Brandon Cox on Mentoring & Releasing Church Planters
Spring is finally upon us, so it seems like a great time to talk about planting! In this week’s podcast here on unSeminary, I had the opportunity to talk to Brandon Cox, senior pastor at Grace Hills Church in Bentonville, Arkansas.
If you’ve heard of Bentonville, it’s probably because you know about Grace Hills Church, or because you know it’s home to the little chain of five-and-dime stores: Wal-Mart. Brandon has lived in Bentonville for the last 3 ½ years. He is originally from Kentucky, but he’s spent the last nine years in Arkansas, other than the year he spent in California at Saddleback Church. Following his time interning at Saddleback, he was sent back to Arkansas to plant Grace Hills.
Planting: Grace Hill’s Story
Brandon started Grace Hills from scratch. They recently moved from one movie theater to another, so he sees it as a sort of “movie theater church plant.” There are currently about 250 people attending and lives are continually being changed through the work being done there.
An obvious question might be how do you start? What kind of an approach do you use to extend the Kingdom?
- Facebook: Brandon says that on the outreach end, Facebook has had an enormous impact on the ministry of Grace Hills as a point of first contact with complete strangers. The thing about Facebook though, is that people are not total One of these people’s friends already likes us and they show up that way. We already have a little bit of conversation or knowledge of them when they first walk in the door.
- Relationships: Allowing people to bring friends and others has also been a key to getting where Grace Hills to where the ministry is right now.
Brandon has a heart for planting churches. Maybe you do too, but you don’t know what the process looks like or you have questions about it. Most of us would agree that believers should multiply and small group Bible studies should multiply. The idea of planting churches is born out of the idea that churches should multiply as well.
Many times, the leaders of large and established churches have some very real fears:
“There are not enough people, there’s not enough time, not enough money to do something like that. We have to keep collecting our resources.”
Contrary to those fears, when Grace Hills was started, the leaders decided they wanted to be “born pregnant.” Part of that belief was based on statistics like this: 85-90% of people who leave a mega-church to plant a church are successful because they take with them the knowledge of the system, the culture, and the aggressive vision that others don’t have if they have never experienced that atmosphere.
It is tremendously empowering to let a potential church planter spend time right in the middle of a church plant that is actively growing. Grace Hills wanted to be a “teaching hospital” from the very beginning. Everything they do (the good, bad and the ugly), they wanted someone to be in the middle of it for a year before sending them out to plant.
If you have a heart to plant churches: Don’t wait until you’re ready! It will never happen!
Planting: Your Story
If you think your church might be “pregnant,” Brandon has a blueprint for how it’s been done. Michael was an intern at Grace Hills and is now pastoring a church plant in Salem Springs, Arkansas. Michael spent a year in Bentonville mentoring with Brandon and his staff and the congregation of Grace Hills.
Finding Michael and plugging him into the role as a church planter initially created some tension. Brandon cautions to be aware that this may happen. Michael had some real value and talent as a youth leader. It would have been very easy to use him in that role at Grace Hills, but the goal was to use him to grow God’s kingdom in another direction.
Your core value needs to reflect the fact that the Kingdom comes before the success of your own local church. Focus on what best grows the Kingdom, not on what best grows your church.
To find a potential church planter or intern, you might meet and talk with several people to formalize a system for how you want to do this. Discuss what you are looking for. Complete assessments to determine gifts. Skill set and readiness assessments are important all along the way.
The year Michael spent at Grace Hills was structured so he spent time touching every possible aspect of the ministry area.
- Sundays: On Sundays Grace Hills had Michael work hard to get a feel for what it would be like to plant, so he had to be there to set up for services at 7 a.m. He worked on the greeting team. He got up in front of the 5th and 6th He preached three or four times. He went through the entire Sunday gamut.
- Small groups: Brandon and his team had Michael launch a small group and then he developed leaders out of that small group. The leaders at Grace Hills needed to see if Michael could gather. Then could he develop? Then could he disciple?
- Through the week: Michael attended staff meetings and had input into high-level discussions and those involving directional changes. Brandon wanted him in on that to understand how decisions are made. Grace Hills values being flexible and they wanted him to feel the tension of that.
Lessons for Growth
- Planting will not hurt your bottom line: The more mission-focused your church is, the more it will grow. You may think you don’t have people or resources to give up, but when your church gives big, you teach your people to give big. It will not hurt you to value the Kingdom!
