By Kent E. Fillinger
It’s a question Bert Crabbe and his staff ask themselves regularly. Suppose a person who knows nothing about church attends one of our worship services. Will we say or do anything that makes him want to run away?
True North Community Church officially started in 2005, but its true genesis started earlier than that. Bert Crabbe is a native New Yorker who had spent 15 years on Long Island before launching True North. As a youth minister at an area church for 10 years, he started a Sunday evening service for high school students and young adults. Soon, the parents of these students started attending, as well, and the numbers continued to grow.
Throughout this time, Crabbe was building relationships and laying the groundwork for what would eventually become True North. On day one, True North had a core of 250 in attendance.
The most important decision True North made from its inception, Crabbe said, is to constantly evaluate and filter every element of its ministry through the lens of an outsider. Crabbe and his team constantly ask, “If I am walking into church for the very first time in my life, is this weird?” Crabbe acknowledged that if somebody is “weirded out” by the message of the gospel, then that’s acceptable, but Crabbe is passionate that the gospel should be the only thing that “weirds them out.”
Crabbe and his staff consistently self-monitor to ensure they are not using jargon, “Christianese,” or “insider language.” That way they can keep their focus on the millions of Long Islanders who do not know what a church is. Crabbe notes that most people in his community don’t trust the church, or those in it, because the church is a foreign environment. This encourages Bert and his team to tenaciously remove anything that could be considered weird or a barrier to communicating the truth.
Even the church name was chosen with this in mind. Crabbe said the idea was to create a name that communicated to people that the church was a place that would help them get their bearings and point them toward home. It also helped that the name didn’t sound too churchy.
The First Step to Growth
Crabbe notes the best thing the church has done is not to care about the growth of the church. He said True North has chosen to focus on doing better, getting better, and making excellence its goal. Crabbe said he heard another church planter say, “Worry about doing better, and let God worry about your size,” and True North has taken this message to heart in its approach to ministry.
Since its beginning, True North has been in a constant state of flux; it has held worship services in five different locations in six years. Each time it needed to move, some people stopped attending due to distance, and some even said they would return once True North had a home. The church found a home last year when it signed a 20-year lease on a 32,000-square-foot building in a commercial space.
True North worked to retrofit the building to meet its needs. Currently, the church has a 350-seat worship space where it holds four Sunday services. After moving into its facility, True North jumped 400 in attendance; its average weekend worship attendance last year was 1,032. This year, the church is averaging almost 1,400 in attendance, and it is planning a capital campaign this spring to raise approximately $1 million to complete the repurposing of the building to include a 700-seat auditorium.
Finding the Best Ideas
As a leader, Crabbe finds ideas develop best in the quiet times. He said he “defends his Sabbath day with a machete,” and he takes a personal retreat annually so he can sit and be still. Additionally, Crabbe reads both Christian and secular books and magazines. All these strategies are especially important for Crabbe, because there are only six other people on staff. The church plans to hire additional staff this year to share the load and to ensure the church is positioned to keep growing.
Crabbe encourages new church planters to have a “Sabbath day” when they do not have to think about the church; to plan a one-week personal soul retreat annually to recharge; to “not drink the Kool-Aid of the church-growth message that is so prevalent” in ministry today (which can lead to a “rock star mentality” among ministers of growing churches); and to focus on being excellent, demonstrate love for the community, and depend on God for the rate of growth.
Kent E. Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and associate director of projects and partnerships with CMF International.