A Vision for Transforming the World
Mention church planting, discipling, or missions to Steve Childers and you may not utter another sound for half an hour. That's because youll be hearing about this RTS/Orlando professor's passion - a global vision to develop healthy, multiplying churches that are multiplying disciples through the transforming power of the Gospel.
Currently Assistant Professor of Practical Theology, Director of the Doctor of Ministry program, and instructor of missions, evangelism, church planting, and church growth classes at RTS/Orlando, Steve knows what he's talking about. One of the most knowledgeable church planters in the nation, he has planted two churches from the ground up within the past two decades, each of which have planted daughter churches of their own. A regular conference speaker and seminar leader he has also trained hundreds of church planters through the US Center for Church Planting, an interdenominational ministry that he founded in 1991 to provide training and support for church planters, pastors, and missionaries.
Steve is uniquely gifted by God to communicate the heart-felt enthusiasm so necessary for successfully training others in church planting. "My passion is to help fulfill the Great Commission in this generation bv mentoring leaders to be part of an interdenominational, international church planting movement," he reveals. "I am convinced that the God-ordained strategy for world evangelization is multiplying churches in every people group of the world. I have always been greatly challenged by the life and the ministry of the Apostle Paul. Paul was both a theologian and what I call a church planting movement leader. Today you can usually find Christian leaders who are theologians or practitioners but rarely both."
Other leaders in church planting have high praise for Steve. Says Dr. Allen Thompson, President of The International Church Planting Center in Atlanta, "Creative church planters look for principles that broaden their understanding of the church and its dynamic life. Church planting practitioners look for models, check lists, and practical applications of theory. Steve Childers provides both in his teaching."
A RIOTOUS LIFE TURNED AROUND
For many years, church planting was the last thing on Steve's mind - and the things of God were next to last. Attending church was not a high priority in Steve's life during his childhood. Born in Tokyo in 1955, he moved to Mt. Holly, New Jersey. After his father retired from the Air Force in 1963, Steve and his family moved to Oklahoma City, where he graduated from high school.
Although bright and capable, Steve was not a serious student; girls and athletics interested him much more. Then he discovered student politics, and his popular easy-going nature won him the offices of both junior and senior class president. Unfortunately, partying and alcohol were increasingly becoming a big part of his life, too; everyone knew Steve could throw the best party
His rowdy lifestyle didnt change when he entered Oklahoma State University in Stillwater in 1973 to pursue a business degree. His life was quickly becoming a moral cesspool of drinking and riotous living. "My mother's prayer was that I wouldn't die," he said.
One day he saw a sign in the dorm advertising a lecture on the claims of Christ. He and his buddies thought it would be great fun to disrupt the meeting and hassle the speaker. How dare someone come and preach to them. The speaker turned out to be a petrified student with a memorized Gospel presentation who was no match for their cynical questions.
"We had him up against the wall and were delighted with ourselves," remembers Steve ruefully. "Suddenly from the back of the room a small, Middle Eastern man stood up and walked forward, carrying a Bible and smiling broadly With disarming gentleness, he took us on one by one and answered our questions with a boldness I had never seen. My friends grew tired of it, but this articulate and intelligent man fascinated me. I argued with him until three a.m."
That night was the beginning of Steve's spiritual pilgrimage with Behzad Pakezegi, a converted Jew from Tehran who was working toward his Ph.D. and had studied with Christian apologist Dr. Francis Schaeffer. Behzad bought Steve a Bible and a few weeks later led him to Christ in his dorm room. Thus began a three-year discipling and mentoring relationship that has impacted Steve's life ever since.
"He didn't give up on me," says Steve with a warm smile. "I would have probably given up on someone like me a hundred times. His commitment to me had to be God-given."
