by Mark E. Hardgrove, M.Div.
As the pastor of an average sized church in America I am constantly praying about, reading about, and talking about "church growth." So when I hear of churches that have broken out of "smallness" and have recently grown to an average attendance now in the hundreds, I ask: "What are they doing? Can I do that here? Will the church I pastor ever see the same level of growth?"
With these questions in mind I set out to talk to pastors who have seen this kind of growth and ask them what they and their churches are doing--after all, no church grows by accident.
THE PASTORS AND THEIR CHURCHES
Pastor Dan Atkinson and his wife Marcia pastor the Strong Tower Church of God in Jonesboro, Georgia. A little over five years ago Dan and Marcia opened their home for Bible study with two adults and two children. After that first month they saw a weekly increase in attendance and were given access to an insurance company community room. They began that first service with the mentality of a large church in the making. They refused to begin and wrestle with a small church inferiority complex but began with a structure which would support their growth. After four weeks they outgrew the community room and rented a warehouse. Two years later they purchased an existing church building which will hold around three hundred. Now, with a current average attendance of around three hundred and fifty, they are building a sanctuary which will seat one thousand. [Since writing this article Dan and Marcia have led Strong Tower in the completion of their new sanctuary.]
Pastor Rudy Bond and his wife C.J. have been at Friendly Regional Church of God in Marion, Illinois for twelve years. Friendly Church of God was an established Church of God with a history spanning more than seventy-five years. The attendance of their first Sunday morning service with Pastor Bond was twelve. At the end of the first year their attendance had grown to an average of around sixty. Recently they had over five hundred and twenty in attendance on a Sunday morning and they are currently averaging over four hundred and fifty in a relatively rural area of the state. As they grew they purchased two adjacent houses and a garage and added them on to the old church building for use as additional facilities. Next, they redesigned the old church for maximum space and in 1996 they built a new worship complex which will seat eight hundred, has a gymnasium, and an educational wing. [In 2002 Rudy and his wife accepted the Senior Pastorate position at the Rose Heights Church of God in Texas.]
Pastor Bryan Cutshall and his wife Faith have been at Twin Rivers Worship Center in St. Louis, Missouri for eleven years [now 18 years]. It was an established Church of God which had been in existence for over forty years. This was a church which had seen pastors come and go, but Pastor Cutshall and his family have stayed. The average attendance of the church the first month of their pastorate there was fifty-two. By the end of the third year their attendance was still under one hundred. The fourth year they averaged around one hundred and fifty. Since then they have seen steady growth until now they have several hundred gathering for worship. During one dramatic phase of growth they moved to nine different locations in two years to facilitate worship. They recently began worshipping in their newly constructed six and a half million dollar facility. [Currently the attendance of the Twin Rivers Worship Center is over 2,300 and growing.]
Pastor Michael Hartwell and his wife Donna have pastored the Verdunville Church of God in Verdunville, West Virginia for over eight years. The average attendance of the church at the time of their arrival was around fifty. Currently they average as much as two hundred for Sunday morning worship and two to three hundred for Sunday evening worship. Five years into their pastorate at Verdunville Pastor Hartwell led the church in a building program and built a thirteen thousand square feet facility which they currently worship in. [Mike's wife Donna passed away on Thanksgiving Day 2000. He has led the region in the development of a ministry center called the "Dream Center"]
I talked to various State Overseers and State Evangelism Directors about many other examples, and I could write a story featuring each of these churches, instead, let me condense and summarize what I have learned. To begin, let me caution that none of these examples can be copied at other churches. Each church represents a unique combination of pastoral and lay leadership as well as a broad cross section of America. Still, there are some things to learn from these men and the churches they pastor, things which they have in common and which will be of help to any church wanting to grow.
First, each pastor and church has a definite vision. They know where their respective church came from and they have a clear picture of where they believe God is taking them. All have a local church vision which they can communicate and plant in the hearts of their people. It is not enough for the pastor to know where God is taking the church, the pastor must be able to communicate the vision and allow the church to own it.
Second, these pastors are able to motivate and equip laity for the work of ministry. There is no doubt that clearly casting the vision makes the job of recruiting, training, and motivating laity easier to accomplish. Perhaps the ability of these men to equip laity for the work of ministry is the "the key" to the growth of the churches they pastor. Pastor Cutshall does this through the Elders and Deacons ministries. By sharing the load of ministry they are able reach and minister to more members than one man could ever hope to do alone. Pastor Atkinson along with the Minister of Evangelism, Elizabeth Mathis, have raised an army of volunteers who feed the homeless, bring in street people for worship, and generally minister to the inherent dignity of God's children wherever they are in life. Pastor Bond has recently implemented "Vine Life Groups" and group leaders as extensions of ministry. Pastor Hartwell states, ". . . when I was able to steer the church into becoming a ministry minded congregation, we saw growth."
Third, these churches have been willing to move, rent, buy, or build in order to facilitate the growth of the vision. Each of them have survived the dreaded "building program" and they have been able to continue to grow because of it. None of these pastors confuse the facilities with the vision. The larger buildings are simply the means by which the vision is allowed to expand. Buildings are merely the means to an end, not the end in and of itself.
