By / Apr 4

A powerful movement is gaining momentum in America, sparking light in the darkness for those suffering from the diseases of addiction, depression or perhaps, just plain loneliness or general sadness.  

It’s not a new or fancy concept, but church planting has received an updated model. The days of mega-church aspiration have gone. The new agenda for church leaders in many denominations is smaller, localized and targeted, and attuned to the immediate and tangible needs of their communities.

It’s why you see even small, relatively new churches slashing their staff, volunteers, budget and attendees in half to open up a church plant down the road, as did Waterline Church in Fishers, Ind., (where I attend.) It isn’t easy to sacrifice growth gained in a small church, but ensuring someone a few miles down the road feels they have easy access to a church near them that speaks to the needs in their life and community is essential.

It requires churches to give up the numbers that look like “success” on an annual report in order to gain a tally of souls revived from the depths of despair and hopefully, add their names to the Book of Life.

The process can’t necessarily be done by attempting to revive dying churches that already exist. As these older, more traditional parishes close at record rates—100 per week on average—church plants sprouting up across the country are the new life necessary to reach the desperate. Just like a new child revitalizes everyone around them, so it is with churches.

If something is alive, it thrives, grows, and multiplies. It gives life to entities it comes into contact with—and revitalizes the spaces where it resides. This is what the many church plants across the country are doing for communities that have lost all hope.

In West Virginia, for example, where the addiction crisis has hit very powerfully, less than half of residents say they attend church regularly. It’s similar in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where people will say religion is “important” to them, but rarely show up to a service. They are hungry for something that doesn’t yet exist for them.

What good is a nearly dead church 20 minutes away from a person who feels the leadership or the message isn’t connected to or affiliated with their life? Newness brings interest, opportunity, and change. And it doesn’t require a standard church building or model. The old tack doesn’t apply and the new approach is changing lives everyday.

Some are taking this on by implementing “house churches,” small groups of people coming together in the privacy of a home for weekly worship and Bible study – no strings attached.

The Village Church, a mega-church in Dallas, recently transitioned from multi-site campuses to transforming each campus into its own individual church body to better meet the needs of members.

In Indianapolis, Craig and Tiffany Thurmon of the Encounter Assembly, a church plant that meets in their home, ran a bi-monthly “Wing and a Prayer” gathering in a very specific area of the city where homicides are commonplace and liquor stores are found on every corner.  A few miles down the road, former pastor Bern Lytle regularly stands guard at “Free Prayer” table at the local YMCA, offering conversation, prayer, and chance for hope before someone heads back to their car after a basketball game, their child’s swimming lesson, or an aerobics class. There are so many ways to plant a church, simply “where two or three are gathered,” and meet people where they are right now.

The tens of thousands of Americans currently suffering from addiction, depression and suicidal thoughts are in desperate need of a life-giving source. When at least 40 percent of new church plant attendees are previously “unchurched” or haven’t been to church in 10 years, it’s obvious there is a thirst for more.

When it comes to those suffering from the addiction crisis in particular, there’s a contingent of people looking for more than Alcoholics Anonymous or a similar 12-step programs. While AA has certainly been a literal lifesaver for thousands of people, the ability to drop the anonymity and forge an authentic relationship with Jesus is the testimony of freedom that will make a significant difference in the lives of those around them.

And while pastors and church leaders have their place, it’s the testimonies of our peers that often make the biggest impact. Those personal stories of redemption—from the mom who nearly lost her life in childbirth to the man who overcame horrific childhood trauma to find a grace-filled faith—are the ones that are shared in small spaces. They are the stories of hope where God’s personal and redemptive power cannot be denied. Church plants are often the places where people feel safe sharing their stories. This movement is going to change the country in all the very best ways.

By / Mar 12

What does it take to reach the nations with the gospel?

Ashley Unzicker discovered that a sincere commitment to ethnic diversity and a little bit of everyday evangelism can go a long way.

On a warm day last year, a few dozen children from around the world played on the lawn of a Durham, N.C., apartment complex, tossing water balloons at one another and giggling with each splash. Their parents watched in amusement. More kids hurried out to join the excitement.

Many of those families came to the United States from nations torn by war, persecution or famine. They represent only a small fraction of more than 150,000 refugees in North Carolina's Triangle region from Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries.

Unzicker saw the swelling crowd of migrants as an opportunity.

"Oh my gosh," she thought, "we could share the gospel right now."

Unzicker called the group together and began to tell them about the Good News from a chapter in The Jesus Storybook Bible.

Unzicker's aha moment—the sudden realization she could tell her foreign-born friends about Jesus on an average summer afternoon—was a turning point for her and the birth of a multiplying ministry.

