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ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)--At least 80 percent of evangelical American churches are plateaued or declining, Ken Hemphill said, noting that the only true church growth is occurring in Asia and Africa today, not in the United States or Western Europe.
“We have had 30 years of church growth emphasis and, based on statistical evidence, the church growth movement has failed,” Hemphill said during a leadership summit for the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s missions staff and a number of local church leaders in early June, focusing on the revitalization of the local church using Empowering Kingdom Growth principles.
“My dad was a pastor. He went to every [Southern Baptist] Convention. If the Sunday School Board sold it, he bought it,” Hemphill, national strategist for the SBC’s EKG emphasis, reminisced. Near the end of his life, Hemphill’s father asked what part of his library his son wanted. Hemphill selected the shelf with the little blue and gray study course books written by the pioneers of the Sunday School movement among Southern Baptists.
“Washburn, Burrows and Flake wrote nothing more than church growth books. But it was the laity that studied these books,” Hemphill noted.
“My generation focused on training pastors,” he continued, “but something was lost in communicating to the laity. We spent a lot of resources and energy with pastors’ seminars and the like, but somehow what the pastors learned didn’t translate to the laity.”
Hemphill said he began to study the dynamics of “change movements” in history and saw that the cultural movements that changed the heart of a nation and mobilized the people always had a great leader. “God uses leaders to advance His Kingdom on earth,” Hemphill said. “God always begins a great work in the hearts of leaders.
“Look at the Old Testament pattern: From the patriarchs to Moses to Joshua to Nehemiah to Paul -- God always begins a great work in the heart of leaders.”
Great leaders all had passion -- and passion is contagious, Hemphill said; because of that passion, people wanted to join the leader’s cause no matter what it cost them.
In the 1950s, those study course books became the tools to ignite a passion in the hearts of people, Hemphill said, but the church growth movement of the 1970s-1990s, however, invested too much time and energy in the mechanics of church growth.
“The church growth movement went at it backwards,” Hemphill stated, focusing first on strategy, style or structure -- “cells or Sunday School classes; hymns or choruses; worship or small groups; words in a hymnal or on the screen.”
“But if you change structure without changing passion, you will split the church,” Hemphill said. “The heartbeat of the church must be changed first.”
David E. Hankins, executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, added, “I believe virtually all of our pastors have a heart for God. We want, first of all, to help them prepare their people to have a heart for God. Our second goal is to help them develop an Acts 1:8 strategy. Then we want to help our church leaders show their people how to be faithful stewards and how to be engaged in reaching the world for Christ through sacrificial missions involvement.”
“How do you change a church?” Hemphill asked. “We can’t. If we get the right Scriptures in the hearts of the right people, the Holy Spirit will do the rest.”
With one of the greatest needs for revitalization of Southern Baptist churches being Kingdom-centered leaders, Hemphill listed seven characteristics of such leaders:
1) Kingdom-centered leaders always point to the activity of the Lord.
God has been at work in every church at some time in their history, Hemphill said. Instead of taking credit for practicing the mechanics of church growth principles, or for some program that has some measure of success, Hemphill reminded pastors to give God the credit. The same God who worked in the past desires to do a great work today, he said.
2) Kingdom-centered leaders must learn to give ministry away.
Exodus 18 tells the story of Moses trying to do it all, Hemphill said, but Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, counseled that he give his ministry away instead of being possessive. Sometimes pastors think that giving ministry away will lessen their authority, Hemphill said, but the bottom line is that the reverse is true.
3) Kingdom-centered leaders stand in the gap for their people.
While God was giving the law, the people were making an idol, despite God’s warning that He would wipe them out for doing so. Moses interceded to the point of laying his own life on the line before God. “Do I love my church people that much?” Hemphill asked. “I cannot imagine giving up my inheritance of ‘eternal life’ the way the Apostle Paul was willing to do,” he said, referencing Romans 9:1-3.
4) Kingdom-centered leaders provide for generational leadership.
Citing the Numbers 11 account of the Israelites’ complaining about their hardships, Hemphill asked, “What do you do when the people rebel?” He answered that the godly leader nevertheless must continue to cast the vision, pray for the people and train the next generation.
5) Kingdom-centered leaders serve the people and speak kindly to them.
