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Thomas Road among large churches partnering with NAMB to reach cities

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–Officials with the North American Mission Board are hoping today’s mega-churches will beget mega-churches in other cities.

Five Southern Baptist churches thus far are partnering with the Southern Baptist Convention agency to start “flagship” or “regional” churches in four large cities with the ultimate goal of reaching every people group in those cities with the gospel.

Richard Harris, NAMB’s vice president of church planting, said the sponsoring churches and NAMB each will be funding $250,000 for a flagship church over a two-year period. Within five years, NAMB hopes the flagship churches will grow to the point they begin to plant other churches in their respective cities. NAMB’s funding stops after two years.

“The basic thesis is that large churches know how to grow churches in cities and impact the cities,” Harris said.

One of the mega-churches is 22,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., where Jerry Falwell is senior pastor. The church will be sponsoring a mission congregation in Chicago’s northern suburbs.

“Church planting is the heartbeat of most of the Southern Baptist Convention churches I fellowship with,” Falwell told the Biblical Recorder, a newsjournal for North Carolina Baptists. “Frankly, it’s the only hope we have for our nation in the 21st century.”

Thomas Road first affiliated with the SBC in 1997 through its financial support of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia state convention, although it maintains relationships with independent Baptist groups. Thomas Road plans to give at least $100,000 to the Cooperative Program this year — the first year such gifts have come from the church’s budget rather than designated contributions.

Falwell described the concept of NAMB’s partnership with mega-churches as dynamic.

“It harnesses the awesome resources of the largest evangelistic movement in North America, if not the world,” he said. The idea of a local church taking the lead in a church plant and NAMB providing the support is scripturally based, he said.

The other sponsoring churches and the cities where leaders will plant new churches: First Baptist Church, Orlando, Fla. — Philadelphia; First Baptist Church, Woodstock, Ga. — Las Vegas; Prestonwood Baptist Church, Dallas — Boston; and First Baptist Church, Euless, Texas — Boston. About 15 other mega-churches are considering partnerships.

Two of the five sponsoring churches — Thomas Road and First Baptist, Woodstock — have already called a church planter to pastor the new churches.

In Lake County, just north of Chicago, 26 families have already expressed interest in participating in the church-planting project, Harris said. Church planter Kevin Garber, a Thomas Road member who is finishing a doctoral degree this spring at Falwell’s Liberty University, plans to move to Chicago in May with his wife and three children.

Sponsor churches were asked to participate by NAMB during an annual meeting of mega-church pastors, said Doug Metzger, NAMB’s director of strategic focus cities.

Thomas Road chose Chicago, Falwell said. “We have a strong television constituency in Chicago. Many, many write us wanting a good evangelistic, Bible-teaching church in the area,” he said.

Southern Baptists have a presence in each of the cities where a flagship church is sought. For example, the Chicago area has four Baptist associations with more than 200 Southern Baptist churches. The largest of the four, Chicago Metro Baptist Association, is composed predominantly of African American and ethnic churches, Metzger said. The other three are in suburban areas to the north and west.

All four associations are working together on the church plant, he said. “It’s created a marvelous partnership that never existed before,” Metzger said.

Harris acknowledged some local churches might have animosity toward the church plants, thinking they will hurt their ongoing outreach. “We’re not going there to harm. We’re going there to try to help,” Harris said.

Most of the existing churches have never grown to any significant number of members when compared with other churches in the area, Harris said. More than 200 churches in the Chicago area may seem like a lot, Metzger said. But the population of the Chicago area is 8.6 million. In contrast, Houston has a population of 4.2 million and 500 Southern Baptist churches.

Advantages of flagship churches are not only the financial resources, which are much larger than for a typical church plant, but the other types of support from the sponsoring church, Metzger said. The sponsors will send multiple mission teams on a continual basis for six months or a year, he said.

Some members of the sponsoring churches may move to help with the church plant, Harris said. The churches can challenge laypeople who work for national companies to relocate to the church plant area, and some are responding, he said.

The concept of flagship or regional churches is one part of a strategic plan for reaching large cities, Metzger said. Mission trips to these cities to sponsor block parties and to canvass neighborhoods to distribute tracts or “Jesus” videos also are planned, he said.

Thomas Road Baptist Church, since its founding in 1956, has sent out 2,100 former members who are now senior pastors, Falwell said. About half of them serve in churches they have started, he said.

In a 1998 interview about joining the SBC, Falwell noted Thomas Road’s emphasis on starting new churches. “We’re training 1,000 pastors right now,” Falwell said. “Church planting is a major priority with me and has been all of my ministry. It is with Paige Patterson [president of the SBC and North Carolina’s Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary], and we plan to coalesce with our graduates in planting a lot of new Southern Baptist churches.”

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  • Jimmy Allen