America’s Most Innovative Churches
By Tony Morgan and Lindy Lowry
How are today’s churches innovating to reach a changing world, and which ones are leading the way?
The times—they are a-changin’. Bob Dylan’s ode to the ’60s revolution seems apropos for today’s ever-changing world. We repeatedly hear about the great and not-so-great ways technology is transforming our lives, how the Internet continues to flatten our world, giving us access to someone across the planet with one click of the mouse. Moreover, we see a new spiritual climate developing as individuals seek to customize their beliefs.
So, as the world continues to change and innovate, is the local church keeping up with these changes, and if so, how? That’s what we set out to discover with this cover story, which includes our first annual America’s Most Innovative Churches list. As we looked at today’s churches and the diverse ways they’re creatively reaching their communities, we found congregations that aren’t afraid to barbecue a few sacred cows or buck the status quo to ensure that people around them are hearing—and understanding—the Gospel’s significance in their lives.
Several of these churches are not only impacting communities in new ways, they’re also equipping and encouraging other congregations in the face of growing challenges. To find these churches, Outreach and author/Granger Community Church Pastor Tony Morgan put together a panel of 12 ministry leaders and experts, who identified those congregations that are embracing a new vision for the Church. We asked each panelist to provide an individual list of what he or she believes to be the top 15 innovative churches in America and used that data to deliver the final list of 25.
Altogether, the panel nominated 73 different churches for consideration. You’ll notice that some panelists are leaders of churches on the list. However, panel members on staff at a church were not allowed to list their own congregation. The final list reflects a diverse geographic cross-section, with ministries representing almost every region of the country, including churches from 16 states and the District of Columbia. California has the most churches represented with four, followed by Illinois with three. The list also features a range of church sizes, ages and denominations. And while several nationally known mega-churches grabbed a spot, you’ll also find smaller, lesser-known congregations, as well as newer non-denominational churches and older mainline denominational ministries. Some congregations are located in metro-plexes; others are innovating in small communities. The 25 churches on this list reflect a diverse blend of racial and cultural environments, as well.
Most importantly, they gave evidence to the idea that there’s no one single way to “do church.” You’ll see that for yourself as we take you inside four of these churches for an in-depth look at the distinctive ministry strategies they’re using to fulfill their individual mission. Each church we’ve profiled (pages 60–74), Life Church tv in Edmond, Okla. (No. 1), Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich. (No. 11), Crossover Church in Tampa Bay, Fla. (No. 13), and Christ the King in Mount Vernon, Wash. (No. 22), has a unique story to tell.
By highlighting the value of innovation, hearing the stories and learning from these ministry leaders, we hope you’ll be challenged to begin a conversation about the future of your church and its impact in your changing community. If it’s just innovation for innovation’s sake, it really has no value in the church. If the end result is life-transformation through Christ, then the church needs to innovate.
Welcome to America’s Most Innovative Churches.
Meet Our Panelists
Efrem Smith – An internationally recognized leader, speaker and pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, Efrem Smith consults on diversity and multi-ethnic issues in churches nationwide.
Nancy Beach – In 1985, Nancy Beach joined Willow Creek Community Church’s staff as programming director for its worship services. A champion for the arts in the Church, Beach is also the author of An Hour on Sunday (Zondervan).
Brad Abare – Brad Abare is the assistant vice president and director of communications for the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel and founder of church communications site Churchmarketingsucks.com.
Mark Batterson – In addition to leading National Community Church in Washington, D.C., which draws mostly 20-somethings, Mark Batterson is founder of the Buzz Conference, designed to encourage creativity in the Church.
Mark Driscoll – The founding pastor of Mars Hill Church Seattle, Mark Driscoll is known for creatively engaging with the young and modern. Driscoll is also president of the Acts 29 church planting network and author of numerous books.
Geoff Surratt – Serving as network pastor at Seacoast Church in Mount Pleasant, S.C., Geoff Surratt oversees all of the weekend experiences at the church’s 10 campuses. He also oversees Leadership Network’s facilitation teams.
Ed Young Jr. – As an author, speaker and senior pastor of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, Ed Young Jr. is known for his creative communication style in the Church. He is the author of The Creative Leader (B & H).
Tim Sanders – A former Yahoo! executive and leadership coach, Tim Sanders is the author of the international bestseller Love Is the Killer App (Crown,) and The Likeability Factor (Crown). He also teaches at leadership conferences nationwide.
David Anderson – The senior pastor of multicultural Bridge Way Community Church in Columbia, Md., David Anderson is also president of Bridge Leader Network, a multicultural consulting organization.
