Lewis McMullen, TBMB Church Planting Specialist, discusses church planting that relates to schools in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020.
Lewis McMullen: I know that even as an established congregation, dealing with COVID is, has been a challenge. It’s new territory. Well, for a new church planter, it has been more than new territory. A lot of them have lost their facility they had been meeting in and they’re trying to scramble and figure out how do I shepherd this little flock? And they need to know, that there’s some other shepherds out there who really care about them.
Chris Turner: Hello and welcome in to this edition of Radio B&R. I’m your host, Chris Turner. And today we’re talking church planting, but some unique church planting that relates to schools in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020. Joining us today is our TBMB Church Planting Specialist, Lewis McMullen. Lewis, welcome in.
Lewis McMullen: Well, thank you, Chris. We’re glad to be here.
Chris Turner: Well, these have been trying times definitely for churches of all types, but church plants have really had a bit of an additional challenge, which is what we’re going to talk about today. Just talk a little bit about church planting in Tennessee and how that has progressed over the past couple of years.
Lewis McMullen: Well, we’ve seen an increase in church planting the last six years in Tennessee. Not only because of more church plants, but because of more churches starting churches, mother churches starting churches. And we’re seeing some healthier plants, a very unique style of church plants dealing with affinity groups, people groups. And we’re also seeing an upsurge of rural church planting happening back in some of our smaller towns. As younger people are moving back, we’re seeing new churches pop up in those towns.
Chris Turner: Well, that is interesting because generally, you think about the surge towards urban church planting and that kind of thing, but the fact that we are seeing new churches, it sounds like there’s some new opportunities out in our smaller communities.
Lewis McMullen: Yes, there are. I’ll give you one example. We have the McMinnville area in the last five years, we’ve seen them start five new congregations, and they’ve got three other areas targeted for new churches. Whereas, 10 years ago, church planting was not even on their radar.
Chris Turner: Well, one of the things that you’ve always talked about church planters is that they’re entrepreneurial, self-starters, creative and all those types of things, which obviously leads them to some unique places to start churches. And we’ve seen those in storefronts and in other types of businesses. But one of the key places for churches that is a great location for them, have been schools. But right now with the COVID-19 crisis, with schools dismissing back in March and no schools in Tennessee really finishing out their year, moving into the summer and then the fall, what implication first does this have for churches that have been meeting in schools?
Lewis McMullen: Well, a lot of them are not being able to reenter the school until possibly fall. And in a couple of cases, the planter’s have not even been given an idea of even going back into the fall because of health concerns, sanitary concerns sharing facilities. We’ve got quite a few of our planters right now who are scrambling to find alternative spaces, other than being online digital church.
Chris Turner: So at this point, though, they have been continuing to meet online, like pretty much everybody else. But in the meantime, there, whereas a lot of other churches are figuring out how to get back in their building, it sounds like there is the disconnect possibly with the school system. What our church planters being told about going back into churches, especially this summer, related to schools?
Lewis McMullen: They’ve been told that the school district still has not made a decision. I’ve had several who have been told that it’s possible that they will not be back into the schools until fall. We’ve had a couple of counties who have sanitized our schools and they’ve sealed them and they will not reopen them until school reopens.
Chris Turner: Yeah. Is that a condition where the schools are trying to get the school sanitized and prepared and they’re afraid to let other people in, maybe not getting, allowing other people back in until they get back in? What really is kind of the situation with the schools, related to allowing those churches back in?
Lewis McMullen: I think it’s a liability issue. They’re looking at, we want to make sure we can tell our parents of the students that our school is clean and sanitized, no one’s been in there, there’s no risk. And they just cannot take the liability that if we let a school, if we let a church plant back into the school, are they going to be able to clean it and sanitize it as well as our staff? And there has been some school districts that have actually told the planters, we’ve had to cut back on our cleaning staff and therefore, we don’t have anyone who can come in and open the school and be there to help clean it up when you leave. So, you’re looking at a liability issue, you’re looking at a personnel issue, and again, you’re just looking at a health issue, all the way around.
Chris Turner: Yeah. So it sounds more like the issue really is related to a lot of uncertainty related to the whole coronavirus thing. Because schools have historically been fairly welcoming to churches coming in as a viable option for a church building. So it doesn’t sound like this is an issue with a school system trying to borrow church, but more out of a practical situation where they’re dealing with sanitizing the building and the liability.
