Twenty-one churches have been planted by Hill Country Bible Church in partnership with others since 1992.
By Camren Cheline
Hill Country Bible Church (HCBC) of Austin, TX is about making the name of Jesus famous, whatever it takes. In a culture of cleverly written strategies and tried and true models, they’ll try whatever works. In the words of John Herrington, the director of Church Planting in the Hill Country Association, “We started with great intentions of reaching the city; our strategy was to use a model, but a model reaches a certain type of people. So we asked the question, ‘How do we create churches that make sense to the people to whom we’re being sent?’”
The first church in the association, Hill Country Bible Church Northwest, was started in 1985 by 17 people who wanted to be a part of a church that had an authentic people and who wanted to have a lasting impact on the surrounding community. In 1988 HCBC hired church-planter Tim Hawks as its head pastor and by 1992 decided that they were not satisfied to just reach their immediate locale.
‘A particular call’
They believed that God had given them a very particular call to reach every part of Austin. The strategy was simple: read the Bible and follow what it says about spreading the gospel. One thing stood out: church-planting. As a natural product of the missionary efforts by the dispersed disciples, it was concluded that church-planting was how we felt God would effectively use us to reach Austin long-term. What was not decided at that time was what a church plant should look like.
Since 1992, 21 churches have been planted by HCBC in partnership with other ministries and churches. They have used many church-planting models, but the most common in their history is the hive-off model. A hive-off normally involves the church planter recruiting people from within HCBC who are willing to relinquish their membership (and in some cases their homes) to invest their lives in a church plant that could be on the other side of the city.
In 2006, HCBC started investing resources in a model that they believed to be a bit more suitable for certain demographics and, potentially, a better use of their capital — they started parachute model churches. These churches required fewer people and funding and more “missionaries” and faith. Instead of bringing a little church with them into a new area, they would start with a handful of missional people, practice evangelism in that target area and build a congregation directly out of conversion.
In some cases, it has been very successful. “We are moving beyond the scope of what we could possibly do as far as planting in the northwest suburbs; we are indeed sending out parachutes,” says Herrington. “We have a guy in South Austin who has had 10 come to faith and he hasn’t even launched yet. He has baptized them and they’re in Bible studies.”
A hundred churches
While there have been a growing number of churches planted in Austin, and while that number will continue to grow, we know it’s not about having as many churches in Austin as we can. “We don’t care as much about [planting churches] as we do reaching the whole city,” Herrington says. This is where the church decided to adopt the concept of “missional communities,” originally modeled by one of HCBC’s church plants, Hill Country UT.
Hill Country UT is a church plant started in 2005 specifically for college students at the University of Texas campus. They describe a missional community as “an identified and gathered people group with whom students enter into community, express their faith through spiritual conversations, and explore truth through Scripture specifically with the purpose of sharing the Gospel.” In other words, it’s doing ministry where life is done. A missional community might form around dorms, a school of study (Biometrics Engineering, Communications, etc.), or an affinity group.
Maybe it’s a group that meets every week to play volleyball or video games. HCBC has translated this model to the suburbs, focusing on the workplace, neighborhoods and schools. “This brings about smaller but healthier movements of people as the DNA of the communities are stronger, with authentic bonds of genuine engagement, which bring about higher exponential growth through conversions,” comments Denny Henderson, 35, pastor of Hill Country UT.
John Herrington says that not only could missional communities be a more effective model in some cases, but also a more practical model for HCBC. “What we’re doing right now is necessitated by having too few believers at HCBC who will sell their home and move to a different area of the city. What we’ve done with our strategy here is that we are trying to raise up workers out of the harvest so we are starting missional communities at HCBC.
“We have about 11 significant groups going on right now. One of our missional community leaders quit his job at a church, went to a secular company and has seen 12 come to know Jesus. In fact, he recently had a baptism celebration with 60 people from the neighborhood and the Gospel was proclaimed.” Herrington says.
As Hill Country UT has gone through seasons of missional communities, one thing they have learned to keep in front of their church body is that if one is not in a missional community, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t and can’t be missional. It’s not about being in a group with similar interests, though that might help. It’s about being missional. It’s about looking at those around you differently and being intentional in those relationships. It’s about loving them and sharing the love of Christ with them.
The fall semester has already proven to be a big one in the life of Hill Country UT. After celebrating the five-year anniversary, a new challenge was brought before the church. Henderson and the elders felt that, with the current facility, the vision to reach the University of Texas was capped. An opportunity came up that would not only give the church opportunity to expand the space, but also the ministry reach.
The new space would not just be used on Sunday morning, but throughout the week. It would also be a venue and coffeehouse for the college community, hosting such things as concerts and events as well as a Performing Arts Center for the campus. We want to use the space we have to engage the college community around us.