- It requires a lot of time and personal attention: Realize that you can’t just bring in an intern or resident and expect them to run your office or staple papers. This must be a mentoring time. It requires at least a few hours of one-on-one personal involvement with them per week. Decide this is a priority in your schedule before you start.
- Find ways to be unselfish: Allow the intern to take members with them and also be open-handed in other ways. This attracts people and is Christ-minded. In the case of Grace Hills, the church they planted will be totally autonomous in the future, but for these first five years, it is being supported financially by Grace Hills. Brandon and Michael continue to meet monthly. This provides some level of accountability in case of any warning signals or red flags.
Church Planting vs. Multi-Site
Maybe you’re wondering why Grace Hills decided to plant a church rather than choose a multi-site option. While some others have been successful doing this, Brandon feels it’s a little risky to go multi-site with less than seven or 800 members. Campus sites are generally created fairly close to the primary site and daughter congregations, (plants) are further away. Salem Springs is about 30 minutes from Grace Hills.
Brandon sees a campus church similar to growing an extra limb; an extension of an existing church. Planting is more like birthing a baby with your own DNA.
Brandon closed today’s podcast with some sobering, yet exciting statistics: Between the years 1990 and 2050, it is expected that the number of people attending church will decline by at least half. There’s exciting work waiting for you in the Kingdom!
To learn more about the work God is doing at Grace Hills, or if you have questions about church planting, you can contact Brandon Cox at brandonacox.com.
Interview Highlights //
00:44 // Rich introduces Brandon to the show.
01:15 // Brandon talks through what he does.
02:16 // Brandon talks about his ministry at Grace Hills.
03:24 // Brandon talks about the Grace Hills’ philosophy on preparing another plant and the personal tension preparing a new plant creates.
06:58 // Brandon talks about how they found Michael.
08:24 // Brandon talks about the process of hiring Michael.
09:17 // Brandon talks about what Michael’s residency looked like over a year.
11:18 // Brandon talks about Michael’s new plant and the pitfalls of planting.
15:15 // Brandon talks about the relationship between Grace Hills and the new plant.
16:24 // Brandon comments on Rich’s question about multi-site as opposed to planting.
Interview Transcript //
Rich – Well, happy Thursday everybody. Welcome to the unSeminary podcast. We are so privileged, so honored that you would put us in your earbuds today and listen in. We know that you’re a busy church leader and there’s a lot of things you could be doing with your time today. We hope today’s an encouragement for you. Today I’m excited to have Brandon Cox with us. He is the Senior Pastor at Grace Hills Church in Bentonville, Arkansas. So, welcome to the show again, Brandon.
Brandon – Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me on.
Rich – Nice. You know, you might know – people might know Arkansas, Bentonville, Arkansas for two things. One is Grace Hills and the other is a little, there’s a little chain of stores based out of there. I think Walmart’s based in your hometown aren’t they.
Brandon – Yeah, we call it the local dime store.
Rich – Exactly. Nice. Great, well, that’s fantastic. Now, you’ve been on the show in the past but why don’t we, just kind of reintroduce people to yourself and to your church.
Brandon – Okay. Well, I’m Brandon Cox. I originally come from Kentucky. I’ve spent the last nine years in Arkansas except for one year in the middle of that where I went to southern California, went on staff at Saddleback Church. They sent us back here to plant Grace Hills Church so we’ve been at that about three and a half years now, and just moved from one movie theater to another so we’re kind of one of those movie theater church plants and you know, started from scratch and have about 250 or so coming, and just keep seeing lives changed so it’s kind of where we’re at. I’m also the editor of Pastors.com so I kind of do that half and half time, I guess.
Rich – Nice. Yeah, that’s fantastic. Well, so today we want to talk specifically, it’s kind of caught my attention, like this is an interesting thing going on at your church. As a church plant, you know three years in, you’re obviously looking for ways to multiply and to reach out and to reach more people with the message of Jesus and so how have you been doing that? What’s been kind of – you know, what kind of approach have you been taking to try to extend the Kingdom?
