When we hear about two churches merging to become one, we tend to think it’s due to something negative. Perhaps one or both is dying, and a merge keeps them alive. Or maybe a church has lost one of its pastors for some reason, so they merge with another church to find healthy leadership. At times, churches do merge for these types of reasons.
But how many church mergers have you heard about that come together for the sake of the lost—churches that merge in order to plant more churches? That’s what happened with two local churches in south Detroit.
To talk with us about how a church merger can advance the cause of the gospel, I’m excited to have my friend and fellow pastor, David Doran Jr., with me on the podcast today.
David is the lead pastor of Resurrection Church in Lincoln Park, Michigan. He is married to Abigail, and they have four children.
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Tony Merida: Welcome to “Churches Planting Churches,” a podcast on the theology and practice of church planting. I’m your host, Tony Merida.
When we hear about two churches merging to become one, we tend to think it’s a result of something negative, perhaps one or both of them is dying and a merge results to keep them alive or maybe a church has lost one of its pastors for some reason, so they merged with another local church to avoid a lack of healthy leadership. At times, churches do merge for these types of reasons, but how many church mergers have you heard about that come together for the sake of the lost, namely churches that merge in order to plant more churches? That’s what happened with two local churches in South Detroit. So to talk with us about how a church merger can advance the cause of the gospel through church planting, I’m excited to have my friend and fellow pastor, David Doran, with me today on the podcast. David is the lead pastor of Resurrection Church in Lincoln Park, Michigan. He is married to Abigail and they have four children. David, welcome to the podcast.
David Doran: Thank you very much for having me.
Tony: David has got a really, really good look. He’s up there in Detroit. He’s got a bald head, he’s got a robust beard. He’s got a flannel shirt on. You’ve got the whole church planter’s starter kit, right?
David: Exactly. I’ve got what I need as far as the look and it was a coming, it was a crisis moment when I met some of the guys in Acts 29, and they looked like this, and I thought, have I ever made an independent choice in my life? I didn’t know I was just a product of my environment. It’s sad.
Tony: Yeah. Well, you know, the good news about Acts 29 now, that is the stereotype of all of us, right? That, you know, we’re all tatted up, we got flannels on, but when you go to the Global Gathering, it’s no longer the case. We’ve got brothers in Europe like Philip Moore, who is very dapper, you know, his pants are thin. We’ve got guys in suits from other parts of the world. We’ve got a lot of diversity, not just in geography, but now style as well, which was much needed, wouldn’t you say?
David: Yeah, honestly, I’m pumped about that because I mean the flannel is more about covering a little bit of extra fat than it is about style for me. So I liked the fall in Michigan, it was 23 degrees this morning and I was down with that because a guy like me, it looks a lot better in fall clothing.
Tony: Yeah, man. Yeah, I would agree with that. Yeah, and, you know, it’s just warm, man. A flannel to me is just…I mean, I don’t think Steve Timmis would ever wear flannel. He has to have, you know, really high-end threads. But you know, the flannel is just like a blanket. It’s…
David: Nor could he.
Tony: Now, I’m gonna interview later your running mate, Tyler, who is also part of this growing diversity. And Tyler has got his own swag, doesn’t he?
David: Yes, he does. And you know what is cool? The diversity of even Michigan in Acts 29, a bunch of us lead pastors, Tyler and I’ve grown up in the same area but different settings and we’re both gonna be going up to the UP in Michigan, which is like as rural as it gets. And I hope we’re gonna be able to get Tyler on a turkey hunt in May. So you think about the diversity of taking two Detroit boys up to the UP and I like the turkey hunt, but his part of Detroit is not known as turkey hunters. And so we’re gonna go up there and hopefully get him with a shotgun and have a little fun. But I think he’s scared of doing that with us.
Tony: I’ll have to ask him about that. I wonder if he’s nervous.
David: I think he’s gonna deny it. He says he’ll go to the UP, I don’t think he wants to turkey hunt, but we’re gonna get him. So work on him. It’s a commitment to humility and diversity, tell him, all right?
Tony: Yeah. Yeah. Hey, for those who don’t know, the UP, is it the rabbit jumping over the mitten?
