by Dean Merrill
You’ll find the space squeeze and the money squeeze, but churches are innovating not only in building but in program and ministries as well.
More and more evanglical churches are attracting more and more people. Whether we are indeed seeing one of what Peter called the "times of refreshing [that] come from the Lord" (Acts 3:19), or whether other causes can be named, these are days of numerical growth. The church of 75 or 100 last time may well be 150 or 200 this trip around, while the congregation of 300 may suddenly be pushing 1,000. Evangelicals are relishing the joys of growth and learning more about managing it effectively.
But the increasing crowds could not have arrived at a worse time for constructing new facilities. Interest rates have pole-vaulted during the past two years, giving pastors and building committees an agonizing choice between outrageous mortgage payments or stagnation. Some of the more creative solutions have been:
1. Building with cash only. A few churches are thumbing their noses at the bankers and saying, "When we have the money, we build; when we don’t we keep praying." Beracah Bible Church in Amarillo, Texas, used a series of nine rented locations for 15 years while it saved up enough money to build a 400-seat building. Pastor Jerry Bryan tells of last-minute contributions to finish off major segments of the structure and of rising enthusiasm as the project went on. "Our church decided to forego the joy of something better: no mortgages at all."
New Life Assembly of God in the small town of Yorkville, Illinois, is currently finishing a sanctuary for 1,200 without borrowing. Virtually all of the labor is being done by the men of the church, thus holding the cost under $300,000.
2. Building with volunteer labor. Numerous other churches are holding down costs by arranging with their contractors to do part of the work themselves. In 1981, Bartlett Chapel United Methodist Church outside Indianapolis even managed to get volunteers from other United Methodist churches to come help put up a two-story educational wing, cutting $40,000 and four months off the job.
3. Spreading the schedule. Double Sunday morning worship services are common in growing evangelical churches, and triple services are not unusual. Bear Valley Baptist Church in Denver currently ministers to more than 1,200 in a building that seats only 300. It actually has seven different congregations led by four different staff pastors- 8:00 (in the fellowship hall), 8:30, 9:45, 11:15, and 5:15 p.m., plus an 11 a.m. service in a downtown storefront and a 7:00 p.m. group that uses a nearby Lutheran church.
At one point in its growth, The Church on the Way, Van Nuys, California, asked a quarter of its small group to stay home and meet one Sunday morning each month, so the other three fourths could fit into the main building.
South Main Baptist Church in Houston has experimented with a Friday night worship service, complete with special music and a full message by Senior Pastor Kenneth Chafin (a preview of Sunday’s sermon). The point here was mainly to accommodate various lifestyles and reach urban people disinclined toward a traditional morning service.
4. Starting branch churches. One way to relieve the squeeze is to mother new congregations and support them not only with funds but also with a contingent of transferring members. "We’ve launched five congregations in the last two years," says Jerry Cook at East Hill Church, Gresham, Oregon, "each of them with 200 to 300 people to get rolling," The mother church is still full with 3,000 constituents.
5. Renting extra facilities. Adult Sunday school classes in nearby restaurants or public schools are succeeding in a number of places. After Bethel Church in San Jose enlarged its own plant, two restaurant classes liked the old atmosphere so well they decided not to move.
6. Sharing with another church. Ethnic congregations have done this often, of course, but now even mainstream groups are trying it. Fellowship Bible Church in Waco, Texas, enjoys the use of a Seventh-day Adventist church and helps pay for the utilities.
While Bible study continues strong, both in Sunday school and in homes, an extravaganza of other courses have jumped on the educational menu. The Thursday morning "Women Alive" program at Christian Life Assembly in Langley, British Columbia, kicks off with a one-hour exercise class, led by a trained fitness instructor. MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) in a number of Denver churches includes cake decorating, bread making, and craft instruction for Christian women and their non-Christian friends. Both programs include solid biblical teachings as well.
New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore moved its entire Sunday school to Saturday morning a number of years ago in order to gain more teaching time. After an opening worship time and an hour of Bible study, students can choose from cooking, carpentry, typing, how to get a job, and many other options. School-age pupils can also opt for tutoring in math, reading, Spanish, French, and Latin.
Has such an array been hard to staff? Says Pastor Harold A. Carter, "It turned out that our professionals- public school and college teachers-rose to the challenge. They joined me in wanting to see a renaissance of Christian education in the church."