What had begun as an attempt to increase the ethnic diversity of her friend group, eventually became a weekly outreach ministry to migrants called "The Yard." It has grown to include more than 60 regular volunteers and even spun off a similar initiative at another apartment complex.

Ethnic diversity fuels missional outreach

Four years earlier, Unzicker had come away from a conference session on ethnic diversity with a clear conviction.

"Do all of your friends look like you?" the speaker, Trillia Newbell, had asked. "If so, you need to change something."

Do all of your friends look like you? If so, you need to change something.

Over dinner that night, the answer became obvious to Unzicker. All of her friends were white women in the same stage of life.

"I knew something had to change," she said.

Her commitment to diversity was sharpened into a missional strategy the following year when she travelled to New York City's "Little Pakistan" with a church group. The neighborhood is known for its Muslim immigrant and refugee population.

The group's evangelistic method was simple, and Unzicker began to see how it could fit into everyday life.

"I'm just going to parks here and meeting refugees," she thought. "Why can't I do this at home?"

She contacted a local refugee aid agency when she returned to North Carolina.

"I have three kids," Unzicker told the aid workers. "I'm not able to do much, but I would love to be a friend to a migrant family."

They connected her with a family of Afghan refugees. She spent more than a year getting to know the mother of the family, but they eventually moved to another part of the U.S.

Unzicker was saddened to see her friend relocate, but eager to continue reaching out to migrants.

Another friend introduced her to a woman who regularly visited Syrian refugees living in an apartment complex in Durham.

Unzicker asked if she and her kids could tag along. She wanted to learn more about Middle Eastern culture and make some new friends.

Communicating with Arabic speakers was difficult, but the presence of her children was a surprising benefit.

"My kids became friends with their kids," she said, "and their kids starting learning English."

The weekly playdates went so well that Unzicker wanted to have a larger get-together with several families from the apartment complex. That is when she decided to prepare more than 500 water balloons for an afternoon of fun.

Simple, reproducible ministry

The impromptu gospel-centered storytime that day was a hit, so Unzicker decided to make it a regular feature of their visits. She also began to recruit volunteers for help with games and lessons. Leaders at The Summit Church lended support to the ministry by providing supplies and helping with volunteer coordination.

A Summit Church leader said they want to be "catalytic" for the ministry. The church dedicated one of its yearly "ServeRDU" projects to Unzicker's apartment initiative. More than 300 volunteers served immigrants and refugees that week.

The one-on-one connections made at those events foster close relationships between Summit members and migrants. Many migrants feel unwelcome and isolated until they learn the language and find work, according to refugee aid agencies.

One volunteer visits a specific family each week, helping them learn English and grow accustomed to life in America. She was also able to help the father secure a job.

"It has been great to see people in the homes of refugees," Unzicker said.

Another volunteer decided to replicate the outreach in a nearby neighborhood.

Unzicker is excited to see the ministry multiply, and she hopes other churches and Christian groups will think creatively about how to reach the international people groups living in U.S. cities.

It's doable, she said, even for a mom of three.

"It just takes relocating the everyday activities I already do with my kids, as simple as going to the park."

By / Sep 19

Patricia de Saladin discusses how English-speaking Christians can serve Spanish-speaking neighbors.

By / Nov 5

This week, disturbing news out of Palatine, IL, hit national headlines. According to a report from The New York Times, this Chicago suburb’s school district is facing scrutiny by the federal government’s Department of Education for not allowing a self-identified transgender female to have free use of female locker rooms. For those not familiar with this terminology, here’s what’s happening: a biological male, who subjectively identifies as a female, desires unrestricted access to female locker rooms.

While the high school in question offered many accommodations to the student, the government insists that the school is still in violation of federal policy. The school asked that the male student change behind a privacy curtain while in a female locker room in order to safeguard female students who were uncomfortable changing around a biological male, or seeing the male student nude. This very accommodating proposal was not sufficient by government standards. By not allowing the student unrestricted access to the female locker room, the federal government alleges that the school is in violation of federal non-discrimination laws pertaining to sex discrimination. In response, the government is threatening to legally sanction the school district, which could result in the loss of millions of dollars of federal funding.

The events out of Palatine are deeply, deeply troubling from a Christian worldview. There is great cause for concern and vigilance.

First, it shows the extent to which the Sexual Revolution has gained official government support from the current administration. The principles of the Sexual Revolution are incompatible with biblical Christianity. By taking the action it has, the federal government is endorsing a worldview of expressive individualism—a worldview that shuns limits, endorses controversial gender ideology, and opens up society to ever-evolving standards of sexual morality.