David: Yeah. So Michigan is two peninsulas. Actually, we have more coastline than most of the States in the country. More freshwater coastline than anybody. But it’s two peninsulas. The bottom one has most of the population, I’d say probably 90-some percent of the population. And then the UP is a pretty significant geographical area with a low population. It’s actually right from where my wife is from up there in the middle of nowhere. So yeah, it’s a great place.
Tony: And I know these things. I know these things, not because I was a great student, but because I was born in the great State of Michigan in your neck of the woods, man, downriver in the Detroit area.
David: That’s the best place. Midwest is best, man.
Tony: Let’s talk about your ministry there in Detroit. First of all, how did you come to faith? How did you get married? How did your wife say yes to you? How did you have all those kids? Talk to us about that.
David: Okay, so there’s a couple of miracles there. I’ll start with conversion because I was raised in a really, really faithful home and my dad’s a pastor. He’s actually just finished his 30th year as a lead pastor. And my family, my mom and dad were just diligent in teaching us about Christ and about the word of God. And really, I grew up in an atmosphere where the word of God was present and open. And then when I was about eight years old, we would listen to these little tapes at nighttime when we’d go to bed. And there were these characters and I remember the Holy Spirit using just, I think such a profound example of how God uses crooked sticks to draw straight lines. You know, like it was a kind of a goofy take, but it was awesome where this…Patch the Pirate was his name. He was leading one of his little characters to the Lord, sharing the gospel.
And I’m just a little boy listening, and he walks through the gospel and then leads this character through the sinner’s prayer. And I remember profoundly, it was like the first time I had heard the gospel, even though I know I’d heard the gospel many times growing up. And so I got up out of bed and I reached up and rewound the cassette tape player and listened to the gospel again and then actually knelt down and went through the sinner’s prayer with the characters on the tape and then got into bed. My brother and I shared a double bed. We weren’t…we had a bunch of kids in the family, but you know, so whatever. And I actually…it was crazy how the spirit worked.
My brother listened to me and actually accepted Christ that night as well. And he’s an elder in a church plant in Seattle and I am an elder here in Detroit. And both of us look back and there was a lot of growth, you know, highs and lows of sanctification. But both of us look back and really believe that’s the night. Like there was a little revival in our upstairs room by the Spirit’s work through this audiotape and obviously setting a flame to the kindling our parents had been layering in our lives. So it was pretty cool.
And then I grew up in this really just a tremendous amount of God’s grace. I had a healthy church and a family that was, you know, all believers essentially. And it’s so wild to say that I don’t mean just immediate family, but my great-grandmother on both sides, I knew, and everyone below her was professing Christians. And up until recently, there’s been some struggles in a couple of my cousins’ lives, but the reality was that the atmosphere I grew up in was like 55 different close family members that were believers in our church. And so I was just incubated in grace and it was tremendous.
So it was also really a big part of later on why we wanted to plant because I had seen how beautiful God’s work in layering someone in believing family could be. And I didn’t think that believing family just had to be blood. But anyway, I went away to get trained for ministry, went to college, a little school in the middle of nowhere called Northland up in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. And I met my wife whose family was the opposite of mine. Her mom is the only believer in her family, she and her mom. And we…you know, it took a lot of hustle, more work than planting the church to convince my wife to marry me, okay? So it was and it’s every day been more of a blessing. She is a baller. My wife Abby is…I just saw her before I drove over here and yeah, she’s great.
So we went through that tango of, you know, an ugly guy like me trying to sell this beautiful girl who, you know, on that our life wouldn’t have to be a train wreck together. And she gives in and then we go to seminary together. You know, and by God’s grace, we have had a family with four kids. My daughter’s gonna be six in a couple of weeks, the two middle sons, one turns four and one turns two on Saturday and Sunday. And then the other, the youngest son is three months, like two days ago. So it’s a blast with the little troop and God’s just been kind to bring us up to this point.
But when I was serving in ministry, if you wanna go to this direction, we were in the church I grew up in and I was on pastoral staff and I was really at a point where I was looking at the church I’d been raised in and not realizing or starting to realize how much I’d been incubated in just relationships of God’s kindness putting me around believer after believer after believer, but also because of some of the desires I had, I’d been looking around the world at opportunities for church planting. Like I’d visited Morocco, I had visited the West Coast, and I started to realize that I thought of and talked about the mission as somewhere else.
