It happened again. This past week I read yet another story of a dwindling congregation confronted with the harsh realities of years of negative growth. After some hard discussions, the congregation took the path of a growing number of churches in America and simply decided to close its doors, sell its property, and join with another struggling congregation.
But I firmly believe things could have been very different for that congregation.
I really believe any church can grow. This was impressed on me when my family moved to the northwest Houston area more than a year ago to help a struggling church that itself was not far from closing. The church had taken some really encouraging steps right before we got there that indicated its desire to make the hard decisions needed to advance the kingdom in that area.
As we started there the world was watching the 2010 Winter Olympics. I couldn’t help but think about the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team that upset the highly favored team from the Soviet Union. The American team, comprised primarily of college-age players, had made some huge decisions that helped bring about that stunning victory.
So we pulled our church team together to watch the movie Miracle that recounted that historic event, and then we applied it to struggling churches to try to determine how best to restore health and growth. We agreed first that prayer is pivotal. After that, we settled on six observations about growth.
Early in the movie Miracle, the U.S. team’s head coach indicated grand changes were necessary in areas of practice schedules and strategy if the Americans were to compete against teams from Eastern Bloc countries.
I know change is hard, but churches must be willing to kill some sacred cows before we can truly be effective at reaching out. The old saying is true: doctrine never changes, but practice does.
The goal of most U.S. hockey officials that year was merely to “not be embarrassed,” but head coach Herb Brooks expected to go all the way and beat the Soviets. Brooks reminded me of David, who expected to kill Goliath, even while all others in the Israelite army were shaking in their boots. David trusted in God’s ability working through him.
As followers of Christ, that same power is available for our lives today. Thus we must expect to advance.
3. Hard Work
We can never take credit or receive glory for kingdom advances, but the king does expect us to work. Note the parable of the talents, where two servants were rewarded for their efforts but the third was kicked out, and even called “wicked and lazy,” for doing nothing.
One of the reasons the U.S. hockey team won in 1980 was because its players were totally fit. The coach’s theme was, “The legs feed the wolf.” Their fitness would enable them to play intensely even into the final seconds of a game.
For us, we need to remember the Christian walk and church leadership are not just hobbies, but a way of life.
The hockey team’s success came when its players stopped worrying about individual laurels and bought into the team concept. Who they were or where they came from was not important; the only important thing was that they were Team USA.
“There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,” the old saying goes. (Consider Philippians 2:1-4.)
5. Taking the Offensive
It’s hard to score—and nearly impossible to win—when you hang back in a defensive position. The American coach talked constantly about attacking the other team’s goal, not just defending their own.
It reminds me that Jesus said the “gates of Hades will not overpower [his kingdom]” (Matthew 16:18*). The implication is that someone or something was advancing against those gates. That something is God’s mighty power in us.
Yes, the battle is fierce, but we can’t just hunker down and take care of our own needs. We’re called to make disciples and push forward. We’re called to advance with the message that God really does love the world around us.
6. Following the Leader
Brooks was head coach and the players followed. He called for some hard changes. He asked a lot and the players gave it.
We understand this in our society, for the most part. We promote this principle when it comes to athletics, business, the armed forces, and education, but we are a bit squeamish at the idea when it comes to church. However, the Bible exhorts us to follow our leaders—and Paul was even forward enough to tell the first Christians to “obey your leaders and submit to them . . . as those who will give an account” (Hebrews 13:17, emphasis added).
This does not mean we should adhere to a system of blind obedience, or ignore the precedent the Berean church set in examining the Scriptures to ensure that what Paul was teaching was accurate (see Acts 17:10ff). But it does shed some light on one of the problems inherent in many Western churches today. Struggling churches often hire a well-educated, experienced, devoted, committed, passionate minister, and then choose to ignore or even fight against his leadership. We don’t see those issues in the corporate, military, athletic, and educational worlds; rather, leaders are put in place in those cultures with the expectation the team will follow.
If we recognize leadership in those arenas, then the church should practice this principle in its life as well, because it is far more important than these other institutions. For the local church to advance, it must remember it is not a democratic community club, but rather the body of Christ charged with making disciples.
Through hard work, the American coach led his Olympic team to a gold medal in 1980. If the Christian church works together, we also can win a victory, one that is greater than gold (1 Peter 1:7). I really believe any local church can grow when it has the desire and commitment to do whatever it takes to reach the lost.
In this small, struggling church on the Gulf Coast, we did experience a new breath of life and the church has grown by more than 100 percent in Sunday morning attendance from a year ago. The community has been engaged and people have been baptized. God is doing some great things with this group of committed Christ followers, and I believe he can do the same with any congregation dedicated to reaching out, no matter the cost.
*All Scripture verses are from the New American Standard Bible.
Steve Hinton serves as lead minister with Cypress Crossings Christian Church in Cypress, Texas. He blogs at kingdomology.com.
Poised for Growth
Cypress Crossings Christian Church, located just northwest of Houston, Texas, offers a practical example of a congregation that actually made the turn from a dying church to a growing community of faith.
In October 2009, Cypress Crossings had an average attendance of 45 to 50 with no recent baptisms or growth. A few of the leaders actually wondered about selling the property, but other leaders wanted to reinvest and were willing to try just about anything to grow. In November, leadership began changing the worship service to include video projectors and I-Worship videos. The church continued to hold a weekly prayer meeting and began looking for a new minister in January.
During this time, Steve and Debi Hinton were transitioning after doing a church plant in California; they looked at CCCC and saw a church body with a serious desire to grow. The Hintons came onboard in late February and the average Sunday attendance jumped to 80.
The Cypress building is a small structure that comfortably seats only about 75, so the church added a second service the week before Easter. Coupled with this, the church’s outreach team began to canvas homes in the community, and other friends and contacts, inviting them to Easter services. A new passion toward outreach was growing, and big and small programs were added, everything from starting a children’s ministry to wearing a name tag each week. The name tags allowed for longtime members and visitors to comfortably build community together.
The Easter attendance of about 175 had never been seen before; six people were baptized, and others joined the church over the next three months. Ever since the Easter influx, the church has been averaging 135, with more new people getting plugged into ministry every week. The church appears poised for a new season of growth and discipleship.