John K. Jenkins Sr.: Wisdom From a Life of Ministry

Interview by Jessica Hanewinckel

Before John K. Jenkins Sr. was president of Converge (formerly known as Baptist General Conference), before he was senior pastor of an influential megachurch, he was a 15-year-old finding the right words for some of his first sermons. Then, he was a young mid-20s bivocational pastor driving 55 miles each way a few times a week to serve a country church. Today, Jenkins is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Glenarden, located in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Since he became pastor in 1990, the church has grown from about 500 people to more than 11,000 and expanded its reach internationally. 

Jenkins’ latest book, Grace to Grow: Creating a Healthy Church in Unhealthy Times (Zondervan), shares insights from his years in ministry. It is a guide for pastors of churches of all sizes, educating and encouraging them to move their ministries from surviving to thriving.

Here, he talks with Outreach about his journey as a pastor and shares some of the valuable lessons he’s learned along the way.

Today, you pastor a thriving megachurch. But small church pastors shouldn’t dismiss your advice. Talk about how you got your start in ministry.

I started preaching when I was 15. In our culture that’s not unusual. Then I got called to a small church in King George, Virginia, for three years in my mid-20s. It’s a rural church halfway between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia. The church in King George was a small church, maybe 30 or 40 people on a weekend. I experienced belligerent members, difficult members, resistant members. But we had some levels of success. We took in more people in one year than they had done in the previous five or 10 years combined. I worked at the church part-time and worked a full-time job. 

What were some of the joys of pastoring a small church that you still carry with you today?

Some of the people were really loving, gracious, supportive people. In the midst of resistance and those who fought me tooth and nail were those who loved and accepted and supported me and my family. I had to learn not to be distracted by the resisters. It’s so easy to allow resisters to taint your ministry. It’s so easy to allow them to frustrate you. I learned to just be grateful to the people who were supportive.

Tell me about First Baptist Church of Glenarden. It’s come a long way from how it started.

If you came to the church the Sunday before I became the pastor and didn’t come back until this last Sunday, other than the people who were there then who are still there now, you wouldn’t know it was the same church. It’s totally different. And probably the most significant difference is the transition from a traditional African American Baptist congregation to what we are today. We are a disciple-making church now. That’s a big deal, and something we weren’t doing back then.

One of the things I did early in my first year was teach people that the church’s role is to do the work outside of the church and not be focused on what’s going on inside the church. Each ministry [within the church] had to find a need external to the church to serve or else we would dissolve it and create something new. But every one of them did. Every one of those ministries found a need in the community to serve, and it was life-changing for our church. 

Obviously, that grew your membership and attendance, but how did it change the people who were already members?

Well, they became less focused on themselves and more concerned about the needs of people in the community. They served homeless shelters, they went to prisons and detention centers and homes for pregnant teens. They adopted residents of senior citizen facilities whose family members didn’t visit them. 

It created a depth of spirituality that wasn’t there before.

Definitely. A church needs to ask themselves the question, If our church moves out of this community, would the community miss us? Would it recognize that we’re no longer here? If we moved out of our community, it would leave a huge void because we are deeply involved in it. We’re supportive of all kinds of activities. We are involved in every school within a five- to 10-mile radius of our church. We have given financial support, and we’re doing tutoring. We are known and highly respected in the community. What better way to share the gospel than through that open door?

How can more church leaders make evangelism a priority?

It starts with the pastor. I have become passionate about training pastors how to develop a culture of evangelism in their church. We take them through an 18-month program, and we’re now bringing that same program to the Converge denomination and several others.

I train all of the people in our church how to share the gospel, how to win people to Christ. We have 400 employees, and when you become an employee of First Baptist, within six months you have to know how to share the gospel with somebody and lead them to Christ. I want to be able to grab a receptionist, a sexton, anybody who is working in the building, and I want to say, “Hey, take this person and lead them to Jesus.” That’s one of the ways we have built a culture of evangelism in our church. We encourage pastors to get in an environment where you can do that. So in any meeting, the very first question I have for my leaders is, “Who are you praying for to get saved? What have you done to lead them to Jesus? Who have you won to Christ in the last 30 days?”

How does a church make discipleship a consistent, effective part of what they do?

We have discipleship in every arena. We have men’s discipleship, women’s discipleship, children’s, youth, young adult, singles, couples, engaged to be married, we have financial discipleship. The length and breadth of our church is about discipling people as well. That’s a big deal. Our vision is, “Developing dynamic disciples through discipleship, discipline and duplication.” Discipleship: learning the Scriptures. Discipline: working those tools into your life. Duplication: replicating it into the life of someone else you have a relationship with.

We have three buildings, and two of them (our worship center and ministry center) have 44 classrooms each. Between our discipleship, our classes and our Bible institute, we’re big into developing people. And you don’t have to be a big church like ours to do that. Small churches can start where they are and build on it.

How much weight should church leaders give to the “experience” of church? 

I think we have a variety of types of people in our church. We’ve got a healthy number of seniors, but we also have a healthy number of young adults and children. A great balance. To that end, we offer a variety of worship experiences, so we don’t think everybody has to experience God the same way. One Sunday we might have the youth rapping during service. Another Sunday we might have young adults leading, and they’ve got the laser lights and smoke and loud music. But what anchors it all is a clear, practical, biblically based expository message that relates to everybody. Everything in our church is anchored around the teaching of the Word of God.

What should church leaders do to ensure both they and their team walk in high character and don’t give in to the temptation to moral failure?

What I practice and encourage is for people to be accountable. Everybody should be accountable to somebody. Accountability means there’s someone who can tell me that I’m out of order or I need to take a break or get into a program for help. It’s about being submitted to an authority greater than yourself. You’re not the final determining decision-maker for your life. The problem in American Christendom is that’s so absent. Nobody wants to be accountable or submitted to anybody. But I think that’s the key.

Who do you go to as your senior pastor?

T.D. Jakes is my pastor. Every pastor needs another pastor. I have a personal relationship with my pastor. It’s not just a name. I can pick up the phone right now and call him, and if he doesn’t answer, he’ll call me back. It’s a personal relationship, and he holds me accountable.

For Christians who have become disillusioned with the church because of moral failings on the part of ministry leaders, how can we restore that witness and heal those hurts to bring people back into the fold?

What I try to tell people is never put your total trust and confidence in people. If you stop going to church because of what people do, if you stop participating in the body of Christ because of what a few individuals do, we would all have justifiable reasons not to be engaged in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is made up of failed people who make mistakes. We should put our trust in the principles of Scripture, in the teachings of God and of the Bible. Stick with that.

What encouragement would you like to give pastors? 

Don’t lose hope, and don’t give up. I know many pastors might sometimes feel like quitting, but hang in there. Just hold tight, and stay the course. Galatians 6:9 says, “We shall reap, if we faint not.”

John K. Jenkins Sr. is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Glenarden and president of Converge. He also is chairman of the board of the National Association of Evangelicals.