Dawn Nicole Baldwin – For more than 10 years, Dawn Nicole Baldwin has worked with churches and businesses to develop marketing strategies. Her firm, Aspire One, helps churches connect people to Christ.
Brad Lomenick – Over the past 10 years, Brad Lomenick has built a reputation as a key convener of leaders through John Maxwell’s INJOY, where he oversees the annual Catalyst Conference and the Maximum Impact Simulcast.
Perry Noble – As senior pastor of New Spring Church in Anderson, S.C., Perry Noble speaks at church communication conferences, and blogs regularly about creativity, leadership and vision in the Church.
Profiling America’s Most Innovative Churches
By Jeannie Choi
Life Via Satellite
If the “live” button to the right of the Web page is flashing red, you know it’s time for church. Click the button, and the page sends you to the “lobby” where you can mingle (via online chat) with other members of LifeChurch tv’s Internet campus, a congregation that meets solely online. These members often bewilder Craig Groeschel, senior pastor of LifeChurch.tv, which also has eight physical locations.
“I go online, and they say to me: ‘It’s so nice to meet you.’ In their minds, it’s as real as a face-to-face conversation,” Groeschel says. In another instance, he watched in amazement as 20 LifeChurch.tv Internet campus members from all over the world ministered through typed prayer and encouragement to a woman who had been sexually assaulted. Although this kind of digital community is somewhat puzzling to Groeschel, he remains convinced of its validity.
“Their prayers are real,” he insists. “And God hears them.”
When LifeChurch.tv began in 1996, 40 members met in a two-car garage, equipped with just a borrowed overhead projector and two construction lights purchased at Lowe’s for $19.99. Ten years later, the church has been named No. 1 on our list of America’s Most Innovative Churches, primarily for its ability to leverage the latest technology available for its nine multi-state campuses, 18,000 members and thousands of weekly visitors, many of who are window-shopping Christianity.
While Groeschel might not fully understand his congregation’s proclivity for high-tech programs, he’ll never pull the plug on them, as long as they continue to draw unchurched people to Christ.
“Without apology, I will do whatever it takes to grab people’s attention,” the 37-year-old pastor says.
As a result, visitors to any one of LifeChurch.tv’s nine campuses scattered throughout Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas and Tennessee, are treated to a stimulation of the senses, as the Gospel message is presented with compelling images and sounds that transform a traditional worship service into what LifeChurch.tv members call a “worship experience.”
“LifeChurch never set out to be a tech-church,” says Pastor and Innovation Leader Bobby Gruenewald, the brains behind much of the church’s technological innovation. “We were just passionate about reaching people, and God began to assemble a team who knew how to utilize video and technology.”
Three years after its launch in Oklahoma City, LifeChurch.tv established a second campus in Edmond, Okla., and Groeschel drove the 7.6 miles between the two campuses to preach every Sunday morning. When his wife gave birth to their fourth child on a Saturday night, however, it became clear that Groeschel wouldn’t make it to preach the next day.
“That’s when we decided to roll back the tape from a different worship experience, and it was remarkable,” says Gruenewald. “People responded to the video just as well as if Craig was there in person.” Intrigued, LifeChurch.tv’s staff considered the possibilities of video technology.
Thus began a series of innovations for making each worship experience accessible to all of their physical campuses, first through fiber optics, pre-recorded DVDs, and then through satellite technology. In 2003, LifeChurch.tv built its first satellite uplink, allowing the church to send live video feeds to anywhere in the world. Today, all video is available for streaming online, and can be downloaded for use on personal Web sites.
Each technological advance is an effort to make LifeChurch.tv more attractive, particularly to a generation of tech-savvy young adults, says Groeschel.
“Twenty-somethings are more passionate about the things of Christ than people I’ve ever met in my lifetime. They’re fanatics in the best sense of the word,” says Groeschel.
Many of these young people are the founding members of LifeChurch.tv’s Internet campus, which launched in March 2006 and allows members to engage in live worship experiences, a sermon in real time, small groups that meet through chat or video-conferencing and virtual missions trips into community Web sites such as MySpace.com or Xanga.com. For example, when a man in Denver logged on to a pornographic site, he found a message by Groeschel on pornography addiction posted from a LifeChurch.tv member. He now attends the online campus and has found a local church.
Another LifeChurch.tv initiative reaching unchurched Internet users was birthed out of a message series entitled “My Secret.” Prompted by a conviction to integrate confession into its church community, LifeChurch.tv launched MySecret.tv, a Web site for posting confessions anonymously. Since the site launched in August 2006, it has generated interest from both members and non-members who have posted more than 1,500 confessions to date—and caught the attention of national media. In September, the New York Times ran an article about the site.
