Harris driven by desire to connect with nonbelievers

Brian Harris describes new role as being a "holy annoyance" on behalf of church planting

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Brian Harris, right, and Henri Ngolo, Integrated Immigrant Ministries coordinator, preach at Christian Center the Hand of God in Hamilton, Ohio. Photo: Don Morris

Brian Harris remembers asking about faith in third grade, but no one had answers for life’s biggest questions.

“I wish I had met somebody who could have explained the gospel to me,” says Harris, who grew up in a nominal Christian household in Ohio. “For at least six years, I was asking anybody who would listen to me, ‘How do you get to heaven?’ And no one knew.”

Harris eventually came to faith as a high school freshman after his parents trusted Jesus for salvation and his family began attending a Bible-teaching church.

“I remember going back to school thinking, ‘I’m the only person who knows Jesus in this school,’” he says as evidence of the separate social circles people gravitate toward. “That’s how clueless I was about faith.”

Providing an opportunity for connection with nonbelievers has driven Harris as his calling has shifted from witness to pastor to serving as USMB’s new church planting mobilizer.

Change in trajectory

Four months after Harris became a Christian, two tragedies changed his faith trajectory. A classmate was hit by a train and killed and a wrestling teammate took his own life.

“Looking at an empty chair (remembering) the last words that he ever said to me—‘I wonder who will be the next to go’—that was game-changing,” Harris says. “I (decided to) be a witness for Jesus.”

Harris’s fervor led him to preach during his high school shop class.

“One of my friends said, ‘I know you see people making fun of you,’” Harris says. “He wasn’t even a Christian kid, but he said, ‘At least you have something you believe in.’”

Set on being a pastor, Harris transferred to a Christian school his junior year and later graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Bible/theology from Moody Bible Institute. He earned a master’s degree in ministry and Doctor of Ministry degree in pastoral studies, both from Grace Theological Seminary.

In 1988, Harris accepted his first full-time job as youth pastor at Westport MB Church—now Discovery Church—in Owasso, Oklahoma. Harris and his wife, Stephanie, currently attend Discovery, bookending a 34-year career in pastoral ministry during which Harris filled several pastoral roles and planted a church in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. He most recently served as lead pastor of Pine Acres Church in Weatherford, Okla., for 18 years.

A holy annoyance

Harris began as church planting mobilizer Aug. 1, 2022, to establish a national MB church multiplication vision and chair the Church Planting Council (CPC).

“(I and the Church Planting Council) determined that first we needed someone who already knew how MB church planting works and secondly someone who has the necessary relational skills to help create networks among churches,” says USMB national director Don Morris. “We were looking for someone steady, yet passionate about the work—someone with great ideas and the willingness to stick with it to see it to fruition. Brian has those qualities.”

Recognizing pastors as the gatekeepers of churches, Harris is developing networks of pastors meeting on Zoom to catch a “sending church” vision and receive encouragement to stay the course.

“My job is to be a holy annoyance because we all want to do (church planting),” Harris says, recalling his experience as chair of the Southern District Conference Church Extension and Evangelism Commission (CEEC).

“We didn’t get a whole lot accomplished because we would have a CEEC meeting, and I’d go right back to Weatherford and get caught up in the day-to-day busyness of church life,” he says. “(Pastors are) smart. They just need somebody to keep pushing the ball forward.”

Harris sees generosity among Mennonite Brethren willing to give to the work but recognizes a need for leadership development.

“It’s almost like having a college football team that didn’t recruit anybody for 10 years and then hoping that they’re going to have a national champion next year,” Harris says. “My job has shifted a little bit.”

That shift represents a need to develop leaders for the work and training pastors to identify potential planters.

“We have possibilities, but we’re not going anywhere fast until our churches start producing leaders who want to be pastors and planters,” he says.

Harris’s work combines the relational networks with traveling and planning. He will work with a coach through Axelerate, a ministry fostering coaching partnerships with church planting directors.

Careful not to over promise and under deliver, Harris says his goal is to develop 10 strong networks linking pastors and churches and releasing them to dream Ephesians 3:20 prayers.

“One of my biggest desires is to be the super, super encourager to beat-up, broken-down pastors,” Harris says. “If they can get their wind back in their sails and see the vision of what could happen, we can do something grand.”

Harris’s story has impacted his view of church planting as an intentional effort to resist the human tendency to gather in “echo chambers” with like-minded people. Getting non-Christians to church will require believers breaking from their church bubbles.

“Church planting is a pushback on that to say, ‘No, we’re going to launch a church with intentional building relationships with lost people,’” he says

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