Reformed Quarterly Volume 8, Issue 1
“I’ll come just for the summer,” 28-year-old Frank Barker told a small group of Presbyterians who wanted to start a church in suburban Birmingham, Alabama. That was nearly thirty years ago in 1960, and Barker is still there. The church has changed a little, though. From a mere seventy in attendance at its first service in a shopping center, the church’s membership has grown to 3,000 and is still rapidly climbing. They’ve outgrown three facilities and have recently moved into their fourth–a $32- million-dollar complex with a worship center that seats 3,000. They will need the room, since the projected growth by 1992 is 4,800.
The remarkable growth has not happened overnight, but is the result of a steady commitment to ministry for over a quarter of a century.
“Over the years,” says Frank Barker, “our most important goal has been to fulfill what we believe is God’s will for us through an ever-increasing ministry that reaches Birmingham and, subsequently, the world. Our spiritual goal then, as it is now, was to achieve God’s will for us by bringing many more of the unchurched into our Briarwood community and from that base, sending men and women into all the world.”
They have done their job well indeed. The church met in a storefront in the suburb of Cahaba Heights until they outgrew it in 1963 and moved into new facilities in the nearby suburb of Mountainbrook. Fourteen years later, in 1973, they were again cramped for space, so they built a combined high school and church facility known as Briarwood South not far away. Church services were held at the two locations until last year.
By 1985, however, membership had ballooned to 2,600 and, even with two locations, Briarwood was bursting at the seams. People worshipping at the main facility had to park at Briarwood South several miles away and be shuttled in for services.
Studies show that Briarwood’s new facility is in the perfect location for ministry. A recent survey revealed that within a five-mile radius of the church there are 130,000 people with no strong church affiliation.
What has made Briarwood so successful? Obviously the Holy Spirit’s presence is one answer, as is Frank’s solid, biblical, expository preaching and teaching week after week. But there are other reasons which, blended together, have made Briarwood one of the most significant evangelical churches in the United States.
A PRAYING CHURCH
One of the hallmarks of Briarwood from the very beginning has been its emphasis on prayer. This congregation takes the Lord at His word and trusts Him to meet their needs. A prayer warrior himself, Frank relates the following story: “Shortly after we moved to our Mountainbrook location, we had real parking problems–there was no parking lot. At our men’s prayer group, a man who had recently been converted said, ‘Lord, we’ve been praying earnestly about this problem for six months, and you haven’t done anything. Lord, I pray that within two weeks, work will have begun on a parking lot.’
“Well, there was no way,” remembers Frank. “We had no money and no plans. All we’d done was appoint a committee. But we joined in his prayer. A week later nothing had changed, and we prayed again. Two days later a lady in the church said to me, ‘You know, somebody ought to do something about that parking problem. I’d like to give $5,000 to help out.’ The committee then reported a low bid of $5,000, and by Thursday of the second week, with two days to spare, the dozers were out there moving trees and dirt.”
Today, the church is honeycombed with prayer groups, members reaching out to God and each other in love and concern. Such emphasis on prayer builds a strong bond among the believers and strengthens their faith in God.
A MISSION-MINDED CHURCH
“The battle for missions will be won or lost in the local church,” predicts Frank. Consequently, missions is a high priority at Briarwood. The congregation supports over 150 home missionary units –either a single person or family — and over 250 foreign missionary units. The highlight of the year is the world missions conference, attended by over seventy world missionaries who stay in members’ homes.
Briarwood members are challenged to sacrificial giving as a way of life. With the exception of building debt retirement, world and home missions claims close to ”fifty percent” of the budget; for every dollar the church spends on itself, a dollar goes to the mission budget. The goal is for each member to see clearly the vision of the church and be dedicated to it. During a recent campaign to raise funds for the new facility, those who did not have cash contributed gifts-in-kind — like the disabled young woman who gave her treasured charm bracelet or the family who gave their entire antique inventory and went out of business.
To say that the church takes every opportunity to spread the gospel is not an understatement. Construction work on the new facility was even shut down early one day so that over 200 men could hear Assistant Pastor of Evangelism Ron Steel tell of Briarwood’s vision to reach Birmingham and the world for Christ. He thanked the men for their help in reaching that goal. Over sixty men prayed to receive Christ that day.
In order to reach as many people as possible, special ministries have been developed for virtually every segment of the community. Today the church offers a well-rounded program of services and activities encompassing everything from high quality primary and secondary education to ski and beach trips; from formal seminary training to exciting programs in visual arts, dance, theatre, and music; from exercise classes to support groups for the handicapped, divorced, and drug or alcohol-addicted.
