Friends collide, church flourishes  

By Makayla Sykes  

Pastor Friends

Many of us still remember our childhood best friend’s name. We remember their hair color, freckles and the countless after-school adventures. Fast-forward to high school, and our friends were crucial during late-night study sessions, pizza runs and painful breakups. But somewhere through the hustle of graduating, finding a job and creating a family, many of us run out of time for intimate friendships that are outside of their family and work life.

Throughout scripture, God calls people together. God sent Aaron to Moses, Barnabas to Paul and Jonathan to David. More often than not, God calls two or more people together. We were created for a relationship with God and for community. We were not created to do life alone.

Todd Briggs, Pastor of Midtown Church in Atlanta, Ga.,  met a new friend over a phone call. Briggs, was praying for a friend in to come alongside him in ministry.

“One day, I got a phone call. The guy on the other said, ‘You don’t know me, but my name is Woody Johnson, and I want to talk to you about coming into the city.’”

Woody Johnson was a member at New Hope Baptist church in Fayetteville, Ga. He served as a deacon, chairman, volunteer pastor of children’s ministry and all in between.  After 28 years at New Hope Baptist church, Johnson and his wife, Vicki, felt God call them to move into the city. “We just really felt like our time in Fayetteville was over and that God was basically saying to go into the city,” Johnson said. “I just didn’t know where in the city I was going.

 “I’ve found a lot of my life is spent waiting on my wife to get ready. One morning, I was waiting on her to get ready for an out-of-town wedding. It was 5 AM, and I was just on the computer,” Johnson said. “I pulled up Midtown church online, and I was reading what it was all about. It was talking about discipleship, which is what I have been about my whole Christian life. I called Todd, and we had a great connection over the phone.” The next week, the Johnson’s visited Briggs and his wife, Barbie, “I just heard God say that this was where I need to come and be planted, even before I had heard Todd preach,” Johnson said. The first time that Johnson heard Briggs preach was the first Sunday after he joined.

The Johnson’s put their house up for sale and moved down to the heart of Atlanta a couple months later. Johnson told Briggs that he did not want any sort of title during his first year as a member of Midtown church. He served in various ministries while he fell in love with the people of Atlanta.

After a year, Johnson took on various positions. He became an elder in the church and helped direct different ministries, all while standing by Briggs’ side. “He really understands my vision and embraces it. Johnson has become my right hand man and sometimes even more than that. We’re in this together as partners but also just as friends,” said Briggs.

Briggs and Johnson both enjoy playing golf together, although Johnson said, “I’m tired of Briggs always beating me.”

Together they have started several different ministries within Midtown church including Plant Atlanta. “We have partnered with World Wide Discipleship Association and have been raising money around it. So far we have recruited two young pastors.” Plant Atlanta disciples young pastors with a heart for urban missions. Johnson stands as a model for new pastors to look up to.

Briggs and Johnson rarely disagree, but Briggs admits that, “I am a Yankee that only came to Christ 18 years ago. I’m very impulsive and very entrepreneurial,” Briggs said. “But we’re also wired completely differently.” He continued, “We had to learn early on that there are certain things that Woody does really well that I need to listen to him about, and there are certain things that I do really well that Woody listens to me about.” Briggs and Johnson describe their relationship as a team effort. “It’s not about what each of us brings to the table alone but together. There are times when we don’t agree, but what makes the difference is that we share the vision for seeing the city reached.”

Johnson and Briggs share the same vision for Atlanta. They both want Midtown church to be a hospital in the midst of the chaos in the city. “We want to multiply out really connected missional churches that are dealing with the damage in people’s lives. There are so many people in the city that have been hurt by the church, and we want to be different,” said Briggs. Johnson and Briggs want Midtown church to be a vibrant body of Christ that serves as a community of healing.

 “A friend in the ministry is not just a nice thing, but it is absolutely crucial,” Briggs said. He described isolation as one of the most dangerous things that pastor’s face. “There are so many pitfalls that you can face. We all need someone that is forcing you to get out of your pastor role and into your being a friend role.” Briggs continued, “Successful urban church planting is almost always done by church planting teams. You need somebody that has your back. It’s a different world in the city.”

Makayla Sykes writes for the North American Mission Board.For more information about how to join a church-planting movement, visit 

Date Created: 11/24/2015 6:06:11 PM

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Character trumps everything 

Kingdom FirstWhen it comes to leading a church, character trumps everything. A long standing church can often survive the calamity of a disgraced leader, but a new church rarely can. There is much on the shoulders of a church planter.

