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By Jim Somerville, Pastor.
June 14, 2011

Editor’s Note: Senior Pastor Jim Somerville met with the deacon fellowship at its June 14 meeting to report on First Baptist’s now two-year-old reorganization into a missional church model. With observations from staff, members and his own experiences, Jim shared what initiated the changes and some of the results to this point. Following his report numerous deacons spoke in affirmation of the new model.

I asked a member of our staff recently how he would describe the state of the church and he said, “Well, we’re still here, and that’s saying something.  We’ve survived the Revolutionary War, the War of Northern Aggression, The Great Depression, and our recent vote on membership.”  He smiled as he said it.  But he went on to say, “I know things might not be what they were back in the fifties and sixties, but on most Sundays we have more than a thousand people in worship and this year those people will give more than three million dollars.  That’s not bad.”

No, that’s not bad at all.

I could add to that the thousands of people who watch our services on TV and the dozens more who tune in by way of our webcast.  I could mention the money we invest in missions or the many ministries supported by our Endowment Board.  Put all those things together and you have a church that is making an impact not only on this city, but on the region, the nation, and the world.  That’s a church any pastor would be proud of, and I am proud to be your pastor.

When people ask me how the church is doing I tend to do what I’ve just done, to talk about the vital signs of attendance and giving, but this morning I asked the staff what other vital signs we might look for in the church.  They said:

  • People in the neighborhood know who we are
  • There are people of all ages in the church
  • You see happy faces in the hallways
  • People feel free to ask questions, even the hard ones
  • Members are involved in missions
  • Almost everybody belongs to a small group of some kind
  • There is an abundance of capable, committed leaders
  • People really seem to love each other
  • The church is resilient—able to handle conflict
  • There is diversity in the membership
  • People have opportunities to tell their stories
  • They can (respectfully) disagree with the pastor
  • They can laugh out loud
  • There’s a lot of hugging on Sundays
  • There’s a lot of prayer through the week
  • It’s OK to get angry, not to stay angry
  • And it’s OK to cry

I hope you would agree that a church with those kinds of vital signs is a healthy church, and I hope you can appreciate a staff that would think to look for such signs.  I believe we’re in a good place.  But let me talk to you for a few minutes about how we got here and where we’re going.

I mentioned in a recent sermon that the fifties and early sixties were the Golden Age of this church, but they were the Golden Age of a lot of churches.  The Baby Boom after World War II brought a lot of children into the nurseries and a lot of parents into the pews.  But in the late sixties and seventies things began to change, those pews began to empty out, and a lot of churches panicked.  In the eighties and nineties they implemented the strategies of the Church Growth Movement, which was simply another name for doing whatever it took to keep people in the pews and money in the plates.  Sunday morning worship began to look more and more like a youth rally in many churches, and, as I said in a recent sermon, these days you almost have to shoot someone out of a cannon to get people into the pews.

Some churches—the ones who are willing to go that route, and who have the money and talent to do it well—have been successful.  But on the whole the church in America is in decline, and it’s not because the preaching or music has gotten so much worse, it’s because the culture is changing.  Listen to this quote from an article by Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler: “Sunday morning is no longer ‘sacred’ time: job responsibilities, sports leagues, family outings, housework and many other things get in the way of traveling to a church building for worship at a scheduled time.  And if you happen to miss church next weekend, will anyone know if you slept in, comforted a sick child, left town on business, or decided to have brunch at the Hyatt?  Church attendance is increasingly a private matter…”[i]  And because it’s a private matter, people are not going to feel any social pressure to come to church.  They’re going to do exactly what they want on Sunday morning, and for more and more people that’s going to mean sleeping in, or mowing the grass, or going to the river.

Maybe this is a good thing.  Maybe it forces us to re-evaluate what we’re doing and make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons.  For the last couple of years we have been trying to embrace the “missional” way of doing church, which is almost completely different from the attractional methods of the Church Growth Movement.  That movement is focused primarily on what people want, while the missional church is focused primarily on what God wants.  If you ask, “What do people want?” then you begin to design your programs and worship services around that, and you measure your success by how many people come and how much they give.  But if you ask (and keep on asking), “What does God want?” then you begin to structure everything around that, and measure your success in a different way.

The problem with asking what people want is that the answer is always changing.  People are fickle.  What they wanted last year is not what they want this year.  I remember the day a colleague told me that he had been working for three years to create a contemporary worship service and he’d just heard that what people really want is liturgical worship.  In that moment I thought, “And that’s how it will always be if you try to chase the latest fad.”  But here’s the good news: God is not fickle.  God wants what he has always wanted.  So, what does God want?  Some of the classic answers to that question are that he wants us to: make disciples of every nation, to glorify him and enjoy him forever, and to love him and love our neighbors.  In short, God wants everybody and everything.  He wants the world he made to know him and love him, to do his will and love one another.

He wants heaven on earth.

