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I spent my three-month summer sabbatical on a cross-country tour with my family, visiting twenty-five of "the most effective" churches in the United States.
Before I left, I expected to find a lot of similarities. The differences, however, surprised me most. I came back without a clear, monolithic model of effective ministry. Instead, I found myself confronted with options and choices.
I began planning this trip a year before it took place. My ministry experience had been limited to one nineteen-year pastorate in a university town, where our independent church had grown largely in isolation from any one model or tradition. I felt the need to see firsthand how other churches worked.
So I contacted a number of respected Christian leaders and asked each to give me the names of five congregations with unusually effective ministries.
As my list grew, I noticed some congregations mentioned repeatedly. I contacted their pastors for the names of yet other model congregations.
I narrowed the list to twenty-five congregations, most of which were in the Midwest and West. My limitation of three months for travel dictated that I cut out the Northeast and Southeast. Since I lived in the Southeast, I reasoned I could more easily visit these areas later. I targeted several congregations in specific metropolitan areas (Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas) in order to use my time more efficiently. But I also visited some out-of-the way churches.
Then I contacted each of the twenty-five churches and asked to meet with the staff and lay leaders, observe services, and do whatever they thought would be most valuable for me. I was grateful for the degree of cooperation I received from large and small churches alike.
During the trip, I took notes, collected materials, and wrote summaries of each visit. After returning to North Carolina, I shared my observations with our church leaders and let it all soak for several weeks. Then I started formulating some conclusions.
I quickly observed that it takes different kinds of churches to reach different kinds of people.
The congregations I saw varied from large megachurches like Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois (fourteen thousand weekend attenders) to relatively small (two hundred attenders) Trinity Church in Seattle. Some were predominantly black, like Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas; some were charismatic, like the Vineyard Fellowship in Anaheim, California; some were denominational, like Covenant Presbyterian Church in West Lafayette, Indiana; while others were independent, like Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Most were quite different from our congregation in Chapel Hill, as I had hoped. I was less interested in critiquing than in learning.
It's hard to do justice to the great diversity I saw, but let me suggest four broad categories that distinguish these churches. I realize that if asked to describe themselves in terms of my categories, most of these congregations would say they're striving for a balance. And because my visits were relatively short and not nearly as thorough as I would have liked, I run the risk of being too intuitive in my assessments. Nonetheless, from my observation each church tended to emphasize one theme over the others.
Here are the four broad philosophies of ministry I encountered, along with the strengths I observed and some questions that lingered after the trip.
Many of the large, fast-growing churches were "market driven"-focused on reaching out to the unchurched creatively and sensitively. They aspire to speak to people's needs with spiritual insight in known tongues.
Willow Creek Community Church, pastored by Bill Hybels, is perhaps the most prominent example of this style of ministry. Striving for excellence and authenticity in all it does, Willow Creek reaches out to young, unchurched urban professionals.
The service I attended modeled this strategy. Music, in contemporary style, was performed, a drama presented, and an interview conducted with three church members who were enduring physical suffering at the time. Bill asked them, "What is it like?" and "How has Christ made a difference?" They responded candidly and with hope, yet without simplistic resolution of their difficulties. Bill followed with a short biblical message on finding God in the midst of our suffering.
Of all the services we visited during the sabbatical, this service most impressed my two teenage children.
As I talked to folks behind the scenes at Willow Creek, I was struck by their careful attention to detail and their well-defined focus on reaching their target audience (35-year-old, unchurched males). I got permission to attend a rehearsal for the Saturday evening service-a privilege comparable to attending one of Dean Smith's basketball practices in Chapel Hill! The rehearsal schedule was printed out to the minute and followed to the letter.
As I walked through the spacious halls of their facility with one of the staff, we noticed a hand smudge near a cleaning closet. I was told that it would be scrubbed off or painted over before the next service. "Young executives go to work every day in a world that does not tolerate smudges. When they come here, we want them to say, 'Hey, these people care as much about their ministry as my company does about my business.' "
Willow Creek is a phenomenon that deserves its high profile among those who seek to speak the language of a yuppie culture.
This market-driven approach has become popular and widespread. I visited several such congregations, including Saddleback Valley Community Church in Mission Viejo, California. All had a passion for reaching and winning their communities for Christ through creative, upbeat, user-friendly services.
The strengths in this type of church are many: It reaches people (lots of people) who otherwise wouldn't be reached. It energizes people for evangelism and celebration. It is a model of efficiency and stewardship of resources. It gets folks excited about Jesus and his church. May the tribe increase.
