While I was in college, a youth minister asked me to “fill in” for him and host a party for the students at his church. One of the games involved “bobbing” for apples. As the evening unfolded, students were laughing and playing hard, until one student opened his mouth too wide to grab an apple out of the water—and his jaw locked open. Rushed to a nearby emergency room, the student was finally able to get his mouth closed. Although we were able to laugh about it later, at the time it was a frightening experience for the student and everyone around him.
Years later I was working on a policy for a growing congregation that would govern the use of the church facilities by outside groups during the week. Several business leaders and an attorney in the church did not want to adopt or implement such a policy. They were not opposed to evangelism, especially since the church was actively reaching unchurched individuals and families. They were deeply concerned about the potential exposure of the church to legal risks and liability to participants during events that were not being officially sponsored by the church. Their solution was to eliminate the risk by barring use of church property by outside groups.
Both of these stories illustrate two extreme responses to the subject of church liability or risk management. The youth minister I assisted was unaware and unconcerned for the risks associated with holding a youth event at the church, even if the injury that occurred was unusual or rare. Fortunately, no legal action followed. In the second example, the leadership exhibited a level of concern over the church’s liability that affected the ministry of the church within the local community. What both churches needed to do was develop and implement a liability strategy for managing risks.
What is Risk Management?
Risk management describes the effort to ensure the safety and well-being of individuals, groups, and property for whom the church is legally responsible. A “risk” represents that aspect of church-related participation, employment, volunteer service, properties, or activities that have the potential to create a moral or financial loss to the church. The process of risk management involves the identification of risks and the intentional effort to reduce those risks.
The Danger of Ignorance and Neglect
In the absence of risk management, the church as an organization could face serious financial and legal liability. If a lawsuit is filed against the church, the legal costs associated with hiring an attorney, paying court costs, and discharging a jury-awarded financial settlement can quickly outstrip the resources of a church. Litigation has increased dramatically in recent years, with the sexual abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church being the most heavily publicized. Your church has no immunity from similar legal challenges; anyone can sue your church.
Without a risk management strategy, your church’s mission and witness is in danger of being damaged. The church is on a mission to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with a lost and watching world. Negative reports arising from the ignorance or neglect of easily identified risks will damage a church’s reputation and evangelistic impact. A single failure to conduct a criminal background check of a volunteer worker leading to the molestation of a small child can damage a church’s ability to reach families for years.
In John 10, Jesus describes himself as a shepherd who takes care of the sheep. In His care, the sheep are protected against thieves, robbers, and wolves who come “to steal, and to kill, and to destroy’ (John 10:10)—a clear form of risk management to minimize danger to the flock. Pastors and church leaders should exhibit a similar vigilance for the spiritual and physical well-being of their human “flock” entrusted to their care. A failure to manage the risks that could affect the church is more than an act of ignorance: it is a dereliction of duty associated with the pastoral task.
A Strategy for Managing Risk in the Local Church
Risk management is a process of identifying the risks and then determining the best way to handle those risks in a moral and legally-responsible manner. It is a genuine and intentional effort to care for the people, assets and property associated with the church as an organization, preventing all forms of injury and loss. Due to the sheer number of possibilities and dynamic nature of risks that threaten a church, the process of risk management never ends. How can a church develop an effective and workable strategy for managing risk?
Assign responsibility. Whether it is a staff member or a ministry team, someone in the church needs to take the lead in developing the strategy. The church should make a clear assignment of responsibility and empower that person or group with sufficient authority to recommend changes or make decisions addressing safety concerns, inadequate insurance coverage, or church policies. Although the responsibility may be rotated periodically, the function and activity of risk management should have a permanent place in the leadership structure of the church.
Conduct a periodic risk assessment. The risk management leadership should thoroughly identify all risks. The survey of known risks should include a review of existing insurance coverage, potentially hazardous or unsafe conditions on the church property, church policies and practices concerning employees and volunteers, and financial policies and procedures (see below a sample list in the section “A List of Twenty Actions to Ensure Safety and Reduce Liability”). The survey should be repeated on a periodic basis to identify new risks that may surface due to changes in the condition of the property, legal requirements, community environment, or direction in ministry. Risk management leadership can create a series of checklists to facilitate a routine risk assessment.
Determine how each risk will be managed. Risk management leadership needs to evaluate each of the identified risks for potential impact on the church. Motivated by pastoral and organizational concern to protect the church, risk management leadership can choose from four basic options to manage an identified risk.
- Avoid the risk. Risk management leadership can decide to eliminate the condition or activity that creates the risk. Leadership could cancel a ski trip, the use of the property by an outside group, or the use of church vehicles in an effort to eliminate risk.
- Share the risk. Risk management leadership can require individuals or groups to show proof of insurance before participating in a church-related event or using church property. In effect, the risk is “shared” between the church and the insurance company.
- Transfer the risk. Risk management leadership can purchase various forms of church insurance to cover the risk. Provided the coverage is sufficient, the insurance company assumes liability for the risk.
- Reduce the risk. Risk management leadership can minimize the risk through proactive actions including property improvements and changes in church policies and procedures. Often referred to as loss prevention, the goal is to reduce the likelihood of a risk creating a hazard or liability for the church (e.g., replacing lights in a darkened hallway). Loss control is the effort to minimize the damage caused by a risk. An example of loss control would be the development of a strategy for correctly handling an accusation of child molestation against a church employee or volunteer in a timely manner.
Gather resources. The risk management leadership in the church should stay well-informed and updated on the subject of risk management. The leadership should purchase and review books, periodicals, and multimedia resources addressing various topics in risk management. The single best resource the church has is their insurance provider. Most insurance companies can provide the church with risk management materials and guides to assist in the development of a risk management strategy. In many cases, the insurance company will send an agent to help conduct an inspection of the church property for hazards and unsafe conditions.
Document and record all decisions and activities. The risk management strategy can be called many things (e.g., church safety and liability plan) but it should be documented and made available to the church. More than a document sitting in a file folder at the church, the risk management strategy should be carefully implemented. The risk management team should also review and update the strategy on a periodic basis to keep it current.
A List of Twenty Actions to Ensure Safety and Reduce Liability
- Assign the responsibility for risk management to a staff member or ministry team. Unless someone owns the responsibility to administer risk management, it will not receive the level of attention that is needed to develop an adequate church liability strategy. The leadership should make every effort to identify all risks and determine how to manage each risk to reduce or eliminate its potential impact on the church.
- Evaluate the insurance coverage of the church to determine whether all insurable risks are adequately covered. The church cannot afford to be underinsured against a costly legal obligation stemming from an uninsured risk. The risk management leadership should review and seek to understand the existing insurance coverage of the church, enlisting the aid of their insurance agent. Church insurance should include six categories of coverage: property, liability, workers compensation, employers liability, automobile, and excess or umbrella insurance.
- Perform an inspection of the church buildings and grounds for unsafe or hazardous conditions. Church members and guests should not be exposed to the risk of injury or harm due to the poor condition of church property (e.g., faulty equipment, inadequate lighting, or slick floors). The risk management leadership should conduct a safety and security inspection of their facility and grounds, identifying risks and hazards that need to be corrected or repaired. Inspection considerations and/or checklists can usually be secured from the church’s insurance carrier or downloaded from a credible internet source such as the GuideOne Center for Risk Management or Guidestone’s Safety Toolkit.