So, how do we give it to him?  I believe the church of Jesus Christ was called into existence precisely to answer that question, and that’s why, two years ago, we embraced this “missional” way of doing church.  You may remember that we looked at the clear commands of Jesus in the Gospels, specifically the Great Commission, the Great Commandment, and the New Commandment.  If you’ve forgotten what those are let me remind you.  Jesus commissioned his followers to make disciples of every nation by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and by teaching them to obey all that he has commanded us.  He endorsed the commandments to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  And finally he commanded us to love one another as he has loved us.  We classified those five things under the headings of Invitation, Formation, Worship, Compassion, and Community, and then added the two ministry areas of Communication and Support.

From then until now we have been trying to live into this missional way of doing church, and it hasn’t been easy.  Instead of coming to church to enjoy the many programs that are offered we have been trying to work together with Jesus to bring heaven to earth.  I’ve heard complaints.  Some people complain that we seem to be focusing most of our attention outside the building instead of inside the building.  Others complain that they used to have a minister, but now they’re supposed to have a ministry.  Still others want to know if they’re doing all the work these days, then what is the staff here for?  Well, let me tell you.  For two days last month the staff talked about how to move from theory to practice, how to stop talking like a missional church and start acting like one.  They looked at a book by Milfred Manitrea called Shaped by God’s Heart: the Passion and Practices of Missional Churches.  They studied the nine practices of a missional church (below), and tried to assess how First Baptist was doing in each area. 

The Nine Practices of a Missional Church* (click here to download these nine practices as a PDF)

  1. Have a high threshold for membership

Members know what is expected of them, especially in terms of joining, giving, and serving.  They have a high level of commitment to the church and its mission.

  1. Be real, not real religious

Members don’t “wear masks” with one another.  They trust one another and reach out to others.  Unchurched people feel comfortable around them.

  1. Teach to obey rather than to know

Members don’t stop with “head knowledge”; they put their faith into practice by finding concrete, specific ways to love God and others.

  1. Rewrite worship every week

Missional churches focus their worship on “an audience of one.”  They use a team to plan, incorporate all the senses in worship, and welcome innovation.

  1. Live apostolically

Members know that they have been “sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves.”  Every member is a missionary who lives on the mission field.

  1. Expect to change the world

Members believe their church can make a major difference in the world.  The question is not “whether,” but “how.”

  1. Order actions according to purposes

Members are very clear about the church’s purpose, and schedule and budget only those things that help them fulfill it.

  1. Measure growth by capacity to release, not retain

Missional churches are eager to send members out to start new churches, missions, and ministries.

  1. Place kingdom concerns first

Members are more concerned about building up the Kingdom than their church.  They intentionally partner with other Christians and churches.

*From the book, Shaped by God’s Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches, by Milfred Manitrea, Director of the Missional Church Center for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

In that first area our staff agreed that our threshold for membership was higher than ever.  We are requiring new members to meet with the pastor and expecting them to attend all four sessions of the Connection class before we vote on their membership.  During that time we have a number of opportunities to tell them what we expect in terms of joining, giving, and serving.

In area 2 we agreed that we could do a better job of being real without being real religious, admitting that we do sometimes wear masks around each other.  We want to do a better job of being authentic and helping outsiders feel at home among us.  On the positive side, our Divorce Recovery Workshop, Companions in Christ, some of our small groups, and all of our healing services are places where people can “be real.”

In area 3 we struggled with the word “obedience,” but in the end talked about the importance of putting our faith into practice.  Some of our staff suggested the use of spiritual disciplines as a way to move knowing to doing.  Others stressed the need to get our hands dirty from time to time, and not just study the missionary journeys of Paul.

In area 4 we agreed that our worship service is one of the things that draws people to First Baptist, but also agreed that we could be more intentional about “rewriting worship every week.”  Last Sunday’s service was one of those attempts and I hope you can agree that it was extraordinarily successful.

In area 5 we talked about what it would mean if every member of the church believed that he or she was sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves.  We talked about what it would be like to think of the place you lived as your mission field, to map it out and consider how you might get to know the people in those apartments or houses closest to yours.  Think about the way our members are scattered across Metropolitan Richmond.  Imagine what an impact we could have.

We got excited about area 6, and admitted that if a church with our considerable human and material resources didn’t expect to change the world, something was wrong.  We began to talk about how we might do it, and the buzz of excitement got louder and louder.  We eventually cut off discussion believing that these are the kinds of ideas that have to come from our membership, not the staff.  If some eleven-year-old boy could raise his hand in a congregational forum and say, “I know how we can change the world!” it would probably happen.

In area 7 we recognized that we don’t really have a formal purpose statement, that “bringing heaven to earth” is about as close as we come these days.  We thought it would be interesting to ask people in the hallway if they know the church’s purpose, and if they do we’re way ahead.  If not, we probably need to be more intentional about stating our purpose and ordering actions accordingly.

