80-plus church planters now at work via seminary's Nehemiah Project link

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--Scott Smith and Robert Thomas stood among 21 other planters on the stage. They did not have plows, shovels or overalls, but they will soon sow seeds of the gospel variety in harvest fields of North America.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. commissioned the 21 church planters at the conclusion of an April 13 chapel service. The group represents the most recent addition to more than 80 church planters actively starting churches through Southern Seminary's Church Planting Center in Louisville, Ky., in cooperation with the Nehemiah Project of the North American Mission Board.

"The 21 planters we sent out is the largest number we've commissioned thus far," said Ed Stetzer, director of Southern's Church Planting Center. "I think that we have the opportunity more and more to mold a generation of church planters here who share our values, our biblical emphasis and a heart for reaching the lost."

The CPC -- which Stetzer says houses the largest church planting internship program in the Southern Baptist Convention -- continues to send church starters to as far as Canada and as near as downtown Louisville. In fact, CPC planters will soon spread across 17 states and two countries.

"We're focusing on groupings of church planters in Boston, in the D.C. area, in Cincinnati and in York, Pa.," Stetzer said.

Southern's home city is also a focus for the CPC. Thomas, a 1997 graduate of the seminary, just began the sowing process in inner city Louisville several weeks ago. The new church will form a multi-racial congregation in the lower-income neighborhoods.

"Our motto is transforming lives and transcending racial boundaries," said Thomas, a Henry County, Ky., native. "We wanted to make sure that we added both dimensions. We believe that God's Word and worship have the ability to transform lives. And we believe we're being consistent with what the kingdom of God will look like when we go to transcend racial boundaries."

To help achieve this diverse congregation, Thomas, an African American, has put together a multi-racial leadership team, including Tristan Francis, a Filipino American, and Perry Polnaszek, an Anglo American.

But building a diverse core group will require much evangelism and also a meeting of the community's needs.

"People first have to know you care before they really become open to you," Thomas said. "There's some really pressing needs in that community. ... The overwhelming majority of people express a need for things for the children to do -- things to keep the children off the streets."

Thomas said that, in the initial stages of the church start, the community has responded positively to the team of planters. Two Bible studies have already formed.

"Everybody seems open to it," Thomas said. "It's real exciting, but it's a big faith venture."

Smith, who is currently finishing his master of divinity degree, would agree. This August, he will begin the process of starting a church in Antonia, Mo., a small town 30 miles south of St. Louis.

"The first several months, I will be spending much time in prayer and spending many hours talking with people in the area, developing relationships, doing evangelism in the 'marketplace' and finding people who are excited about a new church," said Smith, a native of Bethalto, Ill.

Though functioning as the full-time head planter represents a first for Smith, he is excited about the opportunity.

"I am excited and constantly eager to talk about church planting, but have not been in the process on my own yet," said Smith, who has previously served as an assistant planter in Indianapolis.

Smith believes his experience through Southern and the CPC will prove invaluable as he strives to reach people for Christ in the St. Louis area.

"I have had the opportunity at Southern to learn a lot about church planting," he said. "I have been able to talk with many church planters from all over the U.S. and abroad about their experiences, their struggles and their successes."

Like many of the CPC's interns, Smith has attended church planting fellowships and an assessment weekend -- an entry event for the CPC program.

"We will have the largest assessment event ever at Southern Seminary," said Stetzer of the next assessment weekend, with 70 students anticipated.

The popularity of the CPC's church planting fellowships has also heightened student interest in starting churches. Through these Tuesday evening opportunities to learn about the CPC and to learn from experienced planters, the number of planters and prospects has grown abundantly, Stetzer said.

"A year ago, we had about 15 people coming to the fellowship," Stetzer said. "Now we average about 100. We're real thrilled with how God is blessing the program."

These students who will soon enter the program will have advantages of increasingly high technology as they study and practice on the field.

"Southern Seminary, for the first time, will actually be utilizing interactive video to teach a class in Boston, New York City and Louisville," Stetzer said.

Through special video equipment provided by NAMB, students in Boston and New York will actually interact with a teacher in Louisville.

And through increased interns and technology, Stetzer believes the CPC will continue to grow, and the kingdom of God will continue to expand. Eventually, Stetzer hopes to send interns "not just across 17 states, but across the world through international and through North American church planting."

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