Bob Roberts brings a unique perspective to church planting because he has extensive experience planting churches both on American soil and with the global church.
Every church planter in America that goes out from NorthWood Church has to spend time in a foreign context before they plant with NorthWood. It’s that overseas experience that teaches planters what they can’t learn otherwise.
NEW PODCAST: “E01: Bob Roberts’s Journey to Multiplication”
Bob Roberts is rethinking church planting in North America, because, as he says, “What I did with Bruce Hopler in the 90s is very different than today.” It doesn’t work anymore. For example, instead of planting big churches (what he calls “elephants”), the church needs to plant small churches—that’s what he says is next in church planting.
At least, that’s part of the story. The rest of the story is more complicated than that.
It starts back when Roberts planted NorthWood Church near Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas about 30 years ago. Even though their church now runs 1,500 people, he says planting small churches is the way to go (no knock on large churches). In our conversation, Roberts said a good model for multiplication in church planting is bunnies:
- Elephants: These take 18 months to give birth. Don’t aim to plant churches like these, he says.
- Bunnies: These can multiply rapidly.
Roberts says we need more bunnies, not more elephants in church planting, because elephants take too long to give birth. It comes down to finding and making families. That’s at least what he envisions for their movement. They’ve helped plant hundreds of churches, and now they’ve got grandkid churches. While they’re not a movement yet, Roberts believes over the next two to five years NorthWood church and their church plants will plant over 1,000 new churches.
That’s an elephant of number, if you ask me.
Too Much Information, Not Enough Movement
Interestingly, though, Roberts says their church planting efforts are not a movement. In our recent podcast interview, Roberts said that his church has not created a movement yet: “I don’t think you have a movement unless you have grandkids and great grand kids you don’t know anything about.” I asked how he defined a movement, and he said: “A movement is out of control. If you’re looking at what a movement is in China, you’re looking at hundreds and thousands of churches planted every year. Or India or Africa. Only in America can you start ten churches a year and be considered a movement. It’s just kind of corny. It’s not the same standard as the global standard.”
Only in America can you start ten churches a year and be considered a movement
The issue is not the amount of information we have, because we have plenty of that. We don’t need more information, he says, we need movements:
“When you look at America, we’ve got all the conferences, books, seminary degrees, seminaries, preachers, and everything. For all that we have, there is a glut of church planting information and material today, unlike anywhere else in the world, and yet we have no movements. If you go to other church plants around the world, they wouldn’t have five percent of the stuff, but they do have movements. So the next question is why is that? Because they see it totally different.”
“The key to getting a movement in America is a guy like Scott with 60 [in church attendance] or another friend I’ve got who has 180. Until we get smaller churches multiplying we will never have a movement.”
For Example, Scott Venable
At Exponential East this year, Bob Roberts brought along Omar Reyes and Scott Venable. Omar is on staff and NorthWood as the Global Impact Pastor and Scott was sent out to plant.
With regard to church planting in North America, Scott is getting it done. I asked Roberts, “What did you see God doing in Scott that let you know he’s a church planter?” He saw that he was:
- A risk taker.
- Gifted communicator.
- Working among the poor.
“The truth of the matter is we have a lot of pastors planting churches, not church planters, and there’s a very big difference between a pastor and a church planter. It’s not that one’s better than the other; it’s just different gift mixes, a different way of seeing things. I define a church planter as someone who can grow a church on rocks (i.e., who can grow grass on rocks). That’s a church planter. A pastor has to have this, that, and everything else or they’re not going to do it.”
Large Church, Small Church Plants?
I asked Roberts, “How do you deal with the large church you lead and the small church desire in your heart?” He said:
“What I began to realize was if smaller units multiplied overseas, that’s what we need here. Furthermore, we were going to have to change the conversation in America about what is a church? What is a healthy church? Why do we think a small church is unhealthy? Do you know, sociologically, you know how many people you can relate to? Sixty. Do you know how many people you can be close to? Twenty. Do you know how many really close friends you can have, if you’re lucky? Three. And yet we have the idea of all these masses of people. Here’s one of the things I think we’ve got wrong today: Pastors have turned the church (unintentionally albeit) into their fan club, and the church is not your fan club—it’s the body of Christ. So I shifted, because I began to see that this isn’t how the church is growing around the world.”
The church is not your fan club—it’s the body of Christ
The question a pastor asks: “How’s my church?” The question a missionary asks, “How’s my city?”
NorthWood Church requires three things of their church planters, says Roberts:
- They have to plant churches all around them.
- They have to work a hard place in the world.
- They have to work with the poorest of the poor in their city.
What’s next on Bob Roberts’s journey?
I asked him, “As you look toward the third and fourth quarter of your life, what’s next for you?”
1. A thousand churches planted
“I think we’re probably going to see a thousand churches planted in the next two to five years. I really do. It could be a whole lot more than that, because we don’t have to fund massive things. It’s everything from bivocational to different denominations and now we have a process and we have a system. Guys are hungry for family and they’re all wanting to join the family. This family concept is massive.”
2. Churches planted in different ways
“Our churches have worked in Vietnam for 20 years, and people go in and use their jobs. Our members go in and naturally talk about Jesus. We have counselors who’ve gone into Vietnam, people who work in human trafficking, etc. We have a staff in Vietnam. They’re all North Vietnamese, who’ve wound up, through our relationships, following Jesus.”
3. More about how the church works in domains
“How can we go in the public square? I want to stop sending preachers to start churches and I want to see everyday disciples serve the city in the name of Jesus to show that the kingdom cares about education and economics and every domain of society.”
4. A change in apologetics.
“I love working with people of other religions, but I hate the way we do apologetics. Right now apologetics is more confrontational, which does not lead lost people to the Lord. It makes Christians go, ‘Yeah, go get ‘em,!’ or ‘Did you hear that?’ And that just pushes people further away from the Gospel! That’s stupid. It needs to be relational apologetics. We’re using an 1880s model of apologetics, and it’s not working.”
Top 3 Pieces of Advice from Bob Roberts
What are your top three pieces of advice for those who want to multiply, not just add, church plants?
1. Build a family, not a network
“Networks have the same problems denominations do, and they have their value and they have their place. Don’t hear me be negative about denominations or networks. The most important thing is build a family. Jesus had 12—Jesus built a family. Scott’s in a family. I got a small group of guys. That’s number one, build a family. And if you can be a family, find a family. I have five spiritual fathers, only one is in ministry, the other five do other stuff. So number one build a family.”
2. Know your DNA
“You get your DNA from your family. That’s why guys come to conferences and get frustrated—excited but frustrated—because they go home and already the bar has been raised and there’s this angst. I can never be Matt Chandler, and I can’t be this person or that person. So our DNA is critical.”
3. Focus on your spiritual disciplines
“We should pray not to grow our church, but because we love Jesus. I say spiritual disciplines are everything. If you’re going to plant churches, it’s just like starting a church, multiplying churches is even bigger. Starting churches around the world is even bigger. So think about it—you can’t just stop with I’m starting churches in North America, you got to see the whole world that’s out there. If you’re going to see the world that’s out there, you’ve got to be friends with all sorts of people. So spiritually grow. Know what God has called you to do, fulfill that mission.
“If you don’t have your spiritual disciplines in place so that your character is in line, you’re going to crash and burn like so many do in America.”
Dr. Bob Roberts, Jr. is the founding and Senior Pastor of NorthWood Church near Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX and Founder, Senior Leader, and Chief Spokesman for Glocal.net. NorthWood’s congregation of active participants now averages in excess of 2000. NorthWood has started over 189 churches in the US and is a center for training new pastors.