Dramatic changes began to occur in Steve's life, including a new desire to hear the Word with God's people and a heavy burden for those without Christ. His parents didn't understand; they thought Behzad was a "spiritual" guru out to take advantage of their son. Step by step, Behzad helped Steve mature in the Christian faith. During their second year together, Behzad decided it was time for Steve to learn how to share his faith, so he set up a meeting with leaders of the B'Hai cult on campus. Steve remembers that "they ate my lunch, but Behzad jumped in and rescued me." It was on such difficult playing fields that Steve learned well how to share his faith.
At Behzad's direction, Steve became involved in Campus Crusade for Christ, a ministry that would also shape the rest of his life. He took all the training which Campus Crusade offered, including advanced leadership instruction, and began discipling others. His teaching gifts were obvious - large groups of people began attending weekly Bible studies in his apartment. During his junior year, he poured himself into three new converts, a ministry that opened the door for yet another Bible study group and a Sunday School class.
"I just tried to honor God faithfully and let Him show me what to do next," says Steve. "Eventually I found myself speaking about the claims of Christ in university fraternities, at times to as many as fifty or sixty hard-core partiers and cynics. I laughed at God's sense of humor; I had been just like them only two short years before."
By his senior year, Steve began to feel the Lord calling him to full-time Christian work. Steve's father wanted him to go on to law school, but Steve wanted to acquire some more experience in ministry and consider going to seminary. His father agreed to allow Steve to move back home and follow that plan, provided Steve could earn enough money to pay his own way. So, taking the principles of discipleship he had learned in college, Steve developed a Bible conference called "Journey Into Usefulness," which he began to teach in local churches. In 1977, during the summer after his graduation, he met the woman who would share that ministry - his wife, Becky. They married in August, 1980.
ME - A PREACHER?
Steve didn't know it, but God was about to put his ministry efforts into fast-forward. While researching seminaries, he became friends with Bob Cox, a retired pastor who was working with a dying Oklahoma City church. Located in the "Combat Zone," a high-crime area populated largely by blacks and Hispanics, Northminster Presbyterian Church was literally and figuratively falling down. Once a light for the Gospel in Oklahoma City the church had dwindled to a mere thirteen people, mostly senior citizens who hadn't had a pastor in years. Their only service was held on Sunday afternoon so a pastor from a nearby town could lead them. But this handful of people yearned for revival and dreamed that a conservative, Christ-centered church could again thrive in the inner city.
"Ill never forget the summer day in 1977 when I sat in the basement of that grimy little downtown church and heard Bob say he was leaving in five days and wanted me to stay and start a new church there," remembers Steve incredulously "How does a twenty-two-year-old with a business degree plant a church? I didnt have a clue. But he urged me to give up my conference ministry for one year and try. Amazingly, my father agreed to take the pittance the church could afford to pay me as rent and board, and one week later I was a church planter."
Steve's first three elders - a retired truck driver, a machinist, and a newspaper man - all looked at him and asked, "What's next?" Steve had no idea, so they prayed. Of one thing Steve was sure - he knew how to lead people to Christ, how to train and disciple them, and how to teach. So he began doing personal evangelism, discipleship, and Evangelism Explosion training. His first evangelism team consisted of two people. They trembled as they prayed.
In a few months, there were two teams, then four, then eight. Over the next two years, most of the church members became involved in E.E. Every week a small army of people left the church going into the neighborhood, leading many to Christ.
They attracted people of all backgrounds. The Lord began to convict Steve's mother, a consummate hostess, and she offered to cook for them on Wednesday nights. The fellowship hall began to resemble a rescue mission as medical students from a nearby university sat next to homeless vagrants. Steve had one rule: "nothing to eat unless you stayed for the preaching."
"I'll never forget the night that an entire rock band showed up; they'd gotten word of good food," says Steve. "The whole group came to the Lord except one (he eventually ended up in jail). The lead singer became our worship leader and the sound man ran our sound board."
As Christ rebuilt the hearts of the congregation, they decided to rebuild the church facility which had greatly deteriorated from the beautiful structure it had been in 1917. Working together to lay new bricks bonded members in a new spirit of unity and love.