A megachurch like Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, California, has even extended electives to its fourth through sixth graders on Thursday night. "Candle Factory," as the program is called, offers up to seven courses at a time ranging from music to needlework to puppetry to games and puzzles. "It’s a fresh and exciting change from Sunday school for those children who attend church many times a week," says Mike Barnett, director of children’s ministry.
Returning missionaries are likely to hear less "Rescue the Perishing" and more contemporary refrains such as "In My Life, Lord, Be Glorified" or "Tell the People I Love Them." Even outside missions conference, church music is definitely more user-friendly.
"Music is one of the keys to a growing church," says Marvin Rickard, pastor of Los Gatos (Calif.) Christian Church (6,000 members, $1.2 million missions budget). "And we’ve established that the music department’s job is to lead the people in worship, not to educate or elevate their musical tastes. Thus, in our setting, that means no Bach and no rock. We chop it off at both ends in order to meet the majority where they are."
Orchestras are definitely on the rise, says Lyle Schaller, America’s premier churchwatcher. Chapel Hill Harvester Church in Decatur, Georgia, even offers free instrument lessons to its young in order to grow its own musicians. A number of charismatic churches are experimenting with worship teams-ensembles of three or four voices plus instruments that lead congregational singing as a group, instead of one lone songleader. The response from the audience is noticeably more alive.
First Covenant Church, Rockford, Illinois, drops its normal requirements for choir membership the last week of each month. If you simply show up on Wednesday night for a one-hour rehearsal, you can sing in Sunday’s "Praise Choir." Participation jumps from 35 to 70 singers.
Youth pastors and groups still do their share of kidding around, but more and more of the energy is being channeled toward projects. Marathons to raise money, including missions money, are common, whether riding bikes, jumping rope, or picking up trash along the roads.
Out-of-town trips to serve-once the domain of Christian service councils at Bible colleges-are becoming more and more frequent among high school groups. Most North American churches are less than a 24-hour bus ride from a needy location (Mexico, the Caribbean, an Indian reservation) where teens can paint church buildings, pass out Christian literature, and lead children’s meetings. Akron’s Chapel in University Park has an elaborate ladder of ministry: sophomores do VBS in rural Ohio towns; juniors go to inner-city Charleston, West Virginia; seniors work door-to-door in the West Indies; collegians spend whole summers in Alaska, Europe, and Mexico.
The young people at Petersburg (W. Va.) Presbyterian Church uncovered $20,000 worth of outdated equipment at the local hospital and bought it for only $500, then transported it to the Medical Benevolence Foundation for refurbishing and use overseas. Having thus been stirred, five of the teens went to Haiti the next summer for a work program.
Specialty ministries to the fragments of family life are booming, simply because the need is so great. When Pastor John J. van der Graaf and five lay people started a support group for the divorced and separated at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church outside St. Louis, attendance streaked to 200 in the first year. It now meets every Thursday evening for two and a half hours. Says the pastor, "Jesus said, ‘Go and sin no more,’ He also said, ‘You must be born again.’ We are helping both of these commandments to become reality in the lives of lonely, rejected, and forgotten people."
First Christian Church in Traverse City, Michigan, looked beyond its virgin forests and pristine lakefronts to hear the muffled cries of battered children in its community. A daycare program, set up in conjunction with the courts and public schools, lets volunteers pour Christ’s love into frightened youngsters three days a week.
Programs for the elderly are becoming more prominent as well as varied, filling the vacuum created by sons and daughters too busy to care for aging parents. Potlucks and field trips are the norm, but First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Florida, even takes its 70-year-olds on work trips to Appalachia, to help finish church buildings.
Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship has sensitized North American Christians to the needs of prisoners and their families. Some are now welcoming born-again inmates on furloughs, while others are setting up houses close to the penitentiaries where wives and children can stay while visiting.
Further signs of change that will catch the returning missionary’s eye are:
House fellowship groups are increasing steadily, and on weeknights missionaries are often asked to visit groups around town rather than hold meetings at the church. The Q & A times can be stimulating.
More congregations are eating together weekly at church, especially before the midweek service. It boosts both fellowship and attendance.
Because of the recession, special ministries to the unemployed have flourished in hard-hit areas.
All in all, there is much to applaud in the North American church of 1983. It is not trying to maintain the good old days so much as shape and exploit good new days of ministry and growth.
Copyright © 1983 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.