Featured Replanter: Matthew Whitt

By Replant

Matthew Whitt
Calvary La Junta, CO

What drew you to the work of Replanting?

I had looked at planting at various times but always had a nagging question about what church planting did to the other churches in the area. I had spent my first fifteen years of full-time ministry in struggling or declining churches unable to effect much cultural change from my position as youth pastor. When I discovered the concept of replanting churches I got excited about the stories I was hearing and reading about, even those that were not easy and those that had not seen great success. I gained a new passion for seeing the Gospel not just draw sinners to Christ, but to draw the church which by its nature should be alive and thriving back into life, and in some cases life it had never seen. In short, replanting excited me because if it was going to work, it was going to need to be Gospel driven and Spirit empowered. I wanted to see God work in a new and awesome way.

How long have you been serving as a Replant Pastor?

I have been serving as a replant Pastor since March 2016 when our transitional leaders began in La Junta. Though I was not formally appointed until June, my wife and I knew that we were called to replant in La Junta and began leading and shepherding as if I was already appointed.

Can you give us a quick history of your Replant?

Our story starts with First Baptist Church of La Junta CO. First Baptist Church was founded in 1888 one of the first churches in La Junta a small frontier railroad town at the time. It grew to become the largest church in La Junta and an agent of cultural change into and as late at the 1970’s. After a series of struggle and short pastorates they had declined in the 1990’s and continued to decline over the last 20 years. In 2015 a majority of the deacons passed away. Leaving a church of mostly hard working but tired widows. Into 2016 they had at best 20 regular attenders mostly of at least retirement age and most in their 80’s. The Pastor announced an early retirement and the church realized they had no idea how they would stay open through the year.

But, they believed that God was not done with their church, either their historic and well kept building or themselves the people that made up the church. First seeking help from their Baptist denomination, they were told there were no options and they should close and sell their building.

But God had a plan and connected them with Frank Cornelious, a Southern Baptist Church Planting Catalyst for the area. Frank knew there were other options and connected First Baptist with Calvary Englewood who were actively looking to assist churches with replanting options. A conversation started and about 8 weeks later First Baptist voted unanimously to become a replant and hand over leadership and all aspects of their church to Calvary Englewood’s Elders.

In March of 2016 we began transitional leadership sending teams to La Junta every weekend to lead all aspects of the service and begin getting the remaining 15 legacy members acquainted with the cultural and style of Calvary, including expositional preaching and a new style of worship. During this time we began attracting young families who had been desiring a church like Calvary in La Junta, but before this had been unable to find one. We soft launched in June with our core team preparing for hard launch in September. We continued to grow quickly and launched with a full house and a large celebration and have to this day continued to solidify our attendance and grow slowly. We are now Calvary Church La Junta, living out of the legacy of First Baptist into a new and great future.

How is God showing Himself faithful in your work? Where do you see Him at work?

I think the first place I have seen God’s faithfulness has been in drawing people in, especially when we need them. We have gained most of our new younger families early on with absolutely no work on our part and they came in as an encouragement to us when we needed them most to know that we were not going to be doing this work alone. In other cases and instances, God has brought us individuals at just the right time with the skills and abilities to get a project done or to see us through a season of ministry and prepare us for what is next.

How can a sending church or ministry partner support your work?

Prayer! Prayer! Prayer! we need prayer. Prayer for the harvest, prayer for workers, prayer for miracles in our community and prayer for faithfulness of our people. That said we could also use teams coming in to continue helping renovate the church and to help with outreaches to the community including block parties and VBS programs. We could also use financial support, while things are going well and we are growing we are not yet at the point of self supporting our ministries or needed staff. Partners are the only way a church like ours or others will be able to continue and thrive through the first few years until we can become a sending and partnering church to others!

What challenges have you faced as a Replanter?

The first challenge we faced was adjusting and getting used to a town and a place we were unfamiliar with and which was very different from where we had been living for the last 10 years. I think this is one of the challenges of replanting verses most planting situations. In planting a call often comes with a love for a place, a location, a people, or a kind of people. But, replanting and being called to replanting for me meant being called to a specific situation and that situation could be located in any kind of place with any kind of people. Honestly we had hoped to be called to a mountain town, but God called us to a town in which we can barely if ever see the mountains except on the clearest of days and then only from certain places in town. At times, we have felt isolated, alone and separated from almost all of our support systems and it is hard to break into a small town and form healthy friendships when most of the town has known each other their whole lives.

