By Kent E. Fillinger
Eric Keller grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, and attended Oakwood Christian Church. He returned to his home church for two summer internships during Bible college, and in 2003 he became the church’s student minister. Then, in 2008, Keller became senior minister at Oakwood.
Some would say you can’t go back home to serve a church you attended as a child. They would point to the experience of Jesus. When he returned to his hometown to teach, some of the locals took offense, and Jesus responded, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home” (Matthew 13:57).
But that hasn’t been Keller’s experience. Instead, his past years serving in his home church have been an asset; since he returned to Oakwood, he has been able to build on the foundation of relationships he already had there.
New Ministry, New Transparency
Oakwood was the second-fastest-growing medium church last year in our survey; its growth rate was 16 percent, and its average worship attendance was 482. When Keller became the church’s student minister, the average attendance was more than 700, but it declined to 280 in 2007 because of some leadership challenges. Keller moved into the role of associate minister, working with another staff member to keep the church afloat, while the elders spent a year looking for a new senior minister.
The elders eventually narrowed their focus to one candidate, Keller himself, who wasn’t even seeking the position. When the elders approached him about the senior minister position, he examined his call to preaching, prayed about the situation, and decided to proceed through the full interview process. He was named senior minister, and Oakwood has continued to grow; the church is averaging more than 550 in attendance this year.
Keller and the elders have worked at leadership transparency over the last three years in an effort to win back the trust of the people. The leaders approached the process with a biblical perspective, and decided to “give God back his church,” which was a turning point in the recovery effort. Keller regularly reinforces the mind-set that “this is God’s church, so we are going to do things his way.” Oakwood has placed a strong emphasis on God and the Bible, and people have found the focus to be refreshing.
Leveraged for Outreach
Oakwood is blessed with above-average facilities for a church its size. The church completed a $100,000 remodel and technology upgrade of its 700-seat worship center last year, in addition to remodeling and repainting the children’s ministry area.
The church’s gym and fitness complex, added in 1999, includes a regulation gym, multiple fitness and aerobics rooms, an upstairs track, racquetball courts, a full-service snack bar, a series of classrooms, and a stage. The church has strategically used this facility for youth and adult sports leagues, fitness center memberships, and more. In January of this year, more than 10,000 people from the community came through its doors, and Keller’s goal is to move people from the gym to the worship center.
Oakwood offers only one Sunday worship service, and Keller said it will not add a second service until necessary. Because the church is multigenerational, with many members over age 50, Keller said it has chosen to focus on “cross-generational worship.” He described the style as contemporary, but not edgy, where hymns are still sung in a modern way. Oakwood’s worship service includes a variety of songs, and Keller has found that when those who are returning to church for the first time in decades recognize a song from 20 years ago, they feel like they’ve not been gone.
Keller said the church strives to balance celebration with reverence, while pursuing excellence. Oakwood’s philosophy is that if it bears God’s name, then let’s make it the best. Keller believes that quality and excellence attract people.
Another way Oakwood has leveraged its commitment to excellence is through its website (www.OakwoodChristianChurch.org). The church “bit the bullet” and spent thousands of dollars to upgrade its website in January 2009, because it wanted a site that was representative of the church and its values. The results have been overwhelmingly positive. Many guests have searched for churches online and discovered Oakwood had the town’s best church website, so they decided to try Oakwood first.
Beyond the website, Keller’s younger staff encouraged him to start using Twitter, and elders prompted him to start blogging; both tools have provided a means to improve his communication with people and to help everybody be more connected.
Moving forward, Keller wants Oakwood to continue to emphasize the Bible as the authority for life, to stay committed to being culturally relevant, and to continually change its outreach efforts to ensure it is addressing the community’s needs.
Another priority is leadership development. Keller has formed what he calls the Catalyst group, which is using a 21-month discipleship curriculum called Thoroughly Equipped to prepare the church’s future leaders.
Kent E. Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and associate director of projects and partnerships with CMF International.