- Control access to facilities, church equipment, and material resources. The risk management leadership should set policies governing the access to and use of church property. Buildings, offices, and equipment storage should be locked when not in use and key distribution should be limited to avoid theft or unauthorized activities. The church should develop policies concerning the usage of church property by church members or non-members.
- Review the procedures for the collection and handling of offerings. Church members participating in the collection of offerings are vulnerable to accusations of theft or embezzlement. The risk management leadership should carefully review how money is handled during the weekly Sunday collection. They may also want to consider contracting with an accounting firm to conduct a procedural audit of the collection process, recommending changes or improvements to the way offerings are handled on a weekly basis. At least two, unrelated adults should oversee the process from the moment of collection until the funds are safely deposited into the bank or church safe. No one should ever take the offerings home for safekeeping or counting. A team of individuals should count the funds in a room where all cash, checks, and envelopes will remain in sight of the entire team. All counts should be double-checked and documented on a signed form listing all currency and checks prior to completing the bank deposit slip. Counting team members should be rotated on a regular basis.
- Provide training for the church treasurer and finance committee regarding the IRS rules governing charitable contributions. Not all contributions are tax deductible. If the church provides written substantiation of a gift that does not meet the established criteria of a tax deduction, the donor could be subject to costly penalties. Established in Internal Revenue Service Publication 526 (http://www.irs.gov/publications/p526/index.html), charitable contributions must meet an established set of criteria in order to be tax deductible. Church treasurers need to be familiar with these rules in order to advise donors and assist them in providing written substantiation of their gifts to the church.
- Provide training for the church treasurer and finance committee regarding employment tax requirements of the church as an employer. Churches need to ensure that all required forms, documentation, and payments associated with an employee’s taxes are being completed and filed in a timely manner. In addition, the church should be well informed concerning the use of housing allowances by ordained clergy, the value of an accountable reimbursement plan to manage professional expenses, and the proper administration of withholding taxes.
- Review non-exempt employee work hours to ensure compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards affecting all church employees. Churches must provide overtime pay for employees who are not exempt from overtime requirements under the FLSA (e.g., church secretaries and custodial staff).
- Develop a standard interview form, employment application, and comprehensive process for use when hiring church employees. Supervisors and personnel committees involved in the hire or termination of employees need to be aware of the legal standards placed upon employers. Certain questions may not be asked during an interview or requested on a job application. Interview forms and hiring/termination procedures should be developed in consultation with the counsel of a qualified human resource manager or an attorney.
- Ensure compliance with new hire reporting and immigration laws. Every state requires employers to report all new hires as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The reports are used primarily for tracking parents who owe back child support and for reducing fraud under various social programs, including unemployment benefits. In addition, all employers are required to have new employees complete an Employment Eligibility Form I-9 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The forms are to be kept on file and maintained by the employer. Severe fines and penalties can be applied to the church that fails to comply with these non-IRS documentation requirements.
- Display all required state and federal employee notices for employees. Employers are required to post notices from a variety of federal and state agencies in locations that are accessible and visible to all employees. Failure to post the required notices can result in significant fines and penalties. Although there are human resource suppliers willing to sell the posters to the church, all of the required notices can be obtained without cost through the websites and offices of the U. S. Department of Labor and the labor department of the state in which the church is located.
- Safeguard church financial, membership, and employment records. Church vital records should be protected from unauthorized access or loss. Fireproof safes and file cabinets should be used for hard copies of documents. Offsite and redundant storage should be used to backup all digital records. The risk management leadership should develop a records retention policy governing what records should be preserved and for what duration.
- Develop a policy and process for screening employees and volunteers for past criminal behavior. Criminal background checks should be required for all staff and volunteers who work with children and youth. In addition, references concerning past employment or volunteer service should be checked thoroughly.
- Establish a church policy to reduce risks associated with mission trips. With the growing popularity of church mission trips, a number of risks ranging from accidental injury to unforeseen natural disasters can occur. The church should have an adequate policy in place that requires participants to acquire “out of the country” health and accident insurance and to adequately inform participants of the hazards associated with the trip.
- Train ushers and greeters to be security-conscious and prepared to respond to emergencies associated with a medical need, accidents, potential intruders, or natural disasters. Churches are vulnerable to a variety of unforeseen emergency conditions on Sundays when the most people are on campus and the church is most accessible to the general public. Ushers and greeters should be properly trained and prepared to respond to emergency conditions as they arise. They should also be alert to unsafe conditions or hazards in and around the church buildings.
- Establish policies to ensure adequate and proper supervision of youth and children during all church activities and events. Churches are susceptible to charges of improper or inadequate supervision should a child be abused or injured as part of a church sponsored activity or event. Employees and workers should be required to submit to a criminal background check prior to enlistment or employment by the church to supervise children. Many states and municipalities have specified the minimum ratio of workers to participants when working with minors.
- Develop procedures for handling accusations of criminal or sexual misconduct against a staff member or church member. Unfounded accusations can severely damage the reputation of a wrongly accused church member or employee. At the same time, accusations must be handled with a serious and deliberate response in order to protect the alleged victim(s) of criminal or sexual misconduct. Until guilt or innocence is established, the church must act to protect all parties involved with responsible action.
- Define an emergency response and communication plan to be implemented when actual criminal or sexual misconduct is discovered. Churches that are slow to react or uncertain in their response can easily mishandle and exacerbate an already difficult situation for affected families and church members.
- Develop a policy and a strategy for the conduct of pastoral counseling. Pastors and staff face a degree of risk whenever they respond to requests for counseling from church members or non-members of the church. Best practices should be established and observed to ensure that counseling is conducted in a manner that protects the minister and the client. Clients should be required to read and sign an agreement clarifying the limits and extent of the counseling services being provided by the church. Specifically, the policy and the client agreement should clarify the limits of clergy-penitent privilege, as well as the parameters of confidentiality. Pastors and church leaders should be aware of the mandatory reporting laws in their state mandating they report certain crimes, including the suspected abuse of a minor or senior adult.
- Review, update, and observe the guiding documents of the church. The guiding documents of a church may include the articles of incorporation, a constitution, and a set of bylaws. If a church fails to observe the requirements of their guiding documents, particularly as they apply to the conduct of business and decision making, the church may be subject to legal challenges from members.
“You can build a great church or you can build a great people. I’m not sure you can do both.” The older pastor looked at the neophyte steadily as the statement settled into the young minister’s thoughts. The older pastor’s point was well taken.
Recalling that experience decades later, I recognize how easy it is for church leaders and pastors to become preoccupied with what they can do to make the church grow numerically. Indeed, churches ought to be attracting and reaching people with the gospel! Church gatherings should be well conceived and led with excellence. Pastors should abhor mediocre, boring, and repetitive programming. However, in a way that they cannot quite identify or describe, many church leaders intuitively sense something is missing. The missing emphasis lies in a lack of attention on the health of the church.
