I hear and read so much today about the decline of churches that when something happens that proves otherwise, I immediately get excited. In fact, when I come across a church that’s not only making a real difference in peoples’ lives but actually demonstrating the supernatural presence of God, I really sit up and pay attention. That doesn’t happen every day.
Which is why I found myself last Thursday night in the small community of Richlands, North Carolina at the dedication service of the new building for the Agape Life Family Church.
The church was started five years ago by an old friend and his wife in the living room of their home. Just a handful of people to start with. My friend had been through a personal crisis and through his healing and restoration God had birthed a passion in his heart to pastor. There was a further unusual command from the Lord to him at that early juncture: he couldn’t actually invite anyone to the new church. Only the people whom the Lord led there were to attend. That’s not a normal approach to church planting.
So my friend and his wife—people of great faith—simply did what they felt led to do and started the church. A sidebar here: church planting today is a highly developed science. Denominational strategies; leadership conferences; demographic studies; sociological analyses; highly paid consultants—all this and more are a vital part of the process for most new churches. Per capita income is another important piece of the puzzle. Just take a look at the locations of many of the satellite campuses of high-profile churches: it’s no accident that their new churches are located in high income areas. It’s also important—the experts say—that a new church have a cool name. Something intriguing and evocative that catches the attention of people tired of old churchy language.
None of that made any difference to the fledgling Agape Life Family Church. They just heard from God and started out. They soon outgrew the pastor’s living room and moved to a local school. After a while there they moved again, to a unit in a small strip mall. Around this time the pastor quit his regular job to devote his attention full time to his small congregation. He didn’t really have a plan on how he and his family would financially survive; all he knew was that he and his wife had heard from God and obeyed.
Along the way the congregation came to expect the miraculous. People were healed. Lives were turned around. Circumstances were divinely ordered. Their journey from the first was one of God’s guidance and provision.
Along this time, another organization entered the story. The Righteous Preachers Network based in Michigan is a group of several hundred independent pastors and their churches across the country connected to one another by their theology (all are Pentecostal) but also through their shared affinity for the network’s leader, Dr. Mark Barclay. Barclay, a former Marine, is an unusually gifted leader and has intentionally built his organization to reflect his own values of church planting and leadership. He personally connects with everyone in the network as their coach, mentor, friend, accountability partner and—most importantly—pastor.
Another sidebar: a similar organization is the Acts 29 Network, founded by Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll. While different from the RPN in theology (Acts 29 is strongly Reformed) and practice (Acts 29 doesn’t extend anywhere near the level of personal accountability to its partners as does RPN), both networks as well as many others like them are part of a vast and growing independent network of churches, leaders and organizations doing vibrant and creative ministry outside the old religious structures. While a generally unseen dynamic in today’s church culture, the success of these extra-denominational entities is a powerful indicator of the imminent death of denominations.
So after five years through several evolutions of meeting places; the continuing spiritual growth of their pastors; and the invaluable addition of the Righteous Preachers Network that added a level of personal mentoring and accountability to the mix, the Agape Family Life Church broke every church planting rule in the book and on February 7 dedicated their new building to the Lord. One last sidebar: the new building is located in an out of the way place, a field outside of town. Not consultant would ever have recommended that. Another rule broken.
Several hundred people gathered in the new church on a cold, rainy night for the three-hour-long service. I didn’t know what to expect but even my vague expectations were exceeded—on every level. The congregation’s energy was through the roof. Old and young. Rich and poor. Military and civilian. Black and white. All singing, shouting and praying. The high point was when Dr. Barclay gave a prophecy for the church. Now, I’ve attended church dedication services before. I’ve even led a few. And I’m well familiar with the appropriate hymns, Scripture readings, responsive readings, official guests and all the other accoutrements of main-line churches as they dedicate their buildings. But I’d never seen anything like this: a man praying fire down from heaven and bringing a fresh word from the Lord for his people. “This will be the Church of the Next Level,” Barclay declared and so cast the vision that will move that congregation yet further in their unique journey.
All of this, of course, is strongly Pentecostal. It strikes many people as, well, odd and out of step with modern religious sensibilities. Today, so many have reduced biblical faith to a set of moral platitudes on the one hand or, on the other, the ministrations of celebrity pastors whose churches are built around the show they put on Sunday morning. Pentecostals, on the other hand, actually believe that the God of the Bible still speaks; still works miracles; and still intervenes in human lives.
Even with all its excesses (and there are excesses: as a relatively new arrival Pentecostalism has some significant theological issues to resolve), Pentecostalism is booming. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, the 584 million Pentecostals throughout the world represent the fastest growing segment of world-wide Christianity. That’s 26% of all Christians. The numbers are rapidly growing for the same reason that the Agape Life Family Church is rapidly growing: people are desperate for the real touch of God on their lives.
Anyway, with all due respect to the various experts, demographic studies, economic analyses, creative consultants, celebrity pastors, technology dollars and denominational bureaucrats that have so much experience with church plants, here are a few observations from the experience of Agape Life Family Church:
· Lead pastors play a central role in effective church planting. Until and unless they have an authentic and compelling vision from the Lord, a new church simply won’t work. A church doesn’t come into existence because of the cool analysis of data but through the supernatural direction of the Holy Spirit.
· All authentic church ministry—new or established—is an exercise of faith. To try and make it otherwise is to fail.
· Prayer is the essential way God provides for his people.
· The power of the gospel is exactly the same today as it was in Jesus’ time. It’s still the only reason churches exist.
· Simple is good—the more complicated our churches become, the more difficult they are to lead and the more energy is expended in maintaining institutional needs. Our highest energy must always be directed toward our mission.
· The role of overseers (call them apostles, bishops, pastors to pastors or mentors—the function is basically the same) is indispensable. Most modern churches and their pastors are on their own, an unbiblical and dangerous situation.
· In this post-denominational era, new networks are emerging that connect congregations of like and mind and purpose in productive and exciting ways.