Another challenge has been renovating the church. Nobody told me when I was called to replanting that there would likely be a ton of physical work that would need to be done to replant a church. We inherited a 103 year old building which had been kept up well but was not up to modern standards and assumptions of what a church will look like. We needed to update sound and media needs in our sanctuary, to completely renovate the children’s and nursery rooms and create a space for coffee and fellowship, in addition brightening up and updating almost every other surface in the primary public space of our church. I have a lot of experience doing these kinds of projects, but to be doing them while also renovating the culture of the church and shepherding the people well was and continues to be a challenge.

A third challenge, is loving and leading some of our older attenders who have been a part of this church for at least twice as long as I have been alive. We have managed to retain almost all of the original 15 or so legacy members who were part of First Baptist Church and agreed to the replant. However, there have been some hard conversations and trying times in making some of our changes. In one significant instance one of our older couples whom I had hoped to see through the transition left. We had a disagreement and could not recover from it. They left gracefully, but I feared we would lose others over the situation, in the end we did not. I struggled with this situation for weeks, felt terrible that we could not work things out and had to seek wisdom and support in the end to come to a healthy view of what had transpired.

What are three lessons you are currently learning in your work as a Replanter?

The first lesson I am learning is to be ready for anything. I keep making plans and God keeps changing them. This is his church, his ministry, I am his and he is sovereign over all these things. Being ready for anything means keeping our eyes and ears open for ministry opportunities, for people looking for a church like ours or opportunities to share the gospel!

The second lesson I have been learning is to slow down. Not only are our legacy members in need of slowing down but so is the church culture. New people come in, and they get excited. In our case, many of our new young families have been looking for a church in their home town that fits them. Most of the things they want are things we will do or will be in time, but we are not ready yet. Moving slower means we can establish ministry and culture well and do things better than we otherwise could. We have had a few false starts because we were not ready to implement a certain ministry or activity. Better to move forward as you and your people are ready rather than force it before it’s time.

The third lesson I have and am learning is to take care of yourself and your family. During the summer we were in soft launch phase doing a ton of culture work, shepherding work and renovating. It was necessarily a sprint trying to get ready for our hard launch in the fall. But, after launch we only picked up more and had more on our plates. I got stressed, my family got stressed and we were having a very hard time until we were instructed by the Elders of our sending church to take a break and take care of ourselves. It is easy to lose track of our own health and needs in the midst of ministry. We have now switched to ministry as a marathon instead of a sprint. My wife and I have much more time together and our family has more time together.

What resources have helped you most in your work?

The first and most important resource has been our sending church and the network (Calvary Family of Churches) of churches we are coming out of. The elders and members of this church have been huge in our success and in the long term viability of our church here. Those resources are all about three hours away from us but remain a steady encouragement and challenge that helps us feel we are not alone and are supported. The most significant aspect of this was my formal internship with Calvary as a replanting intern serving under Mark Hallock and experienced re-planter who is passionate about seeing dying churches come back to life. This experience exposed me to far too many sermons, lectures, books, discussions and practical ministry experiences to list. This internship also provided me with a sending church that truly believes in replanting and supports it with staff, prayer and other resources. My work in La Junta would not have been and would not now be possible without Elder Jeff DeClue’s work in making it happen down here.

NAMB (North American Mission Board’s) assessment, training, staff and funds) have all been huge to our first year here in La Junta. I cannot emphasize enough how awesome it is that we have a denomination that is supporting the work of replanting and drawing dying churches to life. And no, NAMB did not in any way prompt me to say any of this. I have been a part of other denominations and am new to SBC in general and I have never seen or felt the encouragement and drive for healthy long term successful ministry as I have since being a part of all of this. I would encourage anyone thinking about doing this kind of work or who already finds themselves doing it to go through the process of internships and assessment it will help!

One other resource set that have been helpful have been our partners. We have had a few churches praying for us, supporting us and sending teams to help us get off the ground and running. We also have some individuals who have been doing the same. These churches and people are awesome and we love them! Without their help we could not have done the physical work in the church building or the spiritual work with the people of La Junta.

Are you interested in becoming a Replanter?

Published January 24, 2017

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The Replant team of the North American Mission Board works to reverse the death and decline rate of Churches. For more information and resources on Replanting go to www.namb.net/replant and follow @churchreplanter.