With all of these strengths, however, some questions remain:
1. Such ministries seem to require a tightly structured organization. The stronger and more specific the goals of a congregation, the greater the pressure for individuals' thinking and ministries to conform. My question: Can this pressure create unhealthy tension? What happens when the call of God ventures beyond the well-defined goals?
I wondered if some of these people feel herded rather than shepherded? Are they encouraged to discover their own calling, or to fulfill someone else's (usually the senior pastor's) vision?
Most dynamic congregations with successful outreach ministries are blessed with strongly driven leaders who set the pace for their congregation. Without intending to do so, do these leaders, with their great influence, leave the impression that the kingdom of God is for goal-oriented "Type A's" only? Is stress a fruit of the Spirit?
One person observed that while talking with such a pastor, "I feel like I have his attention only so far as I fit into his vision and goal. I don't sense he's listening to me or sharing with me but rather he's on a mission that could use me but not really enjoy my fellowship." Do people attending feel pressure to perform and conform or be considered second class?
2. Are the values of the subculture (excellence, efficiency, aesthetics) inadvertently presented as Christian values? Are those who don't share them seen as somewhat sub-Christian?
When we "become all things to all men that we might reach them," we often adopt the tastes, styles, and some of the values of our target audience. For example, "excellence" (defined as productivity and reaching measurable objectives), "efficiency" (creatively maximizing resources and gifts), and "quality" (appealing to aesthetic tastes) are hallmarks of the value structure of a yuppie subculture.
This may win the attention and respect of unchurched Harrys and Marys. But can Harry and Mary be transformed from their worldview to a kingdom perspective where these values are not necessarily a priority?
God's ways are often contrary to the wisdom of humankind, especially in terms of efficiency and quality. Do congregations that are committed to excellence recognize the seductive power of idolizing excellence? Do they know that excellence can actually present an obstacle to many people?
I recall an annual Christmas talent show at our congregation where the first act was a husband and wife duet on guitar and harmonica. Halfway through the second verse of the song, Christi forgot the words and kept playing her guitar as she sang, "I forgot the words."
Her husband said, "I haven't forgot my part" as he kept playing the harmonica. The atmosphere was relaxed; they felt safe to fail because they were with their spiritual family.
To me that reflects the spirit of Christ's community, and that can be attractive in a stressed-out and graceless world where it is seldom safe to fail. I couldn't help but wonder how that experience would have played at some of the megaministries.
A second category I call the koinonia or "relational" church. These congregations fell into two types-"affirming relationship" churches and the "mercy ministry" churches.
The affirming churches emphasize gracious relationship and community. Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in that affluent community south of San Francisco might best fit this category. The warm, personal style of the services has drawn many people to drink the soothing water of God's grace.
It's easy for me to preach about grace and then, in church relationships and programs, suggest that the fine print in our gospel is law. That wasn't the atmosphere at Menlo Park. This was a safe place to fail, hurt, struggle, and be honest without fear of rejection.
This congregation of more than three thousand has 60 percent of its people in small support groups that meet during the week. Ministries are geared to "station" and "crisis in life" issues. One of the staff explained, "We try to speak to people in their most teachable state and that is (1) where they struggle to succeed in the world and (2) when their world crashes in."
The challenge for this type of church is not to let its emphasis on relationships and unconditional love smother the gospel message. One person (a nonbeliever) who enjoyed attending the church expressed her one complaint to me: "They make too big a distinction between those who are Christians and those who are not." I didn't consider that the worst indictment for a strong relational ministry.
The second type of reaching-in church focuses on mercy ministries. Trinity Church in Seattle stands in contrast to Menlo Park with respect to its constituents. Trinity has drawn together a group of families into a close community based on their commitment to minister personally and individually to the down-and-outers of their area. This church has been described as "a human salvage yard"-not very pretty in the world's eyes but certainly attractive to anyone in touch with the Spirit of Christ.
The stress in this congregation is produced not by performing well before thousands of attenders on Sunday morning, but rather by living with six foster children in a double-wide mobile home, as does one of the pastors.
As I met with key families at Trinity, I was received graciously and I sensed an immediate rapport.
When I asked about the Christian education of their children, they replied that they didn't use written curriculum; instead they wanted their children to watch the parents reach out to and take in needy people. They felt that if their children grew up seeing God's heart in their homes, they would be drawn to him and eventually seek to know everything they needed to know about him.
