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This church’s ‘family:’ 53 children and growing

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (BP)–At least 53 churches and missions in south Florida can trace their roots to the influence of Bill Billingsley and Sheridan Hills Baptist Church. But don’t ask pastor Billingsley to tell you which one he’s most proud of. “Would I choose one of my children as my favorite?” he asked.
It’s hard to draw comparisons between congregations as diverse as 17-year-old Flamingo Road Baptist, with its contemporary format and Saturday night worship option designed to appeal to affluent 30-somethings, and four-year-old Beth T’Filah, with services drawn from Hebrew liturgy to make the Messiah known in Broward County’s Jewish community. Sheridan Hills’ extended family includes African American, Hispanic, Haitian and Korean congregations. The newest member of the family, Grace Romanian, began meeting just this year in Sheridan Hills’ chapel and gymnasium and will be moving soon to its new building, a former Christian Science meeting place.
Each congregation has its own personality and reaches a group of people that Hollywood-based Sheridan Hills, by itself, perhaps could not.
Billingsley is convinced starting churches is God’s plan to evangelize America. The way God deals with evil in the world is through the church, he said. “The church is the battering ram that the gates of hell cannot resist.”
Starting new churches also encourages discipleship, Billingsley said. More churches mean more people serving as pastors, more singing in choirs, more serving as Sunday school teachers and leaders — and more training being done.
Baptists have recognized for years, as a Sunday school growth principle, “to grow, you must start new units,” Billingsley noted. But “we have not been willing to admit it at the church level.” So the same pastor who is critical of a Sunday school teacher for being unwilling to divide a class may not be so eager to apply the principle when it comes to committing leadership and support from his own church to start another congregation, Billingsley observed.
“We start (a church) for Jesus’ sake, but what happens is, our motives deteriorate,” Billingsley said. “We begin to build our own reputations. So there’s a subtle temptation that is of the devil. Jesus said if we try to save our life, we will lose it. That’s the thing we have to come to terms with — our own selfishness.”
New-work sponsorship has meant giving up leaders serve in the new congregations, Billingsley said. “It has cost our church.” But he added, “I don’t think it has hurt our church.”
What does it take to successfully start a church? There is no formula, Billingsley said. But a new start, whether it’s in south Florida or an overseas mission field, typically requires three things, he said:
— a leader, such as a pastor or missionary.
— a group of people the leader relates with.
— a place the congregation can identify as its own and where members of the congregation can invite others.
Leadership is a critical factor in starting a church, Billingsley said. “That’s basic. That is the first thing you need.” To be effective, he added, the leader must be a soul-winner who is confident and adventurous for God.
Billingsley’s emphasis on leadership was underscored by Hal Mayer, executive pastor of Flamingo Road Baptist Church. Mayer, a former Sheridan Hills staff member, said Flamingo Road — which has started 13 “missions and grand-missions” of its own — made a transition in its approach to church planting as the importance of leadership became evident.
At first, Mayer said, the church would start a mission when a need was targeted, then look for a person to lead it. One result was a high turnover of pastors. Now, he said, “we start a church when we find the right person.”
Sheridan Hills is “a model in how to start churches,” said Jack Millwood, pastor of First Baptist Church, Weston, started by Sheridan Hills in 1989. “What they do, that I think is the key, is they start with a vision and carry that vision through the embryonic stage, birth the church, give it leadership and guidance until it’s able to walk and then do their best to get it on its own.”
When the Weston congregation was started, 200 volunteers from Sheridan Hills made 17,000 phone calls to area residents, 2,200 of whom requested information about the new church. Volunteers hand-addressed and mailed letters and brochures. The first service, held at the Wometco Theater in Weston, was attended by 341 people.
When the new church was ready to build, Sheridan Hills helped arrange financing. Many Sheridan Hills members bought bonds, Millwood noted. “We carried all the debt.”
As a sponsoring church, Sheridan Hills tries to be a cheerleader, not a caretaker, Billingsley said.
“We want to cut them loose as soon as possible,” he said. “We don’t want to develop a spirit of mama-ism.”
New churches are going to wrestle and struggle, he pointed out. “In that struggle comes strength.”
Millwood noted, “We’ve been free to become our own kind of church. We’re not a carbon copy of Sheridan Hills.”
But First Baptist, Weston, now with nearly 1,200 members, has followed Sheridan Hills’ lead in one respect. The church has two missions of its own, one Hispanic and one Korean, and has assisted three other new works — one on the island of St. Vincent — with financial gifts and volunteers.
Billingsley expects the new churches will start other new churches, as well as growing themselves. “Some of those will become mega-churches, but while they grow, they ought to be starting other churches.”
It’s not a question of one or the other, Mayer agreed. “We want to do both. We think you can do both.”
On a typical weekend, about 1,400 people attend services at Flamingo Road, he said. “Starting churches has not hurt our attendance here at all.”

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  • Shari Schubert