“We needed to see our church like an aircraft carrier—a place from which to launch people to the frontlines.”
Joby Martin is pastor of The Church of Eleven22, both an Outreach 100 Fastest-Growing Church and an Outreach 100 Largest Participating Church since 2015. The Church of Eleven22 is also an Outreach 100 Reproducing Church with a deep commitment to planting new churches.
Outreach editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor caught up with Martin to discuss his path to pastoral leadership, what he’s learning about 21st century ministry and how his congregation is finding ways to creatively support reproducing churches.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I did not grow up in the church. Our family was nominally Christian (mostly because of my grandparents), but really we were only the occasional Christmas and Easter kind of people.
I got into a little trouble in high school and ended up at a Southern Baptist summer camp, where I met Jesus and was radically saved. I ended up going back to serve at that camp in college, and then was on staff. My football coach ran it, and he sort of “voluntold” me I was going to be the main preacher. So that’s the first place I ever led a Bible study or preached or anything.
“People want to be called to something big—to life change, to serious worship, to intense Bible study and real discipleship.”
When I was in college, I was planning to go to med school and I did get in. But I was also volunteering at a local church and just felt called to ministry. It became overwhelming. I felt as if God were calling me not to go to med school but instead to teach the Bible for the rest of my life. I talked to my pastor and said, “I think that’s what I’m supposed to do.” One thing led to another, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
How did those early experiences shape your perspective as a pastor?
There were really good-hearted Southern Baptist people in the low country of South Carolina where I grew up who were doing church in the traditions they had grown up with. But if, like me, you didn’t really grow up with it—man, it was like visiting an insiders-only club. I felt like I didn’t know any of the secret handshakes. Everything confused me, from the unspoken rules about communion, to assumptions about dress codes, to the alien-sounding organ music. Even the sermons lost me early on as a teenager.
What connected with me was a camp experience, led by a bunch of college students who just loved Jesus and did all kinds of things to try to connect the truth of God’s Word with kids like me, right where we were. I’d never experienced anything like the love and attention they showed us. A big part of what The Church of Eleven22 is now has grown from what I saw at camp when I was 15.
What are some of those values?
To begin, I saw the value of not going “lite” on teaching. People want to be called to something big—to life change, to serious worship, to intense Bible study and real discipleship. They can handle strong preaching. But what I also saw modeled at camp (and learned to love) was how all those things can be done bathed in love in a way that connects people.
Today, our church is not just trying to be pragmatic or do some bait-and-switch; we just preach the gospel. We worship like crazy. If you come to Eleven22, it’s like the last night of camp. Sometimes it feels like trying to put handles on a bullet train—just inviting people to grab on to what God is doing.
How did you come to plant The Church of Eleven22?
I’m an accidental church planter. I didn’t mean to do it at all. In my mind I was just minding my own business.
I was a youth pastor and loved it. I’ve never seen any ministry role as a stepping-stone to something else. I’ve just tried to be faithful to whatever opportunity God gave me. I was serving at this really loving Methodist church (even though I wasn’t Methodist) here at Jacksonville Beach, Florida. The church was a fairly typical large-church model. They brought me in as the youth pastor, and I did that and was happy doing so.
“Sometimes it feels like trying to put handles on a bullet train—just inviting people to grab on to what God is doing.”
My senior pastor—Jerry Smith—was the best pastor I’ve ever met in my life. He was the kind of man who wakes up, reads his Bible and lives like it the rest of the day. Literally the best Jesus follower I have ever met. But like every youth pastor, I would sit in the back of our main service and kind of be critical of the way we were doing church. All right guys, I thought, if I’m ever in charge, I wouldn’t do that. I would do this.
Eventually, the Lord was like, All right, here’s your chance. This was circa 2003. As I had worked with students, I noticed a pretty significant gap between them and their parents. In responding to that, we decided to start a new service, and the church let me put my fingerprints all over it. They kind of gave me the reins. As it turned out, it started at 11:22 on Sunday mornings, so that’s just what I called it: Eleven22.
It felt like camp. We would worship super intensely; I would preach way too long. I primarily just preached through books of the Bible. We would call people to repentance and to surrender. I never thought in a million years that it would work. But the cool thing is it didn’t have to. I already had a job. I loved discipling high school kids, so it was no problem.
“I’m an accidental church planter. I didn’t mean to do it at all. In my mind I was just minding my own business.”
Early on, I would gather our crew together and say, “Look, this probably won’t work because our worship guy was a little too intense, and I talked too long. We might cap out at 250, 300 people. But if we can make even 300 disciples for Jacksonville, wouldn’t that be awesome? What a great way to spend our lives.”