Brandon – Well, I would say that on the outreach end, the initial contact end, Facebook’s been huge for us. I know that’s something you help people out a lot with and Facebook has been enormous because it gives us a first point of contact with complete strangers but they’re not complete strangers because they usually find out about us because a friend already likes us and they show up that way. So we already have a little bit of a conversation and a knowledge of them when they walk in the door which has been great.
Then just using relationships, quite honestly, allowing people to bring friends and others has just been kind of the key to getting where we are right now.
Rich – Nice. Very cool. Now I know you’ve got a plant for – you’ve got a heart for church planting and so I’d love to talk a bit about, you know, you’re in the process of kind of helping a church planter release out and kind of reach a new community. Why don’t you – kind of talk us through that process. What has that looked like? I’m encouraged that a church, you know, just a few years old is already doing that, is already working to discover and develop some other leaders. So let’s hear a little bit about that.
Brandon – I think that was really born out of, first of all, a belief and ecclesiology that says churches ought to multiply. Believers should and small groups should, but the Church should as well. And a lot of times when you talk to leaders of larger established churches, there’s a real fear. We don’t ever have enough money or enough people to do something like that. We have to keep on collecting and keep on collecting. That just doesn’t sound very New Testament to me. We started Grace Hills we decided we want to be born pregnant.
There was this stat that I remember, and I don’t have a source so don’t quote me, but I’ll blame it on Ed Stetzer because I heard him say it.
Rich – He’s a smart guy.
Brandon – Yeah – About 85% to 90% of the people who leave a megachurch to go plant a church are successful. And it’s because they take with them the knowledge of the systems and the culture and the aggressive vision that you often don’t have if you’ve never experienced that atmosphere. That got me to thinking, you know, I really think it’s something empowering to church planting to allow a potential planter to spend time right in the middle of a church plant that’s actively growing.
So even though we’re not a megachurch by any stretch of the imagination, we did want to start from Day One to be what we called a teaching hospital. Everything we try, everything we do, good, bad or ugly, we want someone to be in the middle of it for a year before sending them out. That’s kind of what got us started on the path was just a belief that we ought to multiply and the idea that we can’t wait until we’re ready or it will never happen.
Rich – First of all, I think you’re just to be commended to have that kind of mindset. I hope people don’t miss that. That’s pretty unique in the Church. You’re right there are a lot of churches that are based on kind of let’s collect people, let’s continue to keep people rather than, you know, we’re going to be open handed right from the beginning. We’re going to find a way to extend ourselves and to multiply. So I just, you know, thank you for doing that and for modeling that.
Now that must be a real tension for you as a leader because your developing someone who could run significant parts of your ministry down the road but with the mindset of saying I want to release them. Talk through that tension a little bit.
Brandon – Sure, you know, in fact Michael, the guy, the first guy that we’ve put in this role his background is Youth Ministry and he was pretty successful in Youth Ministry. Youth Ministry was something we were kind of needing at the time. It did create a tension of man, I’d really love to have him jump into that area, but we resisted that simply because we started from Day One having written down the core value that the Kingdom comes before the success of our own local church. If we were going to live that out, that meant forcing ourselves to stay focused on what best grows the Kingdom, not what best grows our church. Really, it’s just a matter of fighting it. Thankfully, Michael’s skill set was such that we did use him in a variety of areas. That was important to us. We wanted him to touch everything, to work in kids and set up and do some administrative stuff and just do everything that a church planter was going to have to do.
Rich – Well, let’s start at the beginning. How did you find Michael? He sounds like a great guy. How did you find him to join your team?
Brandon – When we first moved back to northwest Arkansas, I got an email from Michael. He had had a long term interest in church planting and he was involved in Youth Ministry at the time. He just wanted to have coffee, so we had coffee and we talked about church planting and what we were doing at Grace Hills. At that time, everything about Grace Hills was still kind of just a pipe dream, we hope this works, we hope we’re alive three years from now kind of thing.
We just kept meeting for coffee every couple of months or so, just sort of talking through his calling and what was going on with us. And then we began to kind of formalize our system for bringing in a resident. We wrote down what we would look for and what we would do. I knew that Michael had been through an experience or two of trying to get into something like that and it just wasn’t a right fit a couple of times.
Finally I just sort of popped the question, “Would you ever leave where you’re at and come on board for a year and learn how to do this?” He and his wife prayed about it and jumped in with us.
