By Ryan Rasmussen
I must admit, right off the bat, that as a minister, I’m still learning, and the church I lead, First Christian of Canton, Ohio, is a work in progress. We don’t have the greatest turnaround story of all time, but God has done some incredible things over the past few years, despite our imperfections.
You see, as I write this, I am sitting at my dining room table on a beautiful 82-degree day. The sun is breaking through the blinds as if God himself is stretching the rays of light, pinching one end between his thumb and index finger, and pulling the beams directly into my eyes. You might think to yourself, Dude, close the blinds, but if you understood how rare days like this are in northeast Ohio, you too would gladly welcome an hour of squinting eyes.
Truth is, I’m slightly bitter about this beautiful day. It’s been raining for the past week without much reprieve. That is, until today, Sunday, when the clouds opted to go into hiding and the rain moved to the bench. As one might expect, church attendance was down as people chose to do yard work instead of worship Jesus. In addition, this morning was the running of the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon in Canton, so I’m currently trying to lift my spirits after preaching to a room that had the critical mass of a Puddle of Mudd reunion show.
That may seem like an odd place to start when writing an article about our church’s new lease on life, but bear with me.
See, I know how these types of articles often go.
Do these three things and . . . voilà.
Turn your church around with five simple concepts!
If you’ve been in ministry for any length of time, you know it’s not that easy. You know the grind of pastoral work and how it doesn’t take hostages. On the other side, you also know the joy of sitting in the front row and watching life change before your eyes. You know the feeling of someone finally getting it. That’s when we’re reminded why we grind and stress and lie awake at night. That’s when we’re reminded that it’s all worth it.
The last three years, for me, have been all of that . . . and so much more.
But first, let’s go back. Way back.
A RICH AND ROLLER-COASTER HISTORY
I have the honor of pastoring a church with a rich history dating back to the 1800s. At one point, under the leadership of P. H. Welshimer, First Christian was the largest church in the United States, a megachurch before megachurches were a thing.
Over the years the church experienced ups and downs, but in the late ’90s and early 2000s, FCC was thriving again. Pushed to capacity, the church decided to build a modern facility on the outskirts of Canton. FCC bought an 18-hole golf course, converted it to 9 holes, and planted a new building in the remaining space.
Long story short, the church bit off more than it could chew, from a financial standpoint. This burden began to wear on the congregation, and over time, people started to leave. FCC dipped to about 900 people per weekend, which is still a good-size church, but wasn’t enough to contend with the overwhelming mortgage payments. In 2012, First Christian deeded its $25 million complex back to the lender for $13.6 million, and then leased the building from the company with significantly reduced monthly payments.
This was a seriously trying time for the church. Staff went through multiple waves of layoffs, and morale was suffering. The church’s vision had once been clear and forward-moving, but now the focus was simply to “stay alive.”
LEAPS OF FAITH
When my wife and I came for our interview weekend, the church’s struggles were hard to miss. But I also saw a great upside. Staff members were talented. The hearts of the remaining congregants were pure and good. The eldership consisted of godly men who wanted simply to grow God’s kingdom.
So, my wife and I took a leap of faith. We moved across the country, leaving a church and community in Colorado that we loved dearly, and charted new waters to what Forbes listed as the ninth most miserable city in America. We took a chance on First Christian Church, but I often remind people that First Christian took a chance on us as well. I started in February 2014. I was 31 years old with no lead pastor experience. I had been in Boulder, Colorado, the previous six years, a vastly different culture and spiritual landscape than northeast Ohio. We had no guarantees this new marriage would work, and honestly, First Christian could not afford another change in leadership.
The day I rolled into town, our church had $25,000 in its reserve. To put that into perspective, our weekly budgeted need was $29,000. We were literally a snowed-out Sunday from draining our reserves completely. In addition, most of our staff members were part-time because we couldn’t afford to pay benefits. We were a church on life support.
The first thing I did was conduct a one-on-one meeting with each team member. The fear and exhaustion in their eyes was apparent. “I’m scared I’m going to come in to church one Sunday and there will be chains on the doors,” one staff member shared with me.
Congregants couldn’t believe my wife and I bought a house so quickly. “Wow,” more than one person said, “you must really have faith that things are going to turn around.”
Call me naïve or ignorant, but when I looked at FCC, I saw potential and opportunity. I was confident God was going to work . . . and he has.
Three years have passed, and I’m in awe of what Jesus has done. We’ve seen our weekly attendance grow from 900 to more than 1,600. Our reserve has gone from $25,000 to more than $800,000. Best of all, we’ve seen 383 people baptized into Jesus over that span.