History shows that the greatest source of a church plant’s implosion comes from deficient character. Lofty public preaching is not sufficient to overcome our personal brokenness.  Our sin, however carefully concealed, will more accurately describe the dark nature of our real theology.

It is also instructive to realize that in the New Testament ‘belief’ is not a noun, but a verb. We can never own a belief – we only can live a belief. Our best theology is never believed until it is integrated into our lifestyle.

The character of Christ  

Implicit in Jesus’ call to discipleship was a call to personally take on the radical character of Christ. When Jesus ushered a fresh charge to his pre-disciples in Mark 1:17, “follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men,” he was describing both his Kingdom assignment and the only process that makes that assignment possible. ‘Follow me’ always precedes ‘fishers of men.’

The character necessary for multiplying true disciples of Jesus grows directly in proportion to our personal follow-ship of Jesus.

So, what does the character of Christ actually look like?  

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount shows a three-dimensional picture of Kingdom character that warrants a lifetime of study and personal application. John 1:14 observed firsthand that Kingdom character was displayed in Jesus through the perfect blending of two spiritual realities – ‘grace’ and ‘truth’; “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  

Grace and truth eternally and inextricably fused together. In Jesus, grace and truth were not a balanced duo, but both dished out lavishly and unreservedly toward an undeserving humanity.

So it stands to reason that the process of following Jesus should build a life branded by the character of Christ. So why is our character often so very different?

Enter sin.  

Sin, by definition, is missing God’s intended mark. Our damaged character finds appeal in one of two character-distorting forms of sin:

  1. The Sin of Sensuality (license). Sensuality is seeing ourselves small and therefore living in a way that is less than God created us to be. Grace without truth. A life of sensuality leads to a character enslaved by obsessive addictions of every shape. In Jesus’ parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-31), this is the younger brother.
  1. The Sin of Pride (legalism). Pride is seeing ourselves large and therefore living in a way that is greater than God created us to be. Truth without grace. A life characterized by pride leads to a character deformed by an arrogant self-righteousness. In Jesus’ parable of the lost son, this is the older brother.

How can I lead with the character of Christ? 

It seems intuitive that when we are out of balance, we moderate and find a healthy equilibrium with grace and truth. However, seeking an artificial balance will never shape our character into that of our King’s. It is impossible to reduce one part of Him in an attempt to become more like Him.

The good news is that the gospel is actually great news to our sad theology. We have two spiritual realities to assist when we over steer.

  1. The Cross of Christ 
    If the sin of sensuality is seeing ourselves as less than God created us to be, then what higher expression of grace is there than the cross? His sacrifice demonstrated the eternal value we have to the Father. Unworthy, though we may be, we are not worthless. We need only to gaze at the cross. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21

    The cross is history’s best picture of absolute grace.

  2. The Throne of Christ
    If the sin of pride is seeing ourselves as greater than God created us to be, then what more humbling reflection is there than the throne of Christ? Spiritual arrogance becomes difficult to maintain when we compare our morality to the holiness of our sovereign King. “We have allbecome like one who is unclean, andall our righteous deeds arelike a pollutedgarment.  Weall fade like a leaf, and ouriniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Isaiah 64:6 

    Spiritual pride cannot strut before the throne of Christ.

And so the spiritual protection that keep us in the character of Christ are His grace and His truth. When we embrace both, the world takes note.

Date Created: 11/24/2015 6:03:34 PM

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Church planting in college towns: From Ames, to Iowa City, to the ends of the earth 


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Mark Vance and Brian Frye 

In the last few decades a building angst has grown around reaching college students with the gospel. Church leaders have long seen the importance of making disciples among collegians, but many churches are stymied by the time and resources required to engage universities around them. 

Is the college campus a mission field? 

History shows that what happens on a campus in one generation, impact the next. Today’s campus trends change tomorrow. From this perspective, it is not just important churches more effectively engage campuses with the gospel; it is essential.

Based on these realities a new ministry is gaining traction in and around college campuses. It’s the concept of collegiate or university church planting.

The Cornerstone – Salt Company story 

In 1972, Jack Owens arrived at Iowa State University (ISU) in Ames, IA to plant a Baptist Student Union (BSU). Owens began sharing the gospel on campus and soon his ministry grew to a dozen students.

