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Hemphill: Outward focus of EKG, Acts 1:8 can renew churches

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–As the Empowering Kingdom Growth movement gains momentum throughout the Southern Baptist Convention, EKG national strategist Ken Hemphill expects a changing of the culture of the church, with members shifting their focus from the concerns within their walls to thinking in terms of the larger picture: God’s heartbeat for the world.

“Right now, according to some of the most recent studies, about 70 percent of our churches are plateaued or declining,” Hemphill said in an interview with Baptist Press. “So how do you turn the plateaued or declining church into a growing, vibrant church? My conviction is the problem that creates plateaued churches is spiritual myopia. When we look inward, we see all of our flaws and shortcomings — we don’t have enough staff, we don’t have enough room, we don’t have enough buildings. Everything turns inward. The only way to change that is to get a global vision as we begin to look at the world as God sees it.”

Though he was a leader in the church growth movement, Hemphill said a downside to the movement is some churches became myopic — focusing on growing their particular congregation without equal concern for the world.

“The problem is such thinking creates a competitive spirit rather than a cooperative strategy,” he said.

If a church focuses only on reaching its community for Christ, it will end up forsaking the rest of the world, Hemphill said. That’s why he is joining the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board in emphasizing the Acts 1:8 model, which challenges each local church to join with their partners to reach Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth with the Gospel. The four realms correspond to the local community, the state, the nation and the world.

“When the church simply focuses on Jerusalem, it will lose sight of the world. But if you can get the church to focus on the world, it will always impact Jerusalem,” Hemphill said, adding that churches will naturally be revitalized when their vision broadens to their role in the rest of the world.

“The Acts 1:8 challenge was given to the church, not to a denomination,” he said. “But the denomination has been structured over the years to assist the local church as it reaches Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Look at our Southern Baptist structure. It reflects these necessary partnerships.”

Hemphill said one reason he is a Southern Baptist is because it’s the only denomination he knows of that has a strategic structure and funding mechanism to accomplish the Acts 1:8 challenge.

“I see the [SBC’s] Acts 1:8 Challenge as the mission component of the convention-wide Empowering Kingdom Growth initiative,” he said. “Since no one church is capable of reaching an entire community, the SBC is organized into associations of churches in communities to form partnerships for reaching those areas. Through the associations, Jerusalem is reached.”

Judea is reached when churches join together on the state level through the various state conventions, Hemphill noted, and Samaria is reached when churches partner with the North American Mission Board. When churches broaden their horizons further and join resources with the International Mission Board, the ends of the earth are reached for Christ.

“We not only have the partnerships for assisting the local church, we have the means of funding that partnership through the Cooperative Program,” Hemphill said. “The Cooperative Program is not a budget to fund a denomination, but a local church’s budget enabling it to join with other likeminded churches to accomplish the Acts 1:8 challenge. The Cooperative Program is like a vast mutual fund that enables the individual church to buy into a mission strategy that covers the entire universe of mission needs rather than having to pick and choose among mission assets as an individual investor.”

But one problem, he said, is that Southern Baptists are not consistently supporting the Cooperative Program, which channels gifts from the SBC churches across the country to missions and ministry initiatives.

“Research indicates that giving through the local church by the individual is at an all-time low — it’s about 2.7 percent. Back during the Great Depression we gave at about 3.2 percent,” Hemphill said. “Many people are funneling significant resources outside the church for mission needs.

“But the fact is the Bible teaches storehouse giving through the local church to meet the mission needs of the world,” he said. “The question I’ve asked is, ‘Why don’t our people give in a greater abundance through the local church?’ I’m not sure our local churches have given a convincing vision that through the church they can impact the world, not just Jerusalem — our community — but Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.”

The average giver, Hemphill said, is giving just to meet the budget needs of the local church — to pay the pastor a little more or to replace the carpet in the church or simply to keep the lights on. He added that the average giver is not giving in abundance because the local church hasn’t clearly communicated the mandate to reach the entire world through the partnerships of the denominational structure.

Even a small church with 50 or 60 in Sunday School each week is capable of playing a crucial role in accomplishing the Acts 1:8 challenge, Hemphill said. Though the small church may struggle to pay a part-time pastor and may have obstacles not present in a larger church, the small congregation can choose to contact its local association or partner with a nearby church to do a ministry project together. By joining hands with other Acts 1:8 partners, churches can reach the world.

“An understanding of these partnerships creates a can-do attitude,” Hemphill said. “The small church sees God at work through these partnerships and gains a larger vision.

“They have a good experience in one quadrant and they see God at work through them. The next year they may consider a bigger project in Judea. How would they do that? They’d call their state office and say, ‘We have some gifted men and women who want to put their gifts to work for the King. Is there any place that we could work with some other churches in assisting in Judea?’

“A parallel would be when you’re feeling discouraged or depressed and you start reaching out and ministering to others,” he said. “It makes you more encouraged.

“When a church has been discouraged for a few years, looks beyond itself and begins to invest in a Judea or Samaria or ends of the earth project, then they come back home and they tell everybody about what God accomplished. This revitalizes the local church. It keeps us from being focused on what we don’t have rather than what God desires to provide.

“What happens is the church is electrified because its people are stepping outside of their comfort zones,” Hemphill told BP.

Hemphill mentioned an event that has been created to conclude the “EKG: Heartbeat of God” 40-day study to help churches visualize these partnerships — the EKG Challenge and Celebration. The local church sets up its fellowship hall or gym with four quadrants to represent Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. In each quadrant they look at the partnerships they have to assist them in accomplishing the Acts 1:8 task.

“We are asking our churches to consider a mission project in each of the quadrants,” he said. “The larger church may build sufficient momentum to work in all four quadrants each year, while the smaller church may choose a different quadrant for a mission project each year.”

To keep the Acts 1:8 challenge at the forefront of Southern Baptist minds, Hemphill has initiated the distribution of blue “JJSE” bracelets, which are similar to the WWJD bracelets and Lance Armstrong’s yellow rubber LiveStrong bracelets that have become popular. The JJSE bracelets are meant to remind people to pray for the four realms of the Acts 1:8 challenge — Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.

The first J on the bracelet is to remind a person to pray for a lost friend or relative in his community, for his pastor and church to have a passion for the lost, and for other churches. The second J aims at sparking prayer for a lost friend or relative in the person’s state, prayer for the state convention and prayer for churches in the state to work together.

The S on the bracelet should remind the person to pray for a lost friend or relative in North America, to pray for missionaries in the United States and Canada, and for evangelical churches throughout North America. The E is meant to encourage prayer for a lost international friend or relative, for international missionaries and for those who have little or no exposure to the Gospel.

Hemphill said the bracelet may also be used as a witnessing tool to either tell a non-Christian about God’s plan for the world or to talk to a fellow Christian about the bracelet wearer’s home church or denomination. The bracelets are available for purchase at LifeWay Christian Stores, online at www.lifewaystores.com or by calling 1-800-448-8032.

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  • Erin Curry