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Church Size Dynamics

 

Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church Podcast. Jeff Robinson is joining us today from Grace Fellowship in West Palm Beach, Florida. Great to have you, Jeff.

Great to be here.

 

So Jeff, tell us a little bit about your position there at Grace Fellowship and how you came to it.

I currently serve as lead pastor here for Grace Fellowship in West Palm Beach, and we’re also known as the Church for All Nations. And so we have 50 plus nations, first generation that are represented in the church. And I started here in May of 2016, was serving at a church in Virginia – southwest Virginia, Rocky Mountain sunshine capital of the world. You been there before?

 

It’s beautiful.

It’s an awesome place. So we were there, loved it. We were not looking to move at all. And then we were contacted by Grace, and then the Lord just led us here. And so I was able to serve at another church right out of Bible College, pastor, and through the Lord did some great things there. And so we’re excited to be here, we believe it is where we’re supposed to be.

 

Where you’ve come now, Grace Fellowship is a pretty unique church in the sense that the community itself is also pretty unique, by most American city standards. It’s a really diverse area, and your church reflects that as does your staff and your eldership. Coming from where you were in Virginia, is that a change for you or did the church you came from also have a pretty diverse mix of people?

Yeah, great question. In Virginia county 85% are white so not a ton of diversity there, especially compared to South Florida and West Palm Beach. For me and my wife, we’ve always been interested in missions and been able to do some cross cultural stuff. We met in Hawaii, when I was there speaking at a student camp, and she was serving with a mission board, and kind of a cross cultural situation there. I went to Southwestern, a lot of my friends were international. And so for us, it was always something that we loved, that we were a part of, doing overseas cross-cultural work, and then the Lord bought this opportunity out of the blue. And so, yeah, from Virginia, definitely a huge culture shift, but we have both been able to minister to situations. It’ll maybe a little bit outside the traditional American context in the past, even if it wasn’t here in the continental 48.

 

So you know I’m speaking to you from the Bible Belt where there’s a standard way of doing church, even amongst different denominations. It still kind of follows the typical pattern. So I’m curious where you’re at, especially that part of the country. How is your church structure? What falls under your responsibility? And I guess, in what ways do you see the location you’re at and the community that surrounds you – how has it shaped the way the church is there?

That’s a great question. As far as our Sunday Morning services go, we’re trying to do a better job, just each week to say: “What would a person has never had a church exposure before think about what we’re doing?” Are we able to explain, why do we receive an offering? Why are we all together singing songs at the same time? We live in the currently most never-churched region in the U.S. right now. And so for us, it’s just looking at everything that we do through the lens of a person who’s never been exposed to it. And as far as my role in that, primarily is the cast the vision for it. It’s to say our job is to be here for people who don’t know Christ, and we want to do everything we can to remove unnecessary roadblocks and allow the gospel to be clear.

 

So, for a lot of people listening, they might be curious, what are some of the things that you’ve discovered are those unnecessary roadblocks, at least in your area?

 

Yeah, some of the unnecessary roadblocks would be assuming that people know. I was raised in the Bible Belt as well. And even things such as the teaching the bible people have questions about the veracity and the truth of the word of God. And so what we try to do is preach in an expository fashion, but incorporate apologetics with that as well. So don’t assume that people are believing what you’re saying. And across the church world, we would say yes to that, but just the statistics and studies show that our unchurched population is much higher. So it’s not really an option. I don’t have an option not to do that and gain a hearing with people who are checking out church.

 

Now that takes a whole lot more effort in drafting sermons. Have you found that this has shaped you and your faith in kind of a new way, having to think through a different lens and preach through different lens?

Oh, absolutely, absolutely. So for me, it’s kind of a switch on the overall spectrum from Acts 2 to where Peter’s preaching to people who understood the scripture by and large. Even though in Virginia, we saw a lot of people come to the Lord who did not come from church backgrounds, but just generally speaking to an Acts 17 crowd, to trying to establish: are there areas of common ground? And giving an inductive approach to apologetics as opposed to just straight deductive and saying, here are some things that we all believe to be true. Things like children have value, and things that just any person in society, as long as they’re morally mentally stable, they’ll agree with and to just start from that, and then go specifics as opposed to to begin with specifics before you’ve been able to make your case.

 

Alright. Let’s shift to more like that Monday through Friday staff, administrative side, how are those duties divided up? Do you have some executive pastors underneath you, or do you primarily take care of that management?

Currently, we’re looking for an executive pastor.

 

Oh, okay. Anyone who’s listening.

