Learning From Successful Churches

By Peter Robinson
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In Churchland there is a natural tendency to look to churches that appear successful, hoping to learn from or emulate what they are doing in our own communities. Perhaps especially when things aren’t going well, or when we are facing challenging transitions such as slowly moving out of the Covid pandemic. While many practices are not easily transferable to a different context, there are also other important questions we might ask before assuming that “success” is repeatable or desirable. In some cases, there may be as many lessons about what not to do as what we should be doing.

Early in my ministry I was privileged to work with a pastor/priest who intentionally and skillfully taught the church community to welcome and engage with others. Upon encountering a well-trained welcoming team, clear guidance through the worship service, and an invitation to a newcomers’ dinner, many who came once ended up staying and becoming a part of the church. It didn’t take very long before newcomers were invited to find their fit by taking on some aspect of ministry or a serving role in the community. There was regular teaching on stewardship of time and talents as well as a straightforwardness in talking about money that allowed people to ease into a practice of giving while also serving to raise the funds necessary for the church to do the work of ministry. The pastor, an avid consumer of the latest leadership resources, regularly ran workshops that taught and encouraged other pastors to cultivate the skills and disciplines needed to lead a congregation effectively. The church (not surprisingly) grew larger over the years, its members were proud of their community and deeply invested in its health and wellbeing, and other churches also became more attuned to the importance of welcoming people into their communities. It was a privilege to be a part of this vibrant and engaged community.

Serving there as a young pastor I not only learned the importance of paying attention to these practical elements of the church’s life, I also recognized how much pastors and priests can learn from business leaders about developing simple yet intentional practices that foster community life. More than twenty years later, I remain deeply grateful for my experiences in that church and with those people even though I moved on a few years later. In my next church community, I gradually put in place many of the practices that I had picked up at the previous one. Over time I began to recognize that some of the practices we implemented were having a greater influence over the church’s engagement with others than anything I said or taught about mission or outreach.

A major resource that church leaders were turning to at that time was the Willow Creek leadership events. Those events quickly grew beyond the local capacity of Willow Creek to include various satellite venues where a mix of gifted speakers and leaders could share their wisdom with a much wider audience. The Toronto satellite event was well attended by leaders from a variety of denominations who found these events encouraging and helpful. Church leaders were grateful for innovative ideas to help effectively lead church communities. 

It was sobering then when some years later Willow Creek Church called into question its own leadership and growth model, acknowledging that while they had been doing a great job of attracting lots of people, this hadn’t necessarily been helping people become disciples or followers of Jesus. The right tools and techniques own’t automatically lead to a healthy church community even when lots of people show up on a Sunday morning.

In Renovation of the Church Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken detail their own similar journey of discovery during their time as lead pastors of Oak Hills Church in California. A very successful church plant, Oak Hills quickly grew to thousands of people gathering weekly for worship. In the midst of this stunning church growth, Carlson and Lueken began to recognize that the large staff team was close to burning out, while the majority of the Sunday churchgoers were not maturing in their faith.

One year, they invited Dallas Willard to facilitate a retreat with the church leadership to help them understand why their apparent success might be missing the mark. What was puzzling to them is that while they regularly taught about the importance of following Jesus and the cost of discipleship the message didn’t seem to be taking root in people’s lives. A key insight they share in their book is the recognition that both content and form matter in shaping the lives of the worshipping community. While their sermons were teaching about the cost and commitment of following Jesus, the ethos of the church – from the welcome to the music to the laid-back atmosphere – was proclaiming a message that Jesus’ primary concern was to make you feel comfortable and at home. Carlson and Lueken began to recognize that how a community gathers and worships together is essential to how its members hear, perceive, and respond to the gospel.

If the examples of Willow Creek and Oak Hills Church are not enough, we have the more recent IVP podcast series about Mars Hill Church. Once again, we see a successful church which grew rapidly and over time and became adept at adopting practices that catalyzed its growth. The tale told in the podcast series is generally sobering, but one of the later episodes raises a particularly troubling issue. Conversations with those involved in the church at that time show that many who held serious qualms about the church and how decisions were being made were reluctant to challenge the leadership because they didn’t want to derail all the good things that were happening. There are far too many examples of church leaders who have failed to deal with issues in their communities because of the apparent success they are enjoying. (The Lead Pastor Mark Driscoll once commented that he had a hard time finding a mentor he could learn from since his church was bigger than most other churches.)

 At Mars Hill there was an implicit assumption that as long as the church was successful it must be on the right course, to the point that its success was often seen as a sure sign of God’s blessing. The frequently drawn corollary is that when churches (or individuals) are struggling or suffering they must be doing something wrong – perhaps even that God has abandoned them. While there were many factors that contributed to the downfall of Mars Hill – including a lack of accountability for its charismatic leader – it is evident that a belief in success distorted their understanding of the community and its life together in a manner that was detrimental to its long-term health.

Missiologist George Hunsberger puts his finger on the underlying issue here when he argues that churches in the West are shaped by “a pervasive religious consumerism driven by the quest to meet personally defined religious needs.” Perhaps it isn’t surprising then that revising our worship practices to make people more comfortable – or revising the gospel message to seem more relevant – too often simply reaffirms the pervasive consumerism of our culture. In some churches this approach might lead to selecting songs that will evoke primarily an emotive response, while in more liturgical churches it may entail rewriting liturgies to emphasize what is “relevant.” How do we learn, as Hunsberger suggests, “to put on the garments of our calling, our vocation”? 

Anglicans are fortunate here since their traditional order of liturgy assembles practices that are basic to the gospel narrative and lays them out in a progression that intentionally draws us into the new life in Christ. The ingathering of the community, the reading of scripture, the prayers, communion, and the sending out – each part of the service, each in its own way, invites us into the new life in Christ and enables us to put on Christ over and over again.

(A brief note about Fresh Expressions: although these are often framed as new ways of doing church, because they often don’t include the variety of practices that constitute worship, it may be better to view them as a kind of sending, that is, a way of helping churches engage more intentionally with their local communities. Just as the Body is built up, so too it is sent out into the world.)

When it functions properly, liturgical structures and forms serve as guardrails that help us discern and sustain those practices which are fundamental to our life in Christ. One example of where we might sometimes pit the goals of “relevance” or “welcome” against the essential practices of the church would be a neglect of the practice of confession. Although the confession may seem foreign, or even offensive in a cultural context committed to a certain understanding of self-worth, it remains a practice essential for living into the gospel narrative, since it regularly reorients our hearts and minds toward the mystery of God’s grace.

In this (dare we say?) “post” Covid era the questions surrounding how we should worship and how we should welcome others – and how we might grow – are more acute than ever. For leaders in the church, especially those in paid positions, the existential pressure to be “successful” can be acute. The resulting temptation is to focus on what works or what seems most effective in attracting people. There is a greater need than ever for our churches to learn how to be more welcoming, particularly towards people who are different than we are. Nevertheless, the goal of that welcome, or of that engagement with others, should never be to get new people to bolster our Sunday attendance, nor to allow us to keep worshipping in the ways we always have. Rather, our goals in these regards should be to learn how to value the people God is drawing into our communities, to learn to see them as God sees them, and to be open to what they might be bringing that will transform our life together.

The experience of churches like Willow Creek or Oak Hills reminds us that our first task is to remember who we are as the Body of Christ and to draw wisely from the deep well of traditions that can keep us rooted in the gospel narrative.