As for the strengths of reaching-in churches: Christians teach through their lives and their care for people. They understand the pain of living in a fallen world and provide a safe respite from the storms of life. These congregations have less evangelistic growth but a deeper sense of community. They tend to attract Christians who've been burned out and wounded, sometimes from overinvolvement in more highly structured ministries.
As one person put it, "I had become a mile wide and an inch deep. Now I need a place that will listen to my hurts and not just keep challenging me to help the pastor reach his vision."
My lingering questions center around keeping the delicate balance between unconditional acceptance and the inherent exclusiveness of God's kingdom.
1. Can "affirming relationship" congregations be relational in style without sacrificing truth at the altar of love? For instance, I never did get a clear answer in some of these congregations when I asked, "When did you last exercise church discipline, and how did you do it?" I was left with the impression that any kind of correction would be perceived as rejection, and the threat of exclusion was incompatible with the overarching goal of love. Insensitivity or intolerance prompted the most disapproval, rather than immorality or apostasy. In what ways do these churches present the cost of discipleship?
2. I also wondered whether these congregations also didn't exclude certain types of people. In the "mercy ministry" congregations, for instance, I wondered if a person could fit in without either (1) an identifiable dysfunction ("What support group do I join?") or (2) the skill, commitment, and passion necessary to work with the dysfunctional.
A third category of church I visited could be described as the reaching-up church, centered around worship and prayer. Again, there seem to be two distinct types in this category: charismatic and liturgical. I happened to visit more charismatic congregations than liturgical on this trip.
The Vineyard Fellowship in Anaheim, California, is a model of the charismatic congregation that emphasizes the power of prayer. We found the morning service to be like many large charismatic gatherings-worshipful, spontaneous, lively. But it was what happened after the service that impressed me. Several hundred folks stayed around for prayer.
The sermon had little or nothing to do with intercession or healing. There was no invitation from up front to stay. But my wife and I stayed and decided to request prayer for some of her unresolved relational conflicts.
A rather unassuming middle-aged counselor listened to our brief request and then asked if we had a good spiritual support group back in North Carolina. We assured him that we did, and then he said that in a few moments we would understand why that was so important. He laid his hands on us and quietly prayed-in English and then in tongues.
My wife broke into tears and for a few moments began to quiver uncontrollably. When she had recovered, we thanked the counselor and left.
The experience was dramatic, and shortly after that, things began to change for my wife. She experienced a new freedom from inner turmoil, something new to her. The next several weeks were emotionally tumultuous for her as she overcame the pain of the past. We were grateful for the forbearance and encouragement of an understanding Christian community at Chapel Hill.
Today she stands amazed that what four years of intense counseling had not accomplished was begun through the power of prayer after that service.
Another such congregation we visited is Applegate Christian Fellowship near Medford, Oregon. Pastor Jon Courson's charisma and giftedness in so many areas (teaching, leading worship, personal relations) helps explain why Applegate Christian Fellowship, in a rural county, draws 3,500 on Sunday.
They have three types of meetings during the week. Wednesday night is ninety minutes of expository Bible teaching. Sunday morning is praise and worship, with an uplifting message exhorting folks to apply the lessons taught on Wednesday night.
The Sunday evening service centers upon the Lord's Table and prayer for freedom from emotional, physical, and spiritual bondage. As folks feel led (during any part of that service), they go forward to receive the bread and cup. There is no sermon, just people bringing their burdens to God's Table in a spirit of worship. Jon Courson told me that when people come to him for counseling, he first sends them to that service. After going to the service, people often didn't need counseling.
These churches possess great strengths. In each, evangelism was effective; they attracted and converted many unbelievers.
Many of these congregations also impressively demonstrate that the unity of Christ's Spirit breaks down social and racial boundaries. Of all the congregations I visited, these had the least internal socioeconomic uniformity. What bound them together was a strong expectation that God would minister to physical and spiritual needs with dramatic power, and that direct revelation (usually through the leader) was to be respected.
Power in many of our congregations looks too much like the power of our culture and not enough like the supernatural power of the kingdom we talk about. By contrast, these congregations dare to trust God to display an authentic power that the world doesn't know.
This approach, however, also raises some concerns. While some of the congregations I visited managed to avoid the following pitfalls, these questions remain:
1. How does one deal with the confusion when too much regard is given to "special revelations," especially when there is no consensus? Also, how can one avoid the tendency to equate the presence of powerful answers to prayer with the carte blanche blessing of God on anything that person believes or practices?