Like I was sitting in Tangier, Morocco, and we were…the biggest mosque in Tangier was about to let out, right? And the call to prayer was gonna be done. And I was expecting to just see this burden wash over me and these neon signs above everyone’s head that says like, “Help me, I’m lost.” You know? And instead what happened is they walked out and it looked like the mall in our area because where we’re from in Dearborn, it’s one of the highest populations of Arabic peoples outside of the Middle East. And what struck me is the Holy Spirit just was like, you may end up in a place like this but you are not about reaching the lost that are right in front of you, you know? And so then I kinda thought, oh, I gotta go think closer to home.
So I went out to California and I worked for a little while in a mission in South Central L.A. And I essentially came away with the same conviction that I realized that the spirit was, I think, bringing me along. These streets have the same needs as Detroit streets. You just are new to these streets. You need to, when you go back for seminary, be about training or be about reaching people that are right in front of you. Not just think of the mission as when I get trained, I’ll go somewhere else. So we moved home and it was like I saw my home community with new eyes. And slowly over time, God just was opening doors because we started treating my home neighborhood like a mission field where I was in the addiction recovery center and I was coaching in the public school. And all of a sudden it was like, oh wow, there’s like the kindling for a church plant that was almost created by just opening my eyes to the fact that I’ve been living here forever and then being intentional with the relationships that were there. You know what I mean? So that’s kind of how we got to Lincoln Park.
My mom graduated from Lincoln Park High School. My grandma still lives here and it took…actually, deer season is coming, or it’s on right now, but the gun starts next week. And it was like a couple years ago, we’re driving up North, my uncle is from Lincoln Park and he looks at me and I hope this is okay way to say it, but he’s just a blue-collar dude, like a lot of Lincoln Park. And he looked at me and said, “You keep thinking about going other places.” And he’s a believer and he’s like, “There are white trash people like us all over Lincoln Park that need the gospel. When are you gonna wake up and just embrace the fact that we’re white trash and God made you white trash to reach white trash people, or whatever,” you know?
So his missiology and we didn’t have any of that debate. We were just about to get into a tree stand. But it was amazing how God used that to be like, oh, we could plant a church like right where we grew up. And then the dominoes just started to fall in line where the leadership in our church was like, yes. And the open doors with unbelievers were like, yes. And it was just amazing to see. But it was right in front of me. It just took…I always had a thick head, you know.
Tony: Yeah, man. So much there. So much brokenness in the Detroit area you’ve alluded to. I’m certainly glad you’re there, Tyler and other brothers who are laboring in that part of the world. Your dad’s been in ministry you said like 30 years. I probably should have him on the podcast, huh?
David: Oh yeah. He’s a lot wiser and yeah, he would be worth it.
Tony: Hey, talk about…so you guys have merged. I don’t know if we’ve had a merger conversation on the podcast. So talk to us about how this developed, you know, from the day you started this church and then now leading up to the merger. It’s a pretty remarkable story, so I just want you to share it with the listeners.
David: Yeah. So I think that really it was the desires of our church were being put in front of the Lord in prayer. And what I mean by this is we came to Lincoln Park with a desire to make disciples in Lincoln Park, raise them up and see an indigenous replicating mission of a local church that’s got people from the soil who are now leading the mission here. But one of the realities when you have communities who face such decay and challenges and whatever is that that’s a slow process, and we were running into real questions about the sustainability of our mission. There’s a lot of guys that probably listen who have taken more of a grassroots, organic approach to planting. And there’s other guys who probably had like a larger core team. I think there’s strengths in both now that I’ve been through it.
We were definitely a small kind of missional core team. But at some point, you hit these challenges where you go, the rate of sanctification and the people we’re reaching is not…like, it’s not like they’re saved and then next year they’re pastors in the local church, and not even sometimes if you go through life of addiction and struggle, it’s not like they’re saved and then all of a sudden they’re just pulling the kind of weight your core team did. And we were going, oh wow, is the mission sustainable this way? Ten of the 45 members we had were seminary students who within a couple of years of finishing their degree, like once their degree was done, were planting and from the beginning said, “We’re gonna leave.” You know, they were going somewhere and they were training for a purpose and it was awesome to have them. I’d never complained about that, but I was going, oh wow, a quarter of the membership total.