The day came when the congregation wanted to become a new church in the Reformed Presbyterian denomination. At their urging, Steve called the denominational offices, asking, "How do we organize a Reformed Presbyterian church?" Officials informed him that the elders must be able to pass an exam on Reformed theology. Steve queried, "What's Reformed theology?"
Never one to quit, Steve ordered the hundreds of dollars worth of recommended theology books and dove into them with his elders, teaching them as he learned it himself. The next year the elders flew past the presbytery exam, and after another year of rigorous study Steve also passed his licensure and ordination exams with flying colors. Steve was ordained under special conditions with the understanding that he would attend seminary when the church was strong enough for him to leave.
Then Steve's family learned that his father had cancer. "I had been praying for my father's salvation for a long time. My dad was a strong-minded career Air Force pilot," says Steve. "He had been coming to this new church for several months. One day after the diagnosis he said to me, 'I have been listening to you for months, and I realize that I don't really know Christ personally. I'm scared. Would you help me come to Him?' He knelt with his face on the floor, and I led him in a heartfelt prayer of repentance and faith in Christ. For the next ten months, we prayed and read Scripture almost every day. He died in my arms."
In 1982, after five years, the church was vital and growing - they even had to buy more land for parking. Steve then felt free to leave and enter Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, where he earned a Master's degree in Exegetical Theology. He then went on to complete his Master of Divinity degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago in 1985.
By that time, church planting was in his blood. Although offered many other ministry opportunities, he and Becky went to Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, and spent the next ten years successfully planting and pastoring Trinity Presbyterian Church. There they experienced what Steve calls "the seven stages of church planting," including buying land and building a facility.
LET'S MAKE DIFFERENT MISTAKES
Experiencing such overwhelming success should have made Steve quite happy but something annoyed him. During the last few years in Plano, he realized his work there was over and his heart was not in planting another church, but in training other church planters.
"I saw that most church planters were making the same mistakes," Steve recalls. "I wanted to support other church planters and at least help them make new mistakes."
He also realized that, instead of moving from city to city planting churches, he could use what he had learned in the last two decades to invest in a multiplying ministry to train other church planters across denominations. To do that, he founded the U.S. Center for Church Planting with the goal of mentoring and training leaders to start and develop healthy growing, multiplying churches that are multiplying disciples through the transforming power of the Gospel.
"What we need today is a global, spiritual awakening - a new reformation. My hope for such a worldwide awakening rests in God raising up and multiplying churches that are releasing the transforming power of the Gospel to the world. We have no business talking about seeing whole nations transformed socially and politically under Christ's Lordship until we understand that every people group is nothing more than a conglomeration of human hearts. Our task is to understand how one human heart is actually transformed through the power of the Gospel into the likeness of Christ."
God is now opening doors for Steve to train church planters in Asia, Europe, South America, Mexico, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. Presently, Steve is heavily involved in forming a church planting institute in Japan. This ministry is being designed to reach secular Japanese university students who can then be channeled into an interdenominational church planting movement to evangelize their nation," Steve explained. Steve's life is a powerful witness to the impact that a strong college ministry can have in a person's life. "Students can be reached on secular Japanese university campuses while they still have ideals and before they are sucked into the culture," Steve explained. "Reached early they can then be channeled into an interdenominational church planting movement to evangelize their country."
In his seminary courses, Steve likes to work with students one on one and in small groups, often taking interested students with him to his church planting seminars, such as the last one in Japan (he also took his oldest daughter). He realizes that investing himself in mentoring relationships with his students will bear much fruit for the next generation, just as Behzad's investment paid off in his own life.
If you ask today "What's next, Steve?" you will hear this seminary professor's dream: "To see RTS/Orlando become an interdenominational training center for missions, evangelism, and church planting by mentoring leaders to be part of the movement that is multiplying churches that are multiplying disciples through the transforming power of the Gospel."
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 1