Yeah, and administration is not my passion, or my calling, but we have a great team here. We have a Godly elder has been a part of the church for many years, he’s been helping out with a lot of the administration, the day to day details. And again, we have a great team who is very competent, but right now my role would not be normative if we had that executive role. And so it’s a unique… it’s a good chapter in our church life. But again, if we had an executive, we’d be able to hand off certain things that right now are here on my plate.

 

So what is something you guys have going on there at Grace Fellowship? The best practice or some solution you’ve discovered that might be interesting to others listening.

Yeah, one thing we’ve found that’s not really new, but for us, it’s been really, really helpful, is to emphasize the membership class. We call it Starting Point, we used to call it our ‘belonging class.’ But with the church as large as ours, we found that if we don’t have some central system to allow people to be exposed to doctrine of the church, our DNA, our heart, the fact that we’re a multicampus, multinational, multicultural, multilingual, all of those things, then you kind of get people who may be even be serving in the ministry, but they’re not fully knowledgeable about the church that they actually serve in or that are a part of. So we really, this past year have been emphasizing heavily: get connected with Starting Point because through that they’re exposed to who the church is, where we’re going, and also to hear a clear presentation of the gospel in a smaller setting than on Sunday morning. And along with that, we’ve also found it – we almost stumbled on to it by accident this year to align certain things in our schedule. For example, our baby dedication. We don’t baptize or sprinkle infants here, but we have a dedication time for a lot of families here that’s very special. And so we connected that with our Starting Point classes. So the adults, Mom and Dad, go through the Starting Point class, they hear God’s plan for them and for their children. Then we have a specific child dedication class. They go through that to understand what baby dedication is. And then we followed it with really gospel-centered beach baptism events. And so we’ve been able to see the parental desire for their children to walk with the Lord, or even people who come from nominal background, say, I just want my child to be a Christian. Even if they’re understanding that Christian is just a nice moral person. Having those streams in the church, so to speak, intersect, to give a greater opportunity for the parents to hear the gospel and then have a natural setting to follow and go with these baptisms. So we’ve been able to see some really, really neat change happen if we just allowed the calendar to connect.

 

That’s great. I know there are quite a few churches around the country who are having some struggles with: they’ve got people attending on Sunday mornings, but there’s a resistance to becoming a member of a church. Is that something, as you’ve introduced these Starting Point classes, has it been a challenge to get people to come in to them, and do they work once they come, or that really hasn’t been an issue for you guys?

It has been a minor issue with people who have been in the church, but who’ve been burned by the church. And I found that in my short life that those have the most resistance to, in a sense, becoming vulnerable and joining something that they’ve been hurt by. Whereas if it’s a person who’s seeking out Christ for the first time and they don’t necessarily have a Bible bank of knowledge, it seems to be more of a natural fit. Even though we explain membership: it’s not like the gym, this is not LA Fitness, Jesus-style. It’s not country club-style membership. This is that you’re mutually committing together with a family to make much of Jesus all together. Our time, our finances, our heart, our life and our prayers, so it’s to put everything together and love one another, that’s what membership is. So that’s the difficulty too, when you’re talking about membership because it’s almost a neutral term when it comes to language of religion, and a lot of people don’t exactly know…they think there’s dues. A lady who went through a class recently and she said, well, it took me a long time to take the Starting Point class, because I thought that I had to be at a point of my life to where I stopped sinning in order to take this class. And me and the other pastor, we were leaving class and we looked at each other and said, well if that’s the case then can’t even teach the class. You know, none of us are without sin. We’d be totally disqualified by that. So it’s just interesting. Our area with those who move here from, like you said, the Bible Belt, who may have had some difficult church experiences and then they carry that baggage, and then there’s those who who don’t know, they don’t know that they don’t know. And that’s exciting because then you’re able to build a great platform. And then for those who’ve moved in and had a tough church experience in past and pray the Lord gives them the grace to see Christ.


Now, since you have different campuses, and how many different campuses do you have?

Currently we have 6.

Okay, and quite a few of those are in different languages, is that right? Creole and Spanish? Are there some others you have?

Correct, we only have one English campus.

 

Okay. That’s pretty amazing. So with these Starting Point classes then, do you use pretty much the same structure and format and flow of the education portion of it for all of these campuses? Or is it pretty unique to each campus?

It’s unique to each campus, and the reason why we did that is because with our English church here, we have a certain way of doing things that sets just the general culture here. Even though we have 50-plus nations, first generation, represented in the English church, we just didn’t think that a one-size-fits-all for our Haitian congregations and our Spanish-speaking congregations would be the best decision. So we allow those pastors latitude and allow them to lead to work that out.