Does church health matter? Although dozens of metaphors exist in the New Testament describing the church, the image most applicable to developing a philosophy of church health is a “body” or organism. In the same way a doctor assesses a human physical body, leaders can conclude that the church as the Body of Christ is either healthy or unhealthy. The New Testament writers use the word “church” (ἐκκλησία) to describe both the universal church and the local church, as well as any distribution of believers in a region. Therefore, to describe the health of a congregational “body” is to evaluate a group of people against a biblical template of what they should be and do together.
The church is one body made up of individual members, in whom the divine life of Christ dwells. As an organism, the church is the Body of Christ and he is the head (Col. 1:18). A living organism can have only one head, and the function of the head is to give direction to every individual part of the body (Eph. 1:22). In an organism, each individual part is intimately connected to the head, and the head sends and receives impulses and messages directly to it.
In a healthy church that is properly related to Jesus as the head, the body is guided by the mission and thinking of Jesus. He taught that when He is building the church, the gates of hell will fail against the forward movement of His people (Mt. 16:18). Understood in this way, the organized church is fueled by its health (or dysfunction) as a spiritual organism, an expression of a real and vital connection to Christ. Furthermore, because of this mystical union with Jesus, every church member shares a mystical, organic bond with every other member of the body of Christ (Rom. 12:5).
Consequently, the spiritual health of a church is an essential prerequisite to any activity by the church. Being truly precedes doing. The life of the church as an organism will animate the church as an organization. Apart from the headship and presence of Jesus, the church of Jesus becomes a listless, human-powered organization intent on perpetuating its own existence.
Do leaders need to be concerned with church health? The word “elder” implies maturity and is the primary term used in the New Testament to identify a church leader (Acts 20:17, 28-31). Used interchangeably with the word “overseer” or the function of “oversight” (Titus 1:5-7), the “elder” provided essential leadership and teaching functions in the early church. The word “pastor” appears as a hyphenated noun with the word “teacher” in Eph. 4:11. Throughout the remainder of the New Testament, “pastor” describes the shepherding function of the “elder” (1 Pet. 5:1-2). Regardless of the preferred title, elders, overseers, and pastor-teachers play at least three vital roles in fostering and maintaining the health of the church.
- Equipping. In Paul’s description of church health in Eph. 4:11-13, leaders are equipping the saints to grow and serve together with the goal of reflecting Christ as a group. Accomplished primarily through teaching, equipping pastors seek to lead the entire church to maturity through the spiritual growth of every believer (Col. 1:28). Far more than the dissemination of information, the equipping role of the pastor fosters church health as each member of the Body becomes like Christ.
- Protecting. Paul admonished the elders of the church in Ephesus to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock . . . after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things. . .” (Acts 20:28‑30). Shepherds protect their sheep. Church leaders must expect threats to the doctrinal and relational integrity of the church. Drawing on the resources of the Holy Spirit, leaders can take the initiative to resolve problems, to provide a calming, non-anxious presence, and to speak the truth the church needs in order to arrest destructive forces both within and outside the fellowship.
- Modeling. In 1 Pet. 5:3, elders are to be examples to the flock. The mature character of the church leader directly affects the health of the church. This explains why the qualifications for elders and overseers focus on the character of the man, as opposed to his credentials and training (1 Tim. 3:1-12, Titus 1:5-9). Understood in this way, the qualifications for church leaders also describe the growth points for each member of the congregation. The character requirements for the pulpit are also expected in the pew!
So what should a healthy church look like?
(1) Healthy Churches Worship and Fellowship Together
Immediately following Pentecost, Luke describes the life of the early church in Acts 2:42-47:
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
The daily worship gathering of the church was a public and corporate focus on “the apostles’ doctrine.” The study of truth was central to the early Christians and served as a foundation for their shared life together (“fellowship” or κοινωνία). Mentioned twice in the passage, eating together indicated intimacy and acceptance in the ancient (and modern) Middle Eastern culture. They prayed together. They experienced a deep reverential fear, sensing and seeing God’s activity in their midst. God’s presence also generated joy and praise within the fellowship (Psalm 16:11). Outsiders liked these people. It is no wonder that new believers were coming into the church every day!
Healthy churches worship God. The form of corporate worship and fellowship may vary among cultures, but the essential elements of biblical teaching, heart-felt joy, and the presence of God will be evident.
(2) Healthy Churches Broadcast the Gospel
For churches that look to the scriptures for direction and guidance, the Great Commission statements of the New Testament clarify and define each church’s mission. In the Great Commission of Mt. 28:18-20, Jesus said,
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
The passage begins and ends with a promise. Jesus rules in the “unseen” and “seen” realms (Mt. 28:18). Jesus concludes with a promise to accompany his followers throughout their mission (Mt. 28:20). However, Matthew records only one main verb in the passage: to make disciples. The other three participles—going, baptizing, and teaching—modify and augment the primary activity of making disciples. Matthew leads the readers to understand that making disciples is the primary activity of a healthy church.
After describing how all of the secular and irreligious people were coming to hear Jesus, Luke records how Jesus responded to the resulting criticism from religious leaders. Jesus justified his socializing with “the wrong people” by telling this story: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” (Lk. 15:4). Jesus is clearly interested in and concerned about every single lost person.
In Mark’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15). The church is charged to take the gospel to every man, woman, boy, and girl in their sphere of influence. Jesus is calling the church to saturate their world with the gospel. The early church appears to have understood and practiced saturation evangelism. Jewish authorities accused the apostles of having “filled Jerusalem” with the gospel message (Acts 5:28). Similarly, Paul spread the gospel for two years with the result that “all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). Legitimate evangelism seeks to eliminate lostness by saturating the world with the gospel.
In its most basic form, evangelism is the sharing of “good news.” Through the delivery and explanation of the content of the gospel, the church “evangelizes” the world, regardless of the response from the hearers. Paul writes, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). When a disciple delivers the “message of the cross,” he or she is doing evangelism. Some people listening to the gospel message will be changed—others will reject it.
In Acts, Luke summarizes the “success” of the young church in terms of people being baptized and “added” to the church (e.g., Acts 2:41, 2:47 and 5:14). Paul was deeply burdened and desperate over the lostness of an entire generation of Jews (Rom. 9:3). Taken with God’s passionate pursuit of lost souls described in three different parables in Luke 15, the presence of new Christians in a church becomes a clear sign of health. The absence of a steady flow of new Christians should be a cause for concern and deep grief, generating a call to prayer for God’s renewing presence and power.
(3) Healthy Churches Seek the Presence of God
Everything in the church rises and falls on the presence of God. In his book God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (1994), Gordon Fee argues that the entire corpus of Paul’s teaching cannot be properly understood apart from his constant reliance upon and experience of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Bible, God’s presence is the leading indicator of the spiritual health of the people of God. For example, Moses refuses to advance to the Promised Land apart from the accompanying presence of God (Ex. 33:15). Jesus directed his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they were “clothed” with the Holy Spirit (Lk. 24:49). Markers of God’s presence in the Bible include a sense of awe (Rev. 1:17), a sense of his love (Eph. 3:17-19), a crushing awareness of personal sin (Isa. 6:1-5), and a deep desire to confess sin and make things right with others (Luke 3:8-14). Throughout the book of Acts, the church carried reports of God’s activity to one another (Acts 11:18).
