Center Creek: Serving Christ in the Heartland

By Kent E. Fillinger

Mike Johnson’s passion and focus was student ministry when he arrived at Center Creek Christian Church. He previously had enjoyed a decade of student ministry at a medium-size church, where he started fresh out of Bible college. Mike had seen his student ministry grow during this time, but the church remained stagnant overall.

Mike searched for a new opportunity with a church that had the desire and potential to grow. He soon found Center Creek; it was similar in size to his first ministry, but he felt a positive connection with the senior minister, who expressed a commitment to seeing both the church and its student ministry grow.

Several farming families who wanted a Christian church in their community established Center Creek in 1950. The church was stable during its first four decades, though it went through a dozen senior ministers.

In the summer of 1994, at age 32, Mike and his family moved to the small, rural Illinois community where Center Creek was located. Mike’s extroverted personality and passion for students sparked some growth in the church’s student ministry. He was encouraged by the progress, and felt like he had found a good ministry fit at Center Creek. The first several years, Mike built some great relationships with students and their families. A couple of students followed Mike’s ministry example and went to Bible college.

 

Minimal Growth

Despite positive strides in the student ministry, Center Creek managed only minimal growth. The church could not seem to break 400 in attendance. Mike started to privately question the senior minister’s vision and his desire to see the church grow.

Unexpectedly, the senior minister left for another church in the summer of 1998. Mike wondered if he should pursue a new ministry opportunity as well. The elders formed a search committee, and Mike continued to focus on strengthening his student ministry. The elders asked Mike to preach more consistently as they searched for a new senior minister.

After several months of preaching, Mike realized he enjoyed this new ministry challenge. He wondered if he should submit his name to the elders for consideration as the new senior minister. After praying about the decision with his wife, Mike met with the elders and expressed his desire to be the next senior minister. Unbeknownst to Mike, the elders had been having similar conversations, and several families in the church had also expressed their desire to see Mike selected for the position.

In February 1999, at the age of 37, Mike was affirmed as the new senior minister of Center Creek. Relying on the strength of the relationships he had developed with key influencers in the church while serving as the student minister, Mike slowly started initiating some strategic ministry changes, and the church began to grow. While an internal promotion to senior minister was atypical at Center Creek, the situation was very positive for Mike and the church.

 

Moving Forward

Today, after a dozen years as the senior minister and 17 years total at Center Creek, Mike, now 49, continues to focus on ways to keep the church growing. Center Creek grew 5.5 percent last year, its best growth rate since 2008. The church’s average worship attendance was 763. Mike was encouraged that more than 1,200 people attended Center Creek’s Easter services, and almost 900 attended on Christmas Eve. The church is steadily moving forward, and Mike is pleased.

In addition to growing in attendance last year, Center Creek also experienced a modest increase in the number of baptisms, which rose to 50. Congregational giving to the general fund and outreach totaled $1.1 million; based on Center Creek’s giving, the church spent $27,342 for each baptism.

Center Creek’s debt has become a major obstacle to growth. The church’s $2.9 million debt load is almost 2.5 times its annual giving. Mike and the elders continue to talk about ways to reduce the church’s debt, but given the sluggish economy, there is no easy or obvious solution. Mike and the elders budgeted conservatively for 2011, and while the total overall giving remained the same as in 2010 at $1.1 million, it still exceeded the church’s budgeted need. The church reallocated the additional funds to several of its key ministries.

 

Growth Obstacles

The majority of the debt was incurred when the church added a 600-seat worship center in 2006. While this expansion project featured a modern worship center, the rest of the “new” facility is small and outdated, and therefore space is an ongoing challenge. The church uses one contemporary worship style in hopes that the crowds will be evenly dispersed among its three Sunday services, but most weekends parking is a challenge during the last two services. Center Creek’s debt prevents it from addressing the realities of its facility.

Mike would love to hire some additional staff members to lead new growth-producing ministries, but financial constraints prevented the church from adding staff in 2011. Overall, Center Creek invested 44 percent of its total budget to maintain its existing staff.

Center Creek uses a combination of classes and small groups for its adult discipleship, although space for adult classes on Sundays has become increasingly more difficult to find. Deepening the level of discipleship and initiating a leadership development program are two strategic issues Mike and his team are now wrestling with.

 

Reaching Out

Mike is part of an ecumenical group of ministers who meet twice a month for encouragement, prayer, and cooperative community efforts. The relationships that have developed have strengthened the local faith community as several churches have collaborated on projects.

Center Creek has incorporated more technology into its ministry over the last couple of years. The church has shifted from a print newsletter to an electronic newsletter e-mailed to the congregation. Because Center Creek is a multigenerational church, printed copies of the weekly newsletter are still available in the church lobby. Additionally, the church has created a page on Facebook and started using online registration for church events.

Center Creek adopted the local school as an outreach project and the church provided backpacks of food each weekend to more than 100 children of low-income families. Church members also sponsored more than 100 children through a program to fight against child trafficking in Cambodia. Several members created a community garden at the church and donated the produce to a local food bank.

Fourteen percent of the church budget was dedicated to outreach efforts last year. The growing emphasis on reaching beyond the walls of the church has engaged more members in service, and inspired a greater spirit of generosity at Center Creek.

 

Kent E. Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and associate director of projects and partnerships with CMF International.

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