Sunday, December 16, 2007

Interview with Kevin Larson: an axed Missouri Baptist church planter

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketKevin Larson is one of the church planters that the Missouri Baptist Convention recently axed after previously having agreed to support his efforts financially and with personal encouragement. He planted Karis Comunity Church in downtown Columbia in 2006. He recently answered some questions that I submitted to him and is allowing me to post his responses in order to give a perspective on the Missouri Baptist fiasco that you probably will not find in any official denominational report.

Kevin's comments confirm some of my suspicions about the inappropriateness of the MBC Executive Board's decision. I agree with Dr. Mark Devine of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, who was recently quoted as saying, "I believe Missouri is setting a negative example that other state conventions should reject."

Kevin is a graduate of Southern Seminary. He and his wife, Amy, have three children under age 5.

1. Briefly describe your conversion and call to ministry.
I professed faith in Christ and was baptized as a young junior high boy. However, before arriving at the University of Missouri in 1990, God reawakened me to the things of God. I then became involved here in a campus ministry, and I took off in my faith. It was during my senior year at Mizzou, then pursuing law school and politics, that I realized only God could change hearts, that labors in government could never bring true and lasting change, and I felt the Lord calling me into the ministry of the word. I had the privilege of being discipled by a Reformed man, ironically in an Arminian campus ministry, who is now a PCA pastor also here in town.

2. What led you to become a church planter in Columbia?
I received a degree from here at the University of Missouri in 1994. I love this city. While in seminary, I began exploring church planting. I visited New England Theological Seminary in Vermont and saw that church planting could be done well. I almost went up there, but I sensed the Lord redirecting us, beyond my wildest dreams, back to Columbia. Not having a Baptist background other than seminary, I took what I thought was a risk and began discussing church planting with Missouri Baptists. I built a relationship with the state church planting director, Jerry Field, and he encouraged us to come and plant. During my last visit back to Columbia, I felt God calling us to come back and plant a church in the urban, arts district of downtown Columbia called "The District."

3. What kind of preparation or training did you go through (NAMB, Acts 29, etc.)?
I am a Southern Seminary graduate. I did take one church planting course, but mainly I focused during my time there on theology and the biblical languages. I was heavily involved in Clifton Baptist where Tom Schreiner, Bruce Ware, and Chip Stam are involved. In fact, their elders ordained me (and Tom is coming to preach here in February). They still contribute financially. While at Southern and Clifton, I just soaked up God's word and Reformed theology and experienced church life like I never had before. It was amazing.

Regarding church planting training, I went through the Missouri Baptist Convention's training, which was helpful. I attended an Acts 29 Bootcamp in St. Louis in 2005, which was also very helpful. While at Southern, I honestly hadn't heard anything about Acts 29, but, in my view, an abstinence only view would be unthinkable by virtue of students having sola scriptura beaten in their heads everyday. I ran into Jonathan McIntosh and Nathan Mattia of The Journey and Acts 29 at the Midwest Founders Conference in 2005, while I was raising funds for our church plant. They handed me the Driscoll book, The Radical Reformission. It was initially shocking, of course. But it opened my eyes to an approach to evangelism that was refreshing. Much of my anxiety going into church planting revolved around how to evangelize. So much of church planting seemed pragmatic and shallow. Yet so many Reformed types talk about evangelism more than they do it. Driscoll's approach was what I needed.

From that time on, I began talking with people from Acts 29, listening to Driscoll sermons, and the like. But I waited awhile before pursuing any affiliation, as I didn't know enough about them. But the more I found out, the more I liked.

4. How long has Karis been going?
We began meeting publicly on Easter of 2006. We have been meeting in the same location ever since, the historic Tiger Hotel ballroom in downtown Columbia. However, an exciting development is that we will be moving into the newly renovated 1200 seat Missouri Theatre in Fall of 2008.

