COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (BP) — When Steve Tiebout planted a church in northern California in the late 1990s, he would have relished the help of a worship leader like 23-year-old Curtis Looper. Young, talented, full of energy and with a passionate love for Jesus, Looper already shows the God-given ability to prepare a congregation for corporate worship. And at age 23, he’ll likely only get better.
As a former church planter in one of the least-evangelized areas of North America, Tiebout knows how important talented, Jesus-loving, ministry-minded young people can be to the work of a new church. With only seven out of every 100 people in metro San Francisco (not far from where Tiebout’s church was located) affiliated with an evangelical church, discovering young leaders in a new church plant can be like striking gold.
“Man, if someone would have sent me a 20-year-old who loved Jesus, could play the guitar and wanted to lead worship, I would have jumped out the window screaming ‘Jesus is alive!'” Tiebout said. “When you’re on the mission field and you have people move where you are because God has told them to support and encourage you with whatever you need, that’s terrific. You’re just scratching for anything when you’re in the pioneer areas.”
Tiebout can’t turn back the clock and make Looper a part of the California church he planted 15 years ago. But he is doing the next best thing. He and his staff at The River Community Church (which he started in Cookeville, Tenn., in 2002) are preparing Looper and others to strengthen new churches throughout North America and beyond.
Tiebout said he never expected to plant a church in his home state of Tennessee, where he grew up and came to faith near Memphis. Through two summers serving in ministry internationally in the Philippines and Germany during college, Tiebout thought God was calling him into international missions. Even while planting a church in northern California as a Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary student, he expected his family would one day cross oceans to serve Jesus permanently abroad.
So when God led the family to plant a church in Cookeville, Tiebout was as surprised as anyone. He wondered why God would call him to a town of 30,000 in the middle of the Bible Belt? But the Tiebouts obeyed.
From the beginning Tiebout planned for The River to be a church that plants churches. At just 2 years old, The River started its first church plant in 2004 when its regular attendance was between 200 and 250. Throughout the next decade, the church planted another 10 churches.
Tiebout’s vision for the church is ambitious. Develop 5,000 disciples in Cookeville. Plant 500 churches in Tennessee. Partner with one church in every state to help them network and reach the people in that state. Impact five nations with the Gospel.
For a 12-year-old church in a relatively small town, many would agree that is a God-sized goal. And it won’t come to fruition without an abundance of young, energetic leaders. Situated in the midst of a college town in the Bible Belt, discovering the young and energetic isn’t a problem. But developing leaders takes a plan.
“We’re in a college town,” Tiebout said. “These are just the pieces of the picture that God has put together. God put us here to plant in a college town, we believe, so that we can raise up these church planters and missionaries to go out.”
The Johns Hopkins Hospital of Tennessee churches
Steve Chatman, pastor of The River’s Jere Whitson campus, which meets at Cookeville’s Jere Whitson Elementary School, said, “I liken our role to one of a teaching hospital.”
The medical community has long understood that they must prepare young doctors well before entrusting them with matters of life and death. That’s why more than 400 teaching hospitals can be found throughout the United States (with The Johns Hopkins Hospital probably the most famous example) where doctors-in-training can learn their craft from experienced professionals as they practice medicine with them side-by-side.
“We’re helping people,” Chatman added. “We have the skilled, trained, degreed surgeons, but we want to see a steady flow of people with us who feel called to lead in ministry and missions. You can talk about ministry, but we want to give people an opportunity to do the work of ministry and see what church ministry looks like on the inside.”
To help prepare future short-term and long-term missionaries and church leaders, The River keeps a regular team of interns, like Looper. Chatman said these interns get a good glimpse inside the work of those in full-time ministry. They do everything from leading worship to organizing events to cleaning toilets.
Through it all, Tiebout, Chatman and others on the ministry team remain available to answer questions and provide feedback about what interns have experienced. The church has connected much of its intern ministry to the North American Mission Board’s Farm System, which utilizes the framework of local churches to train future missionaries and ministry leaders.
Empowerment through networking
The congregation’s Churches Planting Churches Network in Tennessee also plays a key role in its plan to develop leaders. Tiebout started the network as The River planted its first few churches. Because church planting has challenges different from pastoring an existing church, he realized they needed a support system of experienced peers and mentors. The network not only provides potential places of ministry for the leaders The River is developing, but it provides new church planters around the state an opportunity to learn from more experienced planters.
Church plants in the network meet once a month for training and fellowship. “The Farm System has been a real boost to our students,” Tiebout said.
Rick Burnett, who planted Crossroads Community Church in Baxter, Tenn., with The River’s help, said the network has been a fulfillment of Ecclesiastes 4:9: “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts.”
“It has been a real encouragement to us,” Burnett said. “You have others who are going through the same struggles with the same questions. I’m very thankful for the encouragement, the prayer support and the training.”
As part of its ambitious vision, Tiebout wants to eventually partner with churches in each state to develop similar networks — and provide future ministry destinations for the long-term and short-term missionaries the church is preparing.
This summer Looper joined others from The River to serve on a two-week trip to Colorado, Washington and Oregon to help church planters and the worship leaders who serve with them. He and his wife plan to spend their lives leading worship and serving local churches. He said he believes his experience at The River has helped set the stage for that ministry by providing opportunities to use his gifts with the support of mentors like Jimmy Thorpe, who serves as the worship leader at The River’s main campus.
Thorpe first introduced Looper to The River when he invited the then-19-year-old to play electric guitar in the church’s college ministry. Soon, at the recommendation of Thorpe, Looper began an internship at the church and was given the opportunity to lead the collegiate worship service. As Looper made the shift from band member to worship leader, Thorpe walked beside him, offering wisdom, prayer and a wealth of experience. Last September Thorpe became the worship leader at The River’s Jere Whitson campus.
“A lot of times he’d let me go — kind of a trial-and-error method,” Looper said. “He’d watch me do stuff, and I’d witness for myself how things worked and didn’t work. Then we’d come back together and he’d tell me his own experiences. Things that took him years to learn, he’d let me in on those secrets. I was able to fast-track some of that and learn from my own experiences.”
Of course, there’s a downside to empowering and equipping your congregation for God’s mission in the world. After spending years training future ministry leaders, you often lose your best to the mission field. Tiebout can easily rattle off names of people the church has sent out to other ministry locations — but he has no plans to stop training young leaders.
“Cookeville may be a small town,” Tiebout said. “But we want to be a lighthouse for the nations. Why couldn’t it be through Cookeville, Tenn., where the Gospel goes into all the world?”
Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of On Mission magazine. To learn more or subscribe, visit www.namb.net/onmission. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).