"Grandparenting" the next generation of church plants

An idea, conceived at General Conference 2012, becomes reality for two churches

By Dulcimer Hope Brubaker

“How do we rescue the poor, the downcast, the depressed, the addicted, the perishing of our culture today? The two-fold answer is just so amazingly simple: First, we change the way we do church. And second, we plant more new churches.”

Ron Bowell’s message echoed in the hearts and minds of those at General Conference 2012 in Ontario, Calif., last summer. As founding pastor of CrossRoads Church in Salina, Kans., a church planted in 1998, Ron has since helped launch four other area churches. Drawing upon this experience, Bowell was on fire as he addressed the General Conference:

“The best way to plant new churches is for churches to become parents,” he said. “But let’s be realistic: What if your church just cannot make that happen? What if your church has passed the child-bearing years? If [church planting] is just not an option, you could do another great thing: You could become a doting grandparent.”

With that, he issued this bold challenge: every church a parent or grandparent by 2014.

A grandparent church?
Members of Messiah Village BIC share their stories of faith with young families who attend Engage Community.“Grandparents often get you the things that parents can’t,” Bowell explained. “Grandparents think you do no wrong. . . . What if your church adopted a church planting and supported it as a grandparent? What if you helped that church planting pay its mortgage?”

Sitting in the audience were Ron Slabaugh, senior pastor, and Debby Bentch, associate pastor, at Messiah Village BIC Church (Mechanicsburg, Pa.). Based in a retirement community, Messiah Village Church isn’t in the ideal position to think about birthing a new congregation. So when Bowell issued the challenge to adopt a “granddaughter church,” Bentch turned to Slabaugh and said, “We should do that!” Slabaugh agreed heartily, and the two pastors joined the rest of the assembly in a moving time of heartfelt prayer for God’s power and direction in multiplying His church. Slabaugh reflects: “Something was birthed in our spirits that night and also in another church, unbeknownst to us.”

On the plane ride home from General Conference, Jon Hand found himself longing for a grandparent for Engage Community, the four-year-old BIC church plant he pastors. Housed in an old ribbon factory in Carlisle, Pa., Engage consists primarily of 20- and 30-somethings. “We have plenty of energy, but we lack spiritual maturity,” says Hand. “We don’t have a lot of people who have been walking with God for 60 years. If there’s an area our church needs to grow in, it’s grandmas and grandpas.”

After expressing their hopes to Ken Hoke, bishop of the Susquehanna Regional Conference, the two churches were referred to one another, and the leadership teams from Engage and Messiah Village met at a local restaurant to get to know one another and discuss how their congregations might be able to enrich one another.

“At first, when Messiah Village thought grandparenting, they thought money,” remembers Hand. “But at Engage, we thought relationship. Older people feel sidelined or marginalized by our youth culture. They feel very useful to their own community but they don’t see how they have value or worth outside of that. Engage is a church where their presence is very much wanted.”

Engage pastor Jon Hand interview Dick Long, of Messiah Village BIC, about how God has provided in his life.So, in addition to the $5,000 that Messiah Village has built into its 2013 budget to support this fledgling congregation, the two churches have begun sharing life together. In mid-January, a six-member team from Messiah Village shared special music during Engage’s morning service. At the end of the service, Hand interviewed Dick Long, the oldest member of the team, about a time in his life when God provided in a challenging situation. His time-worn testimony of faithfulness held particular significance for Engage attendees, as Long was once a church planter himself.

In the coming weeks, Engage is planning a reciprocal visit to its grandparent church, where youthful energy and singing children are sure to be a source of encouragement and hope. But the effects of this grandparent relationship are not just local. “This is fruit of vision that came out of General Conference,” Hand affirms. “The energies of God are not being diminished.”

Conceived in the midst of denominational transition and challenges, and the minutia of business sessions, this bond between two churches is a bright glimmer of hope for both traditional churches that struggle to reach their communities and new congregations looking to establish deeper roots. But it’s also about joining the work God is doing.

“We are not rushing to complete or accomplish anything in particular,” Slabaugh says. “We are just letting God inspire and direct us. We are not sure where He is taking us. We have simply said, ‘yes’ to Him and wherever He takes us we are willing to follow. Let the journey continue!”