When Jeff Farmer rode his Indian Chieftain motorcycle off the NOBTS campus May 27, it marked Day One of a five-month, sabbatic year journey that covers thousands of miles and 45 states. His goal? To step into growing, small-membership churches around the nation and see what fuels their growth.
In other words, Farmer is riding into a really big laboratory.
“The purpose of the Caskey Center is to encourage and equip,” said Farmer, associate director of the NOBTS Caskey Center for Church Excellence. “That’s very much a part of who we are, and part of why I’m going.”
Ministry context, ministry focus, and evangelism strategy will be the focal points of Farmer’s interviews with pastors across the country. From that, Farmer hopes to formulate principles and tools that other churches can use.
“We have so many churches that are small in size,” Farmer explained. “A lot of them feel alone, as if there’s no way to grow a church in their context. But I’m finding churches in every context that God is able to grow.”
While Farmer will visit about 100 small membership churches, he looks forward to another ministry aspect of his trip. Farmer expects gospel conversations to come up daily. His bike, with its “classic look” and illuminated headdress light on the front bumper, will provide the starting point.
“Whenever I ride my Indian Chieftain, people come over and talk to me,” Farmer said. “God has used the motorcycle as a great icebreaker for me to get into gospel conversations.”
Farmer’s route will take him to churches that recorded 100 or less in worship attendance in 2016 and then experienced at least a ten percent growth over the next five years (to 2020). Other criteria include at least one baptism in the first and last years, a baptismal ratio of 35 to one, or less, and at least 25 percent growth from baptisms.
Farmer’s journey will take him from the West Coast, across the mountainous west and into the Midwest, through the Great Lakes region and then into the Northeast as far as Maine before turning South and onto the final leg of his trip back home to New Orleans.
The five states not on his itinerary include Hawaii, Alaska, and three states that did not have churches whose recorded data fit Farmer’s criteria.
While Farmer’s route is mapped out from New Orleans to Anaheim, where he will break for the SBC annual meeting, there are still openings for interviews with churches as he travels from one coast to the next.
Prior to this journey, Farmer’s longest motorcycle ride covered more than 1,000 miles in 16 hours in an event benefitting wounded members of the military.
Paige Farmer, his college-aged daughter working for the Caskey Center this summer, will handle the logistics of booking churches and interviews, helping navigate some routes, and other details.
“I enjoy helping him. It gives me an extra excuse to call and talk to him while he's away which I could never pass up,” Paige Farmer said. “I have learned so much about the locations he is visiting while researching for him and I love getting to see photos of everywhere he is stopping.”
Along the way, Farmer will camp out, spend some nights with friends or at churches, and will post about his experiences through a blog and a podcast hosted at caskeycenter.com. He can be contacted at email@example.com or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Farmer considers the trip a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” and is grateful to the seminary and to Southern Baptists whose support of the seminary makes his sabbatic possible, he noted.
With a trip so far and so varied, surprises are sure to come up.
“I’m going one day at a time,” Farmer said.The rest will be up to God.