If ever there was a Bible verse that the Lord was going to teach me the meaning of during the first years of planting a new church it was this one: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
Glancing in the rear-view mirror at the path we’ve traveled to this tenth anniversary of Harbins Community Baptist Church, I can certainly say that my plans have often, sometimes quite radically, been redirected by our good God. There are several key milestones in the history of our church that are nothing more than God taking our plans, tearing them up, and then re-writing them for our good and His glory.
Plan #1: Northwest Arkansas
Perhaps the most radical modification to our original church planting intentions was God changing the physical location of the church plant. Heather and I had lived in the Atlanta area for about a year and a half before we decided to plant a church. We had come to Georgia from Northwest Arkansas where, prior to coming to Georgia, we had put down some significant social and family roots. So when God began to stir our hearts toward church planting we immediately had a desire to head back to Northwest Arkansas to start a new kind of church in that rapidly growing region of the country. At first it seemed that our plans were coming together quite nicely.
We had friends from Georgia, the Teffertillers, who were going to go with us to help pastor the church. We had two other planters on board who already lived in Northwest Arkansas. We even had a core group of about 25 people ready to go. So far along were our plans that we had already packed up our houses and movers were scheduled. Then God stepped in. All four of us church planters gathered together for a planning meeting in Memphis, TN (the midway point between our two locations). In that meeting, which would not be helpful nor appropriate for me to blog about, the Northwest Arkansas plan collapsed. Deep differences emerged which made it clear that to move forward with the church plant would be foolish. Greg Teffertiller and I drove back to Georgia with our plan in tatters, but God’s plan was marching forward.
After some soul-searching and looking into church start-up options in other places, such as North Carolina, we met with the Gwinnett Metro Baptist Association (GMBA) who encouraged us to plant a new church in the Harbins area. The pieces began to fall into place. The association made us their key church plant for 2007. They connected us with Steve Hammack and Anchor Church who decided to be our sponsoring church. And a core group of families emerged who were ready to be a part of a new church. And so we launched out. We began meeting with our core group in November of 2006 and officially launched the church April 8th, 2007. But if we thought that God was done tinkering with our plans were fooling ourselves.
Plan #2: Cool Name
Before planting, Greg and I were looking for a unique name that would capture who we were as a church. Having come out of highly programmed, age-focused church structures (which we considered to be unhealthy) our new church was going to place a strong emphasis on integrating the whole family for worship, discipleship, and missions. We also embraced a soteriological framework that emphasized the absolute sovereignty of God in all things. These aspects of our DNA as a new church led us to choose the name “Milestone Community Church.” The idea behind the name was that God sovereignly puts milestones in our lives that we as parents should look back upon and thus use to teach our kids about the goodness and mercy of our great God. Plus we thought that the name was unique and cool.
The Scriptural impetus behind the name came from Joshua 4 where God told the Israelites, as they miraculously crossed the Jordan, to take twelves stones from the riverbed and make a memorial. The purpose of the memorial is explained in Joshua 4:21: “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever.”
Little did we know at the time that a big mega-church in the area was already in the planning stages of using that same Scripture text to rename their church, and I must say that the name they came up with was much better than ours. But I still maintain that we were the original “stoners.”
For the time being, however, we patted ourselves on the back for our clever name and started the church. Pretty soon it was clear that the name wasn’t having the effect we wanted it to have. First of all, the area in which we planted the church was not exploding with hip, young families like our association had anticipated it would be. In retrospect this was due in large part to the housing market collapse which was only in its initial stages in the Spring of 2007. For the next four years or so there would be at least a dozen subdivisions in the Harbins area filled with empty houses that were supposed to be holding young, middle-class families ripe for the harvest. So, the cool-factor of the name (I know that’s debatable), designed to connect with that demographic, was moot. Of course, as church-planting trends demanded, we didn’t have “Baptist” in our name either, and to our surprise it turned out that many of the people in the area who were used to traditional church norms were hesitant to visit a church that, at least on the surface, was a denominational crapshoot.
Perhaps even more jarring than all of that was the fact that so many people thought our name was Millstone. And the image of a millstone was not what we were going for: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). So the name needed to change, and it would, for God had ordained another step that we never saw coming.
