As I write this, one quarter of our church membership is on a mission trip in Alaska. Six are in remote villages above the Arctic Circle working among the native Inuit people. Twenty others are at the Kenai River doing servant evangelism among the multicultural community that converges on the area each summer to dip-net for salmon in the frigid waters. I am simply in awe of our gospel warriors abroad, our prayer warriors at home, and our great God and Savior to whom belongs the victory. For four years, this has been my constant experience with the community known as Hanover Fellowship Church (HFC). How did this community come to be, and what drives it?
In January 2004, I received word that several Southern Baptist families had moved over the border into Pennsylvania and wanted to form their own church, one which would strengthen the evangelical presence in the area. They asked me to be their pastor. Being only midway through my seminary training and very “green” on the inner workings of a church, I politely declined. Two months later, however, they asked me to reconsider because they wanted someone they knew and trusted. (Most of us had attended Northwest Church in Reisterstown together.) I could tell relationships would be important with this group. Impressed by their commitment, I accepted.
Over the next several months a unique partnership emerged which enabled the idea of a church plant in Hanover to become a tangible reality. Representatives from two state conventions (Maryland/Delaware and Pennsylvania/South Jersey) and two associations (Mid-Maryland [MMBA] and Keystone) came to our aid, along with the North American Mission Board and Northwest Church. Each organization offered technical, financial and prayerful support. Barry Whitworth (Strategist from Pa.) and Joel Rainey (MMBA) offered to be my coaches. What a team this was going to be!
By fall of 2004, HFC was up and running. We held our first public worship service in the YMCA with 56 people in attendance; most were personally invited by the core group members. We opened worship that day with “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (although our music would be mostly contemporary, I used a little pastoral prerogative to start with Luther’s great hymn!). After the service we headed over to Lake Marburg to baptize two young people, a boy and a girl, who would come to typify the community’s dedication to discipleship from a young age.
By the time I graduated seminary and moved to the area in June 2005, we had a full-fledged operation going. (I had been commuting monthly by plane until then.) God had surrounded me with a dream team—leaders for our music, children’s and media ministries—who had godly character, plenty of “real church” experience, and academic degrees in their field. We were doing weekly servant evangelism outreaches and growing strong. In fact, within a few months we would need to move to our new home at the Hanover Movies.
So what drives this community? HFC might well serve as a textbook example of a church plant with all the right ingredients: we started with a committed core group in a spiritually needy area, we built a solid strategic partnership, and we put the right people in the right roles. All of these were essential, but there were some less obvious lessons which I learned…
Love the people you have more than the people you don’t have. Church planting is risky. I was tempted to define success as recruiting enough tithers to be able financially to support my family. This, in turn, threatened to affect my priority system: publicity and recruitment sometimes seemed a better investment of my time than sermon preparation, counseling and relationship development. I learned, however, that by lovingly and patiently investing myself in the existing core group, I could earn loyalty and gain an army of ready advertisers. (HFC has relied mostly on word-of-mouth advertising.) More importantly, quality was never sacrificed as quantity increased.
Keep the conversation on Kingdom work rather than secondary issues. Young families, HFC’s primary demographic, tend to be highly active these days, so they expect their church to be meaningfully active as well. I learned that by harnessing this energy we could successfully avoid the spiral of negativity that can come from focusing on divisive issues. We intentionally program our activities—servant evangelism, fellowships, small groups, mission trips—to provide people with “success” experiences. Attention is given to every detail. We then celebrate participation by showing pictures and videos of our activities on Sunday morning and on our website. When people see themselves active for the Kingdom, they are excited by what they see, and the Lord’s mission remains our “conversation.”
“Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God” (William Carey). I told the founding families I only wanted to help start the church if they were willing to commit to doing big, scary things. Well, they have kept their end of the deal! In HFC’s brief existence, we have sent 17 to Peru (for which we raised $35,000), 27 to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and 26 to Alaska. We have sent two families off to seminary, and a third family is on the way. We have baptized 38 locally and, through our mission efforts, seen hundreds of decisions made for Christ. Through it all I have learned that, although church planting can be an emotionally draining enterprise, it can also be a most fulfilling one. The key has been an earnest passion for Christ’s Kingdom, shared between planter and congregation. I am so glad the Lord led me into church planting and gave me this church family!
Planting Pastor of Hanover Fellowship Church