The healthy church understands that the Holy Spirit is essential to their work. The earliest disciples understood that the accomplishment of their mission was dependent on the activity of the Holy Spirit. He represents and communicates the presence of God to his people. Jesus described the impact that the Holy Spirit’s arrival would have on the disciples following Pentecost: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The influence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life was an obvious and observable quality (Acts 6:3). The enabling power of the Spirit added a supernatural effectiveness to the witness of the disciples (Acts 6:10). More significantly, the Holy Spirit spoke to the disciples. Comprehending and obeying what the Spirit “said,” Philip witnessed to a man in the wilderness (Acts 8:29), Peter carried the gospel across racial lines (Acts 10:19), church leaders launched a new mission (Acts 13:2), and Paul took the gospel into Europe for the first time (Acts 16:6-7).
The Holy Spirit is essential for individual transformation too. Jesus said that when someone yields directional control of life to Him (“believes in Me”), then “out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). The flow of new life is produced by the presence of the Spirit of God within the heart (John 7:39). The transformation of any heart begins when someone accepts and trusts the biblical revelation of Jesus, but it is accomplished as the Holy Spirit indwells and recreates the heart (Psalm 51:10-11). The only hope for individual or corporate change lies in a moment-by-moment dependence on the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) combined with a Spirit-initiated, Spirit-sustained renewal of the desires and inclination of the heart (Philippians 2:12-13).
(4) Healthy Churches Make Christlike Disciples
In Matthew’s expression of the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20), Jesus commanded the remaining eleven disciples to “make disciples of all the nations.” A healthy church makes disciples—but what is a disciple? When a person becomes a disciple of Jesus, it means that this person was not always a disciple. A life was changed and a disciple was “made.” The concept of making a disciple suggests a process that is spiritual, intentional, and relational.
Healthy churches have developed clear responses to three questions:
- What is a disciple? (Meaning)
- How do we make them? (Method)
- How do we know when we have made them? (Metric)
The essence of discipleship is “follow-ship.” Just as men and women followed Jesus during his earthly tenure on earth, disciples today need to envision themselves as following a living Jesus who goes before them every day. To follow Jesus is to embrace his mission and reflect his life—to live as he lived (1 Jn. 2:6). To follow Jesus is to experience personal transformation into his likeness, and that transformation occurs through his active presence in the believer’s life. Consider these examples:
- … Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col. 1:27)
- … that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith… (Eph. 3:17)
- Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? (2 Cor. 13:5)
- … it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me… (Gal. 2:20)
- My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you… (Gal. 4:19)
What does a church look like when Christ is being “formed” in the hearts of his people? Paul measured success in a church by the presence of faith, hope, and love (e.g., 2 Th. 1:2-3; Eph. 1:15-16; and Col. 1:3-5). Reflecting transformed lives and healthy relationships within the church, Paul looked for these inward qualities in the form of consistent, observable behaviors and attitudes. Paul understood that character “bubbles” come to the surface of a person’s life as a result of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling (Gal. 5:22-23). Yielding to the inner prompting and gentle pressure of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16), individuals collectively reveal the activity of God within a church by the way they treat one another (John 13:35). Not only does Paul rejoice as the gospel advances, but he is delighted when the church reflects the life and character of Jesus Christ (1 Th. 1:2-3).
(5) Healthy Churches Demonstrate Love for One Another and the World
Jesus exhibited great compassion for people (Mt. 9:36-38). Healthy churches understand that Christ-followers will demonstrate his compassion to others as well, sharing his heart for a broken and lost world. If his heart is “moved with compassion,” how can the heart of the church beat in any other way? Christ’s love extends beyond the church to the world. The consequence of an intimate, dependent relationship with Jesus is that the disciple begins to share Jesus’ concern. He will lead his disciples to care about the spiritual condition and well-being of every person that they meet. Like Paul and Moses (Rom. 9:3; Ex. 32:32), the disciple of Jesus will experience a burden for hurting and lost souls—a visceral response to human need. Over time, the thoughts and actions of the disciple will begin to align with the heart of Jesus. This is equally true within the church. Love for other believers is expressed in many different reciprocal behaviors—also known as the “one another” commands of the New Testament.
How does a church overcome its relational deficits and dysfunctions? Love is the key. For example, love that heals relationships appears in the way members are “extending grace to one another” (Rom. 15:7) In 1 Th. 2:3, Paul refers to the Thessalonians’ “labor of love.” Healthy churches are populated by people who are prepared to work—to exert themselves even when it hurts—in order to love others within the Body. Healthy churches are loving churches.
How can you use these metrics to open up a discussion in your church about church health? Taking them one at a time, consider leading 5-6 sessions in an informal setting, allowing plenty of time for participants to discuss and pose questions (e.g., How healthy are we in this area? Does the Lord have a way forward for us? What is the next step? What will we pray and trust Him to do? What are we willing to do? etc.).
Author’s Note: Written in 2011, my purpose for this brief monograph was two-fold. First, I wanted to introduce Shubal Stearns, a pivotal figure in Baptist history, yet someone who is little known outside of academic circles. Second, I wanted to demonstrate the relationship between Stearns and the phenomenal growth of Baptists across the South. Many assume that the Baptist story began with a small group that settled in Charleston, South Carolina in 1696… a traditional story that explains Baptists today in terms of the sound doctrine of their founders fueling a continuous and steady advance across the southern colonies. The truth is that Baptists in the Old South were having very little impact on their world. In contrast, Stearns and his followers represented a new kind of Baptist birthed in the “revival fires” of the First Great Awakening. Apart from the movement that erupted at Sandy Creek, North Carolina in 1755, Baptists in the South would have faded into obscurity and irrelevance. A version of this monograph with footnotes and sources is available on request.
Beginning with the preaching tours of George Whitefield, the Great Awakening in the American colonies resulted in thousands of changed lives and the establishment of a new evangelical culture of religious faith. Among Congregational churches in New England, the renewed, lively emphasis on personal conversion led to division and the founding of new “separate” churches, many of which went on to become “New Light” or Separate Baptist churches throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century. Before Whitefield landed in New England in 1740, there were less than one hundred Baptist churches throughout the colonies; thirty-five years later, there were nearly 500. After personally experiencing the direct effects of the Great Awakening in Connecticut, Shubal Stearns became a leading figure of the Separate Baptist movement that grew exponentially across the southern colonies. Yale historian Sydney Ahlstrom described the remarkable period of church multiplication associated with Stearns as “one of the most consequential religious developments in American history.”
EARLY LIFE, CONVERSION, AND MINISTRY (1706-1754)
As the first child of Shubael Stearns and Rebecca Lariby, Shubal Stearns was born on January 26, 1706, the fourth generation of Stearns descendants born in or around Boston, Massachusetts. When he was nine, Stearns and his parents moved to the small community of Tolland, Connecticut, where his father became a selectman and a clerk among the other “proprietors” or land owners. As a young adult, Stearns became a farmer and married Sarah Johnston on March 26, 1726. Although he lacked formal education, later in life Stearns was described as a small man who had read widely.