2. What checks and balances exist for leaders who fail to be self-critical? How can people be encouraged to develop healthy critical thinking and kept from blindly following powerful leaders?
3. Is there a tendency to focus on God's dramatic crisis intervention and to neglect the more routine, disciplined process of spiritual growth?
The fourth category is the "feeding station" or Bible-teaching church. These congregations center around powerful Bible-teaching ministries that don't just draw spectators but produce fruitful action in many areas of the congregation's life. They make no apology for emphasizing the importance of knowing Bible doctrine.
Richard Strauss, the pastor of Emmanuel Faith Community Church in Escondido, California, is a good example. This congregation is more conservative and traditional in style than the churches mentioned above, but it is no less effective. It was clear from everyone I met at this congregation that expository Bible teaching was at the core of its ministry. Richard Strauss is a gifted teacher-humble, clear, down-to-earth, and in touch with people's hurts.
You see the effect of his ministry, not only in people's enthusiasm for his teaching but also in their enthusiasm for relationships and ministry in a wide range of areas-youth, parents, singles.
I also met a number of folks who became Christians in fast-growing, outreach-oriented churches but who wound up in the feeding-station churches, where they felt they could grow further. They tended not to be attracted by the more energetic and entertaining approach of market-driven churches.
These congregations have an important strength: they teach the Word. The popularity of these churches can be attributed to the great hunger among God's people for a practical understanding of the Bible. These congregations tend to appeal to folks who want a biblically grounded faith.
Because I'm in a Bible-teaching ministry, I'm painfully aware that some questions need to be asked of this type of church.
1. Is intellectual understanding of the truth rewarded even when it is not applied or integrated deeply into life? How can the church avoid emphasizing a great love for Bible content at the expense of excitement about knowing and following Christ? (Sometimes, I've found, people in my church equate the two.)
2. Does worship have its own significance, or is it a sort of pregame warm-up for the teaching? Or the larger question: How do we keep from reducing truth to propositional categories and tight linear logic, leaving little room for mystery, awe, or process?
Although some congregations I visited clearly emphasized one approach over others, some were hybrids. For instance, some churches used social service primarily as a way to reach out.
First Christian Church in Fort Collins, Colorado, an upper-middle-class congregation, has one building on their large campus set aside to meet practical, physical needs. The upper floor is a sewing center where women from the community (many of them retired) volunteer their time to make quilts and toys for the local hospitals and needy families. The lower level houses a food pantry and clothing store for the needy. It is run like an old-time general store, except the "customers" aren't charged. Other churches in that community help stock the store with food and clothing.
Bear Valley Baptist Church in Denver runs an inner-city storefront school for street families and has been instrumental in starting a low-cost medical clinic for the more unfortunate in the area.
Both of these congregations face many difficulties in reaching out like this. Their ministries aren't showy, but nonetheless, they effectively touch the needs of people.
Naturally, not every church fits neatly into my four categories. For instance, some churches revolve around major weekday programming (Lutheran or Christian Reformed churches often devote themselves primarily to a day school). Other churches revolve around a series of special events (concerts with big-name artists, cultural exhibitions), which defines the church in the community's eyes. These, too, can be effective churches.
Although I was impressed more with more dissimilarities than similarities, all these congregations still shared three common elements.
They all knew practical frustrations. Many of the congregations experienced challenges in similar areas-the need for more and better lay leaders, the tendency for people to become spectator/consumers as the size of the congregation grows, the challenge of finding the right staff, the tendency of people to fall through the cracks, the search for appropriate CE curricula.
Although I had hoped to find easy answers to some of these questions, I was repeatedly disappointed. These pastors merely joined me in my groping and groaning; their congregations were not without their share of problems-staff conflicts, financial pinches, mistakes in policy and direction.
They shared a similar outlook. Despite the ubiquitous difficulties, they shared a sense of expectancy-"we can do it with God's grace"-and a willingness to grow, take risks, and be stretched to the point of discomfort. They inspired commitment and participation. Many of them rewarded people for creativity and initiative.
They shared a clear sense of purpose or calling. They didn't punctuate their affirmations with question marks. Most were able to articulate their purpose clearly. Saddleback Community Church put it this way: "A great commitment to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment makes a great church."
They tended to have supportive (as opposed to competitive) attitudes toward other Christian groups. Some of the traditional distinctives-dispensational versus covenant, charismatic versus noncharismatic, political liberal versus conservative-seemed less important than simply being faithful Christians.
