When asked to ponder the dramatic growth of my church, Berean Baptist Church in Burnsville, my mind goes to a quote by our Lead Pastor included in an Outreach Magazine article, which included Berean as #10 among the fastest growing churches in the country. Dr. Wes Feltner said, “We didn’t sit down in a room and put together a strategic plan for growth. Growth happened, and we are being strategic in our planning to steward that growth.”
Believe me, we are delighted that Berean is growing, but we cannot point to a strategic plan, nor can I identify programs or evangelistic efforts to which we credit the growth. It just happened. But it has caused me to reflect on what I have experienced during my almost 11 years on Berean’s ministry staff and here are three of my observations.
- Theology and History of Growth
There are two books I would commend for your study. The first is Alan Kreider’s The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. Explaining the book’s sub-title, “The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire,” Kreider wrote, “This was patient ferment.
The patient God was at work, Origen affirmed, and God used not influential or powerful people, but obscure fishers and hunters to achieve a huge end. It was brewing, but not under anyone’s control. It was uncoordinated, it was unpredictable, and it seemed unstoppable. The [Christian] faith… was attractive to people who were dissatisfied with their old cultural and religious habits.” (p. 12)
My second recommendation is Christian Schwarz’ Natural Church Development (NCD). At the heart of his teaching is the “all by itself” principle found in Mark 4. 26 “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (ESV)
Schwarz writes, “This parable clearly shows what people can and should do, and what they cannot do. They should sow and harvest, they may sleep and rise. What they cannot ever do is this: they cannot bring forth the fruit.” (p. 14)
Going back to Dr. Feltner’s earlier quote, we are “being strategic in our planning to steward that growth.” Using NCD terms, we focus on quality – inspiring worship, empowering leadership, gift-based ministry. We seek to eliminate obstacles to growth by developing effective structures in our ministry for children, youth, and their families. We are in the preliminary stages of launching holistic small groups called Missional Communities that focus outward rather that retreating inward into “holy huddles”. We plan all we can and recognize growth as God’s domain.
- Cultural Context
Back in October 2015, Dr. Ed Stetzer, who now holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, addressed Transform Minnesota’s Evangelical Leaders Forum. He specifically responded to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey. The survey generated several sensational responses, leading some to predict the decline or even demise of Christianity in the United States.
I appreciated Dr. Stetzer’s calm and clarifying use of facts and statistics. He contrasted the rapid decline of nominal Christians within our society to the steady growth of evangelicals’ “market share” within American Christianity. There is a hemorrhaging taking place among mainline Protestant denominations. For more details, I encourage you to check out his blog, The Exchange.
At Berean we have experienced a flood of believers who are leaving, with much regret, their long-time church homes because the Gospel has been compromised or is neglected. What they find each week at Berean is biblically-grounded, culturally relevant preaching that makes no apologies for the truth and power of the Gospel.
Another wave of migration has been from churches who may be strong on truth but don’t give much room for grace. As I conduct interviews for baptism and membership, I am amazed and encouraged by the stories of people coming back to the church after years (sometimes decades) of disillusionment stemming from poor treatment by fellow Christians. Dr. Feltner is often heard saying, “Here at Berean it’s OK to not be OK”. We aim to see our lives transformed by the power of the Gospel, but we meet people where they are.
One more example of why some people are coming to Berean is our inclusion of two styles of worship. For decades Berean has embraced what is widely referred to as “contemporary or modern” worship, but have always maintained a place for “classic or traditional” worship. People come through our doors, often with remorse, but they no longer feel welcome at their former church because hymns and choirs are considered anachronistic. We are not wedded to a particular style of worship, but are more concerned that people are inspired by the content of the worship experience which is done with excellence, whether modern or classic.
- Strong, Stable Leadership
Five years ago, when we celebrated our 50th anniversary, we thanked God for his providential leading and we recognized human examples of sacrifice and dependability among our founders. We marveled at how they bought 17 acres of farmland in then-unincorporated Burnsville in a location that eventually was developed into the southern confluence of I-35W and 35E.
For the past 38 years we have had three senior pastors – Jerry Sheveland, Roger Thompson, and Wes Feltner. Each has brought unique styles of leadership and ministry passion, but all have been strong, Biblical expositors.
For the past fifteen years or so, Berean has also been led by godly, competent and committed Elders. Humanly speaking, I credit much of today’s growth to their wise and steady oversight. The seamless transition from Pastor Thompson’s 23-year tenure to Pastor Feltner’s current 4-year ministry is a tribute to many individuals selflessly desiring to see God’s kingdom expanded and his name honored.
There are so many other stories I would love to tell or people to highlight, but as I reflect on Berean’s remarkable growth, I see it as the work of God, pouring out His blessings on those who wisely and courageously steward their responsibilities in a historical and cultural context over which they have no control. Whether the seed reproduces thirty, sixty, or hundredfold is the decision of our sovereign Lord.
Brent Birdsall is the Missional Strategies Pastor at Berean Baptist Church in Burnsville, MN. His role as Missional Strategies Pastor is to help every member of the Berean FaithFamily to be fully engaged in mission, locally and globally, as God has called and gifted them. He has his B.A. from Moody Bible Institute, M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and has done post-graduate studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Bethel Seminary.
All photos are courtesy of Outreach Magazine, 2017