ROWLETT—When one of Christianity’s first church planters, Paul of Tarsus, set about his work, there was no cookie-cutter approach. In Athens, a center for academia and false Gods, he engaged the intellectuals and polytheists. In other towns, he learned to sew tents while building relationships with those who would come to faith in Christ.
Simply put, Paul thought like a missionary.
So it has been for Shane Pruitt and his church planting team at Connection Community Church in Rowlett, a community of 56,000 in the suburban sprawl east of Dallas. In less than three years the congregation that began with 31 people in a living room now has more than 400 in worship Sunday mornings in a building the congregation owns outright. The young church has baptized 53 people this year.
It’s a suburban church planting success story. But in a Texas so rapidly growing and becoming more diverse racially, ethnically and socio-economically, the formula that is working in Rowlett may not work in other Texas settings.
“We can still find the stereotypical Texan here. But Houston, from what I understand, is the most ethnically, racially diverse city in the country,” Terry Coy, the SBTC director of missions, said. “The Hispanic population is approaching 50 percent. We’ll get there within the next 10-15 years. We’re already a majority minority state. Immigration of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhist background, while still small in number, is growing significantly,”
Six of the top 20 fastest-growing cities in America are in Texas, Coy said. The border with Mexico from Brownsville to El Paso is one of the most unevangelized “lost” areas in the United States.
“All that together means we’ve got to plant more churches of all kinds to reach all kinds of people,” Coy said. “This is not your grandfather’s Texas anymore.”
The SBTC has made church planting a priority. The convention hopes to partner in planting 50 congregations in 2014 with an eye toward 100 annually.
Shane Pruitt and his team in Rowlett are exemplars for what can be done with God’s favor, Coy said.
Unlike the apostle Paul, no Damascus Road experience spurred Pruitt to plant a church. God used the simple stuff of everyday life. While serving at a church in nearby Garland, Pruitt lived with his family in Rowlett.
“Everything we did, community-wise, the majority of our close relationships, discipling, the lost people that we were building relationships with, they were in Rowlett,” Pruitt said. “We just saw a need in Rowlett. There are great churches in Rowlett, but the majority of the churches were what we would call a ‘traditional church,’ reaching empty nesters and above.
“There wasn’t really a church in Rowlett that was reaching young families. The majority of the young families that were going to church were going out of Rowlett to do so. We saw a great need.”
The call to plant Connection Community Church, known affectionately among its flock as “C3,” was unexpected, Pruitt said. He talked with friends at the Dallas Baptist Association about the needs in Rowlett. He saw himself as a church planter, but was uncertain about the timing.
But over time, the Lord put a call on the hearts of four men and their wives, “specifically for Rowlett,” Pruitt said. He, along with Nick Gainey, Daniel Hancock, John Rogers and their wives set out to plant C3.
“It wasn’t one of those light-bulb, put-my-finger-on-a-globe-and-hit-Rowlett moments. We were already doing life there and saw the need. Through that, it just sort of happened.”
The newness of the church presented a blessing, and a challenge, for the C3 team. Over a 10-year period, seven churches tried and failed in Rowlett. As a result, the church attracted worshipers from outside Rowlett but struggled in its own backyard at first. But that has changed.
“Trusting a new church can take time. Here in Rowlett they have seen many other church plants start and then fail. In a town like Rowlett, they’ve seen that happen, so they kind of sit back and wait to see if it is going to make it, is this something that’s here to stay, or is it something that’s going to be gone tomorrow? So, it took some time to build up that kind of trust.”
But the newness has also helped.
“There’s a newness buzz going on because the church is new and it’s growing, and so people are coming to check us out to see what’s going on and see what God is doing. Our greatest hurdle has also been one of our biggest selling points,” Pruitt said.
Amid all the busyness and hard work, Jesus must be the focus, he added.
“Obviously, God is sovereign. And if he’s in it, he’s going to do it. He’s creative enough to use many different avenues and many different ways, whether it’s parachuting in or living in a town for a while. He can do whatever he wants,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt gained valuable counsel from another SBTC church planter, Bill Lundy of Heartland Fellowship south of Mesquite: Don’t go it alone. Embrace God’s vision, not your own. And think like a missionary.
“Keep surrounded by other men. ‘Don’t ‘go rogue,’” Pruitt said. “Keep yourself surrounded by other men, other pastors, other people in your network. Every pastor needs to have three men in his life: A Paul, who will be a mentor and pour wisdom into you. Everybody needs a Timothy whom they are discipling and pouring into. And everybody needs a Barnabas in his life who’s side by side with them, encouraging them to stay the course,” Pruitt said.
Also, “There’s no greater joy in life than God giving you a vision, you being obedient to that vision and then seeing lives transformed through that. It’s so true.”
He added, “When I see someone get baptized at C-3, it brings tears to my eyes, because I’m reminded of that. Three and a half years ago, this church didn’t even exist. But God had a vision, people were obedient and lives are being transformed.
Pruitt passes on a simple, yet powerful, message to the congregation.
“We’re not called to be parish priests,” Pruitt said. “We’re called to be missionaries. If you’re planting in the suburbs or you’re planting in the urban areas or in the deserts of Africa, you’re in a mission field. Approach it all the same. Learn the culture. Learn the people. Learn the hurts and the needs and let God use you to push back the darkness.”
For more information on church planting, visit sbtexas.com/churchplanting.