Operation Reach shows need for new churches

by Mike Creswell, BSCNC Staff
  • Eric Nixon, left, talks with Eddie Powers. Nixon is pastor of West Monroe Baptist Church and Powers is pastor of Sandy Ridge Baptist Church. Behind them is the Union County map that was the focus of study for the day.

  • Marcus Redding, right, a contract worker with the BSCNC's Strategic Focus Team speaks with an attendee.

  • Union Association DOM Eric Cook talks to the conference while referring to the map of Union County.

  • Jeff Smith, cowboy church planter who partners with the BSCNC, North American Mission Board and the (Southern Baptist) Cowboy Church Network, speaks to the need to start cowboy churches.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018 | 71 days old

At least 46 new churches — and probably more — are needed to reach specific neighborhoods and people groups in Union County right now, a Baptist study conference called Operation Reach has determined.

Sponsored jointly by the Union Baptist Association and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, the daylong conference at the association’s office in Monroe on Feb.. 13 was divided into two parts.

In the morning, some 50 church pastors and lay leaders heard statistical presentations on the county’s needs. In the afternoon, participants loaded onto eight church vans and toured eight different regions of the county. They were looking for pockets of lostness — areas not being reached by existing churches, Baptist or otherwise.

In late afternoon, participants returned to the association office to present their findings on large worksheets posted around the room. An immediate tally from those eight research groups showed 46 churches are needed. But further study on those findings will almost certainly show even more new churches are needed, said Mark Gray, conference leader and team leader for the convention’s Church Planting Team.

Several church planting consultants serving under Gray gave reports based on their extensive church planting ministry carried out across North Carolina and also took part in the survey trips.

Union County, which lies south and southeast of Greater Charlotte, has been part of the rapid growth which has occurred in the Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia metro area in recent decades.

Union County now has about 225,000 residents and has added a whopping 30,000 new people since 2010, with more new residents coming all the time, reported Eric Cook, Union Association’s director of missions, as he opened the conference. Those new residents include people from all over the world, he said. “The world has come to us in Union County.”

Further, Cook said, Union County’s rapid growth is almost certainly going to increase as the Monroe Connector, a big toll road project 12 lanes wide in places, becomes operational.

Cook showed an animation video which showed how the road will impact the county. Though designed to bypass the city of Monroe, that new road will, in effect, open new parts of Union County to development and bring in tens of thousands of new residents.

Cook pointed out that Wingate University, located off Highway 74 east of Monroe, has changed its front entrance to face the new Monroe Connector, a recognition of the future volumes of traffic it is expected to carry.

Baptists have to address this challenge, Cook insisted, adding that. “If we planted churches every week for 10 years, we would still be behind the curve.” Many of the county’s existing Baptist churches are largely the same and do things the same way, Cook said. Many new churches are needed which will also incorporate new approaches to bring more people to Jesus, he said.

Cook warned the challenge is too great for church turfism, and he urged Baptists at the meeting to look beyond “our little corner of the world.” They must work together as the early church did, he said. “There is strength in numbers,” he declared.

The Operation Reach approach of pushing church leaders in an area to look with eyes focused on lostness proved successful when one was held in Greensboro in 2007. That study day identified people groups and areas where more than 40 new churches were needed in metro Greensboro. Five years later, Baptists had started new churches to reach 30 of those, said Ken Holland.

Holland, retired Church Planting Team consultant who did two stints as director, helped set up that original Operation Reach concept. Now 88, he was at the Union meeting to lay out the Bible’s firm teaching on the importance of missions. The early church grew quickly and went everywhere, he said. “The church has been able to go even where Rome could not go,” Holland said.

They did that because as disciples of Jesus, they believed He truly had all authority and so they went where He said to go and make disciples. “Go make disciples! That’s still His agenda,” Holland said, adding that the early churches understood that their mission was not just birthing believers but growing disciples.

But Holland said new churches are not “one kind suits all.” He told of his years of experience in starting churches which were set up to reach particular socio-economic groups. Church planters tend to be able to reach people like them, Holland said.

Gray expanded on that concept in his presentation. “We want to challenge you to reach better the kind of people you are reaching. Those who you are not reaching, that’s where we need new churches,” he said.

Gray showed pictures of different kinds of vehicles and houses and asked those present to match them to church buildings ranging from megachurch to a small white church building on a rural road.

Different kinds of churches are needed for different kinds of people, Gray said. Upper income people prefer churches with fewer than 100 members; those in lower socioeconomic levels prefer small churches with fewer than 50 in worship.

Another factor that affects outreach is a church’s identity — or lack of one — in the community, Gray said. Once he went into a convenience store and asked the owner if he knew where a certain Baptist church was. No, the man replied, he had never heard of it. “You could look out the window and see the church, but he had never heard of it,” Gray said, not a positive reflection of the church’s witness.

William Ortega said Hispanics are by far the largest ethnic missions challenge in North Carolina. Their 1 million or so number is now about 10 percent of the state’s total population. By 2050, he said a full 30 percent of the U.S. population will be Hispanic. Ortega is Hispanic church planting consultant with the convention’s Church Planting Team and travels the state to train and coach Hispanic church planters.

Hispanics place a high value on sincere friendship; they work hard and value an opportunity to work; they are loyal and expect loyalty; they come mostly from a Roman Catholic background and tend to be spiritual people, Ortega said.

There are about 190 Baptist churches in the state now, Ortega said, but the goal is to start 135 new Hispanic churches by 2020. Forty of those new Hispanic churches need to be planted in Greater Charlotte. Five of those new churches should be planted in Union County, because more than 10,000 Hispanics live within five miles of downtown Monroe, Ortega said.

“We cannot close our eyes to 10,000 people going to hell,” he said.

Ralph Garay described the growing missions challenge of Asians: More than 300,000 Asians now live in North Carolina, which has the third fastest-growing Asian population among U.S. states. Garay leads in planting churches among scores of Asian populations in North Carolina for the convention’s Church Planting Team.

Garay and several Asian pastors went out with a group of Union County leaders and visited Asian restaurants and communities. They called for a number of new churches for Asians: an Asian Indian church for the town of Waxhaw, new Korean and Vietnamese churches in Indian Trail, and a Hmong church in Monroe.

Cowboy church planter Jeff Smith, sporting his usual cowboy hat and boots, talked of the need for affinity churches. Smith works with the Baptist state convention and the North American Mission Board. Some people who spend their weekends riding horses “refuse to come to a fancy church with fancy people,” Smith said.

Smith has helped start more than 80 cowboy churches across North Carolina, one of  the nation’s top states in numbers of horses. Union County leads the state in horses and equestrians, Cook said.

Cowboy churches are not just about horses, because 75 percent of the people attend do not even have or ride horses. Rather, Cook said, “It’s a simple church; it fits their world.”

When study groups returned, several reported seeing horse farms and horses in fields that suggested cowboy churches may be needed.

Mark Navey said his group explored rural areas in Union County but saw multiple horse farms that call for cowboy churches. Navey is youth pastor of Lakeview Baptist Church in Monroe.

As the conference closed, Cook reminded those present that lives are at stake.

“If these proposals stay on those worksheets, nothing will happen,” he said.

Cook urged attendees to pray for God’s leadership in planning outreach that would start churches and bring the people of Union County to faith in Christ. Cook said the results of this conference “could start something that will last for generations.”