But it didn’t cap out. Over six months, it grew to about 1,500 people. We went from one service to five. Eventually our service outgrew where we met. Eventually, my senior pastor said, “You should probably plant a church.” I didn’t even know what that was. So we googled church planting, and an Exponential Conference came up. It was two hours away in Orlando, so we went and started kicking the tires on our next steps.
I didn’t feel great about it. But my senior pastor told me, “It’s time you did this. I have a real peace about it.” And I said, “Well, that’s funny because I feel like I’m going to throw up in my mouth when you say that.” We gathered the team together, and we were allowed to live in Beach United Methodist Church for a year and a half while we put plans together to launch Eleven22 as a separate entity. We raised money. We found an old, dilapidated Walmart and refurbished it. And on September 23, 2012, we formally launched The Church of Eleven22.
So as I see it, it was a total accident. I didn’t mean to plant it.
A happy accident, surely. In hindsight, what helped it work?
I’ve been asking the same question. Everybody is asking us this question. Because at this point, we’re 12,000 people and seven campuses, and our online audience size is crazy.
I think what happened between the heydays of “seeker” places like North Point and Saddleback and today, is that people increasingly want to be called to something real and practical, even if it is hard. They don’t need a lot of custom programming. They want to know what the real deal is.
When I was in high school, they would bring military recruiters. Representatives from the Army, the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines were all there. The Army guy went first: “You guys should all sign up for the Army. You can learn a great trade and earn good money when you get out.” Then the Air Force guy: “No, you should sign up for the Air Force, because you get to work nine to five. It’s the most normal job.” Then the Navy guy gets up. “Nope. Sign up for the Navy so you can travel the world on the government’s dime.” Then finally the Marine recruiter got up. “Well, those three guys took all my time. I only have three minutes to talk. But that’s fine.” He looked around the whole auditorium, then said, “That’s fine because most of you couldn’t be a Marine. But there might be two of you who could. If you think you’re one of those two, come see me.” Man, afterward the line to talk to him went out the door.
“We needed to see our church like an aircraft carrier—a place from which to launch people to the frontlines.”
In a sense that’s what Jesus did. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said, “Hey, I’m not saying this is easy. I’m saying deny yourself, take up your cross. Sell everything that you have.” We tried to take a cue from that and water nothing down. Ultimately, we try to glorify Jesus in our worship. And I try to preach the Bible in a way that people can understand it. And then we just trust that God’s going to breathe on it. Everything we do is rooted in the gospel.
In my sermons, I’m less concerned about what my preacher friends think, or my old seminary professors. I really don’t care. I’m way more concerned with the average guy from Jacksonville.
Talk to me about how you are embodying church reproduction from those values.
In terms of results, I’m not sure of the precise number, but we’ve planted about 350 churches around the world in the last eight years. When we first started out, of course, I didn’t know it was going to be this big, but we already had about 1,500 people showing up to what in the church planting world would be categorized as your “core team.” I knew that wasn’t going to be like a normal church plant. We had some real Spirit-infused momentum going on.
We’re a nondenominational church, and I wanted to be a part of something for assessment and accountability. I didn’t want to be out there on our own. So we joined Acts29 in 2012. Around the same time I got connected with Dave Ferguson and the Exponential people. Through those relationships and conversations, I came to believe that the way for us to accomplish the Great Commission was not going to be by building the biggest church in Jacksonville. We needed to see our church like an aircraft carrier—a place from which to launch people to the front lines.
“What if we will not be judged based on how big we grow, but on how well we plant?”
We began to invest talent and resources into leadership toward multiplication. Fast-forward—we now have a pastor of multiplication. And so with that, we started a school of ministry, we have a residency and we have at least 10% of our budget going to plant churches.
Ultimately, as lead pastor, I knew I had to cast vision for all of it, but I was not going to be the one primarily guiding the reproducing. I was just the one to set up the environment in our church through which we would do it.
I think about it as a stewardship issue. Maybe we are a “five-talent” church. If so, what if we will not be judged based on how big we grow, but on how well we plant? That is an issue of stewardship. And so far, I am encouraged by the results. In fact, maybe a year before COVID-19, we celebrated a pretty cool milestone—the attendance of the churches we had planted exceeded our weekend attendance here at Eleven22. And so we celebrated that. People understand that what you celebrate is really what you value. So we choose to celebrate those kinds of things.
In Part 2 of our interview with Joby Martin where he discusses how Church of Eleven22 serves as a launchpad for other churches, the church-planting insights they gleaned from America’s war on terror and how the COVID-19 pandemic has informed and will inform their ministry going forward.