Second, the government’s overreach demonstrates the power of the federal government to force compliance—especially on heavily contested categories such as “gender identity,” where no settled consensus exists other than a person’s subjective self-identity. The message by the government is clear: Comply with controversial, radical, and subjective gender theory or face the possibility of withdrawn federal funds. Funding, standards, and legal compliance are the primary mechanisms that the government uses to ensure that policy is uniformly implemented and followed. In this case, the government’s threatening answer to policy and moral difference is to financially cripple a school district. This is gravely wrong and should be rejected.

Third, the action taken by the government sets bad precedent for how the government will handle similar situations if other schools or school districts do not agree with transgender ideology or are not sufficiently accommodating. This top-down approach to federal educational oversight is but another example of government overreach. Local jurisdictions in conversation with parents ought to be empowered to decide for themselves what is or isn’t appropriate conduct and accomodations for students experiencing confusion about their gender. The message of uniformity and consensus by the government falsely assumes that these matters are settled debate, which simply isn’t true. As co-author Denny Burk and I wrote in a 2014 Southern Baptist Convention Resolution, “God’s good design that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception—a perception which is often influenced by fallen human nature in ways contrary to God’s design.”

Fourth, it demonstrates the abandonment of common sense on two accounts. First, to allow a biological male unrestricted access to a female locker room elevates the subjective experience of one person over the concerns and protests of others. By enforcing their policy of comply-or-else, the government is overlooking the concerns of females who feel uncomfortable dressing around a male and is therefore discriminating against their opinions and values. It makes no sense to allow one individual’s subjective experience to override the legitimate concerns that other women have about a male changing in front of them. Secondly, to predicate federal funding on controversial political debates punishes an entire community’s children who attend these schools. It is an excessive show of force to usher in compliance by undermining the education of others.

Fifth, government action in this situation violates public decency and public safety. There are legitimate reasons that men and women use separate restrooms and dress separately. This has been tacit knowledge up until the last few years, until activists advanced transgender ideology at the expense of biological and biblical reality thereby undermining citizens' rights and dissenting viewpoints. Men and women are different (Gen. 1:27; 2:18; 5:2). This difference manifests itself in biological distinctions. For reasons of modesty, safety, and privacy, men and women should continue to use separate bathroom and dressing facilities. Furthermore, it is not the role of the government to devalue the legitimate opinions of others by forsaking their interests.

Sixth, the action taken by the federal government shows that no school district is safe from having its values thwarted or undermined by federal policy. Parents of children in public schools need to take extra caution about what policies are happening not only on the federal level, but the state and municipal level. Parents would be wise to elect federal and local officials who pledge to restore a measure of commonsense to public schools.

The federal government’s actions in Palatine, Illinois is government overreach at its worst. Citizens who stand for the truth about male and female complementarity, and who want to see these truths reflected in educational policy, should oppose the federal government’s action.

By / Feb 13

Andrea Mullins is the publisher for New Hope Books, a division of WMU. She's a long time friend and is a tireless advocate for missions. This year she is leading a team to Sochi, Russia, for outreach and evangelism among the Olympic athletes and tourists. She was kind enough to chat with me about this, right as she was boarding her plane to head to the Olympics: 

How did WMU begin it's work at the Olympic games?

WMU started sending teams to the Olympics in 1996 when they came to Atlanta. We were beginning a new missions volunteer program for young women and decided that the Olympics would be a great way to launch the program. We had 40 teams of women serving in Atlanta, Birmingham, Tennessee and North Carolina.

What compels WMU to do this work? What is it about the Olympics that provides opportunity for evangelism and outreach?

The Olympics is unique in the openness of people from around the world to hear the gospel as well as an openness of locals to attend a variety of Olympics-related events and ministries. The natural barriers that keep people from speaking to strangers come down when everyone is wearing their Olympic gear, pins, scarves, hats, etc. Often we are working with the local church to support their outreach ministries.

Is there anything particular about this year's games in Sochi that are especially challenging about WMU's outreach?

As for Sochi we have weighed and prayed as more news of terrorists, bad hotels, etc, has been heard, and all of us have continued to believe that Christians need to be there, and we can trust God. We feel he is leading us and we look forward to see what he will so. We will be supporting the efforts of our representatives there. There are seven of us on my team but WMU has already been involved in some earlier activities leading up to the Olympics.

How can Southern Baptists pray about the WMU outreach at the games?

Pray we will be bold, have the stamina we need, accomplish the goals of the planning team, and represent Christ in a way that draws people to him.