5. What encouragements have you seen during that time?
Well, God has done so much. People are embracing a vision for the church that is, I think, quite countercultural. We have used Dever's 9 Marks extensively, and it is rooted in the DNA of the church. We have high expectations for members in Karis. We push membership almost too hard. God is blessing the preaching of the word, although I am by no means a master of the pulpit. But I do preach 45-60 minute expositional sermons each week. Another elder, Luke, does an amazing job of crafting a reverent, God-centered, gospel-focused order of worship. Our musicians are amazingly talented and committed to what we're doing. We have reached a high of 109 in worship on a Sunday. We will soon move from 6 to 8 Community Groups where we try to practice Acts chapter 2 in the year 2007 with a meal together, a time of Bible study, and an extensive time of prayer for each other. Young men are being taught theology (Grudem, Goldsworthy, and others) and are being given opportunities to preach. Young women are learning about biblical womanhood and are studying theology, as well. In addition to all of that, we are impacting our community and are building relationships there. We have served the downtown "District" through cleaning up graffiti, and we got lots of press from that. We have reached out to the homeless quite well. We have labored to seek the good of the city, and Columbia is noticing. We have 58 members. I have 2 other elders, and 4 deacons. People are being baptized. We are ministering to lots of college students, which I love. And I really feel like, if I got hit by a car, the vision would continue. I walk around downtown in this amazing college town and just pinch myself. I love being here. I sense God's continual call to serve here. And I think God is blessing.

6. What challenges have you faced?
There are many. It has not been a bed of roses. There have been three main challenges in Columbia. First, there are megachurches here, some of which are very good, that keep us from some of the growth, particularly of families with kids, that other plants can get easily and speed things up. My children are still the only regular children, and that is very hard on my wife. Second, this is a very liberal town in many ways. People are opposed to the gospel. So, it has been just plain hard and slow and demanding much faith. But my approach has been to simply become a part of the community (I quickly found a job at a key downtown coffeehouse when I got here, although I am now full-time at Karis) and try to build relationships, and, by God's grace, that has happened. But the third thing that has been so hard is this: we have had critics, thus this blog post, that have been a distraction. This began about a year ago when our sponsoring church, Hallsville Baptist, under the leadership of its pastor, ironically also a Founders church, demanded that I preach and discipline total abstinence and distance myself from Acts 29. I told him, a friend, that I could not do that. So they pulled out, and although I certainly didn’t agree with their decision, the pastor and I parted on good terms. The controversy, however, has continued, and it has come to a head obviously in the last week. There have been other critics, even one in our town, that have tried to petition the MBC staff to defund us. Thankfully, they didn't listen to their appeals. Because of "Theology of the Forge," we have been tied into the controversy with the Journey, although ironically we are a small church, unlike them, and the ministry there hasn't gone very well, quite honestly, like theirs. But I know Darrin and people there. God is blessing them in so many ways. I consider them a ministry worthy of imitation.

7. Explain the church's relationship to the Missouri Baptist Convention.
We have been funded by them from the moment we stepped on the ground here. In fact, just a couple of months before the controversy, I sat down with Jerry Field, the state Church Planting Director, our sponsoring church pastor, Jim Shaver, and our D.O.M., Steve Tanner, and Jerry gave me, and they seconded it, a glowing evaluation. I don't say that out of arrogance, but rather in defense of us in light of recent events. In fact, the MBC church planting team committed to fund us into our fourth year, a rarity in their practice, because they were pleased with our progress and thought we had a strong chance of succeeding, sadly unlike several other attempts to plant in Columbia.

8. Explain your relationship as a church planter to the MBC.
I receive funds every month. I receive coaching from Jerry Field. For the record, and to be very clear, I have never received anything but support, encouragement, and love from the MBC church planting staff. Jerry Field is as honest, kind, and qualified as they get. He's tops. We are currently an affiliated MBC church. We give to the Cooperative Program. We take the annual offerings all MBC churches take up. We don't give as much as some to the CP, but we are a small church, just a plant, of course. We had plans to contribute a significant, growing amount in 2008.

9. What is your and the church's relationship with Acts 29?
We went through their boot camp, as I mentioned. We then decided early this year to be assessed by them and pursue member status. I assessed well with Jonathan McIntosh, John Ryan, and Trey Herwick, all Baptists and A29 guys. They gave me the conditions that we just reach 50 people in attendance, and I receive coaching for a few months. I met the conditions and we joined the network officially just a few months ago. I attend their quarterly meetings, participate on their online members forum, plan to go to their annual retreat, and will do anything else they offer, because it's all very helpful and encouraging. I just love interacting with like-minded, Reformed men who want to see people come to Jesus and cities changed.

10. How did you find out about the Executive Board's decision to withdraw funds from you and Karis.
I heard it initially through our sponsoring church pastor. More came to light on the MBC Yahoo Group. When Jerry Field found out all the details, he let me know officially.

