Interview with Jim Penhollow

By Brad Dupray

After serving in Latin America in cross-cultural church planting with Christian Missionary Fellowship, Jim Penhollow was called as director of church multiplication for East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he has served the past 14 years. Jim and his wife of 41 years, Leslie, live in Vancouver, Washington, since East 91st actively plants churches in the Northwestern United States. Jim joined East 91st 10 years into the church’s quest to plant 20 churches in 20 years. East 91st is now 24 years into that pursuit and will soon launch its 50th church.

Is there a difference between church planting and what is commonly known as “world missions?”

There are some world missions that aren’t focused on church planting. There are medical missions, orphanages, and other kinds of ministries in cross-cultural settings, just like there are many ministries in our North American context. There are also cross-cultural church planting efforts both here and abroad.

Do the principles of North American church planting carry over to other cultures?

We were involved in church planting in urban Latin America. It was a different language, but a lot of the processes were the same. The main principles of church planting are valid, no matter the context. For example, identifying the target group—it may be young urban dwellers in Seattle or suburban dwellers in Portland. In any case you must devise a strategy and pull together the resources—money and people—to become the church in a certain location. The languages are different and the cultures are different and the methods are different, but I think the principles are still there.

You came to East 91st Street Christian Church halfway into its 20-year goal of planting 20 churches. Did it feel like the church would make it?

They had planted eight churches and were concerned they weren’t going to reach that goal by the 20th year. So we went into a process of strategic planning—“What would God have us do in the next few years to meet that goal?” As a consequence of that we actually achieved the goal of 20 new churches by the 17th year. God blessed those efforts so we began to look for new partners and opportunities to share the resources of other congregations. It kind of mushroomed from there.

Is a huge goal necessary for our churches to catch a greater vision for church planting?

I think we boomers need the challenge of figuring out how to reach a big goal. I’m not sure that speaks to the younger generation as well as it did for our generation. They may have a higher priority on the relational side of reaching people while we had a higher priority on the numerical side of reaching people. I think it was important then, but maybe it’s not as important today.

What do you think has driven the pace of church planting in the Restoration Movement in the past decade?

Many have seen the effectiveness of planting new churches. We have recruited church planters with an entrepreneurial bent that fits church planting. Such leaders have been attracted to ministry when they’ve understood this option. But this wasn’t always true.

Are you able to find those guys?

It’s still a task to find the right guy to fit with a particular church plant, but it’s becoming easier. Ten or 15 years ago we were beating the bushes for church planters, and now they’re finding us.

Are there enough church planters to plant hundreds, or even thousands of churches?

That’s been the bottleneck. It’s not financial resources, but rather the people resources. It’s not just church planters, it’s worship leaders and children’s and student ministries directors and other staff that a lot of these churches need from the get-go. It’s going to take a lot of cooperation between our church planting organizations and our colleges and seminaries so that more church planters are produced. There needs to be a farm system of some type for church planters.

Are Bible colleges stepping to the plate?

I think colleges are trying to do that by providing interns for church plants across the country. This way students get some experience along with educational reflection that will help them decide whether to become church planters. We need to help colleges know what we’re looking for and help them in some way to filter those students who want to be involved in church planting. We need to help them connect to church planting organizations across the country.

Which is the bigger challenge, raising the people resources or raising money?

Definitely the people resources. I think all church planting associations have geographical targets for church plants and they just need the people. I think the old dictum “funds follow vision” is true. The church planter can resource the plant because he is the one who can share the vision, focus on a particular area, and bring those resources to bear.

What do you see as the future of church planting?

I think we’re going to keep moving forward, and if anything, the pace is going to quicken. There are more and more churches to be planted. We’ll look harder for places where we really need churches. The reason I live and work in the Pacific Northwest is that Oregon and Washington are the two most unchurched states year after year. I think we’ll have to look at and concentrate on those places. A couple of big unchurched areas discussed in the past several years are Canada and Salt Lake City. We need to look for church planters God is equipping and calling to those places.

How do we maintain, or even increase, the momentum?

Part of our vision is to encourage more churches to be involved in church planting. We’ve had some success in that and are looking for more success in the future. Churches are taking a greater responsibility for planting churches—not replacing evangelistic associations, but working alongside them. Evangelistic associations have the expertise, but typically have been under-resourced. We have good examples of those partnerships taking place, and that’s just going to increase for the future.

Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.

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