taken them out on a limb, and they grew spiritually as they scrambled to minister there, beyond what they’d might have dared had they known what faced them. And, yes, the dozens who joined in were grateful, for they had moved from “O, Laude” to “Cum Laude.”

Please understand, I’m not talking here about pressing upon the people a new form of church governance, staff and budget adjustments, or purchase of a church yacht for pilgrimages to the Holy Land (as good as some of them might be). I’m talking about enlisting volunteers for heart-of-the-gospel work – missions and evangelism. And, by God’s grace, the response, over time, was very gratifying (a result we found, as well, as church planters in Chicagoland).