When Jeff Farmer rode his Indian Chieftain motorcycle off the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary campus in May, it marked day one of a five-month sabbatical year journey that covered thousands of miles and 45 states.
His goal was to step into growing small-membership churches around the nation and see what fuels their growth.
In other words, Farmer was 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 were the focal points of Farmer’s interviews with pastors across the country.
From that, Farmer hoped to formulate principles and tools 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 visited about 100 small membership churches, he looked forward to another ministry aspect of his trip.
Farmer expected gospel conversations to come up daily. His bike, with its classic look and illuminated headdress light on the front bumper, provided 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 took him to churches that recorded 100 or less in worship attendance in 2016 and experienced at least a 10% growth from then until the
COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
He also narrowed his selection to include churches with a few specific baptism statistics such as a minimum of 25% growth coming from baptisms.
Farmer’s journey took 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 on the final leg of his trip back home to New Orleans.
Other five states
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. Farmer’s route was mapped out from New Orleans to Anaheim, California, where he stopped for the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting.
Prior to this journey, Farmer’s longest motorcycle ride covered more than 1,000 miles in 16 hours in an event benefiting wounded members of the military.
Paige Farmer, his college-aged daughter who worked for the Caskey Center this summer, handled the logistics of booking churches and interviews, helping navigate some routes and other details.
‘Learned so much’
“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 camped out, spent some nights with friends or at churches and posted about his experiences through a blog and a podcast hosted at caskeycenter.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or by emailing email@example.com.
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 made his sabbatical possible, he noted.
With a trip so far and so varied, surprises were sure to come up. Nevertheless, Farmer said the trip would go “one day at a time,” leaving it up to God.