It’s important to me that you understand I’m not sharing this with you to promote myself.
I know God wired me for this role, and I have no doubt he called me to FCC. I also know how deeply flawed I am. Just last summer, as our church was inching closer to 1,800 in attendance, I had to step away for a few months to clean up some areas of my life and get healthy. To say the least, it was a momentum killer, but it was necessary. I can also say confidently that it rescued me in ministry.
I mention that because I don’t want to paint an idyllic picture. Yes, God has done an amazing work at FCC, but it hasn’t been an easy work. We’ve experienced ups and downs, and more hills and valleys are yet to come. Yet, I maintain our best days are ahead.
FOUR CORNER-TURNING COMMITMENTS
Looking back, a few specific convictions helped us turn the corner.
We Decided (Almost) Everything Must Go. Most leaders, when entering an organization, will take a year to assess the culture and challenges ahead before making significant changes. We simply didn’t have that luxury. We weren’t sure we’d be around in 12 months.
We used the phrase “visible change” a lot during that first year. We wanted people to know this wasn’t just another transition in leadership, but a rebirth for our church. We didn’t want to just talk about change, we wanted people to see it.
Some changes were subtle, like switching the order of service, redesigning the weekly programs, and rejuvenating the website. Others were bigger, like overhauling the church’s mission, vision, and values, changing our style of worship, and updating our target demographic.
It’s fair to say very few things were left untouched. If something didn’t work or have a purpose, we changed it or let it go.
We Created Raving Fans. We worked hard to create raving fans. We wanted our people to be excited about what was happening at First Christian Church. We wanted them to be proud of their church—so proud that they couldn’t help but tell their friends about it.
We worked hard to create experiences that everyone could rally around, even if they didn’t love all the changes. We had baptism celebrations. Everyone could rally around that. We did a huge community outreach event in the middle of the summer. People got excited about that too. No matter what people thought of the changes we were making, they couldn’t help but cheer for the positive things the church was doing.
We also worked to create a clear, tweetable vision statement: “Jesus for all people.” This statement has become our mantra. Almost every week, in one way or another, I’ll talk about our desire to be a place that’s not just for church people or saved people, but for all people. Addicted or sober. Black or white. Rich or poor. Gay or straight. We want to be a place with arms wide open, allowing individuals, from all walks of life, the opportunity to meet Jesus.
On any given day, I’ll see #JesusForAllPeople in my news feed on Facebook, on a bumper sticker in the mall parking lot, or on a T-shirt at the grocery store. Our people are proud to say their church is for all people.
We Committed to Excellence. We worked hard to make things good. I try to preach great sermons every Sunday. Our creative arts team works hard to knock it out of the park each week. The same goes for our children’s ministry, guest services, facilities workers, and on and on.
We’re not perfect. We still have work to do in many areas, but this is always a priority for us.
We Stopped Being Afraid. On a wall in my office hangs a quote from John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: “Major barriers to successful planning are fear of change, ignorance, uncertainty about the future, and lack of imagination.”
That quote reminds me to dream big. Many churches are paralyzed by fear of change and uncertainty about the future. A significant part of my ministry here is working to make sure those barriers have no place at First Christian Church. Fear will not prevent us from pursuing God’s heart.
WHAT WE’VE LEARNED
If you were to sit down with one of our elders, it’s likely he would tell you our dark days were necessary, and while it was gut-wrenchingly painful, God used that season to humble our church.
There was a time we thought a new building would evangelize for us, but God brought us out of that thinking. There was a season when, if we saw a ministry gap, the solution was simply to hire more staff; but these days, God is teaching us to empower our people to serve. In the past, we thought effective ministry required a large budget, but now we know a budget isn’t a requirement at all.
I’m proud to say it was out of that season of hardship that we built one of the strongest disability ministries in the country. It was out of our struggle that we became a church for the broken, abandoned, and marginalized. I am convinced if we hadn’t been through the dark times, we wouldn’t have realized our calling to help people out of theirs.
Most recently, we have changed our extension-fund arrangement. We are continuing to lease, but with lower, locked-in monthly payments and significant grant money for repairs to our building. It provides us with greater flexibility and a long runway to solidify our growing ministry, while providing the extension fund with more equity with which to loan money to growing churches.
We have not reached the final chapter of First Christian Church’s story, but I’m proud to be a small part of God’s work here, and I can’t wait to see what he does next!
Ryan Rasmussen serves as lead pastor with First Christian Church, Canton, Ohio, and blogs at www.JesusForAllPeople.com.