Lewis McMullen: Yes. Most of, I would probably say about 90% of the school systems that we’ve dealt with here in Tennessee, have been very open and very welcoming. They like having church plants there, not only for extra income, but the planters, they help the school, they help with programs at the school. It brings families to the school, also. But when COVID-19 hit, it just changed the whole landscape of this. Most of the planters that I’ve talked with and most of the school systems I talked with, they said, we like the plant, we like the planter, but our board or our administrative committee is, we’re in a new territory, just like churches are in a new territory and we’re just trying to make the best decisions for the health and safety of everyone. So that means as long as the school is closed, the church plant can’t meet there.
Chris Turner: So what are our church planters going to do? How, obviously if it’s longterm, certainly at least until August, September, with that, they obviously have to meet over the summer. Or, if they’re not going to continue to do something virtual, but try and reconvene in person. And then longterm, I know there’s leases and agreements that are in place with schools, so what will our church planters do?
Lewis McMullen: We have about three or four of our church planters that I know that are doing drive in services at the school facility in the parking lot. I’ve got two church plants who are currently just meeting in a park near the school, but as you know, summer’s coming up and they don’t know how long that viability is going to be at that or comfort and those types of things. We have several who are approaching churches in their area about sharing facility. That’s been an interesting discussion along that lines, because now you’ve got a church trying to decide, do we want allow another church to come in and is sanitation and the cleanliness going to be the same. And then, there’s some others, who just had just said, they’re going to do the digital online presence until fall.
Chris Turner: So when we’re talking numbers, how many numbers, how many churches are we talking about that this could possibly affect, that you consider in that church planting category?
Lewis McMullen: I know of 35 right now.
Chris Turner: Wow. Yeah. So over the past few years, we talk about one of our five objectives being, adding a thousand new churches by 2024. Most of those, a lot of those, are church plants. How many church plants do we have over the past three years that have probably started in a place like a school?
Lewis McMullen: Wow. I would have to say-
Chris Turner: I kind of put you on the spot on that one.
Lewis McMullen: … Yeah, you did. Last three, four years, I would probably say about 50. Most of our urban church plants, they start in a school, they stay there quite awhile. I think I actually have a, it’s actually a church, it started out as a church plant that’s been meeting in a school and they’ve been meeting in the school for over six years now, just due to the fact that property in the area where they’re meeting is urban setting is in the Nashville area they just can’t afford. And so, I would say about 50, maybe 55 have started in schools. Some have moved out, gotten their own places. Some have actually gone in and kind of revitalized the churches as a plant in that church. And then the others, about, like I said, about 30, 35 right now, are sitting, waiting to see if they can get back into a school that they’d been meeting in.
Chris Turner: Where our planters have agreements with those churches, do you see the schools being sorry, where our planters have agreements with schools? Do you see those schools being pretty flexible in the lease agreements-
Lewis McMullen: Yes.
Chris Turner: … knowing that they really can’t let the people back in, but you know, those people needing to go find someplace else?
Lewis McMullen: Yes. They’ve been very good. I’ve not had any reports or have heard of any schools that have been not cooperative. They’ve been willing to whatever advanced lease money has been given, it’s come back. One of the things about the schools is, and this is something a lot of people don’t understand, in most school districts, the school that wherever that church plant is meeting, that money goes towards payment of the custodian and goes towards the school itself to help. So that’s why you have a great relationship with them. There are a few districts where the money goes to the district. So having a great relationship with that principal and having that extra income, as you know, schools are always looking for extra income, so they want to have a great relationship. And so in a way, this is going to economically affect some of those schools too.
Chris Turner: Yeah. So as you kind of look down the road and you see all these schools or churches that have, are currently in schools, do you kind of see our church planters scrambling to find new locations? Or, are they going just to continue the digital space for now? What do you see longterm for where we are, especially with so many uncertainties moving towards the school year in the fall?
Lewis McMullen: I think there’s going to be both. It’s going to be a digital presence along with scrambling, maybe for smaller space or even more flexibility in space. I know that one of the big things that we have discussed, I just did a webinar, excuse me, a Zoom meeting with a number of our planters, is trying to share facilities with churches to… Maybe one of these churches that are struggling, a church plant coming in and helping out those types of things. But what I hear most of my planters saying is, we’re going to have, to have a person to person gathering before too long.
Chris Turner: Yeah.
Lewis McMullen: And so, they’re just really, just trying to figure out what that’s going to look like, where are we going to do it and how are we going to do it? And so right now, everybody’s still in uncertainty. But at that same time, they don’t want to give up the idea that, Hey, I might be able to go back into the school and be a part of it.
