Urban church planting transforms cities, conference speaker says

Communications Staff — April 9, 2003

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) – Urban church plants have the potential to transform entire cities with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, said Texas-based church planter Jim Herrington.

Because of that belief, Herrington left a comfortable position as director of the Union Baptist Association in Houston to plant a church in one of the city’s most unreached areas. He began the new work in an area with a church to population ratio of 1 to 40,000, Herrington told attendees of a recent urban church planting conference at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

In many cases, Herrington said, church plants have already transformed whole societies for Christ. One such example is the Christian Life Church in Kampala, Uganda, which has grown from seven persons in 1995 to over 20,000 today, he said. After years of ministry, the church’s pastor, Jackson Senyonga, now prays with the Ugandan president regularly and has begun to see widespread transformation sweep over the country.

“In the cities that are being transformed, two things became very clear,” Herrington said. “One of them was that in every city that was being transformed, the whole body of Christ was working together. The other thing that was clear was that a saturation church planting movement always accompanied transformation.”

In 1995, these observations about the success of urban church plants led Herrington to begin a church plant of his own in Houston.

“God began to stir up in me this deep, burning conviction that somebody needed to go to those places and stake out some land and say, ‘The church is no longer simply going to give this over to the enemy,” he said. “We are going to stake out some ground here, and we are going to occupy this land one day at a time, one person at a time, one church at a time.’”

Thus, Herrington and his wife, Betty, sold their suburban home and moved to Houston’s Montrose area—a neighborhood with over 6,000 homeless children and an active homosexual community—to plant a church.

Soon after Herrington’s arrival in Montrose though, he realized that he was in an extreme situation demanding an innovative strategy. Eighty percent of the people in Montrose had never read a Bible, Herrington estimates. And some had never even heard the name of Jesus.

“I have people in my church who, until they came to our church, didn’t know the name of Jesus,” he said. “It’s hard for me to believe you can live in this culture and have that be true, but it’s not the just one or two. There are a number of folks in the church I pastor who have never heard the name of Jesus until they came to that church.”

This radical ignorance of Christian doctrine in the community combined with a deeply embedded cynicism toward organized religion convinced Herrington that a network of house churches was the most effective way to reach Montrose.

“Unchurched people who know the church are so hostile and cynical in the community that I live in,” Herrington said. “Folks were not going to come to the traditional church. A combination of understanding our context, some conferencing that we were doing, and some people that the Lord brought to us along the way were all things that influenced and impacted the decision we made to do house churches.”

He started with just one house church, but that number quickly multiplied as Herrington began to connect with the people of the community.

“We started with one,” he said. “We went from one to two and two to three, and we have five now. We think we’re going to launch another one this summer and maybe another one in the fall.”

One of the reasons these house churches have been so successful, said Herrington, has been their ability to connect with the painful situations people are experiencing in Montrose.

“Almost everyone we’re reaching comes out of the drug, sex or alcohol culture that is Montrose,” he said. “They’re almost all poor, but they all grew up in middle class homes. They’re poor because of their drug and alcohol and sex addictions.”

As people came into his network of churches, Herrington says he started them on a plan of radical discipleship—a plan he urges all churches to follow.

“We’re trying to produce a kind of person with a Christian worldview who can live in a culture that is fallen and wicked and decadent and trying to undermine everything that Christ is about in the world today.

“If you’re not crystal clear about what you’re trying to produce when you’re making disciples, then it is pretty unlikely that they’re going to be able to stand in the face of what our culture calls them to and seduces them with.”

Regarding other church plants, Herrington urged students to “plant counter-cultural churches.”

Said Herrington, “We have got to plant churches that recognize that we live in a decadent, evil, wicked generation that is dominated by greed, manipulation, pleasure, and materialism.

“Don’t plant a church unless you plant it with the view to transformation of the city.”

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