The Future Belongs to Churches That Send

A passion for missions lies at the heart of the SBC—and at the heart of God, too. Because our God is a God who sends, we are a people who send as well.

You can sum up the Apostle Paul’s evangelization strategy in one sentence: Plant disciple-making churches in strategic cities around the world. As I noted last week, church planting is no substitute for evangelizing and disciple-making; it’s just the best facilitator for it. New churches are, statistically speaking, the most effective means for bringing in new believers.

Of course, in a Convention with more than 46,000 churches, revitalization is an urgent need as well. I believe the two go hand-in-hand. In fact, I believe this because of the experience of our own church. You see, ours is a revitalization story, not a church planting one. Long before the Summit was known for being a church that sends, it was a church that desperately needed a fresh breath of new life.

We Are a Revitalization Story

The Summit Church actually began with the nations in mind. Back in 1962, Sam and Rachel James were preparing to be missionaries to Vietnam, but their departure was slowed by a medical condition affecting their oldest son. Sam was frustrated by the delay, but he used the time to help get a new church started in northern Durham. After months of work, Sam James and a core group of “soul-winners” (this is how he always referred to these men) officially launched “The Homestead Heights Baptist Mission” on March 4, 1962.

Sam only preached one sermon at Homestead Heights, on that launch Sunday, before he and his wife left for the field. For more than four decades, Sam and Rachel faithfully labored in Vietnam. But while they labored for the lost in Vietnam, Homestead Heights lost its focus on the lost in Durham.

The church started well, and for many years it grew by reaching people. But around the time of the 1980s and 1990s, Homestead Heights began that slide so common to many established churches: Its focus turned inward, toward maintaining the status quo. The view toward the nations faded. Attendance began to decline, which only made the leadership re-double their focus on the internal: We have to meet more of our members’ needs!

By the time I arrived at Homestead Heights in 2002, the church was in desperate need of fresh vision and new life. Our attendance had bottomed out at 300, down from nearly 1,000 just a few years before. The road before us wasn’t easy, but I was blessed to have many key leaders who were willing to do whatever it took to reach people again. This core group of 300 wasn’t content to keep focusing on their needs. They wanted to see the church reach the community—and the world. So we re-launched the church as “the Summit” (because we were then located at the highest point in Durham). That core group of 300 vowed to put everything on the table for the sake of the mission. We covenanted around two values: (1) We would do whatever it took to reach people, and (2) we would follow the Spirit wherever he led.

The last 16 years have felt mostly like being a kite caught in a hurricane. Yes, those early days were full of challenges and growing pains. But we are living proof that plateaued congregations can gain new vision and new life, becoming a blessing to their community and the nations.

Sending Capacity Is More Important Than Seating Capacity

One of the key truths we clung to in the early days of the Summit was that sending capacity is more important than seating capacity. We initially thought our primary problems were about declining baptism numbers and poor attendance. But the revitalization we needed had more to do with a loss of mission and vision than it did empty pews.

Our God, you see, is a sending God. He sent his best into the world to save us. Jesus is referred to as “sent” forty-four times in the New Testament. After his resurrection, Jesus passed his identity on to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21 ESV). To follow Jesus is to be sent.

Ironically enough, we recovered our vision for reaching our community by being involved with the IMB overseas. My first year as pastor, we sent nearly 40 people on a mission trip. It was costly, but they came back with two things: a renewed excitement for what God was doing in cities around the world and the burning question of why we weren’t reaching our own city. That year we collected the largest Lottie Moon offering in our church’s history, being recognized by the IMB as the highest-giving church per capita in the entire SBC. And that year we began to focus more on sending capacity than seating capacity. That shift changed everything.

Shifting from seating capacity to sending capacity entails a fundamental shift in how we think about the mission of the church. Jesus’ vision of the church—the kind of church that would besiege the gates of hell—did not consist of a group of people gathered around one anointed leader but multiple leaders going out in the power of the Spirit. It’s a claim that very few of us take seriously: Jesus literally said that that a multiplicity of Spirit-filled leaders would be greater than his earthly, bodily presence (John 14:12).

In Acts, the biggest advances of the gospel in the New Testament happened through ordinary people. Of all the miracles in Acts, 39 of 40 were done outside of the church. Ordinary people, not big pulpits or big budgets, are the Spirit’s “plan A” for reaching the world. And whether your church is composed of 20 people or 20,000, you’ve got plenty of “ordinary people.”

We Are a Sending Story—and So Are You

About a decade ago, we at the Summit adopted an audacious goal. We said we wanted to plant 1,000 churches by 2050. The number itself was a mix between a hunch and a Spirit-led ambition, something I said impromptu in a sermon in the spirit of William Carey’s “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” By God’s grace, we have seen this vision begin to catch. To date, we have sent out 470 people to live long-term overseas, and we have planted 208 churches, both in the U.S. and around the world.

I have come to see that this goal was planted in our DNA from day one.

You see, I had Sam James back to speak to our church a few years ago, and he told me that the sermon he preached to launch our church was none other than William Carey’s famous missionary text, Isaiah 54:2-3:

“Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities” (NIV).

Carey used that text more than 300 years ago to remind churches in England that with the blessing of the gospel came the responsibility to take it to others. Sam had told that new congregation the same thing. Our church was literally founded with missions in mind.

As Sam stood before our congregation In 2012 to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of our “re-launch” as The Summit Church, most people in our church had never heard of him. He stood on our stage with tears in his eyes, and with a tremble in his voice, he said, “Honestly, I thought the vision God had given me of starting a church that sent missionaries to the nations had failed. But seeing you here today, and hearing about how God is now using you among the nations, is enough to make an old man’s dream come true.”

That weekend our church realized a profound truth: God founded us with sending in mind. And he founded yours on the same bedrock of missions, but in an even more profound way. Jesus told the first church planters in Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” Peel back the layers on just about any church plant (and every church had to be planted at some point!), and you’ll find a group of people who believe Matthew 16:18 and are acting on it. God never intends the churches he plants to become gospel reservoirs but gospel rivers. Every church is called to be involved in planting domestically and overseas.

From Every Church to Every Nation

Most of the churches in the New Testament were smaller, but the impact they made for the Great Commission was nothing short of miraculous. I see many parallels among the numerous smaller churches in the SBC today, whose members are making an enormous impact for the gospel. If we’re going to make a dent in global lostness today, then church planting and church revitalization need to come from every church to every nation.

Looking at the way that church planting in the SBC has increased in the past few years, I truly believe that we are on the cusp of seeing God do something remarkable. With personal evangelism as our fuel and church planting as our vehicle, God’s mission stands poised to impact every city in our nation and every country in the world. Just think:

What would it look like if every Southern Baptist church committed to help in the planting or revitalizing of just one domestic church next year?

And what if every one of our churches got involved reaching one unreached or underserved people group overseas?

Truly, the gates of hell would not stand a chance. I truly believe that the greatest movement of God in the SBC lies not in our past but in our future. Throughout Scripture, we see that “past graces” are evidences that God wants to bestow future graces. There can be no doubt that the SBC experienced some unusual grace in the Conservative Resurgence. Why would the Holy Spirit have done that if it were not to give us an unprecedented effectiveness among the nations? God does what he does not to preserve institutions but for the sake of the Great Commission. It’s all about the Great Commission. That means the best days of the SBC are ahead us. They have to be! There are still more than 6,000 unreached people groups in the world, and history cannot end until they have been given a gospel witness. It is our moment to expect great things of God and then attempt great things for God.