For Groeschel, however, the site’s popularity is simply an indication that there’s more work to be done.
“Our technology initiatives fan the flame of passion even more to do what I’m doing,” he says.
“What will happen when we get to the place where attendance becomes innumerable?” Groeschel muses. “I hope to inspire churches to not be threatened by each other, but rather to work together in a way where we can really make an impact on the world.”
Asking The Right Questions
Planning to launch a church? Church growth experts would suggest sending mailers to your community. Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich. (mhbcmi.org), however, did nothing of the sort. Instead, news of its opening date spread simply by word-of-mouth, and it worked. On the first gathering in February 1999, 3,000 people showed up.
Experts would also tell you to place an attractive sign on your church building, so passersby can’t miss your church. But Mars Hill has never posted a sign on its building, which the church calls “the shed.” Somehow, the church hasn’t gone unnoticed. The congregation has grown to 10,000 current members.
And to retain visitors, most churches keep up appearances with inviting décor and comfortable seating, but Mars Hill relies on the comfort of community. Congregants sit on the same gray fold-out chairs the church launched with.
Every church growth paradigm is turned upside down at the No. 11 church on our America’s Most Innovative Churches list. But defying paradigms is nothing new at Mars Hill. It has been doing that since it launched eight years ago.
So, what’s this church’s innovation focus? Some would say it lies in the teaching style of dynamic 34-year-old pastor, filmmaker and author, Rob Bell, whose recent national speaking tour took him not to churches, but to club venues packed with crowds eager to hear his creative interpretations of biblical truths. Others might posit that it’s the congregation’s dedication to social justice.
Ultimately, this church’s innovation cannot be pigeonholed. And that’s how it should be, says Bell, who refers to church growth as a “journey.” It is precisely this progressive mentality that makes Mars Hill an innovative church.
“For us, innovation is not optional. It’s the assumption that you’re always asking, What does it mean to be this mysterious body of Christ in this place, at this time? It is the endless asking of the right questions,” says Bell. “And we’re always asking questions, first and foremost of the scriptures, and of the world we live in.”
Mars Hill’s questions of Scripture result in its unique teaching ministry, marked by the relentless pursuit of understanding the biblical narrative in its ancient Judeo-Christian context. Sparked by Bell’s personal interest in Judaism and biblical narrative, the church’s teaching focuses less on systematic theology and more on the climax and dénouement of Bible stories.
“The roots of our faith are in a God who is at work in redemptive history. The Bible does not begin with a list of what God is. It is a book of stories,” Bell insists. Thus, his teaching style inspires congregants to place Scripture in its context through the church’s Bible study classes like “An Inward Journey Through Romans” and “The Narrative of Scripture.” For members like Paul Caminiti, 54, understanding historical narrative adds deeper meaning and applicability to Scripture.
“The Word of God is alive and fresh at Mars Hill, and there is power in the teaching,” says Caminiti.
Mars Hill’s interpretation of the scriptures leads it to be an advocate for the 15.7% of the Grand Rapids population who live in poverty.
“We are more aware of the American empire and its gods of consumerism and greed, and its dangerous effect on the world when those forces go unchecked,” says Bell. “Americans are six percent of the world’s population and consume 30% of its resources. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, so we also cannot remain indifferent. We are much more passionate and militant about joining those who are oppressed.”
The church thinks systemically about poverty in Grand Rapids, dividing the city into four regional neighborhood networks so church members can reach out to those they share a street with. A similar neighborhood model is currently being implemented at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., and Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky.
Mars Hill volunteers man an open phone line for anyone in Grand Rapids needing help. When someone calls in requesting aid, church members in the caller’s neighborhood do their best to provide. Help comes in all forms, such as a refrigerator filled with food left on the doorstep of a single mom, or an art sale set up to send neighborhood children to summer camp.
Through such creative and intelligent love in the context of real relationships, congregants explore issues of community development as they relate to the basic needs of their neighborhoods.
“We’re trying to organize ourselves, but the emphasis isn’t on program,” says Nate Ledbetter, pastor for the church’s Southeast region of the city. “It’s centered on relationships and grassroots efforts to forge long-lasting, effective community partnerships.”
Avoiding established programs allows a certain amount of freedom for improvisation in Mars Hill’s outreach efforts, which suits the church just fine. Today, it’s focusing on establishing neighborhood networks, but the future may hold something different for the congregation that’s always asking, What are You telling us now, Lord? As new answers come, so will new endeavors.
