Perhaps the most missions-centered local church I’ve ever visited is Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia. Pastor Bryant Wright, the elders and staff at Johnson Ferry have by God’s grace led the church to an inspiring level of mission activity. They have adopted ten unreached and unengaged people groups. Last year nearly 50 percent of their active membership took part in short-term mission trips (just under 2,000 people). This year, Lord willing, they plan to take over 80 short-term trips and support over 90 full-time missionaries on the field.

I had the honor of joining Bryant and the saints at Johnson Ferry for their missions conference called Move (audio here). That’s just what they’re doing–moving! I learned a great deal during my time there and thought I would summarize five things in this short post.

1. Staff for mission not maintenance.

John Ferry is now a large church of over 4,000 members. It would be easy to staff the church primarily for the maintenance of its own ministries and service to its members. But Bryant Wright wants to see a day when the missions staff in a local church is as large as the typical ministry staff serving the church. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have as many Missions Pastors as Senior Pastors in the Evangelical church world? Ricky Wheeler began as Johnson Ferry’s youth pastor. He now serves as Associate Pastor of Missions and leads a staff of about ten folks at Johnson Ferry Global, their “missions department.”

Not many churches will be able to staff a missions department with ten people. But some will. And all churches can ask themselves, “Does the staffing pattern in my church reflect an emphasis on the Great Commission (missions) or an emphasis on local programming (maintenance)?”

2. Involve every ministry in missions.

One of the things Ricky Wheeler began to do when he became Associate Pastor for Missions was to spend  a lot of time talking with leaders of every ministry at Johnson Ferry to ask, “How can your ministry participate in getting the gospel to the nations?” That took a lot of time, but it’s paid huge dividends. Most every ministry at the church chose to participate in short-term trips and, consequently, they’ve never had a shortage of people to go on trips. Now at Johnson Ferry missions isn’t “one thing we do” but has become the main thing under which everything else fits. Sixth-grade Sunday school classes, men’s and women’s small groups, youth groups and everyone in between gets in on world evangelization. It’s no longer something the “Indiana Joneses” of the world do, but something everyone can and should contribute to in someway.

This is slow cultural change in a church. But it can happen. Simply putting the question to every ministry signals the importance of missions. Patiently walking through the many discussions, questions, fears and changes will deepen the importance of missions to the congregation.

3. Require evangelism training for short-termers.

I’ve long agreed with the sentiment that says, “If you’re not doing evangelism at home, you’re probably not going to do it on the mission field.” People pull back in fear whenever evangelism is mentioned. A good many of our church members know they’re supposed to do it but feel incapable or ineffective. We don’t want to spread that to the mission field or have it cripple our short-term efforts.

The folks at Johnson Ferry require every person taking a short-term trip to complete evangelism training each year they take a trip. Each year. As a consequence of requiring this training over a number of years, not only have their short-term trips become more effective, the church has slowly grown more comfortable with and a culture of individual evangelism. More members feel able to share the Good News with their neighbors.

4. Put your money where your missionaries are.

Getting to the field can be expensive. Trips can run in the multiple thousands of dollars depending on where you go and how long you stay.

Johnson Ferry has made missions a budget priority. Here are a few examples of how that works for them. As a matter of policy, they fund 50% of short-term trip costs for everyone who goes. That goes a long way in sharing the costs as a church family and supporting those who may have the zeal and gifts but not the money. They also prioritize mission funding by dedication the first ten percent of capital campaign fundraising to missions. If they’re raising $100,000 then the first $10,000 goes to missions. They’ve allocated the first ten percent of funds from their first six capital campaigns. Now they’re on the seventh campaign and they’ve raised the allocation to missions to the first 20 percent raised. All of this is in addition to the portion of their regular budget that goes to prioritizing missions in their denominational giving.

Again, this may seem daunting to smaller churches. But in the beginning their mission budget was only $88,000. They invested it in the SBC’s cooperative program and gave another 1 percent of their budget to Young Life. Everyone can start somewhere. The main issue is to put your money where your missionaries are so that the heart of the church follows it.

5. Embrace a people group until it’s win them.

There are approximately 3,000 unengaged people groups in the world. These are ethnic groups where there is no viable Christian witness present (less than 2 percent evangelical Christian) and where no missions agency or church has any active plan or effort to reach them with the gospel. As SBC President a couple years back, Wright championed the effort to reduce the number of unengaged people groups by encouraging local churches to adopt a group. Johnson Ferry has adopted ten. They’ve accepted the task of getting the gospel to these people with the motto, “Whatever it takes for as long as it takes.”

The gospel is needed everywhere, but some places don’t have access to it at all. The only way that gap will be eliminated is with intentional efforts to engage the unengaged. It’s a question every local church’s leadership and membership should ask: “How can we play a part in reaching people groups currently unengaged by Christian witness?”

CONCLUSION

The reason Jesus established the church in the world was to bear witness to His love by calling sinners from every nation to flee His coming wrath into His salvation. A church that does not center itself on obedience to our Lord’s Great Commission is a church in significant sin. They’ve lost the story line, abandoned their post and marching orders. I’m grateful for what feels like a renewed emphasis on international missions in many quarters of the church world and I pray the Lord fans that flame into an inferno! And may He raise up more churches like Johnson Ferry, churches that center their ministries and money on the work of world evangelization and church planting.

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2 thoughts on “Being a Missions-Centered Local Church: Lessons from Johnson Ferry Baptist Church”

  1. Wm. Dwight McKissic, Sr. says:

    Pastor T.,

    I will be in Washington DC next week for a ministry engagement Monday and Tuesday. The remainder of the week I will be spending some R&R time with my wife, and sermon planning ’til Friday. Not sure if you will be in DC next week or not? If by chance you are, and have some flex time, I would like to meet with you. Your new church plant and The Front Porch are endeavors that I certainly pray the the Lord bless tremendously to advance His Kingdom.My email address is:

    [email protected]

    Please contact me if there is a possibility that we can meet one day next week, preferably after Tuesday. Thanks.

    Dwight McKissic, Pastor
    Cornerstone Baptist Church
    Arlington, Tx. 76015
    817-468-0083(205)

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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