Over the last 18 months, Ward, his wife Wendy and their two little girls have lived only on her Bank of America salary. They traded their dream home in Jacksonville for a starter home in Winston-Salem.
When Ward decided to become a church planter, he had no idea where he would plant. He and Wendy just knew they would have to leave their large network of family and friends in Jacksonville behind.
"We were happy where we were," Ward said. "We were effective in the church where we were serving. God was using us. But I felt like He was leading me toward church planting. I ignored it for six months. I was rebellious."
But he and Wendy continued to discuss it and were willing to go anywhere.
The Wards began fasting, praying and poring over a map of the United States. They started examining church planting in different state conventions and associations, studied some demographics and narrowed their choice down to the Tar Heel State.
"I liked that the North Carolina convention was pushing church planting," said Ward, who spent 10 years as a teacher, vice principal and principal in Christian education before going into the ministry in Jacksonville in 2008.
After more discussions with the state convention's staff and counsel from mentors like pastor Spike Hogan in Jacksonville, they chose Winston-Salem for their new church plant.
"God lined up the circumstances, and Winston-Salem seemed to fit."
Launched last January, New Church -- that's the name of the church -- now runs in the 150s every Sunday, meeting in a local YMCA. Ward's vision and the church's name came from 2 Corinthians 5:17: "Therefore if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come." New Church's slogan is "It's church ... just different."
"At New Church, we say we want to help people who are far from God experience new life in Jesus Christ," Ward said. "New Church is some people's first exposure to church. Our vision is to reach them and people who maybe have been away from God for years."
Since Jan. 9, 2011, 62 people at New Church have made decisions for Christ. Although they meet at the YMCA, the facility lacks a pool. So Ward baptizes new believers -- decked out in blue T-shirts inscribed with "I took the plunge at New Church" -- in a horse trough. On Easter Sunday in late April, New Church drew a high attendance of 244 -- its goal had been 300 -- and had 34 professions of faith, four over its goal.
"Winston-Salem is a very churched culture," Ward said. "A lot of people here grew up in church but have the wrong idea of what a true relationship with God is all about. We're seeing lives completely changed and people getting plugged back into building relationships and growing in their faith. It's been amazing."
In addition to crediting God, Ward attributes much of New Church's early success as a church plant to its three main sponsoring churches and their pastors who are his mentors and advisers. The three supporting churches are Chets Creek Church in Jacksonville, Fla., Avalon Church in McDonough, Ga., and The Summit Church in Kernersville, N.C.
Hogan, pastor of Chets Creek Church, not only gave Ward much counsel at the outset but "he's been wonderful at providing encouragement along the way," Ward said.
Hogan, highly regarded as a church planter's church planter, came to Chets Creek as pastor in 1999, patterning that new plant after Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California. Hogan was named a North American Mission Board trustee last year.
New Church in Winston-Salem is only the latest church plant financially supported by Chets Creek, which also has a hand in church plants in Las Vegas and Reno, Nev., Miramar and Tallahassee, Fla., and Martinsburg, W.Va. In all, Chets Creek has helped plant 13 new Southern Baptist churches since Hogan arrived 13 years ago.
Chets Creek Church has seen tremendous growth. Starting with only 30 people meeting in an elementary school, the attendance quickly climbed to 80 and in only three months zoomed to 100.
"We set a goal to grow by 10 percent a year, and we have more than averaged that. Our other goal was to baptize 10 percent of average attendance each year," Hogan said. "I'm convinced that God blesses and honors initiative when it's reasonable and realistic."
Hogan adds that any successful church plant must start with benchmarks on paper: What will worship attendance be and what will it be in five years? How many small groups are needed? What about giving and baptisms?
Chets Creek now runs 2,000 people in six services -- three adult services, and services for children, middle school and high school students. Today, the church operates out of a new church facility on a 10-acre campus in front of the elementary school where they launched.
"Our goal is to start one new church a year," Hogan said. "We support the church plant financially for three years and sometimes extend to a fourth year if they need more help. Moneywise, we give them $12,000 the first year, $9,000 the second and $6,000 in the third year. We also show them how to get funds from other sources."
To even be considered as a Chets Creek church plant, Hogan said the church planter must do his due diligence.
"He must have specific expectations. We need to know that the pastor is truly called to plant a church. We want confirmation that the planter's wife is on board. We want to see a realistic but challenging five-year calendar and plan. We want a commitment to the Cooperative Program. We want to see evidence the planter has studied and prepared to plant a church. And we want to know that there is a core of members for the new church.
"It's a mistaken idea that when you plant a new church, you have to end up with half your membership moving across town or across the country, that you give up tons of money and that the new church is going to drain you dry," Hogan said. "The answer is not to dump a lot of money in the church plant. It's not about the money. It's about leadership and surrounding yourself with good folks."
Hogan relies heavily on Chets Creek Church's mission pastor Chris Price to help with their church planting.
"Acts says church planting is the No. 1 church priority -- presenting the Gospel to the world," Price said. "It's the church being the church, representing Christ. Churches are the delivery agent to accomplish the Great Commission. If we as a church are not doing our best to replicate and multiply what God is doing and the vision He has given us, we're missing the mark as a church."
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.
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