But you also know a heavily invested group is planning to leave. And then financially, we were in a position where the people we’re reaching are not bringing up the ground of the church planting support. And so I had looked into bi-vocational options. I had prayed about all this stuff. I had done some interviews with some firefighters in our community because my grandfather was a firefighter in this area and they’re kind of like classic moonlighters, you know, worked for 24 then you’re off for 24 and you can do other jobs while you firefight. And so I had been doing some of that investigation but God used this conversation with some other church planters in Salt Lake City where these guys just said, “Hey man, don’t let go of the opportunity to shepherd with your work time easily. We really think that if you love it, and like bi-vocational can be strategic, but don’t let go of it lightly. This is a huge gift.”
And so it was really good for me to hear that. And I started to pray and it was a simple prayer, like essentially just I love to be a pastor. I love this gift of a job. It’s such a…like I know there can be challenges and people talk about how hard it is, but I just think, man, I can’t get enough of the fact that I get to study the Bible and point people to Christ with my work time. Like it’s just such a freaking gift. And so I started to ask the Lord, would you be merciful…I will take up whatever path we need to, but would you be merciful to help us stay on this mission here and allow me to do this as a full-time job? And I’m telling you, I only prayed about that for like a couple of weeks. And there was times I boxed out to talk about it but it wasn’t like…it was just like I just kept putting in front of the Lord, but nothing profound or mystical.
And then the brother of one of the firefighters is a pastor in our community and he says, “I heard from my brother basically that you are trying to figure out a way to stay and stay on the mission here. And I am going to do a PhD at Southeastern. Nobody really knows this yet, but I have a crazy idea. We should see these churches merged and you should lead the churches on the same mission together.” And I was like, “You’re insane.” You know, like I knew what I’d been praying but I didn’t tell people about it. My wife knew. And I just thought this is psycho that this guy out…we saw each other once every year. We’re in the same city, but you know, we were just hustling, whatever. We’re good friends, we text, but just, we didn’t sit down like that. And he comes and says, “This is what I think should happen.” And I said, “You’re crazy. Come back to me in two months if you’re for real because, you know, that’s a cool thought, but that’s gonna be a lot of work.”
So he comes back in two months and then, lo and behold, the process just began to pick up steam where it was so clear that God was orchestrating it together. Do you want me to get into that? Some of the stuff now, but that’s kind of how it percolated was just on our knees saying, “Lord, we wanna see the mission go forward. There are these obstacles that we know you can handle, but I don’t see how yet.” And then he pulled something that I would have never thought of out of a hat and said, “Oh, here it is.” So enough so that now, less than a year later, I’m standing in the building of that church doing this interview. You know what I mean? Like it’s just wild. It’s just wild. But yeah, it’s been great. It’s been…God’s been super kind.
Tony: So I’m taking notes here. It’s prayer. It’s perseverance. It’s partnership. And I’m sure, to give you a fourth P, that peacemaking and bridge-building has been a huge part, right, of how does this church now respond to your leadership? And not everybody could do this. And so I think it’s a testimony to the way you lead to be able to pull this off. What was the church’s reaction? And how has it been since because the larger church, right, the more resourced churches come under your, I guess, name and name of the church as well, right, and then your leadership? What’s that been like?
David: It’s been wild, man. I mean I’ll start by saying where we’re at now and then go back. Like, the more established church, a church that was triple our size and had actual resources, in the end, we agreed to all this. So we worked together on this and they dissolved and donated their assets to our church plant and joined individually. So that, which was like the best-case scenario for us to be taking up the mission together in the future was that everybody had buy-in, right? Everybody had this moment where it wasn’t like you just got slapped together and you could say, “Well, this wasn’t what I wanted, but it just happened.” It was this moment where, corporately, people voted on it, but then also everybody’s been welcomed in under the constitution statement of faith covenant that we have currently embracing the direction and mission of our church.