 

Alright, now going on the other side of this. What is something you got going on right now? Some challenge that you haven’t yet found a solution for?

Oh, great question. We have a follow up system, but it’s not what it needs to be. We’re able to follow up for a certain amount of time. But, like most churches, (this is not an excuse, this reality) we need to be able to further hone that, to be able to track people and their attendance and so forth to connect them. Because once you get above a certain size… I remember reading Tim Keller’s Church Size Dynamics monograph, it’s just virtually impossible to keep track of people, outside of small groups, and not everybody wants to go to a small group, not everybody will. We want to aim for the top shelf, but that’s not the way it’s always gonna happen. So finding a way to navigate that in a larger church so that people don’t fall through the cracks.

 

Yeah, seems to be a common challenge, as you said, with churches that get over a certain size or over a certain amount of campuses, collecting that data becomes very complicated.

Right, exactly. And that’s what we’re working through it trying to get better, but we definitely have a long way to go.

 

So, Jeff, where do you go to make sure that you are the best you can be at your role?
We have a monthly first cohort here. We have a peer to peer sharing message that usually is 45 minutes, 35 minutes, by a pastor in the area or a special speaker, and then they break up into a cohort of five or six guys that are in a similar style of church, similar role on staff, similar size, and that’s really become an accountability group, of peer-to-peer learning. There’s no pretentiousness at all. I say “Guys, here’s an issue that we’re facing – what would you do?” And the guys that are in the group, some well known guys here in South Florida, great leaders that I’ve really, really benefited by just being able to pick their brain on a monthly basis. I know I’m gonna be there every month without fail, unless something happens out of the ordinary.

So that’s been crucial for me. And especially learning the culture of South Florida. A lot of the church growth books and things that that come out kind of on macro level, I find a lot of it doesn’t necessarily apply and they just look at it and say, that would not work here. And so trying to talk to guys who have that local understanding. Because South Florida is South Florida, and then you add the international flavor to it. And people literally here in Palm Beach county, literally from all over the world. From people who are here first generation immigrants to people who have multinational corporations who are citizens of another country or perceived that they just want to be here because they like the area. So that is not a cookie-cutter approach. Being able to get that local specific wisdom, mutually shared wisdom, from these guys has been crucial.

It’s kind of like learning guitar. I started playing the guitar when I was 16. I was able to learn the most about guitars and playing guitar from other people who played guitar. And it’s through that, just pick up different licks and different strumming patterns. And so I try to spend as much time as I can with leaders. And so if someone comes and speaks, right afterwards I go get their name their number try to follow up, take them out to lunch and just be voracious and seeking out advice for people who know the culture here.

 

I like that – a voracious advice seeker.

Yeah.

 

So Jeff, what encouragement would you give to others in church leadership?

I think the number one, a bit of encouragement I could give would be to be courageous in the face of critical decisions. With not just South Florida, but just the culture at large, there has been such a shift over the last few decades and it seems to gain more steam every day. That seems to be pulling away from what a lot of American Christians have understood to be normative, culturally normative. It’s just with the decisions that were faced with, whether it’s a person in the church who is contentious or whether it’s a doctrinal decision, it’s just to be courageous and lead with courage.

I was able to give a talk to a group of pastors last month and the title of the talk, it was something on my heart for quite a while, it was ‘Courage and Critical Decisions’  – to think about the persecuted church. Churches that don’t have signs and seats. They don’t have salary. Pastors don’t have insurance. Very normal throughout church history, I think for me personally, to think about persecuted church. But I think of it as a heavy point, but I think it’s real. For me, and to talk to other pastors whether in the belt or down here to say: “uys, we all have stress, we all have things we want to do, if we’re growing”…This past year at Grace, you saw a lot of people come to Christ, a lot of people at baptism, unite and joining the church. It’s great. We’re seeing more, because we wanna make a huge dent in the darkness that surrounds us. But say: guys, with the things that bother us, let’s remember all these people, these men and the women who’ve safely served jesus at the expense of their their own life, their property, their family. And so for me, that’s a regular realignment. It’s a recalibration. I can go to persecution.org and look at what people have suffered and are suffering for the cause of Jesus Christ. So that the pressure, I think the Lord uses that in my life too. I pray will fill me with courage to make the right call when those calls come up and they do all the time.

 

That’s great, Jeff, thanks so much for being on the podcast today.

Absolutely. Thank you.

 

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