Over the next decade the ministry grew, and leadership changed, and in 1986 Troy Nesbitt became the ministry director. Nesbitt and his students began to ask how they could reach the campus more effectively and as a part of their answer, they changed their name from BSU to Salt Company to demonstrate their commitment to living a Matthew 5, salt of the earth and light of the world lifestyle.

By 1994, Salt Company’s growth (200 students) was eclipsing the size of their sponsor, Grand Avenue Baptist Church. Salt Company’s focus on reaching the campus had caused the ministry to get too big, and after extensive prayer, the decision was made to plant Salt Company as a church. Later that year, Cornerstone Church was planted with 24 community members and 200 college students at the first service. 

Cornerstone made the commitment “to be a church that puts college students on the front of the bus.” They resolved to “never quit being the church that loves university students,” and embedded in their ethos that they would never fail to “win at reaching the campus.”

Cornerstone flourished steadily and maintained the Salt Company ministry and brand to continue engaging the campus. Nesbit and the church brought on a staff member, Jeff Dodge, to take over the college program, and over the next decade Salt Company grew to over 500 students. As the church grew, Dodge transitioned to Cornerstone staff and students who had been reached through the ministry (Paul Sabino, Mark Arant and Cody Cline) took the helm of the college ministry – breaking through to over 1,000 student by 2012.

Iowa State and beyond 

In two decades, Cornerstone has grown from a church plant of 224 to gathering 2,400 in weekly worship. While these numbers are exciting, other data is even more compelling. Over their history, Cornerstone – Salt Company has seen over 1,900 baptisms, sent more than 1,500 students on short-term missions trips and had 76 students spend two years or more overseas.

Eventually, as Cornerstone continued to send missionaries and church planters overseas they recognized that their core value of reaching collegians was unfilled on other campuses in Iowa. In 2010, Cornerstone launched Mark Arant, a leadership team and 80 people from Ames, IA, to plant 140 miles down at the University of Iowa. Currently, Veritas Church is now seeing over 650 in weekly worship and 350 engaged in Salt Company.

In 2013, Cornerstone and Veritas worked together to send Paul Sabino and Stan Hayek plus 80 people out from Veritas to launch Candeo Church and Salt Company at Cedar Falls and the University of Northern Iowa. Two years in, and Candeo is averaging 700 in worship, 300 students in Salt Company, and since January 1, 2015, they have already baptized 108 people.

Cornerstone, Salt Company and Iowa leaders are working diligently to plant churches planted near every college campus in Iowa, and they continue to identify locations and planters in the  Midwest and beyond.

Why this should be happening everywhere? 

In many ways, Cornerstone Church has become an unintentional and unusual mega-church. When they began with 24 community members and 200 college students in 1994, their initial leadership team hoped to see God provide enough financial support through community members to continue to see the ministry to college students expand. Out of this relentless focus on reaching the next generation, God birthed a thriving multi-generational church that has reached thousands of college students. Two critical factors to this unusual growth must be noted – location and passion.

Location: Cornerstone Church is in Ames, IA; a simple town that happens to be home of 36,000 Iowa State University students. This strategic location takes advantage of the unique geographic bottleneck where the next generation is most densely clustered.

Passion: From the beginning, Cornerstone resolved to be a church that loved college students. They decided they would die as a church before they stopped reaching college students. Reaching college students was their number one priority. 

A strategic location plus a focused passion has equaled amazing results in reaching the next generation. And as this decision to plant churches that reach college students has extended beyond Ames, God’s grace has continued to be seen as more students are being reached with the Gospel.

Throughout our country, college and university campuses serve as a natural bottleneck where the best and brightest of the next generation are clustered into tightly packed geographic areas during a uniquely shapeable period of their life. What might happen if we would seize this God-given opportunity by engaging these strategic locations with a focused passion to plant churches to reach college students?

In the cornfields of Iowa, Cornerstone Church stands as a living testimony that a strategic location plus a focused passion can yield incredible Gospel fruit in the next generation.

If you would like to learn more about the story, systems and strategy of Cornerstone - Salt Company, consider taking part in their free Hitchhikers event, April 14-16, 2016 (details here

For ideas and tools for helping you or leaders in your church engage campuses near you, check out for articles, podcasts, video content and tools.

Date Created: 11/24/2015 5:52:42 PM

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