Chris Turner: Yeah. So maintaining those relationships with those administrators and-
Lewis McMullen: Right.
Chris Turner: … Yeah. So, how have our church planters responded about just concerns with when this is over and regathering in person, their attrition rate? I know that a lot of churches are a little leery of that, that they’ll wind up losing some people along the way. And most church plants are not huge so every person matters. Every person matters in every church, but our church planters and church plants generally start a little smaller and kind of work up. How are they feeling about concerns related to attrition due to this?
Lewis McMullen: I had an interesting conversation with a planter the other day and he said, I think my people like digital more than gathering. And he says, I’m wondering how many are going to come back. Now, that’s just one person. Some of them really do have some concerns that are we going to lose those people who were coming, maybe who were not members, who are not believers, but they were checking out the claims of Christ being a part of the church plant. I would say there’s maybe a 35% worry in their mind that we might lose some people. But they also have seen a lot of people express interest in their online and digital.
Chris Turner: Yeah.
Lewis McMullen: And this has been interesting as several planters are saying, we’re getting people from out of state and across the US who are plugging into our digital. And we’re also seeing people in our neighborhoods plugging into our digital. So it’s given them a new prospect list per se, to go work with.
Chris Turner: So what can Tennessee Baptist or a local church do on behalf of these church plants to provide support? I’m sure prayer obviously is at the top of the list, but are there other things that your local church might be able to do to support a church plant in their area?
Lewis McMullen: Well, if you can, if they offer alternative worship space, offer them a time for their group to gather in your church for fellowship or even share facilities. Or, even reach out and say, Hey, if you want to do drive in and you don’t have, you can’t do it at school, do it at our facility. Just encourage them. So just offer up whatever space you can, offer to share. If you’re doing, if a established congregation is going to do backyard Bible clubs or do Vacation Bible School, or do something with children, share it with that church plant. Because right now, they don’t have the space or place to do that. Just reach out to them. And I would say local pastors and local church members just giving that church planter and his family a call and just saying, Hey, we’re praying for you. We’re supportive. We could be here for you, kind of walk along, because they don’t have a lot of that support base that an established congregation would have.
Chris Turner: Mm-hmm (affirmative) So it sounds like that an established church, if they don’t know of a church plant in their area, or if they’ve, if there is even one in their area, they could get in touch with the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board and you, and you could get them connected. And, it really does sound like this is not a competition between churches, but really a unified attempt, cooperative attempt by churches to reach as many people in a community as possible.
Lewis McMullen: Yes, definitely. There’s no competition in this whatsoever.
Chris Turner: Yeah. So, those local church pastors often are the guys that are pulling the trailer and unloading the chairs and getting everything set up and breaking it all down at the end and usually some support from other folks in the church. But just a word of encouragement from an established church pastor in that area and maybe even a cup of coffee when we can all get back together, would go a long way towards providing some encouragement, wouldn’t it?
Lewis McMullen: It would definitely. And there’s one other thing I would like to mention that several of these church plants have mentioned that, people have accepted Christ digitally online. They’ve followed up with them. Call one of these planters if they’ve got somebody they need to baptize. Hey, come, tell them to come use your baptistry and have a joint baptism service or something like that. It’ll be a shot in the arm for your congregation and a shot in the arm for the church planter. But just any way you can reach out, just let them know that you care about them. And I know that even as an established congregation dealing with COVID is, has been a challenge. It’s new territory. Well, for a new church planter, it has been more than new territory. They’ve, a lot of them have lost their facility they’ve been meeting in, and they were trying to scramble and figure out how do I shepherd this little flock? And they need to know that there’s some other shepherds out there who just really care about them.
Chris Turner: Actually, it sounds like it’s good counsel, even after we get past the whole COVID-19 thing, to really help build up that local congregation and encourage that pastor along his way. So, well, Lewis, thanks for taking a few moments to just kind of unfold for us what church planting in the COVID era looks like for many of our church planters across our state. And so many of these are churches that have been supported, because churches, more established churches, have given to the cooperative program and the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions. So they do have a stake in a lot of these churches, they just may not know it. So, thanks for sharing some thoughts with us on that.
Speaker 3: Thank you for listening to Radio B&R, a podcast production of the Baptist and Reflector, the official news journal of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. This and other episodes can be downloaded at baptistandreflector.org/radiobr. The ministries of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board are supported through the cooperative program and gifts received through the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions. For more information, visit tnbaptist.org.