I mean, the way we got there, it was just, again, it was prayer. Like, it started out with me saying…and I don’t know, honestly, I just wanted the church. I thought if they can be healthy and we can be healthy and we can keep going, that’s still a win. Like, we don’t need necessarily to do this. And I think that if anybody looks at merges, a lot of times what happens is it’s like somebody’s got their back against the wall and one of the biggest things I wanted to do was remove the wall for both churches. So I said, “Hey, I will voluntarily serve on a search committee to help you find a pastor.” That was like the first conversation we had. We don’t need to do this. You can find a pastor, we can do it, you know, because no offense to like Southeastern or Southern or whatever, it’s a Southern Baptist church, but they were worried about like the way I look is less Acts 29 and more just blue-collar here.
But they were worried about a bow tie guy coming up because they saw some resume and just being like a bunch of downriver rats now have this bow tie pastor. Nothing against bow ties, y’all, but just like that they were worried about, what are we gonna do? Are we gonna call some guy from Southern who has pleats in his pants and whatever? Anyway, so it’s a problem. They were concerned and I think at first there’s a little fear and I was just trying to diffuse that fear because that’s when we stopped trusting. You know, like conflict and quarrels come from unfulfilled desires like James 4, right, or think we have unfulfilled desires.
So I’m just trying to say, “We’ve got this, we’re good.” And then we started to walk through if this other option was right. And that really goes on clarity. You have to work for clarity. You can’t assume things. You can’t stop from asking tough questions. You can’t describe things in generalities. I mean, I was talking with Greg Gilbert, you might know who that is. And he and I were talking about this before because they almost did a merge. And they got through all their foundational documents. They got through a ton of this stuff and then they came up to the edge and they’re talking with four of the five leaders in the church, the other church that wants to merge. And they were talking about what should they require for membership.
And it comes to light after they’ve done all this work that four of the five men from the other church didn’t believe you needed to believe in a physical resurrection of Jesus Christ to join the church. And he was like, “Oh, okay.” You know, like, “We’re done,” you know? But that’s the kind of thing where it is not enough in our American context for you just to be like, “Yeah, they have the Baptist faith and message and we’re Baptist and blah, blah, blah.” We had to really talk and we had to really think through those things and that was one of the most profound moments was I wrote this long email that said, to the transition team, “Hey, let me explain the difference between a senior pastor and associate pastors and a plurality of elders. Let me explain a difference between a deacon board and then role-specific deacons. Let me explain a difference between, for instance, the fact that all the committees are gonna go away and there’ll be a committee of pastors essentially,” right? Like, “The 24 committees in your constitution are gonna be disappearing and what that would look like,” right?
And it was this long email that explained all that and it was the moment that I thought the thing was done. I was going to the meeting and I thought, there’s no way we’re getting through this and that’s okay. We’ll keep going forward. And then one of the leaders who I just had breakfast with this morning, he’s hopefully gonna be called as an elder soon, he looked at me with the other guys and he said, “Well, we now realize that this would be harder than a pastor search and but we think God brought this into our life for a reason and we don’t wanna be inwardly focused and we need to move forward with the mission. We think we need to pursue this.” And I just like…my jaw almost hit the floor. Like, I was like, “Wow, the Holy Spirit is actually working this out.” Because that church is 75 years old at that point and we’re like not…we’re at 4 years old.
There’s a woman in the church who joined the church, now our church, but she joined and then joined again, right, at 1948 she joined, and she sends me a message at one of the low points where I’m discouraged like, oh, it’s not gonna work. And she says, “I want you to know I’m excited about what God’s doing in this phase of the life of our church.” She joined in 1948 and she was excited about this. That’s when I was like, okay, the Holy Spirit is doing this and only him, right?
And so if you think of a map like trust, clarity, agreements, follow-through, those are the necessary steps. I think the trust was built by their pastor throwing all his weight behind this because they trust his faithful shepherding over the last several years. And then probably trust was helped by me being willing to volunteer. But then the clarity was just a million conversations with different people in the congregation. And then we went through this phase where we tried to actually help people see and then decide. And so we did preview services and so we had six different combined services that would get people…because a lot of it’s more not knowing, it’s seeing it. And like a lot of this is heart bubbles that you’re trying to deal with, right?