“The church is a revolution of a group of people living the way of Jesus in such a way that has profound economic, political, social and relational consequences,” says Bell. “I believe that as people are more and more true to Jesus, they’ll cause a ripple effect that will change the world.”
Sanctifying The Soul Of Hip-Hop
A camera cuts through smoke and club lights to zoom in on a rapper in the middle of a dance floor. Dressed in an oversized shirt, a large gold medallion around his neck and diamond stud earrings, he commands the scene, swaying back and forth to the rhythm of his own lyrics. He stands flanked by two women, who sip down champagne before sliding into the rapper’s gleaming SUV.
Every image in this MTV video is homage to hip-hop, an illusory term describing not just a musical genre, but an entire culture of young people who brought hip-hop music to the American mainstream from inner-city New York, where it began in the 1970s.
According to the Recording Industry Association of America, hip-hop garners more than 13% of the U.S. recording industry’s revenue. Hip-hop moguls also pursue business ventures in fashion, art and entertainment, expanding their reach into the style and values of today’s young people, including the ones who attend our churches.
“We cannot ignore the pervasive nature of hip-hop culture,” says Tommy Kyllonen, the 33-year-old pastor of Crossover Church, an urban hip-hop church in Tampa, Fla., and No. 13 on our America’s Most Innovative Churches list.
“About 70% of urban music is bought by white suburbanites. Hip-hop has a huge impact all over the world, and as spiritual leaders, we need to be students of the culture,” says Kyllonen.
This pastor has done his homework. Since the age of 10, Kyllonen immersed himself in the world of hip-hop while growing up in Philadelphia. But instead of break dancing, spraying graffiti and rapping for the anti-establishment causes of secular hip-hop, he learned to re-appropriate hip-hop’s neutral elements for godly causes.
Formerly the youth pastor of Crossover Church, Kyllonen began his ministry with just four teenagers in 1996. Undaunted, he began to reach youth at their level by implementing hip-hop elements in the ministry, such as an urban basketball league. By 2000, more than 200 teenagers were gathering each Sunday.
“We made community in a relevant way, and that’s what younger generations are looking for: a place where they can be accepted,” says Kyllonen. Five years ago, Crossover recognized the value of Kyllonen’s vision and established him as the church’s lead pastor. From then on, the innovative congregation has stayed on the forefront of a daring new movement of churches dedicated to reaching the hip-hop world.
To engage Tampa’s thriving hip-hop community, Crossover re-creates hip-hop culture as much as possible, from establishing the urban look of its campus—complete with skate park, basketball court and murals of cityscapes—to hosting quarterly concerts.
“We have a good crowd at the concerts, and people respond to accept Christ,” Kyllonen says.
Crossover also has talent development classes for rap beginners, including a singing workshop that teaches R&B vocal techniques, a rhyming class that demonstrates how to freestyle and construct beats, a DJ class and a break-dancing class. New talents are showcased in open mic competitions where two rappers volley improvised rap lyrics back and forth. In the secular hip-hop realm, the two rappers insult each other until one is humiliated off the stage, but at Crossover Church, rappers lift one another up.
The new talents are also taken into the studio to produce Cypha, a CD featuring various vocalists and hip-hop artists from the church.
“For a lot of them, it’s their first time to ever go into a studio. We teach them how to record,” Kyllonen says. Many of Crossover’s members are first attracted to the community through the church’s educational opportunities.
“We want to help people discover, develop and display their talents,” Kyllonen explains.
Worship leader and choir teacher Josie Thomas believes talent development is an especially valuable outreach to the community’s young people.
“The way the world presents hip-hop is so derogatory, but attractive,” Thomas says. By changing worship lyrics to be relevant to un-churched young people, and offering talent development classes, Thomas believes Crossover is extending a welcoming hand to people who need it most.
“You can’t know a person if you don’t understand them. If we’re relevant, then they really get to know who God is,” Thomas says.
Crossover also entered the hip-hop publishing realm in 2003 with SoulMag, which combines urban design elements with editorials on up-and-coming Christian hip-hop artists and devotional texts.
In addition to leading his church, Kyllonen participates in the hip-hop movement by producing Christian rap albums under his moniker Urban D. His new book, Unorthodox: Where Hip-Hop Meets the Church (Zondervan), helps other church leaders understand the importance of reaching the hip-hop community.
“When younger people can see you’re knowledgeable of what they’re interested in, it shows them that you care about their generation,” says Kyllonen.