Plan #3: We don’t need a building
Everyone knows that the church is not a building, its God’s people. Because of that some church planters wear the fact that they don’t have a building as a badge of honor. That wasn’t necessarily us. I firmly believed that we didn’t need a building, but I wasn’t philosophically against them either. Frank Viola and George Barna had not convinced me that buildings were pagan. But there weren’t many meeting places in the Harbins Community, so we had to have our Sunday gatherings at Harbins Elementary School. We figured that we would be there for several years at the very least. After months of doing church out of a trailer I began to dream of what it would be like someday to have our own building. The school administrators we very nice and accommodating but the rent was high, the flexibility was limited, and setting up and tearing down each Sunday was extremely tiring. So we began to put land and a building on our “Himpossible” prayer list.
No sooner had we begun to get serious about praying for these things did I get a call from Sid Hopkins, our association’s Director of Missions. He asked me to meet him at a 1522 Harbins Road, about a mile from the school. When I got there he informed me that someone had given that land to our church, all 17 acres of it! The only condition was that the donor wanted the name of the community, Harbins, to be in the name of the church. After gathering with our core group and praying about the possibilities we voted to accept the gift of the land and rename our church Harbins Community Baptist Church. The issues with the name Milestone were now gone, and our hope was that in the next several years we could save up enough money to build a building on our new land. We hoped to build within a decade.
God had other, and quite spectacular, plans. Shortly after giving us the land the donor also decided to give us 1.5 million dollars to build a church building. He was quite elderly and wanted to see the building built as soon as possible because he felt this was the last thing God was leading him to do with his money before the Lord would call him home. We were still only six families so the thought of building a new building so soon was not on our radar screen, but again God was constantly establishing our steps where we hadn’t expected them to be planted.
After a couple a years of hard-work and planning, done largely by Dee Bryson who was instrumental in our church building ending up with the unique design it did, we moved into our building in April of 2010. The donor of the money and land passed away just few months after attending our dedication service.
Moving into a new building presented us with other challenges. The donor had only given enough money to build the building, and had clearly stated that he wanted us to furnish the building ourselves. We began to make plans and try to fundraise to that end. But the day we opened the building it was fully furnished without us spending hardly any money. God had once again gone before us through yet another one of our plans that He providentially redesigned.
Plan #4 – Merger
It seems that all major milestones in our church’s history have happened in April. April of 2009 was no different. That was the month that we voted to merge with Woodland Creek Church, a small Baptist congregation from the other side of Dacula.
The merger made complete sense, at least it did on paper. Woodland was a church about our size, they were theologically aligned with us, and if we combined forces we’d have a good-sized congregation with which to begin meeting in our soon-to-be-finished building. Well, as you can probably guess by now, things didn’t pan out quite the way we had hoped.
The merger was sweet…for about a month. Then a variety of different conflicts began to emerge that demonstrated a lack of foresight and blind naiveté on the part of both churches. To make another long story mercifully short, the merger didn’t take. Some families from Woodland did stick with Harbins, but most began to search for other church homes just a few months after the merger. It was a painful experience, to say the least, but God’s plans are always good, even when they come packaged with wrapping that is painful. As it turns out, God would bring much good from the failed merger.
First, he brought another elder to Harbins. Demetrius (a.k.a. Demer) Webb was one of the two elders from Woodland that became elders at Harbins after the merger. As the merger began to disintegrate, Demer would stick with Harbins and his ministry would be instrumental in helping our church heal from the wounds left over from the merger. In Demer I found a kindred spirit and like-minded brother who became, and still remains, a key part of our church and a close friend. I have always said that if God’s only purpose for the merger was to get Demer to Harbins then all the struggles that came packaged with the merger were well worth it.
The merger brought some other benefits as well. Namely, stuff! Stuff like chairs, tables, sound equipment, curriculum, and other resources. Shortly after the merger another church in Dacula closed its doors and gave us all their material resources as well. God had, in the blink of an eye, given us all that we needed to furnish our new building and we hadn’t spent a dime! Yet again God was moving despite, and sometimes in spite of, our plans.
Space prevents me from listing the many other plans God has altered and the hundreds of other steps He has orchestrated over these past ten years. I don’t have space to write about the broken souls he brought into our church all in one summer which He used to launch us into Biblical Counseling. I don’t have time to write about the challenges He used to refine our theology and ecclesiology. I’ll simply conclude by saying that all I am qualified to do at this point is write a book entitled, How to Screw Up a Church Plant, but God has worked all things together for our good and for His glory. He has providentially put all things in place to firmly establish our church in the Harbins Community and we praise Him alone for it.
This post is part of a series of reflections on ten years of church planting that I am doing leading up to HCBC’s tenth anniversary. To read the introduction to the series go here, and to read the first reflection click here.