Stearns was baptized as an infant into the Congregational church. Heirs to the founding Puritans and their Calvinistic beliefs, Congregational ministers were struggling to maintain control and influence in society. Adopting the Saybrook Platform in 1708, Congregational churches in Connecticut were the first to give up a measure of congregational polity, embracing a new form of regulation by “consociations,” county-level gatherings of ministers and lay leaders. Although the early New England Puritans taught that an experiential conversion was required for full church membership, Stearns was raised in an environment that placed greater emphasis on accepting a creed as evidence of a mystical, inward conversion event.
Forty miles north of Tolland in Northampton, Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards is often credited with launching the Great Awakening following an extraordinary number of conversions among youth and young adults during the winter of 1734-5. However, the greatest numbers of converts are associated with the preaching of George Whitefield during his first tour of the colonies in 1740. Whitefield spent ten weeks in New England from August 18 through December 14, 1740, preaching 130 times. Speaking at numerous locations in Connecticut, it appears the closest Whitefield came to Tolland was the town of East Windsor, about 12 miles to the west. In sharp contrast to the prevailing views of Christianity at the time, Whitefield emphasized that true conversion was personal and experiential, accompanied by a deep awareness of sin and a corresponding desire to know forgiveness from God. The effect on the audiences was stunning, as individuals cried out with joy, laughter, or tears. In the late nineteenth century Robert Semple observed that “the hearts of the people, being touched by a heavenly flame, could no longer relish the dry parish service.”
Stearns was probably converted after hearing Whitefield preach during his second tour through Connecticut in 1745. Like many converts throughout New England, Stearns began meeting with others who emphasized the direct leadership of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Known as “New Lights,” they had accepted Whitefield’s teaching that salvation can only be known through the heart and had concluded that God’s will was apprehended the same way. When attempted efforts to reform existing churches failed, groups of New Lights formed Separate Congregational churches in nearly 400 parishes across New England. In Windham County adjacent to Tolland, the consociation of “Old Light” ministers wrote a letter in 1744 describing the beliefs of the separating churches. They believed that (1) true churches are made up of regenerate members; (2) true Christians can know whether they are saved and can discern the salvation of others; (3) the only requirement for the ministry is an “inward motion of the Spirit;” (4) lay persons can preach in response to “the presence of God;” and (5) God had rejected the older churches that rejected New Light reforms. Espousing similar views, Stearns and his followers formed a Separate Congregational church when the local congregation split. As a New Light pastor, Stearns and others asked the Connecticut General Assembly for official recognition under the 1689 Toleration Act. The General Assembly rejected both petitions bearing his signature in 1746 and 1748.
Among the Separate Congregationalists, a debate grew concerning the practice of infant baptism. Believing that membership should be limited to persons experiencing regeneration, many Separates wanted to stop the practice of infant baptism—becoming Baptists through a commitment to believer’s baptism. Many of the Separate churches practiced both forms of baptism for years prior to becoming exclusively Baptist in their identification and belief. In March 1751, Stearns and his Tolland congregation visited nearby Windsor to hear the preaching of Wait Palmer. In 1743, Palmer had organized the second Baptist church in Connecticut at Stonington when his group of Separates had withdrawn from the local Congregational church. Most of the Tolland members were baptized and Stearns was ordained as a Separate Baptist minister on May 20, 1751.
FINDING “THE GREAT WORK IN THE WEST” (1754-1758)
The revival gave rise to a missionary impulse to evangelize the frontier regions and American Indian settlements of the colonies. In the decade following the Great Awakening several families in Windsor divested themselves of their holdings and moved to the frontier; among them were Daniel and Martha Marshall, brother-in-law and sister to Shubal Stearns. Marshall was a “New Side” Presbyterian who was expressing his new convictions by 1744, creating significant tensions between his pastor and himself. When his first wife passed away, Marshall’s pastor refused to conduct her funeral, leaving him and his son alone by the graveside. Marrying Martha Stearns in 1747, Marshall and his family moved to the Susquehanna Valley in Pennsylvania sometime in 1751 or 1752 to serve as missionaries among the Mohawk Indians. As tensions grew among the tribes on the eve of the French and Indian War, the Marshalls retreated to Opequon, Virginia in 1754. Soon after meeting Samuel Heaton, pastor of a Baptist church on Mill Creek, the Marshalls were baptized and joined the church. Back in Connecticut, Stearns had become convinced that God had a “great work” for his Baptist people to do in the West.
Stearns and thirteen other adults left Tolland with their families in August 1754, joining the Marshalls in Virginia. Stearns and Marshall began preaching in the region with the blessing of the Mill Creek Church, attracting enthusiastic crowds and converts. Not everyone approved. In response to the emotionalism being generated by the Separate Baptist preaching, some “cold-hearted” members of the Mill Creek Church complained to the Philadelphia Baptist Association. Benjamin Miller, a pastor from Scotch Plains, New Jersey, was sent by the association to discover what was going on. Miller was delighted with his findings, reporting that if he had such “warm-hearted Christians in his church he would not take gold for them.” However, in a June 1755 letter to a friend, Stearns had already begun to turn his attention to fields further south in North Carolina, where worship services were scarce and people would travel forty miles or more to hear a sermon. Stearns, Marshall, and fourteen others travelled with their families to Sandy Creek, North Carolina, arriving November 22, 1755.
Prior to the arrival of the Separate Baptists, the colonial charter and government of North Carolina officially established and supported the Church of England, but by 1754 there was only one Anglican priest in the colony. The “backcountry” region of central and western North Carolina was populated by 20,000-30,000 settlers, but there were no settled Anglican ministers there before 1767. Even George Whitefield complained that his labors in the Carolinas had yielded little success in 1739 and 1745. In 1696 a small group of Particular Baptists from Kittery, Maine had migrated to Charleston, South Carolina, organizing the first Baptist church in the South. Between 1720 and 1740 several General Baptist churches were formed, but were quickly recruited and assimilated into the more Calvinistic Philadelphia Baptist Association by the early 1750s. None of the early Baptists had made much of an impression on the growing population. Representing a new and vibrant expression of Christian faith, the Separate Baptists at Sandy Creek were stepping into an ecclesiastical and religious vacuum. After building a small meeting house for worship, the Sandy Creek Baptist Church was organized, electing Shubal Stearns as their minister and recognizing his assistants, Daniel Marshall and Joseph Breed.
Writing in 1859, George Purefoy commented that “during the life of Shubal Stearns, an extraordinary revival prevailed under his ministry.” Between November 1755 and January 1758, Stearns and his associates baptized over 900 people. Membership at Sandy Creek soared from sixteen to 606. In his notes from first-person interviews made in 1772, Morgan Edwards describes people crying out, collapsing to the ground, and “awaking in ecstasies” in response to the preaching of the Separate Baptist ministers. “Impulses, visions, and revelations” were common among the ministers and the people. Shubal Stearns possessed a voice that was “musical and strong” and that made “soft impressions on the heart,” causing people to weep. His voice had the capacity to “shake the very nerves, and throw the animal systems into tumults and perturbations.” His eyes were “very penetrating” and “seemed to have meaning in every glance.” In 1894, Albert Newman would add that “it is doubtful whether any evangelist but Whitefield surpassed Stearns in magnetic power over audiences.”