Fourth, none of these pastors feels a sense of bondage to tradition. While all are secure in their Church of God heritage and doctrinal stand, none feel compelled to be bound to "the good old days." The Twin Rivers Worship Center does not have a "traditional Sunday School," but has an extended worship service on Sunday mornings. They use Wednesday night for Christian Education functions. Another pastor states that they "never use hymns, only choruses." Again, without sacrificing Church of God statements of faith and doctrine, these pastors lead churches in which people from other (or no) denominational backgrounds find assimilation into the life and body of the local church, painless. Pastor Bond estimates that over one hundred people with Baptist backgrounds have come back to church and have been filled with Holy Spirit at Friendly Regional Church in the last two years alone. Similarly, Pastor Hartwell and the Verdunville Church of God recently gathered with a Baptist congregation in an historic joint revival.
Fifth, each pastor places a premium on praise and worship. Marcia Atkinson, who leads the ensemble at Strong Tower, said, "Praise and worship open the gates . . . prepares the heart and gives God a place to settle His throne down upon. Then when the Word comes forth, it comes forth in a seed that is accepted and absorbed by the people."
In each of the churches worship and praise is dynamic and expressive. Though each of them have fine choirs, the ensemble steps forward in leading worship. Further, they don't get in a hurry, time is given during worship for God to begin a work in their spirits which is completed by the Word in their hearts and minds. Each of these churches strive to attain "spirit and truth" as the character of their worship.
Sixth, all of the pastors have been at their church longer than the average tenure. The average stay of an American pastor in a local church is just over two and half years and each of these pastors more than double that. Pastor Bond said, "We have not seen overnight growth, but have seen a steady and sustained increase over the past twelve years in Marion." Pastor Cutshall was at his pastorate for over three years before they saw the breakthrough they had been praying for. His advice is, "Begin now putting the structure (vision, ministries, and leadership) in place which will facilitate the next phase of your church's growth. Don't wait for growth first and then try to catch up with the support ministries needed to reach and keep new members and thus sustain growth. Plan and prepare for growth ahead of time." This, in and of itself, is an act of faith in God and a commitment to the vision.
Seventh, each of these pastors has an "anointed" presence in the pulpit. Their typical preaching "style" is energetic, evangelistic and expository. The altar responses are usually intense and meaningful to those who come for prayer. Souls are being saved and believers are being filled with the Spirit on a regular basis. All of these pastors attribute the significant altar responses to a strong emphasis on prayer in the church.
Finally, all of these churches have ministries that reach beyond their walls. Strong Tower refers to itself as a "church without walls." Whether it is ministry to the inner city, rural communities, or world missions, each pastor and church has a passion for healing hurting people wherever they may be found. Furthermore, these are not churches content to sit and wait for the hurting to find them, these churches go out and find these wounded souls. These are churches which have taken the Great Commission to heart and have integrated it into their vision for ministry.
What has been the best type of advertisement for these churches? An excited, worshipping, growing church is its own best advertisement. The witness of worshippers (word of mouth) is the single best way get the word out and the people in.
Can the church you pastor grow? Whether you've planted the church yourself, or whether the church has been in existence for over seventy-five years, the examples of these and many other churches and pastors show that yours can grow too. There is no magic plan, program or pill; the growth of churches is driven in diverse ways. Some churches grow with cell groups, some by being seeker sensitive, and others through a sustained revival, but all of them have a pastor (and/or pastoral team) with a clear vision and the ability to communicate that vision to the congregation in such a way that they will join together like a mighty army in the good fight of faith.
The article above was written in 1999, in December of 2000 I came to the Conyers Church of God as their pastor. The Church had been through some struggles. The founding pastor had done a great job and at one point the church was pushing 500 in attendance. Without going into any details--because I don't know any of them--the fact is that the founding pastor and his wife were divorced 26 years into their pastorate and a new pastor was appointed.
This pastor was progressive and attempted to change the church from its Southern Gospel roots into more contemporary worship. He hired a top-notch worship leader and began to update the facilities. He did a great job with the finances and remodeling, but in the process lost several families who didn't like the changes being made or who could not accept his leadership style, which contrasted sharply with the personable and charismatic style of the founding pastor. Six years later the church was doing well to top 100. The first month of my pastorate we averaged 135. The first year our budget was 217,000 dollars.
This December (2005) will be my five year aniversary here. This has already been my longest pastorate. I was at my first church 2 and a half years, an associate at a large church for one and a half years, senior pastor at my second church for four and a half years, and now I'm four years and ten months into my pastorate here at Conyers.
We are currently averaging 300 in Sunday morning worship attendance, and our budget for this year will be 400,000 dollars. We had 372 in worship last Sunday and we fully expect to keep growing.
I thoroughly enjoy pastoring here and it still feels fresh, like I've only just arrived. I'm excited about what God is doing and we're dreaming about a new 1,000 seat auditorium to connect our current sanctuary with our family life center.
Our choir is pushing 50 members and we've completed our second recording. We will be singing the National Anthem at an Atlanta Hawks basketball game in February and hope to be singining in our state denominational convention in the Winter Prayer Conference.
So what is the secret to success?
One, a possitve faith-filled attitude and a "can do" approach to everything.
Two, good people in the right places who share the vision and who will work with the pastor to make it happen.
Three, a willingness to fail forward.
Four, integrity in everything.
Fifth, the ability release others into their ministry without trying to micro-manage.
Sixth, love and concern for the people and a spirit of humility.
And last, a spirit of excellence in all that we do.