At Sunday worship, it’s indeed obvious that Crossover is reaching this generation. A rapper takes the stage. He too sways to a driving beat, but his rhymes wax poetic on the profundity of God’s grace. Dancers move and spin as the congregation rises to their feet. The DJ mixes in a swell of orchestration and hundreds of voices join in worship to sing, “When the Spirit of the Lord moves in my heart, I will dance like David danced.”
Smaller Parts, Stronger Whole
When the bright city lights of Akron, Ohio, began to color his world a peach blur, Denny Blankenship knew something was wrong.
“I was driving this truck, and I remember thinking, I’m going to kill somebody,” says the 64-year-old Anacortes, Wash., former truck driver who for years made his living driving cross-country.
Blankenship later learned that his blurry vision was the result of a rare genetic disorder that would cost $40,000 to correct. Unable to afford the surgery, he asked local community groups for help, but received minimal response. Not knowing where else to turn, Blankenship braced for the worst.
Little did he know that at his small group’s prayer meeting in Anacortes, members of Christ the King Community Church, International (CTK, ctkonline.com), were talking about his need.
“One of the gals in small group came to me and said, ‘Denny is going blind. We’ve got to do something about it,’ ” recalls Cliff Tadema, the pastor for the Anacortes worship center of CTK—one of 17 worship centers that serve CTK’s 155 registered small groups. While most congregations—including those with multiple sites—represent a single body, with members meeting in small groups, CTK earns the No. 22 spot on our America’s Most Innovative Churches list for being a church composed entirely of small groups, meeting in clusters of three to 12 people in locations worldwide.
To foster corporate unity, these small groups congregate weekly in a worship center closest to them. By keeping the worship centers small and local, with only 150–200 people, mobilization is easy, evidenced by how fast the Anacortes congregation came together for Blankenship’s surgery. CTK’s main headquarters in Mount Vernon, Wash., dubbed Central Services, simply set up an account for the money raised by the 400 Anacortes members, who initiated and completed the actual fund raising, says CTK Lead Pastor Dave Browning.
“There’s a lot more capacity to help when it comes from the bottom up. There’s almost no limitation on how many people we can touch,” Browning says. Through donations and fund-raising activities like an organized motorcycle ride, Blankenship received $40,000 and a shot at restoring his sight.
Rapid mobilization and growth is not an unusual phenomenon at CTK. The church’s self-multiplication growth model is deliberately simple, Browning says.
“It all begins with a sense that God is up to something,” he explains.
Any group as small as three people can gather together and apply to be a CTK small group via the church’s Web site or at the nearest worship center. Small groups meet weekly to study the Bible and fellowship in an intimate setting. On any given weekday, coffee shops, local hang-outs and living rooms transform into places of worship and community for CTK members.
Once two small groups form in a community, they establish a local “worship center,” where they congregate weekly for corporate worship. As the worship center self-multiplies, CTK’s Central Services sends funding, teaching resources and a DVD of last week’s Sunday services from the main Mount Vernon campus to the budding new worship center.
Eventually, a teaching pastor emerges from the worship center members and is trained online through CTK University, which provides curriculum for CTK small group leaders, prospective pastors and members. CTK Fast Forward, a third division of the church, provides pastors with more training and support. The result is an organic, multi-site ministry, with worship centers taking on personalities of their own.
“There’s a sense that we are all related, but there’s also a certain amount of uniqueness,” says Browning.
That uniqueness, as well as the genuine relationships fostered by the intimate community found in small groups, is a huge draw for the un-churched.
“We’re really just people reaching people. We keep it real and we’re not anti-church, but we are church for the un-churched, who come and are surprised by what they see,” Browning says.
Launched in April 1999, CTK began with 134 members and has grown exponentially—with worship centers in Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Hawaii, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Panama—due largely to the church’s multi-location church growth strategy.
Paul Evanson, director of leadership development, believes the success of multi-location church growth depends on powerfully relational communities serving under leaders who entrust their members with CTK’s God-given vision.
“We don’t know every single interaction in any given week at Christ the King, so we’re a low-control model,” Evanson says. “But we’re not trying to control God, and we’re not trying to control people. What we’re trying to do is equip the saints for ministry, and trust God.”
CTK’s greatest innovation, then, is allowing God to do what He wants to do through His people, Browning says.
“We are finding that when we give people the power, they are taking that power and using it in better ways than we had ever conceived.
These articles “America’s Most Innovative Churches” written by Tony Morgan and Lindy Lowry and “Profiling America’s Most Innovative Churches” written by Jeannie Choi are excerpted from Outreach Magazine: Features a 2006 January/February edition.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.