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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.