All of this is over and above the normal church activities, which in themselves provide exciting opportunities for spiritual growth to every age level. Take a look at only a few of the extra ministries Briarwood offers:
- A Christian school from kindergarten through high school serves more than 1,400 students.
- The Campus Outreach Ministry, an interdenominational program located at nine small colleges in Alabama and two in Georgia, trains young men and women to impact the world for Christ. As these students graduate, Briarwood’s impact is being felt around the world.
- Young Business Leaders of Birmingham seeks to introduce the young executive to successful, dynamic Christian businessmen.
- The Christian Medical Ministry, among other things, tries to help the medical professional balance the demands of practice with those of family and marriage.
- Operation New Pace, headed by a full-time black staff field director, seeks to develop strong evangelical black leadership. Pioneer projects include providing seminary education for black pastors, planting evangelical black churches, and establishing a Christian day school in the black community.
- A Theatre and Arts Program includes a music ministry with over 500 participants weekly and a ballet program with over 200 students.
- Servant Teams and Special Projects Teams provide opportunities to serve others. Servant teams may act as hosts and hostesses for visitors on Sunday mornings while Special Projects teams do home or auto repair.
- Friendship Partners allows over 65 Briarwood families to help students from over 27 countries who are unfamiliar with our culture to make friends and spend profitable time here.
- Closely associated with Briarwood is Birmingham Theological Seminary, begun by Frank and another minister in 1970 to afford laymen the opportunity to study seminary courses, either for enrichment or degrees.
“The church,” explains Assistant Pastor of Evangelism Ron Steel, “has developed and refined a whole approach to marketplace ministry, targeting a specific population such as singles, college students, or the medical and professional community. It’s as if we have our own Young Life, Campus Crusade, and Navigator organizations within our own church.”
A CREATIVE CHURCH
A great part of the genius which makes Briarwood so successful is the flexibility which Barker and his staff allow — even encourage — in the programs offered. As you have seen, people can get involved in the church in an astounding number of ways. Both routine activities and special ministries cover every age group and span a great variety of particular interests.
“When it comes to reaching the lost,” says Steel, “Frank is like a fisherman running a trot line — the objective of which is to put a lot of hooks in the water. To him, any kind of ministry can become a hook on that line.”
Such an attitude allows for an abundance of creativity, and Frank doesn’t care whether others get the credit for it. He also refuses to play it safe by sticking only with projects done in the past. On the contrary, he encourages everybody to go full-steam ahead with ideas to advance the kingdom.
“Over the years,” Steel continues, “Briarwood has attracted or developed entrepreneurial talent in men with various ministry specialties. Frank himself is very much an entrepreneur, an idea man. He’s particularly gifted not so much in coming up with brand new ideas, but in seeing what other people are doing and doing it better. He has a unique ability to discern what will and will not work. Then he gives assignments with broad directions and allows those under him to develop them as they like.”
A DISCIPLING CHURCH
From the beginning, Frank has been uniquely concerned about and personally involved with his congregation. As Briarwood took shape in the early years, Frank wanted to nurture new Christians in the church. Characteristically, he did not appoint a committee to get the job done, but he himself began one-on-one meetings with them, studying the Bible and memorizing Scripture. Many times this meant feeding scores of people —like the young fraternity guys Frank thought “would come if we feed them.”
Finally, however, the number of converts outgrew the number of hours in the day, so the meetings became group studies. Thus began the Home Bible Class program at Briarwood, today the backbone of the church. On any given night of the week, dozens of Bible studies meet for every age group or walk of life.
Through the years Briarwood has always emphasized equipping its members in personal evangelism and discipleship so that they can share their faith and disciple new believers. Training in evangelism techniques plus the development of many small group evangelistic home Bible studies have been key tools to accomplish this goal.
According to Frank, “When members lead groups, they develop their gifts to a greater extent. They’re out on the firing lines, digging in to learn. It multiplies your outreach in many ways if you’ve got 50-60 evangelistic Bible studies going on in various homes and offices. It also helps to develop body life and small group interaction.”
It also has resulted in God’s calling some to Christian ministry. Over the years, out of the Briarwood congregation, between four and five hundred members–some of them RTS graduates– have entered full or part-time Christian service.
Most importantly, it causes Christians to grow spiritually. Perhaps a Briarwood member said it best. “When I think of Briarwood, I think of ‘stretching.’ I came here because I wanted a place where I could serve and learn and grow in honoring God; Briarwood has provided them all.”
Frank Barker: A Preacher Who Points People to Christ
Frank Barker has one thing on his mind –telling the lost how they may know Jesus and telling the saved how they may know him better. And he spends just about every hour of every day dreaming up ways he can do it.
