The inception of The Branch Church in Dahlonega, Georgia was simple. I have heard stories from fellow church planters with beautiful strategies. They had logos and artwork to help illustrate the vision and a massive team supporting them financially who also packed up and moved to help plant. We had none of that. We had borrowed equipment, no money, and not much support. I had a mentor of mine sit me down one day to tell me why Dahlonega was a mistake and that I should not plant there. I thank God for that brother and his deep concern for myself and my family.
We did have one thing. This one thing would turn into our greatest asset and our only strength. It is how we have survived for four years now, planted a church in Milledgeville, Georgia, and have a robust vision for the future. This one thing is the belief that God has called the church to equip his people for the work of ministry.
Around a year before we moved to Dahlonega, I was studying the Bible trying to figure out how to lead a church, what the church is, and what it isn’t. Before this time of searching the Scriptures, my ecclesiology was based on what I had seen and experienced, not on what the Bible says. However, as I was asking these questions about the church, I read Ephesians 4:11-12 and it changed everything for me.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-12).
I am sure in my 26 years I had read that passage at some time, but it now gripped me. Typically, I sleep easily every night, but this verse kept me awake. It encouraged me through its clarity, but it also terrified me because I didn't know how to do it. Almost all of my church experience had been to let the pastor and staff do the work of the ministry — to preach, to sing, to visit, to evangelize — and as church members, we just supported them. We tithed, we prayed, and we showed up. That is how I understood church to work. However, that version of church had become boring and problematic to me in the last few years. Finally, God had shown me why I had become some discontent with that idea of church: because that model is not how the church is designed to be!
I began reaching out to anyone and everyone, devouring books on the church and all that she could be if we were faithful to carry out the commands of scripture. Two books in particular were of great encouragement to me as this process began: Total Church by Steve Timmis and Tim Chester and And: The Gathered and The Scattered Church by Hugh Halter. These two books began to make Ephesians 4:11-12 tangible. They gave practical principles that they had implemented in their respective churches, and the fruit they had seen because of it.
In light of the command to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12), we at the Branch Church came to four key convictions: (1) we will have a plurality of leadership, (2) we will equip primarily through missional communities, (3) we will focus on college students, and (4) we will plant more churches who equip the saints.
Plurality of Leadership
“Apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” (Eph. 4:11) were given the task of equipping the saints. That's five different gifts, five different skills, and five different leaders. Five. I had never truly seen that before. Five different positions with one purpose: to equip the church. God gave a plurality of leaders to equip his church. Over and over again, Paul commends plurality of leadership in the church to us as he establishes elders at every church he plants. In Titus and 1 Timothy, outlines clear qualifications for these men to lead.
Let me now share a few ways where this conviction of the plurality of leadership has been incredibly helpful for us a church.
1. Stay in our lane
It is such a comfort to know that I don't have to be every single thing that the church needs. Instead of working on every area of ministry and not doing any well, I through our plurality of elders, get to focus on the gifts and talents God has given me to equip the church. In turn, I trust the other elders to do the same. For us, in this season, we have an incredible spread from our elders. I am most passionate and gifted in preaching, vision casting, and leadership development. We have an elder that leads our discipleship through Missional Communities and DNAs. We have an elder leading our worship gathering, one leading our families, and one that loves to handle the administration and business side. This protects us all from burnout and also allows the church to be healthy.
2. Jesus is the Lead Pastor
In our culture, Lead Pastors of growing, healthy churches can easily turn into a celebrities. I don't believe many of them aspire to that, but our human culture wants to elevate people that seem to have extraordinary talents or abilities. What starts out as innocent turns into a problem for the church. It seems that we hear more and more stories of men falling out of the ministry because they abused their power and authority. Colossians 1:18 and Ephesians 1:22 are clear: Christ is the head of the church. He is the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4). He is the lead pastor. This is HIS church, not mine. First and foremost as elders, we serve together and submit to Jesus Christ.
3. Longevity of the Church
When the plurality of leadership submits to Jesus as the leader of the church, a practical benefit rises to the top. The church is not built around one man, so the health and the longevity of the church will be sustained even when some of the elders are called to move from the area, join on with another church, or have to take a break from ministry. We see this story play out way to often in our churches. The pastor leaves for whatever reason, and the church begins to crumble without him there. With a true plurality of elders, there may be a temporary setback, but the health of the church was never dependent on a man, but a group of men submitting to Jesus.
When I would be laying in bed at night staring at the ceiling fan go around and around, the question I was pondering was weighty. I am going to be judged when I get to eternity for how I cared for Christ’s Church. I have to get “equipping the saints” right or else I will answer for that. What does he mean “equip the saints?” Is that different than discipleship? Have I seen equipping or discipleship take place well? What are the “works of ministry?”
That summer, I was at the beach with my family. My daughter was around four at the time, and was just getting brave enough to play in the waves. This particular day, the waves were enormous and her little body was getting pushed around. But it was the salt water in the eyes that were giving her the most trouble. While we were in the ocean, I told her, “When you hear the wave, face the beach, and the water will hit your back, not your face.” So the wave would come, she wouldn't turn, and tears would flow. This went on for a few minutes, with her wanting to quit, until she got it. The wave came, she turned really quickly, and boom, no salt water in the face. She was so excited! We continued to play and a few minutes later some of our friends walked out. My daughter quickly yelled out to her friend, “When you hear the wave, turn around!”
