LOS ANGELES (BP)–California — hardly a Bible Belt state — is the current site of some of the most innovative approaches to church planting in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Successful church planting in California is vital, considering that U.S. Census estimates place its population at 36,961,664, making it the most populous state in the United States, and with a population larger than all but 34 countries in the world.
The California Southern Baptist Convention — as part of its emphasis on church planting — has announced that at 10 a.m. (PDT) on Oct. 10, 2010, it is launching its “10-10-10” initiative to start 40 new churches simultaneously throughout the state on that single day.
Not only are brand-new churches being planted, but aging, withering churches are being re-planted, or “re-potted” as Mark Hammond, executive director of the Los Angeles Baptist Association, calls it.
Hammond started the church “re-potting” process eight years ago after he kept seeing churches — some 50-60 years old — plateau and almost close their doors.
“The community around these churches may have changed five times, but their members were still looking for the ‘good old days,'” Hammond said. “The churches we re-pot are practically on life-support.”
When it comes to re-potting a dying church, Hammond’s first move is to probe the community surrounding it — asking surviving members of the congregation what they need, determining other needs and examining the area’s demographics. Needs may include the hiring of new pastors, building up dwindling or nonexistent Sunday Schools or helping with the church’s financial or bookkeeping problems.
Based on a canvass of the community, Hammond recruits special teams to become members of the church to be re-potted. Team members may be Filipino, Hispanic, African American, Anglo, Korean — all or in any combination — depending on the area’s people groups. Each team usually includes a church planting strategist, a church planter and laypeople with special skills and talents. Hammond asks each team member to make a two-year commitment — in time, talent and tithing — to the re-potted church.
Under Hammond, who has led the Los Angeles Baptist Association the past 10 years, five churches were re-potted last year while 90-plus new churches were planted over the last three years — bringing the number of churches in the association to more than 200.
Hammond said his first success in church re-potting in Southern California was Village Baptist Church in Norwalk, an old church that had dwindled to only a dozen members but now runs 200.
“Re-potting is one area where we have to do more,” Hammond said. “In a major megalopolis like Los Angeles, it costs so much to build a new church. It can cost $4 million to put up a church that can house only 100 people. Its members could never even pay the note off.
“We have to do things differently, whether we’re planting a new church or re-potting an old one. If we do the same old things, we’ll get in the same situation as before,” said Hammond, adding that re-potting a church is more difficult than planting a new one and requires a different skill set.
Don Overstreet, a church planting missionary jointly funded by NAMB and the California convention for the last 15 years, has been in the church planting ministry for 45 of his 63 years. A kidney cancer survivor, Overstreet says “God gave me a heart to plant churches early on.”
Overstreet specializes in traveling up and down California, starting inner-city churches “in areas most people are afraid to go.” He helps plant an array of churches — from traditional to hip-hop. “The church should look like the community, so we start multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-racial and English-speaking churches,” Overstreet said.
Overstreet’s philosophy for starting new churches is simple: Find people who have fallen through the cracks, who don’t seem to fit anywhere, and start a church to minister to them.
And he believes in church planting via multiplication, not addition.
“Addition is good but multiplication is better,” he said, recounting the outreach efforts in Artesia, a suburb on the border of Los Angeles and Orange counties. Artesia — with its 45,000 population — is the most diverse city of its size in the country, according to California State University-Fullerton.
“In Artesia, we decided we couldn’t just start one church at a time. So we started English, Hispanic, Korean and Filipino churches — all at the same time,” Overstreet said. “We’re still working on starting a Chinese church there. That’s what the community looks like.
“The Southern Baptist Convention is not an old denomination in Southern California,” said Overstreet, who — along with his parents — were members of one of the first SBC churches in Los Angeles.
“A lot of the churches out here were started in the 1940s and ’50s. They were founded by transplants coming to California from the South. They did a great job of bringing along the Southern culture but never were able to reach the California culture. These are the churches dying off because their members are now in their 70s and 80s.”
Although these older churches are fighting to survive, they often own attractive facilities in key locations. In expensive cities like Los Angeles, where buying premium real estate is prohibitive, these churches don’t want to lose their existing facilities, which could never be duplicated in today’s economy and real estate market.
Overstreet cites First Baptist Church of Bell Gardens as an example. Situated in a southeast Los Angeles suburb, it was one of the first SBC congregations in the region and, by Overstreet’s estimate, was a mother church for 50-75 church starts.
“It was a strong church in the ’50s and ’60s but the world changed around them and they didn’t. The city of Bell Gardens is now 95 percent Hispanic. But it also needs an English-speaking Southern Baptist church.”
The pastor-less church dwindled to only four elderly members, whose weekly worship service consisted of turning on a TV set to watch Atlanta pastor Charles Stanley every Sunday morning.
“But these folks never gave up,” Overstreet said. “They finally asked me to help. The first Sunday I preached, we had 12. They now have a new pastor and are running 50. On a recent Saturday night, they held a block party which drew 200-300 people. The church is coming back as a combination English and Hispanic church. They also added a Spanish-speaking-only church this summer.
“The key thing for these dying churches is that they have to be desperate. They must be willing to change and work outside themselves, and do whatever needs to be done to reach out and be revived.
“It takes more creativity to re-plant churches like Bell Gardens,” Overstreet said. “There’s no cookie-cutter approach to planting or re-planting churches in Los Angeles. We’re never going to change our doctrine, but our methodology has to adapt to the situation.”
Working closely with the Los Angeles and Inland Empire Baptist associations, Overstreet and his team of four church planting strategists and some 100 church planters have planted 200-plus churches in the past five years.
“We’ve worked hard in L.A. for the last eight or nine years to create a church planting atmosphere,” Overstreet said, adding that he and his team have divided the metro area into five zones for planning and organizing purposes.
“Some areas around L.A. are like foreign countries,” he said. “No one speaks a word of English. We’re trying to develop a better awareness of our communities.”
Overstreet is continuing to pray that God will continue to raise up indigenous lay leaders to help plant new churches in the greater Los Angeles area. “[T]hey know the languages,” he said, “they know the cultures and they have the existing networks.”
Ken Weathersby, NAMB’s vice president for church planting, is excited about the fact that creative church planting methods are bubbling up from not only California but throughout the North American mission field, where 258 million people — three out of four — are unreached and unchurched.
Weathersby believes church planting must undergo a major sea change in the months ahead that will “liberate us to the point of seeing more people and churches engaged in church planting. We’re going back to our biblical roots. We don’t want to rearrange the body of Christ, we want to plant new churches.”
Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.