Through an extensive series of itinerant preaching tours, gatherings of new believers were established throughout the region as “branches” of the Sandy Creek Church. When a pastor could be identified and ordained, the branch would be constituted as a church. By the conclusion of 1756, churches had been organized at Abbot’s Creek (Daniel Marshall, pastor), Grassy Creek (James Read, pastor), and Deep River (Phillip Mulkey, pastor). Believing he was being chased by the devil, Phillip Mulkey lived under a cloud of fear until he experienced a new birth and was baptized by Stearns on Christmas Day in 1756. Mulkey was instrumental in the conversion of the brothers Joseph and William Murphy in 1757. Preaching in Virginia in 1758, the Murphys witnessed the conversion of Samuel Harris as he slid to his knees and collapsed during the sermon. A decorated military officer from a prominent family, Harris regained consciousness crying out “Glory, glory, glory!” Harris would later be nicknamed “The Apostle of Virginia,” and was a key leader in the struggle for religious freedom in the new United States. Tidence Lane went to hear Stearns out of curiosity and found “an old man under a peach tree.” When Stearns began to preach, Tidence said “my perturbations increased” to the point that he could no longer remain on his feet, falling to the ground. In the summer of 1758, Tidence took his brother Dutton Lane to hear Stearns, but Dutton resisted conversion. Returning home from a hunting trip a few days later, Dutton believed he saw the devil stalking him, rushed home, bolted the door, and collapsed on the floor in mortal terror until He trusted Christ to save him. In 1760, Dutton became pastor of the Dan River congregation, the first Separate Baptist church organized in Virginia. Shubal Stearns had found his “great work in the West.”
BECOMING THE PATRIARCH OF SANDY CREEK (1758-1771)
Very little is known about the years Stearns pastored a Baptist church in Tolland, Connecticut (1751-1754), but because of his connection to Wait Palmer, it is likely that Stearns was heavily influenced by the older General Baptist practices and traditions. In 1705, a General Baptist congregation in Groton became the first Baptist church in Connecticut. Organized by Valentine Wightman, the Groton church ordained Wait Palmer and helped constitute his church in Stonington. By the time Stearns was ordained by Palmer in 1751, there was annual meeting of General Baptists being held in nearby Windham County. With deep concerns over preservation of local church autonomy, the Separate Baptists in New England did not form an association until after Stearns had left for the South (i.e., the Warren Association, 1767). As Stearns contemplated the formation of an association of Separate Baptist churches and branches, he may well have defaulted to General Baptist stances concerning ordinances, creeds, and associational oversight.
With initial meetings in January and June 1758, the creation of the Sandy Creek Association was accompanied by days of preaching, singing, and heartfelt testimonies of God’s power. For the next thirteen years, the annual meeting on the second Sunday in October would draw delegates from Virginia to South Carolina. In addition to recognizing the positions of elders, eldresses, and deaconesses, nine ordinances were observed among the churches: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the laying on of hands, washing feet, anointing the sick, the right hand of fellowship, the kiss of charity, and the devoting or dedication of children. Stearns may have also prepared a church covenant in 1757, which has been handed down through the history of the Grassy Creek Church.
The growth of the association quickly spilled over into South Carolina and Virginia. Phillip Mulkey and Daniel Marshall both relocated to South Carolina by 1762, using the same itinerant preaching strategy to start new churches and branches. Mulkey and Marshall helped organize the Congaree Church in 1766 with the aid of Joseph Murphy. Congaree soon had seven branches, including one in the Highs Hills region of the Santee. It was there that Richard Furman would be saved, becoming pastor of the High Hills church in 1774.
In Virginia, Samuel Harris was conducting extensive preaching tours as far as the Tidewater region by 1765. Lacking ordination, Harris returned to Grassy Creek to ask James Read to help him baptize the new converts. Read had been having “spiritual impressions” for weeks that he should go to Virginia to preach, awaking in the night crying “O Virginia!” Aware of the burden being carried by his pastor, a church member offered to accompany Read into the Virginia Colony. As they were about to leave, Harris arrived requesting Read’s help. From 1766 through 1769, Harris and Read conducted multi-day, evangelistic services that prefigured the camp meetings that would follow in the early nineteenth century. Baptizing hundreds, the evangelists spoke to large crowds for days at a time, often unable to sleep as individuals sought counsel late into the night. In response to the preaching, the ground would often be covered with bodies, as people fell under great conviction of sin.
Criticism of the Separate Baptist movement in the South took several forms. Many of the older Particular Baptist churches in the Carolinas and Virginia were critical of the Sandy Creek Association churches, calling themselves “Regular” Baptists as a way of distinguishing themselves from the Separate Baptists. The tension between the Separates and the Regulars is sometimes represented as a variation of the theological debates between Arminians and Calvinists. However, complaining of “noisy meetings” characterized by “wild disorder,” the critics were primarily concerned with the emotionalism and the subjective experiences attributed to the directional control of the Holy Spirit.
Colonial and Anglican authorities were also critical of the Separate Baptists, interpreting their message as a challenge to the traditional order. Charles Woodmason was an itinerant Anglican minister who kept an extensive diary as he travelled in the backcountry of South Carolina from 1766 to 1772. In sermon notes from 1768, Woodmason believed that the Baptist preaching was having no effect on the morals of the “saved,” describing a typical worship service as a “society of Lunatics.” Woodmason suggested that Anglicans and Presbyterians would do well to support one another against three common enemies: Indians, African Slaves, and “New Light Baptists.” In Virginia and North Carolina, the tensions between the lower classes and the gentry were intensified by the Separate Baptist rejection of educated clergy, the Anglican Church, and the requirement to be licensed under state authority in order to preach. Authorities suspected Baptists of “carrying on a mutiny against the authority of the land.” During the period 1768-76, about fifty Virginia Separate Baptists were imprisoned on charges of disturbing the peace, and in typical fashion, they would continue preaching from the windows of their jail cells. The hostility of the authorities was often accompanied by great curiosity on the part of the onlookers. Why were these Baptists such a threat to the establishment? What was their message? Why do those who get too close often get converted?
The growth of the Separate Baptist movement in Virginia and South Carolina posed a problem for Shubal Stearns. Requests for assistance in leading services, constituting churches, and ordaining pastors had increased dramatically. In the structure he had devised, a “branch” became a “church” under the guidance of ordained Separate Baptist ministers who appear to have been commissioned by the association for the task. The same associational delegation would usually ordain someone as the pastor of the church. However, Stearns was not facilitating ordinations in South Carolina or Virginia. In 1766 the Congaree “branch” in South Carolina was ready to constitute as a church, with two men ready for ordination (i.e. John Newton and Joseph Reese). Stearns sent Daniel Marshall, Phillip Mulkey, and Joseph Murphy to organize the church, but no one was ordained. Tired of waiting, the Congaree church in February 1768 obtained the services of Oliver Hart, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charleston and Evan Pugh, pastor of the Welsh Neck Baptist Church on the Pee Dee River. Both men were Regular Baptists from the Charleston Baptist Association. In October Stearns led the Sandy Creek delegates to censure Newton and Reese for acting independently of the association. Although Reese immediately apologized and was reinstated, Newton refused, believing he had done nothing wrong. The association ordered the Congaree church to bar Newton from preaching.
