EVANSVILLE, Ind. (BP)–“If we stop reaching people, we’re going to die,” church planter Bobby Pell, pastor of NorthWoods Church in suburban Evansville, Ind., said.
“I never want our people to get away from that sense of desperation, and the best way I knew to do that was always to be about the process of church planting,” Pell said. “We have been effective in reaching people as a church plant, and we want to invest in church planting. We believe it is an effective way of evangelizing in communities.”
The Cooperative Program is the most effective way of funding church planting, the pastor said. CP helps support Southern Baptist work in state conventions, across North America and around the world.
“From a church planting perspective, the Cooperative Program is crucial to how the North American Mission Board receives funds and is a conduit in helping church planters be on the field,” said Pell, who twice has served three years with church planter support from NAMB. “One of the things CP does that people don’t think about is that it relieves stress from the planter and his family. From a church planter’s perspective, it’s a big deal for the wife and family to have some [financial] security….
“If there wasn’t a Cooperative Program, there would be fewer churches planted, and what planters there were would all be bivocational because there wouldn’t be income from a congregation yet,” Pell said. “They wouldn’t be able to devote all their attention to the church plant.”
NorthWoods Church illustrates the symbiotic relationship between the Cooperative Program and a church planter.
Pell moved to Indiana in 1993 from Chattanooga, Tenn., to plant a church in Greencastle, Ind. He started with four families — and church planter support from NAMB — and when he left nine years later to plant NorthWoods, more than 500 people were participating in Sunday morning worship. The church also had started two other churches.
He moved to suburban Evansville in 2002 after catching the vision of another group of four families. They’d been sent by Grace Baptist Church in Evansville to plant a church. Today the congregation numbers about 525.
“Our church is very much a church planting church,” Pell said. “We’ve planted churches in lots of places…. Our philosophy has been that we need to be about the process of church planting.
“To not be missional is to be wrong,” Pell said. “The Bible tells us we are to make disciples. We are His witnesses. This is not a choice. This is obedience or disobedience. We have the [Southern Baptist] Convention with 85 percent of churches plateaued or in decline. When we as local churches stop making the effort to reach people, we have moved into sin.”
About 125 people were involved at NorthWoods Church when it started its first church plant. It was in Vincennes, about an hour north.
“We helped financially, administratively and with prayer support,” Pell said. “In church planting you don’t always have to give up people, but you always have to give up something. The question from a church’s perspective is, ‘Do we have a sacrificial heart?’ I pray we do, but that does become a hard question.”
Vincennes was started in 2004; Bloomington in 2006. Like NorthWoods, they too started by giving 10 percent to missions through the Cooperative Program.
“CP funding was crucial in allowing our churches to get off the ground and communicating the Gospel,” Pell said. “There is no better way for us to be doing missions than for us to be doing missions together.
“It has been very good to see God at work,” he said. “I’m very appreciative of that, and I recognize it’s His hand.”
Others recognize Pell’s giftedness in church planting. He is team leader for church planting in the Southwestern Indiana Baptist Association and a church planting trainer and assessor for the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana.
“Bobby understands our Indiana culture, which is a challenging new work area,” said John Horn, director of missions for the Southwestern Indiana Baptist Association. “It’s certainly not as easy to start a church in Indiana as it is in the Bible Belt.
“Bobby’s entrepreneurial, creative, evangelistic, very solid biblically in how he does ministry, and he’s cooperative as a Baptist in networking with others,” Horn said. “He maximizes Kingdom work. We’re very blessed to have him in our association.”
NorthWoods sent out 40 people from its congregation to start a church in downtown — inner-city — Evansville last year. Also last year, NorthWoods sent out 50 people to start a church in neighboring Warrick County, the largest unchurched county in the area.
That plant currently is a second campus of the NorthWoods church “with the desire and hope that the campus would one day become an autonomous body,” Pell said. That congregation leases a storefront. Pell preaches — sometimes via video — and on occasion the campus pastor preaches.
“Part of the reason behind him preaching live is a training process for the future,” Pell said. “I am currently in the process of mentoring three people in our congregation as possible church planters for the future.
“God has blessed us with the church planters,” Pell said. “My responsibility is to train them to the best of my ability and to send them out as prepared as they can be.
“The greatest opportunities I have today are to develop leaders to go out as missional people either as a church planter, a member of a church plant or to assist us where we are in reaching and discipling the lost,” Pell said. “We are constantly looking at areas around us to plant the next congregation, and the moment we have the leadership and the funding and we have the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we’re going to go again.”
When NorthWoods sent out 90 people last year to start two churches, it left gaps at NorthWoods.
“The people who go are the most missional you have,” Pell said. “What you’re faced with is the responsibility to develop missional people to replace them. And that’s difficult. At the end of last year we experienced that, but we made adjustments and we’re OK. We did not allow what happened from a financial perspective to keep us from accomplishing a mission. We figured out a way. We made some budget adjustments because we were not going to stop being missional.”
At NorthWoods, the congregation goes through LIFE, leadership development classes, on Wednesday evenings. These might include Old or New Testament survey or relational studies such as deepening roots in God’s family. They also have Sunday evening or midweek discipleship-based Connect groups that are more relational.
“We believe discipleship is both something you learn and something you walk together with someone,” Pell said. “It’s a head issue as well as a feet issue.”
Some of the ways the congregation puts feet to their learning is by participating in one or more of the special events the church puts on for the community, such as a classic car show that includes a block party atmosphere; a booth at two county fairs; and a children’s fishing rally on the church’s four-acre pond — biggest catch last year was an 11-year-old girl with a 6-pound fish.
At the fairs, passers-by have a chance to win a 4-wheel ATV at no cost except for three minutes of their time, during which they receive a personalized Gospel witness. It’s the “Sturgis model” of intentional evangelism used in recent years by the Dakota Baptist Convention’s intentional evangelism ministry during the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
“What makes Bobby a good church planter? Bobby knows who he is, what God wants him to do and how God wants him to do it,” said Jim Hamilton, executive director of the Dakota Baptist Convention who has known Pell for several years. “Bobby engages people where they are and positions them to hear from God and move toward a shared vision. He is a gifted gatherer of people. He places a high value on relationships.”
Another church plant that NorthWoods had a part in is Hills of Grace in Rapid City, S.D. This summer, with Hills of Grace now well-established, NorthWoods plans to participate in a church plant in Middletown, Ohio, with a family mission trip from NorthWoods.
“We encourage whole families to go,” NorthWoods executive pastor Ed Collins said.
They do prayerwalks, pass out flyers, host basketball and baseball clinics and backyard Bible clubs, or whatever works best in the local situation to gain entry to people in the community, Collins said.
NorthWoods doesn’t make long- or even mid-range plans for new church plants.
“We have determined as the leadership of our church that we want this to be Spirit-led,” Pell said. “As God continues to bless our body, two things we are watching: growth in our own body to allow us to send people out, and funding. We are watching to start another church or another campus.
“Starting another church or campus is in our mind the best way to reach lost people for Jesus. We believe it’s the best way because we have seen a congregation grow from four families to more than 500 in nine years. We have seen the campus go from 50 in December to 100 in mid-April. We are seeing lost people come to Christ, and we are seeing growth,” Pell said of growth not just locally but also in the Kingdom of God.
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message, Dakota Baptist Connections and The Montana Baptist.