By Brent Adams
When one of the largest megachurches in America wanted to celebrate its 50th anniversary, leaders decided there was no better way than to point people to the message of the Bible.
In summer 2011, the elders and staff at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, started planning for the church’s 50th anniversary celebration, to be held the following year. They wanted to come up with something that would deflect attention away from the rapidly growing congregation and focus, instead, on the God who has blessed the church since its humble beginnings in the basement of a tiny brick house.
Southeast strives to be a praying church that has a heart for making disciples who make disciples, and for going into the community and the world in the name of Jesus Christ.
To give church members a greater understanding and appreciation for why those things are important, the decision was made to use The Story, a chronological account of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, arranged by Max Lucado and Randy Frazee, senior ministers at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas. (The Story, NIV: The Bible as One Continuing Story of God and His People and its associated products are published by Zondervan.)
“We thought it would be a great way to honor what God has done at Southeast for 50 years,” Southeast senior pastor Dave Stone said. “We wanted to continue to put the focus on the Bible, God’s Word. That has always been and always will be the foundation of Southeast.”
Formulating a Plan
When the decision was made to study The Story in 2012, key staff members from Zondervan visited with about 20 Southeast ministry staff and leaders for several days of planning meetings. There also were numerous conference calls to discuss the launch, the integration of teaching, and artistic elements—those created by Zondervan and those created by the communications team at Southeast, and later shared with other churches across the United States. Those elements included animated sermon bumpers, weekly customized sermon graphics and bulletin art, children’s teaching videos, spoken word videos teaching on the Ten Commandments, and teaching videos for the church’s weekly half-hour Southeast TV program that runs on the local NBC affiliate, WAVE-TV.
Beginning in early February 2012 and running 31 weeks through the end of November, the congregation that now numbers nearly 35,000 people walked through The Story at Southeast’s main campus and its two multisite locations.
Breaks during the year coincided with holidays and a 50th anniversary celebration weekend featuring a special message delivered by Stone, teaching pastor Kyle Idleman, and retired senior pastor Bob Russell. The series wrapped up with “The Story Tour,” which included a message delivered by Frazee and musical performances by Christian artists Mark Hall of Casting Crowns, Jeremy Camp, Natalie Grant, Matthew West, Nichole Nordeman, Selah, Rawsrvnt, and Bernie Herms, along with a children’s choir and orchestra.
Cary Meyer, director of communications at Southeast, who was involved in planning and coordinating implementation of The Story, said there was little trepidation about rolling out a 31-week sermon series.
“Everyone found it refreshing and unifying for Southeast,” Meyer said. “It created the opportunity for our entire church to have a central-focused message, creating great dinner table conversations for families and friends.”
Study of The Story didn’t just happen in corporate worship services. Weekend Bible study groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, elementary, junior high, high school, and college-age ministries all incorporated the week’s chapter of the The Story in their lessons. Some used companion study materials distributed by Zondervan. Others created their own lessons around the topics in each chapter.
Even The Southeast Outlook, the church-affiliated newspaper distributed each week to about 30,000 households, got into the act by running a four-page study section created by the staff. It also included accounts of church members’ life stories intersecting with God’s story, and a weekly devotion provided by Zondervan and penned by pastor Rick Brown of Christbridge Fellowship in Tomball, Texas.
Don Porterfield, general manager of The Outlook, said, “Not only did we want our church members who were following along with the sermon series and Bible studies to grow and deepen in the message each week, but we wanted our readers to be inspired by God’s Word as told through The Story. We received feedback from people across the country who were moved by the message we shared each week.”
Some of the appeal of The Story is that each week a church can take a central message and teach it on every level, from elementary to corporate worship and adult Bible studies, Leith said. Families then can study the message together throughout the week.
Getting Books in Hands
Before the study could begin, the church wanted to make sure everyone studying The Story in worship services and Bible studies had a copy of their own. Church leaders worked with Zondervan to create a special edition of the book, complete with Southeast’s 50th anniversary logo on the cover.
The books were sold at a special rate of $10, but many people gave sacrificially to cover the cost for people who wanted the book but couldn’t afford to purchase it. All totaled, 26,000 books were distributed through the church’s bookstore and media ministry, The Living Word. Another 9,400 age-appropriate copies of The Story were distributed for ministry groups ranging from preschool to teens. To wrap up the series, 2,500 copies of The Story were distributed by the church’s local outreach in Christmas baskets given to disadvantaged families in the Louisville area.