In area 8 we admitted that we don’t want to release anybody.  We want to retain everybody.  But we talked about what would happen if we found a young couple (for example) brave enough to move into a difficult neighborhood and see what they could do to transform it.  We talked about what it would be like to release enough of our members to start a new church.  We still didn’t want to do it, but we could see how the goal is not to see how many people we can pack into our building, but how many ways we can change the world.

In area 9 we acknowledged that we don’t spend much time praying for other churches in our city, and especially churches of other denominations.  But if we can begin to see other churches, agencies, and institutions as sharing in the work of bringing heaven to earth, then maybe we can see them as common partners in a kingdom-sized mission.  Maybe we can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s not all up to us, and work together with them to accomplish our mutual goals.

What is the state of First Baptist Church?  It’s healthy, growing, learning, thriving, exploring all the ways it can be faithful to the call of Christ in a rapidly changing culture.  That’s so much more important than simply counting how many people happen to be in the pews, or how much money happens to be in the plate.  That’s the kind of church God can use to fulfill his mission, to bring heaven to earth.

—Jim Somerville


[i] “Did You Really Go to Church this Week?  Behind the Poll Data,” Christian Century, May 6, 1998, p. 475).

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Story by Jeannie Dortch.

Now the Lord is the spirit and where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17).

Dong, dong, dong rings our church bell each Sunday morning as Dagnachew Eshete pulls the cord in the bell tower calling all to worship.

Dagnachew, an American citizen for ten years and a member of First Baptist’s custodial staff, is Ethiopian by birth. Married and father of five, he served for 29 years, first in that country’s armed forces and later in opposing guerilla groups. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel before an agonizing defeat in a civil war made life for his family bitter and uncertain. Unwilling to accept this situation, Gudaye, his wife, seized an opportunity to enter a lottery for those wishing to leave the country, and was one of the winners. Dagnachew’s family was free to begin life anew in the United States.

Dagnachew’s ringing calls all to freely worship Christ on Sunday mornings. Photo by Jeannie Dortch.

Dagnachew and the bell he rings have more in common than he knows, but that story started a long time ago. It continues to reverberate with the clearly identifiable ring of freedom, making Dagnachew’s simple task carry great meaning.

In 1825 John Kerr became FBC’s senior pastor. His power in the pulpit was so strong that cultivated men, unwilling to weep in public, avoided hearing him preach. But a woman’s influence can move even the most stalwart of cultivated men to action. So it was in 1826 when Catherine Thomas announced to her husband, Archibald, that she had decided to follow her Lord in baptism. She was on her way to the river where Reverend Kerr would immerse her, securing her full membership in FBC. Archibald was wary; he considered it unfitting for a lady to be exposed in front of an assemblage of curious and possibly irreverent onlookers. Sensing her determination, however, he reached for his hat, having decided that hecklers might be dissuaded by his presence. As a result of Catherine’s unswerving convictions, Archibald was given an opportunity to hear Kerr deliver an oration on the meaning and symbolism of baptism. He was deeply moved and joined his wife as a candidate for immersion.

Before long Archibald’s younger brother, James, gave his life to the Lord, and he too joined the fellowship of believers. As tobacco merchants, respected deacons and church leaders, their influence brought many friends and associates into the fold, catapulting FBC to great prominence in the city. And the bell sang for the moving of the spirit among so many.

From 1843 to 1862, FBC’s neighbors grew accustomed to the familiar and melodious sounds of the church bell calling them to services. But in 1862, with the Civil War raging, FBC voted to offer the bell to the Confederacy to be melted into cannon. This decision must have weighed heavily on James Thomas because eventually he purchased the bell from the government for its full value in gold. While the church was used as an emergency hospital for soldiers, services were suspended for several months. Having lost its freedom for the time being, the bell was stored away until after the war when it was returned to the steeple at 12th and Broad. Then it added the emancipation of slaves to its repertoire of songs.

Without Catherine, no Archibald. Without Archibald, no James. And without James, no bell. James purchased the church bell to save it, Gudaye Eshete purchased a ticket to save her family, and Dagnachew’s ringing calls all to freely worship Christ on Sunday mornings. His bell is never out of tune and never tires of playing the notes it knows so well, Dong, dong, dong, Let freedom ring.

The memorial bell tower plaque is located in the Prayer Garden of First Baptist Church. Photo by Anthony M. Nesossis.

 

Jeannie Dortch joined FBC in 1974 after being lovingly mentored by the members of Buddy Hamilton’s Sunday school class. A grandmother of four, Jeannie has served as a deacon, taught in our children’s, youth, international, and adult Sunday school departments, but attends the Journey class presently. Recently retired from 16 years of teaching at Rudlin Torah Academy, Jeannie enjoys exercising, cooking, reading, tutoring New American students at Maybeury Elementary, and writing articles for FTF.

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