By Andy Daniell
How a small, struggling local church found new vitality by simply meeting the need across the street.
Almost all church growth and leadership models are built around these main factors:
• being true to your church’s DNA and finding your role in the kingdom;
• being willing to test and employ various approaches related to the vision that fulfills that role;
• being willing to change and/or shut down ministries and initiatives based on the first two factors;
• allowing room for God to bless the activities and use them in ways that are beyond what’s humanly possible.
This is the story of how a small independent Christian church worked within these four parameters to discover and achieve her link in the chain that is God’s earthly kingdom.
After working in the corporate world for 20 years, I was called into ministry a little over three years ago to help turn around a church that had served a small community outside of Atlanta, Georgia, for more than half a century. As with countless other churches across America, many of the founding members had passed away and the neighborhood had become stressed economically. The vast majority of students in area public schools are on free or reduced breakfast and lunch. Unemployment and poverty are higher and average incomes lower than those in most of the remainder of the metro area.
In the four years prior to my arrival as senior minister, the church’s attendance had declined by 48 percent and its financial income had deteriorated by more than 85 percent. Upon my arrival, a group of dedicated elders and I prayerfully, but quickly, determined God, indeed, wanted us to remain here, so we set off to experiment with different ways we could impact his kingdom in this setting.
We tried an evening worship service, including “rebranding” the service to make it more appealing to younger folks and seekers. We improved our social media presence. We put together men’s and women’s Bible studies, some meeting in homes, some on weekday mornings, others after work at night. We focused on building a family ministry and considered single-parent ministry. The result of all those efforts, however, was quite limited indeed.
But soon enough—and more by the power of prayer and the grace of God than through any stroke of genius on our part—we became more deeply involved in the public high school located directly across the street.
Years before, the church had been involved with “5th Quarters” after football games on Friday night, and we had occasionally held “Spring Flings” on church property the week of spring break or the last day of school. But there was no concentrated ministry focused on the thousands of lost souls in that school.
The associate minister and I became involved as chaplains for the football team, and we expanded our Wednesday night dinners, which included free food for the students who walked across the street.
What was being planned as a community worship service on Wednesday nights was quickly retooled as a teen worship service, complete with a 15-year-old youth worship leader. We started building our themes and devotions around the topics we knew were most relevant to these kids.
The bustle of activity increased dramatically through these efforts. We knew our new focus was God-directed, but we also knew such a God-powered initiative could produce greater results, so we continued praying and making adjustments.
We shifted attention, energy, and resources from other endeavors to the newly revived teen ministry (shutting down the Sunday night worship service, for example). But most important, we continued to change our tactics within the teen ministry itself.
We pulled back a bit from the football team and now direct some of our support toward the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program, the orchestra, and the soccer teams.
We have representatives on the school’s campus as often as we can to promote the church generally, but more specifically the Wednesday night meal and the teen worship service.
Our school campus activities include attending games and JROTC competitions, working concession stands, and acting as monitors in the lunchroom.
We hold receptions for the orchestra after their concerts and invite singing and dancing groups from the school to perform at our church.
For our efforts, we were awarded the Outstanding Partner in Education Award for 2015 by the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce and nominated again for the award in 2016.
Church members tutor students in math, science, statistics, economics, and physics. We held a college seminar at the church; and we conducted a multiweek life training class that taught everything from table manners to balancing a checking account.
It feels good to feed a hungry kid (and some of the young people who come through our doors are hungry indeed), and seeing growth in worship attendance is certainly rewarding. But we really only began to see spiritual growth and fruit when we implemented the following:
The chairman of our elders restructured his Bible study from a morning event for men at a local restaurant to an evening cookout hosted in his backyard to which boys to men, middle school age and older, are invited. These gatherings include periods of fellowship, devotion, and time for Christian men to be paired up with the boys for sharing and praying together.
Our college girls, when they are home from the university, are conducting Bible studies and seminars on purity for the younger teen girls.
Our associate minister regularly takes the teens to a women’s shelter to serve food and play with the children and to prepare food for and feed homeless individuals living in Atlanta, primarily under the bridges downtown.
The church is also coaching and encouraging young people who begin to pursue a deeper faith to demonstrate it and publicly share the role their faith is having in their life. We invite them to ask friends and family to join them at church. The power of organic church growth should never be underestimated.
The results over the last three-plus years have been surprising to us.
While the Sunday morning worship attendance is up more than 70 percent in that period (a 17.6 percent annual growth rate), the Wednesday night teen attendance is up 942 percent over the same period (a 92.4 percent annual growth rate).
More than 60 percent of the graduating classes over the last two years are enrolled in college, with half of them attending private Christian schools.
The makeup of our Wednesday night worship service is the most diverse in the area both demographically and in total number of religious affiliations represented. Agnostics and atheists join us—some of whom have since been baptized and joined the youth praise team—along with a few Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, and Jews. Perhaps the most exciting part is the non-Christian seekers and Catholic-affiliated seekers who regularly attend and ultimately convert.
Our church looks radically different from how it did just a few years ago (and radically different from every other church in the area). We are engaging more unchurched individuals on a weekly basis than we ever have. Though we lost a few couples here and there, overall the church has adjusted brilliantly to the change and been more supportive than I could have ever imagined.
These young people come from humble means and bring virtually no money to the church. When I became the senior minister three years ago, we could not have afforded to invest as much in these young people as we are now. But somehow God keeps providing and we continue to, if not thrive financially, at least survive.
Even in areas such as ours, which cannot support new church plants and have relatively negative economic and demographic trends, God still needs ambassadors as a link in the chain to disciple the next generation of ambassadors to be links in the chain.
There are options in our area for teens who want to attend church with their parents. But until God directed us as such, there really was no good option for unchurched kids from unchurched families to be welcomed and assimilated, hear the gospel, be baptized, and be taught to obey everything that Christ commanded.
We are convinced we are in God’s will on this. Working with these kids, through all their struggles and challenges, answering all their questions, baptizing them, exhorting them to greater emotional and spiritual maturity, and turning them into evangelists is the link in the chain that God has called us to fulfill.
As soon as school is out each May, we have reassessment meetings to refine our tactics. But there can be no doubt the overarching mission is to provide a place of safety and acceptance (for young people who are struggling and facing some daunting challenges), a place of earnest spiritual seeking and discovery (for nonbelieving kids with more honest questions than answers), and a place of Christian growth and service to the thousands of unique and vibrant young people God has placed only a few hundred yards from our front door.
Andy Daniell is the author of the forthcoming book Crystal Clear: How the Bible Proves Itself and Teaches Us to View the World. He has held various executive positions in corporate America. Currently he is bivocational, serving as senior minister with the First Christian Church of Mableton (Georgia) and as president of an analytical consulting company.