So the previous services or whatever before anybody voted were, I think, really crucial because by number six, people really starting to go, “Oh, we can be a family together.” Like, “We can do this,” you know. And then we had to have that agreement date where no matter what your polity is, I think if you’re gonna bring two churches together, which are the people, right, which are the body of believers, I think you’ve got to have some time where the congregation says we’re in or else what you’re gonna have is leaders come together and people slowly vote with their feet. You know what I mean? You might as well have them stand and vote or whatever, or else they’re gonna vote with their feet. Because the whole beauty of what we wanted to emerge about was this.
Like, I see not just a bigger gathering for worship, I was seeing the fact that there were a hundred more neighbors in our community, right? You know what I mean? Like, 100 more people with 8 neighbors aside of them and 100 more living rooms where the Bible can be opened with a baby Christian. Like, that’s the win. And if we just merge the institutions and there’s more assets and whatever, like we didn’t win for the mission that Christ has given us. And so then when we saw that, now we’re in the process of just kind of follow-through, walking it out, living out the agreement we’ve had, and hopefully patiently trying to prefer one another. But I don’t know that, I don’t know if that’s what you were asking, but that’s kind of how it’s materialized, you know?
Tony: Yeah. I love that, man. The model you set out there of trust, clarity, those preview services, and then the agreement from the people. That’s a really good plan. Hey, last question. How do you see this merger helping to accelerate your own church planting efforts? So you guys were a smaller church, only four years old. I’m not sure what you were thinking about in terms of multiplying at that point, but how has merging together now given you perhaps a new vision for local church planting or other church plants around the nation or the world?
David: Yeah, well, in God’s kindness, it’s taken us from, you know, 60% in the red to now being able to actually…you know, we were devoting 10% of our giving to other church plants, like Acts 29 churches do anyway, but now we’re actually balanced and thinking about a more sizeable 10% that we’re devoting. But that’s just a change in the number and scale. The vision hasn’t changed a ton, but it’s shortened. I think, I really think in God’s kindness, I don’t know why, but it’s like he snipped out our teenage years as a church and he closed the gap to where now I look at the congregation that I’m called to shepherd and there are a bunch of godly men who have been shepherding their families and caring for the spiritual temperature in their homes that weren’t there last year. There were some, but they were all younger than me and now there’s like…I can rattle off 10, 15 men who I think are just balling and they’re older than me. And those young guys are still here too and it created a healthier atmosphere for both…
I found that when we were that small, we were trying to raise up leadership but also desperate for them to mature faster than they necessarily were ready to. Like, I was giving guys opportunities so fast that they not always could handle them. And now I’ve got these atmospheres where it’s like, oh, I don’t need to call you an elder yet. I can just keep trusting you…no, we didn’t call anybody an elder, but you know that pressure where you’re like, I’ve gotta have a plurality but everybody’s 22 and single and like, okay, well, let’s slow down and God in his kindness just gave us this atmosphere where they can incubate but also a platform where I think we can launch them.
And so we are looking, I mean we’re not only hoping, you know, to support guys like Tyler and some of my buddies that we’ve been planting together now looking to say, can we turn money outward more aggressively? But also thinking, okay, where can we siphon off some members and send them out for the mission? I think in the multiply book that they have a lot of guys read for the assessment, or maybe it’s one other article Acts 29 puts out. One of the points they make clear is to be a good sending church, you have to actually solidify the church you plant, right? We were really in that position and we’re still there because we have to unify as a church, but I can see the horizon on unifying the church we planted. You know what I mean? And now I think we’re looking, say, let’s go, let’s send, let’s do this. And there’s some guys that I hope in the next couple of years are ready.
Tony: Excellent. Excellent, man. David Doran Jr., you are doing some incredible work, brother, important work.
David: God’s kind.
Tony: And one of the joys of doing this podcast is to just hear stories from guys who were on the field, in the trenches, downriver, all over. And so thank you, brother, for being on the podcast.
David: Downriver, baby.
Tony: If you are doing a church merger, you definitely wanna look this brother up and take some notes as to what they’re doing. And David, just again, thanks for taking some time to be on the podcast.
David: Thanks for the time, man.