Stearns seemed unable to recognize pastors in Virginia, too. During the 1760s, Stearns authorized and assisted in the constitution of several churches, but no one had been ordained. By 1769 the Fall Creek branch of the Dan River church in Virginia was ready to constitute. Meeting on property provided by Samuel Harris, it was clear they would want him to be ordained as their pastor. In spite of years of phenomenal growth in Virginia associated with the ministry of Samuel Harris, he had not been ordained by Stearns.
In addition to the challenges of growth, Stearns was being forced to speak to the growing political unrest throughout the region. The Regulators believed they were being taxed unfairly by corrupt officials. Under-represented in the colonial legislature and shut out of local county government, the Regulators took up arms and began to intimidate the authorities in the backcountry through a series of violent encounters and riots.
With the annual meeting just weeks away, Stearns had a vision on September 7, 1769 while returning home from a preaching tour. Going up a hill in the aftermath of a thunderstorm, Stearns saw a “white heap like snow” on the horizon. As he got closer, the strange object hovered about twenty feet in the air, and then fell to the ground, breaking up into three parts. The largest portion moved to the north, another portion went south, and the smallest portion remained where it fell. Stearns concluded that the vision was describing what was about to happen to the association: “The bright heap is our religious interest which will divide and spread north and south, but chiefly northward; while a small part remains at Sandy Creek.” Stearns was clearly anticipating significant changes for the Sandy Creek Association.
During the 1769 annual meeting, the association did agree to constitute the Fall River Church in Virginia, ordaining Samuel Harris as pastor. The sheer popularity of Harris would have made it difficult to do anything else. Next, the association voted to excommunicate any members who took up arms against legal authority. In addition to being a church meeting, the annual gathering at Sandy Creek had become a social occasion for the backcountry Baptist, the travelling merchant, and the curious onlooker. News of the association vote, aimed at Baptists who would participate in violent Regulator activities, spread quickly through the crowds. Four armed Regulator leaders stormed into the meeting house and confronted Stearns, asking whether it was true. Thoroughly intimidated, Stearns mumbled an evasive reply and the Regulators left. Separate Baptists were well-represented in the ranks of the Regulators. Consequently, churches were confused and troubled following the 1769 meeting. Joseph Murphy was forced to leave Little River due to strong Regulator support among the members. When Elnathan Davis made it clear he would enforce the associational vote in his church at Haw Creek, Regulators attacked and beat several of his church members. The Sandy Creek Association had become deeply divided along political and sectional lines.
In 1770 the association met at Grassy Creek, moving the annual meeting away from Sandy Creek for the first time. After several days of prayer and fasting, the participants were unable to agree on anything until a motion was made to divide the association into three parts. A contemporary observer Morgan Edwards believed the association had wielded too much authority by “unfellowshipping ordinations, ministers, and churches that acted independent of them.” Although the Separate Baptists believed in congregational autonomy, they also believed that a church could voluntarily “transfer” authority to the association. The motion passed and Stearns’ prophetic vision of September 1769 was realized as two new Separate Baptist associations were created in Virginia and South Carolina. Six months later the Virginia Separates met to organize the General Association of Separate Baptists on May 13, 1771. The first actions they took are significant: (1) the association is an advisory council with “no power to impose anything on the churches;” (2) churches can constitute with the permission of their mother church and the aid of any ordained minister; and (3) ordination can be accomplished from any ordained minister who is willing to assist. Within three years the number of members and churches in Virginia would more than double in size.
Three days after the Virginia organizational meeting, the North Carolina Regulators were defeated at the Battle of Alamance on May 16, 1771. Leaders who were captured were hanged, their property was confiscated, and their farms destroyed. Backcountry residents were forced to take loyalty oaths administered by the colonial government. Stearns lived to see at least 1,500 families move out of the region, while attendance at the Sandy Creek church dropped to fourteen. Stearns died on November 20, 1771, just two days before the seventeenth anniversary of the founding of the church at Sandy Creek.
The effect of the Regulators Rebellion was to create a diaspora of Separate Baptists and backcountry populations who migrated to Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Tidence Lane founded the first Baptist church in Tennessee, organizing the Holston Baptist Association by 1786. Daniel Marshall constituted the Kiokee Baptist Church in 1772, the first Baptist church in Georgia. Forty years later, 140 churches and 11,000 church members could trace their spiritual roots to the Separate Baptist movement that grew from Kiokee. Separate Baptists in Kentucky started two churches in 1781, forming the Elkhorn Association by 1785. In Appalachia today, at least thirty different Baptist denominations can trace their origins to the Separates that poured into Kentucky following the Regulator defeat at Alamance. Considering the Virginia Separate Baptist struggle for religious freedom and the added influence of Shubal Stearns and his followers in the propagation of churches across the South, W.H. Whitsitt wrote that “North Carolina might well be called the Holy Land of Southern Baptists.”
THE LEGACY AND IMPACT OF SHUBAL STEARNS
Walter Shurden identified the Sandy Creek tradition as one of the primary influences on Southern Baptist identity. Arising out of the Great Awakening in middle of the eighteenth century, Shubal Stearns and the Separate Baptists preached with passion, baptized converts who could testify to their salvation, and hungered for powerful revival experiences. Shubal Stearns was the architect of these “peculiarly American” contributions to the development of Baptists over the past 250 years.
Stearns emphasized the immediate and direct leadership of the Holy Spirit. If revival can be defined as what happens in the presence of God, Stearns saw confirmation of God’s activity in the phenomena associated with the ministry of the Separate Baptists. Writing in 1772, Morgan Edwards stated “I believe a preternatural and invisible hand works in the assemblies of the Separate Baptists.” Visiting the 1759 annual meeting at Sandy Creek, Regular Baptist John Gano was convinced that “the power of God was among them.” Separate Baptists became known for regularly reporting “signs, wonders, and divine communications.” Heartfelt cries and falling down were common elements of the services. Visions and dreams were shared, especially as part of the conversion narratives given before baptism. John Waller reported the healing of a minister’s wife who suffered from “violent spasms” after he had anointed her with oil and prayed. Dutton Lane shared that when authorities were on their way to arrest church leaders at his church at Dan River, they were “struck temporarily blind by a flash of light followed by a thick darkness” and went home—the authorities never returned to Dan River.
Stearns introduced a new dynamic in preaching and a freedom of worship. The Separates did not preach from prepared notes, but relied on immediate inspiration from God. Preaching with great emotion “accompanied by strong gestures and a singular tone of voice,” the Separate Baptists were known for their distinctive preaching style. They expected an immediate response to their preaching, which became a characteristic of Southern revivalism for generations to follow. After the sermon, preachers invited hearers who “felt themselves to be poor sinners” to kneel at the front or near their seat, offering to pray with each one.