11. Has anyone from the MBC contacted you to discuss their concerns?
Yes. I had a great meeting just a couple of weeks ago with Jerry, and MBC officials David Tolliver (Acting Executive Director) and Roy Spannagel, along with Jim Shaver and Steve Tanner, at the Forge and Vine where we have our monthly theology discussion. They could easily tell that the site was not a bar. I debated a bit the abstinence-only position with Tolliver and Spannagel. Their main concern, I think, was when I told them that we allowed members to drink in moderation according to their own consciences. But it was a respectful, considerate meeting. Again, I've had no problems with MBC staff. Rather it’s mainly people in the state that have had the problem with us. We are so grateful for the support the MBC has provided. But, I do think the executive board's decision is wrong and discouraging. Although they do have the right to make that decision, I say that the further narrowing of parameters of cooperation does not bode well for the MBC's future.

12. Don Hinkle has recently written that part of the motivation behind the Executive Board's decision is Missouri Baptists did not give cooperative program dollars to plant churches who "pledge to do one thing, then do another." To what is he referring? Has Karis been guilty of this?
I emailed Don and expressed my objection to that statement. He is a good man and a friend, but I think that's mistaken. In my understanding, this can only refer to one of two people. I have practiced abstinence respectfully. I have taught the warnings of consuming alcohol. That is all that is required by the document we signed. I have it attached below. The MBC staff approved my interpretation of the document and encouraged me to sign. I have kept that agreement with integrity, and others have confirmed this.

13. How will the Executive Board's decision affect you personally?
If it's just the MBC funds that we lose, it won't make a bit of difference. If other supporting churches follow suit, we'll be in for problems. About 1/3 of our 2008 budget relies on outside support. But the $500 a month from the MBC? That's already taken care of.

14. How has it impacted the membership of Karis?
We are winning people to our vision that don't know what SBC stands for. They wonder what all the fuss is about. They just don't get it. They are frustrated, but they support me when I say that I deeply want to honor the people that have funded us and have prayed for us. They care for the sweet old ladies out there that have given us their gifts and have prayed for us. As an aside, some of those little old ladies have visited our church and have loved it!

15. Is there anything else you would like for us to know about these events?
In Missouri, I think this is about alcohol, yes, but it's ultimately about power. Who will control Missouri Baptists? By the way, I have even heard rumblings that the group's next target in Missouri will be Calvinism. Interestingly, at the recent annual meeting in the Lake of the Ozarks here, a group of men running with a clear platform were trounced in officer elections, while an alcohol resolution only passed with, I think, 58%. The messengers overwhelmingly elected a group of men who had clearly expressed a desire to be more open and embracing of younger Baptists. And that is what I think is at stake.

As I've told many, my experience at Southern clearly shows me that my generation (I'm 36) and younger has little appetite for this. The average Southern student thinks Driscoll is fine, Tim Keller is amazing, and can't understand what all the fighting is about. Why? Because Dr. Mohler and his faculty teach sola scriptura and the other four solas of the Reformation. And that makes this whole issue pretty simple.

My opinion? The other mainline denominations are becoming more and more gray. No disrespect is meant toward my elders; we are desperate to have mature Christians at Karis. But the grayer a congregation or denomination looks, the more bleak the future becomes. Well, those mainline denominations are graying due to liberalism. Young people want something true and something worth believing and dying for. But the SBC, I'm afraid, could gray and ultimately die because of legalism. If this is allowed to persist and grow, it will push young Reformed, expositional preaching, church disciplining, and gospel cherishing guys like me out to the curb. I am convinced this is the case. However, I have been overwhelmed with encouragement--calls, emails, blogs and the like--ever since this happened. We intend to stay in the MBC, at least for now, contributing and participating to some extent in order to effect change. While many people would say we should give up and jump ship, we have met too many great people and have had too much support to just let it all go. But there will be a threshold for myself and other young men that will lead to an "enough is enough" response. I pray that won't happen. With denominations becoming less and less relevant and the Cooperative Program becoming less and less supported, some people out there need to answer the question, "Why?" by looking in the mirror. Younger Christians have a hard time understanding why they should contribute to the CP. My congregation doesn't understand why we have to endure all the distractions we've seen in denominational life. For years, many have been praying for laborers for the harvest. They've wanted men with sound theology and a heart for the lost. Even though I may not look or think exactly like them, I think they've asked God for people like me. Will the answers to their prayers get kicked out the door? For God's sake, I hope not. But we'll stand for sola scriptura, whatever the cost.

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