Each had transferred leadership to the pastors and ministry to the congregation. These churches had strong pastors who set the direction by word and example. All were intentional about what they were doing. That's pastoral leadership.
And yet, ministry responsibility was freely distributed to members. These churches understood the church as a living organism composed of people who are to be active in ministry.
The buildings used by these churches were functional rather than opulent. Some churches enjoyed aesthetically pleasing facilities (Willow Creek), while others (Saddleback Community Church) met in public schools. But never did I sense the facilities were anything other than tools for spiritual ministry.
The weekend services were special events, and a lot of attention was given to making the worship services meaningful to the people who were there, rather than those they wished were there. It was obvious, however, that the bulk of ministry occurred during the week. The folks in these churches were in the process of integrating faith into life.
Most churches will say they want a balanced emphasis, reaching all four directions-out, in, up, and down-at the same time.
The church I visited that does perhaps the best job of balancing all four areas is Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Stuart Briscoe's teaching ministry is widely respected; the gracious atmosphere invites community; the outreach is active, creative, and effective; the openness to the power of the Holy Spirit and the joyful worship is refreshing; and the attitude of the staff is relaxed yet purposeful.
Nonetheless, it was clear to me that most congregations I visited tended to emphasize one approach more than others. What are we to make of these various emphases? Here are my reflections.
1. We do need a certain degree of balance. All four bases have to be covered to some extent. We can't ignore outreach or caring ministries or worship or instruction. All are part of the church's mission. In our congregation we have plans to put a pastor over each of the four areas to promote balance.
2. We don't need to apologize for our church's unique emphasis or strength. Most likely, we won't do all things equally well. Churches reflect different personalities, each effective in a different way.
We are primarily a Bible-teaching church in a university town. Being in a student environment, we have a lot of turnover every year. Because we are committed to that unique ministry, we are prepared to put up with a lot of hurdles (limited finances, leadership changes, inexperienced lay workers, etc.) for the benefits of reaching this special subculture.
Rather than chafing at these circumstances, we must accept them and work around them with understanding, patience, and thankfulness.
3. We must admit that some people won't be attracted by our church's particular emphasis. We have to recognize that the body of Christ is bigger than a single congregation. We must allow God to provide for some needs through ministries other than our own. We're not always called to duplicate the ministries of every other church in town.
This also means that we give our people the freedom to draw upon the ministry strengths of other congregations. For example, a congregation in our area has a powerful prayer ministry. We encourage our folks to bring special needs before that congregation. People from other churches come to some of our meetings for teaching. We welcome them but don't want or expect them to leave their church to join ours.
I've asked myself and our church two practical questions. Here they are and the answers we've come to at this point.
How does a church identify what its personality and emphasis should be? Obviously you have freer rein if you're planting a church. Otherwise, the church's past strengths greatly influence your choices.
Another test is the voice of the congregation. Why do they come and stay? Take a survey to find out.
Another test still is the pastor's passions. Which motivation is strongest?
1. To reach the lost? Then a reaching-out church may be your calling.
2. To experience God's power? Then worship may be your primary calling.
3. To create a loving community? Then your calling may be to create a reaching-in congregation.
4. To help people know God's truth? Then yours may be a calling to a Bible-teaching church.
Larger congregations can seek multiple staff who complement one another's strengths. If you are a teacher, seek to align yourself with someone skilled in outreach, worship or body life. If you are the only pastor, you can work with key lay people to balance your strengths.
Does an emphasis on any element automatically attract certain kinds of people and implicitly exclude others? There does seem to be a tradeoff. This is where some kind of balance is necessary.
Being just down the road from the "Dean Dome" in Chapel Hill, I can't help but use the analogy of a basketball team. Someone must occupy each of the five positions on the team. A team will never be strong unless it is effective at each position, but everyone doesn't need to be the star.
If you have a star, use him-give him the ball often and don't apologize for the fact he scores half the points. And don't apologize when your church's strength garners half the newcomers. A congregation should be able to accommodate a wide variety of people, but it's true, some will be more comfortable with a given church's strengths than will others.
My passion is to help build a congregation that reaches out, in, up, and down. And with what I learned on my sabbatical, I feel better equipped to make a significant contribution toward that end.
Editor's Note: For our next issue, we've invited pastors representing the four types of churches Jim Abrahamson identifies to respond to the questions he raises.
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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