Now that story seems simple and insignificant, but it filled in the gaps of what “equipping the saints” looked like. What I had understood of equipping would look like me pulling my daughter out of the ocean, going up to the room, teaching her every aspect of the ocean, the life in the ocean, the moons effect on the tide, the breakdown of the water, whether the waves were predestined or not, etc. But what we did was in the water. I gave her a simple truth and an opportunity to practice that truth without removing her from the ocean. When she fully understood that truth, she naturally began to teach others.
From that, we decided that our Sunday gathering would not be the primary organizational structure of the church. Instead, it would be missional communities that would meet throughout the week in people’s homes. The primary purpose of these groups was to understand simple truths from the Bible, and then practice what we learned through given opportunities. We can practice these opportunities together as a community or individually at our jobs, but the community would be our support and accountability to being doing something with what we have learned. On an average month, we will spend two weeks studying the Bible together, one night in prayer, and one night throwing a party for those around us that don't know the gospel.
To equip the saints is to teach the truth of the gospels but also give opportunities to practice that truth. You can’t have one without the other. We see this play out in Luke 9 and Luke 10 where Jesus sends out the 12 and the 72. They have heard the teaching of Jesus, now they need to go apply it. Jesus was there to debrief and encourage them once it was over. The community part is huge, knowing that obedience is hard, scary, and failure is a strong possibility.
I was able to go to four different colleges for my undergrad. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I kept chasing this girl, that is now my wife, so it was worth it. There was something about the atmosphere of college towns and the season of life that college students are in that really appealed to me. As I started wrestling with ‘equipping the saints,’ I asked myself what was the largest pool of saints that needed equipping. Was it a people group? A city? The Lord grew my conviction that it was college towns.
Depending on what statistic you read, 70 – 84% students fall away from their faith and the church in college. In recent memory, the church has ceded its responsibility to equip college students to parachurch and collegiate ministries.What would happen if we equipped these students with the gospel, taught them to be solid disciple makers and church members, and sent them all around the globe after graduation?
We have never set out to be an exclusive college church, but unapologetically go after the campus. Currently, we are around 65% college students and our Milledgeville church is around 85%.
My friend, Brian Frye, wrote an incredible article about this idea of collegiate church planting. Let me share a few of his points:
In his book, Collegiate Ministry in A Post Christian Culture, Steve Lutz argues that the college campus is the most strategic mission field on planet earth. Why? Because of the site and situation of the students living within it. Consider “who [college students] are”—academically they are “the top 1 percent of the world’s population.” Consider “when they are”—at the last stop of formal education before settling into the rigors and limits of adult life. Consider “where they are”—living and learning at the crossroad of ideas that ultimately shape the direction of the world. These “who, when, where” factors make today’s collegiate students the most influential and powerful shapers of tomorrow. What they believe, value, and esteem as they leave college shapes organizations, institutions, cultures and societies in the world for generations to come.
The two most important developmental windows in a person’s life come between ages 0-5 and 18-25. That means the scripts parents set for a child stick lifelong. Just as importantly, the patterns set and decisions made during the college years impact a student’s trajectory for life.
What we have discovered through “equipping the saints” is incredibly encouraging. If we actually equip saints to make disciples, we will have a large number of disciples that are equipped and are ready to lead as elders, as ministry leaders, and as church planters or church plant teams.
In January of 2018, our elders created a “10in10x2” vision: “In the next decade, we will grow a network of 10 high-impact churches spread across college communities in the southeast. These churches will be focused on leadership development through discipleship- with their primary measure of effectiveness being the number of leaders multiplied every two years.”
It is important to note, our vision came from making disciples, not the other way around. Mike Breen says, “If you make disciples, you will always get the church, but if you try to build the church, you will rarely get disciples.” We don't have a grand plan to plant all these churches. We have a deep, biblical conviction to equip the saints, and the fruit of that will be planting church’s that plant churches. That is how we were able to plant a church as a three-year-old church plant. When we sent out the Branch Milledgeville, we sent them out with no money and no resources. But what we did instill in them was the conviction to equip the saints. Kyle, the elder we sent down there, was one of the first guys I met in Dahlonega. We met through a friend of a family member — one of those crazy connections that God obviously ordained. I didn't have much to offer Kyle. I was 26 and had zero experience as a lead pastor or church planter, but he had a seat at the table. He was able to speak into everything we did as a church. He was willing to be equipped, as messy and disorganized as that process was at the time, and God multiplied our efforts and grew him into a phenomenal pastor. Today, between the two churches, we have 17 people in our church planting pipeline. It still isn’t perfect, but we are improving it as we go, not sitting back until the perfect system to equip the saints is created.
Our mission statement starts like this, “We exist by God’s Glory, for God’s Glory, to make disciples.” Our model is simple. It is old. We aren’t trying to re-create the wheel. We study what Jesus did and how he established the early church to be, and we try to emulate that. Being young, we get accused often of trying to be relevant and creative. We are neither of those things. We believe the old way works. But it only works from a dependence of God and a passion to see the glory of God spread across our town and across the world. I pray these words have been encouraging, and I pray God will always get the glory from what HE has done in us and through us.
To God be the glory!