In 1 Kings 12, Hemphill recounted, Reheboam rejected the counsel of his father’s advisers, who warned the young king that the people were tired. The advisers encouraged Reheboam to speak kindly to the people, but he refused the counsel. Too much of today’s preaching is not very kind, sometimes failing to communicate to people their value and their worth, Hemphill lamented, calling Baptists to rediscover who we are in Christ.
6) Kingdom-centered leaders model and mentor.
Citing the Matthew 10 account of Jesus sending the disciples out two by two, Hemphill inquired, “How many of our deacons have ever seen someone born again in a home they were visiting in with their pastor?” Leaders cannot just teach people what to do, Hemphill said. “We must demonstrate to them what to do.”
7) Kingdom-centered leaders find a ministry partner or coach.
Leaders recognize their limitations and seek partners, Hemphill said, then asked: How can a local church find better partners than a state convention or the Southern Baptist Convention to help them fulfill the Acts 1:8 mandate?
“God advances His Kingdom by revitalizing and multiplying local churches,” Hemphill said. “All the work of associations, state conventions and the national convention is for the purpose of serving the local church. Planting local churches is the way God expands his Kingdom.
“Revitalization must begin with a heart transformation,” he continued. “You can’t make change without a DNA change in the heart of the church. Many people do not perceive change as ‘good’ unless their heart is changed. In far too many churches, the DNA of the church or the reason the church exists is to ‘make me happy.’”
A problem within many churches, Hemphill suggested, is that too many members think of the church as the “Love Boat” -– soft music and “bring me tea at the right hour and do not move my deck chair.”
“That is not what we are about,” Hemphill said. “The ship of Zion is like a hospital ship. We are bringing in the wounded. The church is not the Love Boat to make me happy. It is designed to be the effective tool of God to advance the Kingdom in a dark world. We may move the deck chairs and the music will be generational to speak to the heart. The package will change but the message is the same. The message needs to be spoken in the language that people understand.”
The heart of the church must be changed to a biblical perspective, Hemphill continued. Then renewal of the mind is possible. “If we don’t capture this moment, we are in trouble,” he said. “God begins with a crisis to move us out of apathy.
“Will the church permeate our culture? Only if the heart and mind are changed to a biblical orientation,” he said, noting that the heart and the mind “are inseparably linked together.”
The EKG principles Hemphill set forth in his book and 40-day study, “EKG: The Heartbeat of God,” reach the heart, he said, while principles taught in Nate Adams’ similar resource, “The Acts 1:8 Challenge,” reach the mind.
Changes in the structure, strategy or style are possible when the heart and head are aligned with God’s Kingdom agenda revealed in the Word of God, Hemphill said. God works through the principles of Scripture to address spiritual problems that in turn provide lasting and meaningful solutions for churches and their members, he said.
Local churches must focus on the entire world if they are to be effective in reaching their own communities, Hemphill pointed out. If a church seeks only to reach its local area, or its Jerusalem in an Acts 1:8 perspective, the target likely is too small to hit, he said, noting, “We must challenge our pastors and churches to aim for the world and then they will hit Jerusalem.”
Hemphill added that “financial resources follow obedience and vision.” Most statistics confirm that Southern Baptists are at the lowest level ever in per capita giving. Hemphill noted research from George Barna that the most generous churches in America usually are liberal in theology. The same study found that the average layperson wants to know about stewardship. In June, B&H Publishing Group of LifeWay Christian Resources released a new book by Hemphill, titled “Making Change,” which also will include a 40-day study, focusing on practical expressions of personal stewardship from a biblical perspective.
Following Hemphill’s teaching, the Louisiana state missions staff and key leaders had a question-and-answer time with Hemphill and Hankins. During the discussion, Hankins shared that his vision that 1,000 Louisiana Baptist churches would be at least partially engaged in integrating EKG principles into the life of the church. He also voiced a desire to see 1,000 Louisiana churches committed to being “80:20” churches where at least 20 percent of the total resources of the congregation are invested in missions endeavors.
The Louisiana convention mission staff currently is working on a strategy to implement the EKG principles into a three-phase repeatable emphasis beginning in 2007.
John Yeats is director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention and recording secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention.