LAS VEGAS (BP) — The first 10 years of Las Vegas pastor Vance Pitman’s Christian life were defined by many significant words — the usual suspects like grace, faith and growth.
But there’s another word you can’t miss either.
“I was frustrated, and I was discouraged,” said Pitman, who serves as the pastor of Hope Church and a national mobilizer at the North American Mission Board. “Because I grew up in the kind of Christian culture where you came to Christ, and then the focus was on obeying Christ. He saved you, now you live for Him. And the problem is, the harder I tried, the more I seemed to fail and fall short.”
When one of Pitman’s early mentors encouraged him to let go of the burden of following Jesus, simply be with Jesus and let His life live through him, it changed everything for Pitman. Then, when he started Hope Church in Las Vegas in 2001 and he had to wrestle with how to disciple new believers without any kind of spiritual background, that truth became the foundation for disciple-making at the church.
As Hope Church has helped new believers embrace a Christian life that flows out of an intimate relationship with Jesus, the church has become one of the fastest-growing Southern Baptist churches of the past two decades. Hope Church has grown from 18 people meeting in Pitman’s living room to 2,000 people meeting in small groups throughout the Las Vegas metro area.
More important for Pitman, the church has become a model of missional engagement. Hope Church has launched 68 new church starts and is working toward starting 300 churches in the western United States in the next 15 years. They also send out 40 to 50 international mission teams a year and have adopted an unreached unengaged people group (UUPG) in the Arabian Peninsula.
“We tend to see mission as that thing in the church that’s reserved for the ‘special forces’ of the church, but I really believe by conviction that mission is just who Jesus is, and the degree in which we are allowing Christ to live in us will be reflected in us sharing His mission,” Pitman said.
Pitman’s new book, Unburdened: Stop Living for Jesus so Jesus Can Live through You, unpacks his answer to the question, “What is a disciple?” The book centers on three key relationships in a believer’s life: the relationship with God, fellow believers and with the world.
“First and foremost, it’s about an intimate love relationship with Jesus,” Pitman said. “That relationship with Jesus then spills into a relationship that we now have with His family. And then it’s our relationship with Jesus and His family that equips us and shapes us and sends us to join in relationships with people who don’t know God at all so that they could come to know Him.”
Pitman says when the average church in America, including Southern Baptists, thinks about discipleship they tend to define it either by what a person believes or what a person does.
“What changes all of that is the relationship we’ve been invited to with Christ,” Pitman said.
This way of looking at discipleship has a direct impact upon how a church pursues missions says Pitman. He encourages churches not to teach their congregants to simply make evangelism another action step on their task list. A growing disciple who is intimately connected with God and the church will naturally share his or her faith.
“Witnessing is not a task we have to perform,” Pitman said. “It’s a trait of the character of Christ that must be exemplified in our life. If we are going to be Christ-like, sharing the Gospel is a part of that.”
Pitman added that this has implications for church planting as well. Often, North American churches start congregations through new worship services. He urges churches to turn that paradigm around. Start by engaging the city with the Gospel, then make disciples.
“The idea of seeing people live the life of Jesus as they abide, connect and share happens before you even plant the church,” Pitman said. “Churches are a byproduct of disciples being made by engaging the city with the Gospel.”
Pitman noted that Hope Church has now sent out between 400 to 500 people to start new churches throughout the West.
“That never would have happened if we hadn’t discipled them in ‘abide, connect, share’ from the very beginning,” Pitman added.