“The process of distribution was a little tricky at first given the volume, but with the help of staff, volunteers, and Zondervan, it all worked out beautifully in the end,” said Dena Meade, who oversees The Living Word ministry at Southeast. “I love it when ministries can work together and God gets the glory.”
Having an Impact
With 33 different ministries, one of the biggest challenges Southeast faced was delivering a consistent message among each of them. Through prayer and many coordination meetings, The Story was launched and implemented smoothly.
“All of the ministries are led by very creative and passionate ministry leaders and staff,” Meyer said. “We had to slow everything down a bit, push pause, and discuss the best overall plan for how The Story could become a unifying thread throughout Southeast. [We didn’t want leaders to view it] as restraining or restricting their individual efforts and teachings.”
In the end, The Story’s seamless implementation resonated with existing members and attracted many new attendees over the course of the series.
Southeast member John Hall said he has studied the Bible using many different methods since giving his life to Christ in the early 1990s, but The Story’s chronological approach provided a fresh perspective.
“The Story especially appealed to women who were new to the faith,” said Debbie Scheller, who leads women’s ministry at Southeast.
“It was really effective at drawing in women who had never studied the Bible and had never really thought about how their personal stories connect with God’s story,” Scheller said.
“We have a heavy Bible study culture at Southeast, and some women felt like they needed something more than what The Story presented,” Scheller said. “But we had to remind them that God’s Word never returns void, and there is something new you can learn every time you hear those stories.”
By sharing The Story in its various ministries, Southeast’s leadership learned more work must be done to help people better understand how to study their Bibles.
“We continue to feed them, but they have to learn to feed themselves,” Scheller said. “What we see sometimes is a lack of desire among people to feed themselves because they are used to us telling them what they should think about certain passages of Scripture rather than them looking at it for themselves. We need to continue to strive to do better at equipping people to study their Bibles and encouraging them to dig in on their own.”
Looking at the Southeast congregation a year after wrapping up the series, senior pastor Dave Stone said the use of The Story achieved what ministry leaders and elders hoped it would accomplish.
“The Story gave a chronological understanding of the Bible and allowed all of us to see how God’s story intersects with our story,” Stone said. “What was most exciting to me was to see the lightbulb come on in the lives of the Southeast folks as they learned God’s plan for their redemption, woven throughout the entire Bible.”
And this partnership taught lessons later implemented in rollouts of The Story at churches throughout the United States. Leith estimates that between 6,000 and 8,000 churches have used The Story.
“Southeast Christian is very influential in the country,” Leith said. “It is watched by everybody, and other churches have wanted to do it because they saw Southeast do it, and do it so well.”
Brent Adams is editor of The Southeast Outlook, a weekly newspaper of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
Southeast Uses The Story after Strong Recommendation
“We were amazed at the interest, indicated by the fact that we had to reorder additional copies of The Story no less than three times,” Ken Idleman said. “More than 5,000 books were distributed. We also averaged weekend worship attendances that were consistently 350 to 400 above the previous year’s numbers.”
Ken Idleman said he and his staff had initial concerns about committing to a 31-week series. But any fears they had quickly disappeared when they saw the impact the series had on the congregation.
“It moved pretty fast and there did not seem to be any community fatigue,” he said. “The use of video and beautiful seasonal backdrops on the platform, purchased secondhand from a church in San Antonio, helped to keep people engaged until the finish line.”
But it was more than just backdrops that held their attention, he said. It was the gospel message, presented in a gripping, easy-to-comprehend manner.
“It gave us the opportunity to demonstrate that God’s plan to reclaim his lost creation was consistent throughout human history, from the beginning in Genesis to the end in Revelation,” Ken Idleman said. “It tied the scheme of redemption together through the ages, and it especially helped people to see that God’s judgment of pagan peoples in the Old Testament was actually merciful, to preserve a righteous remnant from which would come the Messiah, the Savior of the world.”
The series also helped Crossroads promote Bible literacy.
“Small groups used The Story text and the weekend message manuscripts for their curriculum, and our children’s ministry adapted teaching content and methodology to consistently track with what the adults were learning,” Ken Idleman said. “And, to tie it all together, it helped to establish a culture of devotional time in many of our family units.”