Whether it’s missional communities or church planting, it all comes back to Jesus. As writer Alan Hirsch asks, “What would it mean to plan the Gospel rather than the church?” There have been many failed attempts and unwise decisions but God continues to usher people to Himself. At the end of the day, Hill Country Bible Church seeks to walk forward in risky commitment and obedience, saying, “Yes, send me. I’ll be the voice of the one in the desert calling ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
Malphurs: Planters should use a ‘hunting license’ approach
Fourteen years ago Aubrey Malphurs wrote one of the first major texts on planting new churches. That book was Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century (Baker Books). New church development has taken a few turns since that initial text, and Malphurs, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, points out two:
“Second, there has been a strong response from younger people to involvement in planting missional churches that are incarnational (reaching out to and involvement in their communities) more than invitational (expecting people to come to them). I see the latter in most cases as a return to the biblical imperative — ‘go and make disciples!’”
Malphurs has added another excellent book to the literature in The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting (Baker, 2011). He responded to a few questions from Church Executive:
Has anything changed in the economics or finances of planting churches?
It doesn’t necessarily take more money proportionately than in the past; otherwise this would eliminate many urban church plants. The recession hasn’t helped; however, a church planter may start a successful church in his apartment that would cost very little. Expense becomes a factor when he wants to expand the staff and find and purchase property and facilities.
Are there any different characteristics or qualifications today for church planters than there were 20 years ago?
There is little difference. In general, they still need to be somewhat entrepreneurial, meet basic character requirements (1 Tim. 3:1-7), love and relate well to people, possess the spiritual gifts of communication (preaching and teaching), leadership, and evangelism, and pattern more as a D or I temperament on the disc temperament tool.
You mention Leith Anderson’s model for nurturing prospective planters at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, MN. What does he do?
More churches would plant churches if the pastors and boards weren’t so worried about losing people and giving up finances to the new work. Leith has used what he calls a “hunting license” approach. They allow their church planters to recruit anyone in the church to be a part of their team or to pursue financial support from the same. This sends a clear message that the church supports in every way possible the planting of churches.
What’s the main reason church plants fail?
The pastor’s perception of ministry. Some see their ministry as being that primarily of a chaplain — a caretaker — to visit the sick at home and in the hospital, etc. They’re there to take care of people. People in these churches want and expect to be served and cared for. (It’s important here to note that Jesus came not to be served but to serve!) That works for around 100 to 200 people but won’t sustain a church that desires to grow beyond 200 people.
Church planting pastors need to be entrepreneurial type leaders who are visionary, etc., not care-givers. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a care component to the ministry. The issue is who provides the care. I urge churches to turn from a pastoral care approach to congregational care. Let the congregation minister to and provide care for the people and free up the pastors to do other things such as lead.
What is most important in the first three years of a new plant?
Growth is most important. If a church is going to move through the 200 barrier (this is the most common barrier that all churches face) it needs to do so within the first year of its ministry. If it doesn’t, odds are it will not in the future. Key to this is the number of people you plant with. In general, I recommend that they start with no less than 50 people, and “the more the merrier.”
What denominations or parachurch groups do especially well in planting new churches?
There are several. The Southern Baptists (North American Mission Board) is doing a good job, as is the Evangelical Free Church. A somewhat new, informal organization that has come on the scene is the Church Planting Network. And there are a number of other good ones: Acts 29, GlocalNet, Stadia, Mission Catalyst Network, among them.
Anything disturbing that you see on the church planting horizon?
I do have some concerns about the attitudes on the part of some younger pastor planters. It seems that each new generation is rebelling to some degree against the one that preceded it. While this can be good and frees us up to pursue new ministry paradigms, we can miss learning from the wisdom of the past. For example, many seem to have jettisoned the knowledge and lessons we gleaned from the church growth movement.
Dealing more with the person than the program or policy is Church Planter: The Man, The Message, The Mission by Darrin Patrick (Crossway, 2010). A good companion to the Malphurs book, Patrick, vice president of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network and founding pastor of the Journey Church in St. Louis, says it is the man, message and the mission that lies at the heart of every church plant.
UT: College students changing the world
“What starts here changes the world,” reads the famous tagline of the University of Texas at Austin. Hill Country Bible Church Northwest believed this message when they sent out 60 adults and 12 students from the North Austin suburbs to downtown Austin to start a church specifically for college students on the UT campus.
This “missional” church is able to impact the world by investing in the lives of students from more than 120 different countries that are represented at the university. “Most people hear ‘missional’ and think it’s just some post-modern, organic movement,” says head pastor, Denny Henderson, “but we are specifically designed to reach the 50,000 students at the University of Texas.”
When Hill Country UT was formed in 2005, Henderson had no idea that he would see a church grow from 72 to more than 500 and watch hundreds of students’ lives be transformed by the Gospel. He comments on the past five years, saying, “It’s crazy. My wife and I wonder constantly how this church full of college students, with practically no funding, sustains itself. But God takes care of us!”
Hill Country UT may serve college students, but Henderson assures us that it isn’t run by them. “Though we are organic, we measure successes, hold people accountable, have leadership structure, adequate planning and a board of elders.”
Because of the unique target audience, unique challenges are presented for Hill Country UT. But it seems that God has continued to bring the adults to lead, the finances to operate and the students to walk through the doors. The hope and the result is that those same students who enter, leave as missionaries to the UT campus and to the world for the rest of their lives. — CC