Stearns afforded women greater involvement in worship and church life than any other religious group in the colonial period. In the Separate Congregational and Baptist churches following the Great Awakening, women were free to share their conversion testimonies and exhorted others to repent. In New England, Daniel Marshall’s sister was jailed during a pregnancy for preaching Baptist doctrines. Martha (Stearns) Marshall was described as her husband’s “Priscilla, a helper in the gospel.” When she spoke to the church, she presented herself as “a lady of good sense, singular piety, and surprising elocution” who routinely “melted a whole concourse into tears by her prayers and exhortations.” In Virginia, Margaret Meuse Clay often spoke and prayed publicly, once being arrested for unlicensed preaching with eleven Baptist men. Sentenced to a public whipping, she was released when someone anonymously paid her fines. In roles unique to Separate Baptists at the time, women were serving as eldresses and deaconesses in a few of the churches, baptizing and teaching women exclusively. As Separates merged with Regular Baptists in the closing years of the eighteenth century, women were increasingly restricted from public speaking and church offices.
Stearns adapted his strategy for church extension and organization to meet the demands of his context. Confronted with a highly mobile population, Stearns started churches by holding large evangelistic meetings, establishing a church with branches from the converts and new followers. Any minister or layman who sensed a call from God could start a branch. In contrast with the struggle Anglicans had to secure professional clergy for the backcountry region, Stearns had no need for educated clergy—there were no barriers to the starting of new churches across the South. Stearns developed the use of ordained ministers in ad hoc presbyteries to ordain candidates to serve as pastors. Separate Baptists rarely paid their pastors a salary, which was a partial reaction to the taxes forced on backcountry citizens to pay Anglican parish salaries. Stearns probably derived his approach to associations from his exchanges with General Baptists prior to 1754. The connectionalism represented in the way Stearns exercised authority through the Sandy Creek association influenced the formation of Southern Baptists in 1845. Richard Furman was a Separate Baptist who had been converted and mentored under men like Joseph Reese, Philip Mulkey and John Newton, all disciples of Shubal Stearns. Furman discipled and mentored W. B. Johnson, who came to be known as the architect behind the creation of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The focus on evangelism and church planting represented by Stearns and the Separate Baptist movement moderated the older, rigid forms of Calvinism found among the Particular or Regular Baptist churches. Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the Separates, Regular Baptist observers either affirmed their zeal or criticized their emotionalism, but rarely questioned their commitment to doctrines of grace. The anticreedalism expressed by the Separates during unification talks with Regulars had little to do with Calvinism: the Separates did not want to impose a confessional statement upon churches, essentially replacing God’s Word. The explosive growth of the Separates across the South did force the Regulars to rethink the practice of their Calvinism to allow for preaching that emphasized a personal response to the Gospel. Between 1740 and 1790, Regular Baptists managed to start ten churches in Virginia—Separate Baptists formed several hundred. Baptists in the South owe their remarkable growth and influence to Shubal Stearns and the Separate Baptists.
C. Goen wrote that “the most phenomenal story of Separate Baptist expansion was written not in New England but in the South.” Shubal Stearns injected the life-changing principles of the Great Awakening into the spiritually neglected, backcountry souls of the deep South. By depending on the Holy Spirit for guidance and power, Stearns and his spiritual sons and daughters pursued lost souls with a relentless zeal and passion. Adapting ecclesiastical structures and forms to his context, Stearns influenced later generations of Baptists to do whatever is necessary to spread the gospel and start new churches. Placing the practice of preaching and evangelism ahead of doctrinal precision, Stearns restored worship as the primary measure and expression of authentic belief. In these ways, Shubal Stearns helped establish the character of “American evangelical Christianity” and continues to impact Baptists today around the world.
Thinking about our mission as His people… the buildings we build and the in-house programs we run can inadvertently lead us to an all-out effort (on our best days) to get people to come join us in our “box.”
When in truth, God clearly told us to “go”… you can’t “go” in a “box.” You’ll run into the walls… which is where many of our churches find themselves.
“Boxes” are not bad. But we spend so much time in our “boxes,” that we can forget that we (His people) are the church… and not the “box.”
We are praying and planning how to get more people into the “box,” when what we need to do is start thinking “outside the box.”
Better yet, we have to think as if the “box” didn’t exist. Seriously.
A poet helps answer the “why?” question:
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know; what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. That wants it down.”
– Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” in North of Boston (1915)
In a church parking lot one Sunday I passed a small truck that had a new bumper sticker on it I had not seen before. It said, “Stop World Whining.”
I stifled a laugh as I thought about the many times pastors have to handle dissatisfied members in their church. Have you ever felt like saying, “What do I look like? God’s complaint department?”
Complaints, problems, and disagreements will always erupt in our churches when we least expect them to. They can be threatening and discouraging to the forward movement of the church. But hang in there.
When I played football years ago, one of the drills we used to run required us to hit a line of defenders, spin off and around the line, and continue running down field. The early church was like that. When they encountered complaints in the church, they addressed the issue head-on, spun off the problem using a Spirit-guided solution, then continued to grow and expand in a dramatic way (Acts 6 & 15).
“Stop World Whining”? It would be really be nice wouldn’t it? Yet, the Lord seems to use even whining to propel His church forward.
He is risen!
In 2003 my wife and I made a run down to Yazoo City, Miss. for the funeral of her grandmother. A wonderful believer born in 1916, she lived her entire life in the hills just above the Delta cotton fields with a simple faith and an unconditional love for people.
Conducting her funeral in a little Methodist church near her home, I was reminded of something often lost to congregants of newer church buildings: the cemetery next door.
When the old timers built their churches they didn’t worry about parking or a premium location. They didn’t have a website with streaming audio of the most recent sermons. Nor did they have projected images for sermon outlines or song lyrics.
But the old timers who built their churches with the cemeteries next door lived with a stunning, weekly reminder that death was near and life was short. Each time they entered and exited the church building, the markers of the dead stood before them as silent messengers of a very real eternity awaiting all of us.
As I stood before family and friends and reminded them that “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54), I looked out and saw that cemetery. To emphasize Christ’s victory over death in the face of a constant reminder of death was a little easier there–with a cemetery next door.
You may not have a cemetery next door anymore, but the need for that weekly reminder remains–as much as ever.
About 10 years ago my wife and I were driving through Houston, Texas during rush hour when I realized that I could jump over into the High Occupancy Vehicle (H.O.V.) and miss most of the congestion. It was wonderful! Passing all of those other vehicles snarled in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
As we cruised by our fellow drivers, my wife and I began talking about the H.O.V. lane as a descriptive analogy of growing churches in America. Why do churches get “stuck in traffic?” What would a church have to do to move into the H.O.V. lane?
After a little research, I was able to make two basic observations about the requirements for moving into the H.O.V. lane:
1. you may not enter the lane alone; and
2. you must stay in the lane until you have reached your destination.
Can we apply these observations to a church?
(1) you cannot go there alone – Moving a church off of a spiritual plateau or out of a numerical decline is not easy. You cannot do it alone. You need the Lord and His supernatural guidance and power. You also need a team of faithful brothers and sisters who will make the move with you.
(2) you must stay for the entire journey – If you begin leading change in your church so that it can become a “High Occupancy Vehicle” for the Kingdom, you must also stay the course until you arrive at your destination. Except for times of true revival when God speeds up the clock, time and tenure are critical requirements for successful change.
In addition, I never talk about leading change in a church without making it clear that you are not changing a program or an organization: you are leading a change of heart in the people you serve.
People can tell the difference too.