Rich – Did you do any, so outside of the relational connection, did you do any kind of assessment work or any kind of external verification? Sometimes in these processes that can be a part of the deal. Was there anything like that in the process with Michael?
Brandon – Sort of. He had already done two different assessments. One was an Acts 29 assessment and the other was Acts 29 borrowed assessment. He’d already been through it a couple of times and he gave us all of the paperwork and the results from all that. We just had a lot of conversations surrounding that. When it came down to the end of his one year residency, we were going to one more assessment. Some personal things came up that, in his family’s life that kind of prevented that, but I do think assessment is really important, really strong all along the way to determine gifts and skill set and readiness.
Rich – Why don’t we talk kind of, we’ll start with the macro. How was his year structured and then maybe we can zoom in on, you know, what did an individual week look like? How did he go through the residency and what was the individual week like?
Brandon – What we wanted to do over the course of the year was, first of all to have him touch every possible ministry area. We wanted him to work hard and get a feel for what it was going to be like to plant. So he had to be there to set up on Sunday morning at 7:00 a.m. and we put him on the greeting team. We put him in front of kids teaching Fifth and Sixth Graders. We just went through the gamut. He preached probably three or four times during the year that he was here on a Sunday morning. In terms of the bulk of what we did, on Sundays, we wanted him to see and touch everything.
The other big half of who we are is small groups. We wanted him to launch a small group and then develop leaders out of that small group. We wanted to see can he gather, can he develop, can he disciple. He did. He had some people who weren’t connected and he got them connected and they have remained connected at Grace Hills even after he’s transitioned out and one of those couples, they lead our Financial Peace group now. Some good things that happened there.
During the week, the one biggest thing that was mandatory was every Tuesday morning we have a staff meeting. You’ve got to be part of that. And whenever, right now we just have two elders, we’re about to have our third, but as we talked about those sort of high level decisions or directional changes, we wanted Michael to be in on as much of that as possible. We felt like it was important for him to understand how decisions get made. We value being flexible, wanted him to feel the tension of that. All that good stuff. So really just tried to immerse him into everything we possibly could.
Rich – Very cool. Now, so then he’s – give us a sense of his planting trajectory from here. He’s going, is it close by, is he going across the country, is he going to southern California? I don’t know why God hasn’t called us all to southern California…you know – what does that look like in his timeline?
Brandon – He is actually about thirty minutes from us. It worked out really well. We kind of said, “I’m not sure if we’re ready to plant right next door yet.” We help planters who are right next door, but they’re not necessarily going directly out from us. We would love to expand in the region.
One of the reasons for that is because we decided that northwest Arkansas being the home of Walmart and being very rapidly growing, serves as a significant hub. We’re three hours from Kansas City, we’re close to St. Louis, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Little Rock, there’s all these cities around. Everything in between is territory we’d love to plant churches in.
Michael and his wife checked out some different areas and surveyed around and just fell in love with Siloam Spring, Arkansas. It’s a place kind of like where are, where there’s quite a few good churches. But there’s a struggle among those churches to reach the nons, to reach the disconnected, so he really wanted to plant right there and so it worked out well in that sense.
They’re even looking into possibly renting a movie theater like ours and they’re getting a much better deal than we’ve ever gotten.
Rich – He used your negotiation skills.
Brandon – Yeah, yeah, he did.
Rich – That’s great – that’s very cool. What would you say to a church that’s listening in, they’re saying, hey, this maybe sounds like something we would want to try. What are the pitfalls to avoid or things that you wish maybe you would have done different? Not necessarily with Michael, but just in general. Things you need to be looking out for?
Brandon – I think a church, number one, has to realize that branching out to plant another church or significantly support a church plant is not going to hurt your bottom line. The more mission focused your church is, the more it’s going to grow. You may think well, we don’t have people to give up, or we don’t have resources to give up. But the fact is when you’re church gives big, you teach people to give big. First thing to know is this is not going to hurt you to value the Kingdom.
Secondly is to understand that it requires a lot of time and personal attention. You can’t just bring in a resident in or an intern and say, okay, here – staple stuff for us. It really needs to be a mentoring time, with a couple of hours a week given to here’s what happens in staff, and here are the skills you need. Let’s work on your timeline, let’s talk through discipleship, let’s spend a lot of really involved time. You’ve got to decide that that’s a priority in your schedule before you do something like this.