“Frank has an unconditional love for everyone,” says Director of Discipleship Chuck Morgan. “Even when it would be very easy to write off hard-to-reach people, Frank goes after that one in ninety-nine to coax them into the church.”
Part of what drives Frank, his co-workers agree, is this compassion for the lost. “The Lord Jesus,” reflects Assistant Pastor of Evangelism Ron Steel, “had compassion on the multitudes because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Somehow that same spirit exists in Frank. The closest thing to heaven on earth for Frank Barker is to sit in someone’s living room and share the gospel with them.”
And people pay attention to Frank. Why? First, because he is a kind and extremely humble man; people sense that he cares about them. Second, because his testimony is compelling. In his quiet, unassuming way, Frank leads by example, giving his flock a concrete, earthly model of someone walking in the Lord’s will and doing His work. It is this modeling of the Christian life which makes his preaching and teaching so powerful.
Says church administrator Tom Leopard, “Frank’s genius is not that he is an orator, but that his walk matches his talk. That carries a lot of weight in the pulpit.”
Although much of what happens at Briarwood grows out of Frank Barker’s example, the focus is on Christ, not Frank. Barker is not the standard leader of a large movement; by nature he is not flashy, and he never calls attention to himself. But the testimony of his life points people to Christ.
A typical day for Frank Barker begins very early and ends very late. Up at four or five with prayer groups or Bible studies, he is still meeting with various groups late into the night, frequently not getting home before eleven. This ability to endure night after night without sleep is legendary at Briarwood.
“He can work longer and harder without dropping in the traces than any man I’ve ever seen,” marvels Steel. “He doesn’t burn out or get emotionally weary. He gets physically weary and can actually fall asleep during a conversation. But it’s really spooky when he wakes up and makes a perfectly relevant response to your comments!”
Actually, the glue that holds all the different facets of Frank Barker together is the fact that he is a man of prayer. He stays in constant communication with His Lord and seizes every opportunity to share the privilege with others. A visitor to the Barker home recalls going to the refrigerator for a glass of water and finding Frank kneeling on the kitchen floor, praying with someone on the phone. Totally oblivious to the rattle of ice and gurgling of water, Frank prayed on with the person.
It’s this kind of life that gets people’s attention, that challenges them to live in the same way. They want to know more about this Jesus whom Frank Barker serves. And Frank is only too happy to tell them.
WHAT HAPPENS TO A VISITOR AT BRIARWOOD?
It doesn’t take a person long to find out that visitors are serious business at Briarwood. Elaborate, well-thought-out measures have been taken to see that visitors feel welcome and that they come back again.
“We have realized,” says Assistant Pastor of Evangelism Ron Steel, “that between seven and twenty-one personal contacts are required to commit people to church membership. We are trying to invite more people to our church and involve them more after they arrive.”
Sensitivity to newcomers begins even in the parking lot. The first or second-time visitor to Briarwood is treated to a special parking area where he is met by a designated team of Briarwood members and directed to his destination. As he enters the church, he is greeted again. After the service, he is invited to coffee with some of the ministers and their wives in the church lobby.
That afternoon, he receives a brief, friendly call simply to thank him for coming and to give him some information about Briarwood. This brief visit, called the Rapid Visitation Program, was begun last summer and has been highly successful.
A couple of weeks later, the visitor receives an Evangelism Explosion visit and is invited to supper at Frank’s home with a group. He is also invited to a Bible study if he is not already involved in one. In both the Rapid Visit and the E.E. visit, members try to find out all they can about the person, including interests, age, and family.
The visitor is then plugged into a sophisticated computer program called the Tracking and Accountability for Growth System which keeps up with this person’s activities at Briarwood. For example, referrals are immediately sent to departments relating to his interests, his age, his profession, to invite him or members of his family to any upcoming function.
If he desires to join, he attends an eight-week membership course covering the gospel message, church doctrine, and church history. He becomes a part of Briarwood’s Area Presbyter Ministry, a shepherding program which divides the congregation geographically into eight-family units each led by an area presbyter. It is through this ministry that the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of each member are met. Also the new member fills out a spiritual gifts questionnaire and is pointed to a ministry suited to his gifts. He is checked at six months and again at a year to make sure he is involved in at least two activities.
If, after joining, a member is absent for four consecutive weeks, he receives a personal, signed letter from Frank. If at six weeks he has not been back to church, he receives a card from his area presbyter expressing concern and promising a call in two weeks if the church doesn’t hear from him. If the member does not respond, either an elder or Chuck Morgan, Director of Discipleship, calls him. In short, a new member at Briarwood is followed for an entire year after joining.
With such thoroughness and attention to detail, is it any wonder that Briarwood has 3,000 members?