Lastly I think is to find ways to be unselfish in other ways. I told Michael from Day One you’ve got a year with us, you have a free fishing license. If you develop relationships with people who decide to go with you, we’re going to consider that a win. It was kind of a weird moment but I had a family come and they were sort of new and they’d connected to Michael and they lived too far away to be involved with him, but he came to me and he said, “Hey, can I just have your permission to give our tithe to Michael for a year?”
Rich – Oh – wow!
Brandon – And I’m going, “Absolutely, man, that’s fantastic.”
Rich – Wow –that’s great. No, I think that’s, just to underline that, I think, you know, I’ve found that in my own ministry, our ministry as a church, the more open handed we are, you know, that just attracts people, because that’s the kind of people folks want to be around. When you get really closed fisted on that stuff, people pick up on it and I think ultimately the Lord doesn’t bless that for whatever reason. I can understand that, you know, at the end of the day it’s about being open and being gracious on how we interact with folks.
What will the relationship be between your church and the new church? How is that all going to work?
Brandon – In this particular case, we want to plant an autonomous church, so five years from now, four and a half now, four and a half years from now, they will be totally out from under us and independent of us. Over the first five years we support them financially and we meet at least monthly to coach and work through things and we sort of provide some level of accountability if we spot red flags or warning signals.
Really that’s the same thing that’s been done for us by our sponsoring churches. So we’re just continuing that tradition. But over time they will be completely autonomous and we hope that they will have already started planting another one by the time that happens.
Rick – All right, so now this isn’t me trying to pick a fight at all, I just would, I’m interested to hear what you say. I love this approach. I’ve spent most of my time thinking about multi-site rather than church planting. Give us your kind of thinking between these two. Why not just continue to think about maybe pushing, doing a campus down the road, how does that all level up in your head?
Brandon – I’m a big fan of both. I think we’ll use both. I think when the time is right we’ll use both. I think it’s really, really risky to try to go multi-site when you have fewer than 700 or 800 and I’m only basing that on current trends. We’re just not there yet. At the same time, I think it’s a good, you know, you look at Village Church and several others who have been very successful going multi-site and planting autonomous churches at the same exact time. I see it as a campus is like growing an extra limb to the body.
Whereas planting is birthing a baby with your DNA. I think we will value both as time goes on. Probably will not do an autonomous church next door. I think it would just be confusing to, where do we invite people? So we’ll probably do campuses next door and daughter churches half hour away or more.
Rich – Little further away. Yeah, that’s fantastic. Well, Brandon, I really appreciate your taking some time out today to talk through this. Is there anything else you’d like to share with folks and then we’ll find out how we can get in touch with you if people want to learn more.
Brandon – You know, the thing that was on my mind, really just this morning in fact, was just reading a brand new report about where things are in America and saw the statistic that it’s up close to 36% now that consider themselves nons. They’re totally unaffiliated. And it just sort of broke my heart again that as we do all of this, as we plant churches, as we plant daughter churches and multiply, I think we have to do something about the nons and we’ve got to all this for the right reason. The ultimate reason is to go after people who are lost and apart from Christ and need redemption and so we’ve just got to keep sharing the Gospel in every possible way even when it means planting out of ourselves when we can.
Rich – Absolutely. I appreciate your being on the show. I know I’ve said it before, one of the statistics that drives me in what I do, trying to reach people who don’t, you know, regardless of their spiritual background, the nons, or folks that don’t normally attend church, I heard this stat that between 1990, it’s predicted between 1990 and 2050 of the absolute number of people who attend church in our country will be in half of where it was at that point
I’m like that’s my ministry years. Those are the, you know, when I’m dead and gone I don’t have the heart middle core of those years is, you know the time that God’s called us to lead and so what are we doing? And I’ve just been so encouraged today to hear the story about what you’re doing at Grace Hills and taking time out to really develop another planter in Michael, to see him reach. So thank you so much for tuning in – or for being on the show today. If people want to get in touch with you, or with Grace Hills, how can they do that?
Brandon – Easiest way is just go to my website www.BrandonACox.com and there are links there to the social profiles and the church and www.pastors.com and I’m fairly accessible so there’s email addresses somewhere and be glad to connect with anybody who wants to.
Rich – Great – thanks so much for your time today.
Brandon – You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.