Making Multiple Congregations Work


How to Grow From 1 to 6 Worship Services

Rev. Josh Hunt

The church of the next millennium will not look very much like the church of the last millennium, nor will it look like the church in which we attended Vacation Bible School. It will not be a traditional church with a one pastor to one people meeting once a week paradigm. That worked well on the prairie, but will not work in a highly urbanized world. Rather, it will be a multi-congregation church. A church with many congregations and a team of preaching pastors meeting at several locations and numerous times. It will look more like the early first millennium church than the late second millennium church.

Our journey toward this future church has taken our church into six weekend services. I want to share some of that journey and some of the things we have learned.

Ours is a typical thirty-something church in a middle sized town in the Sun Belt. We were started as a mission of old First Church. The church struggled in the early years with a poor location – one block and a pile of money from a good location. You must catch my irony when I say we could not afford a good location. Now, a Spanish congregation is struggling in that location. Twenty years ago we moved to an ideal location, but not without a price.

High land and building payments kept the church from investing in ministry. This made it difficult to grow. Here are some excerpts from the minutes of business meetings in those early days:

* In 1952, seventeen business meetings were held, one specially called business meeting to approve the purchase of a $13 sign.

* In January of 1952, Calvary’s total gifts for the month of January were $219.

* In 1957, the church borrowed $48,000 to build a 40 X 100 ft. auditorium.

* By 1962 we were becoming a real church. We had 14 standing committees!

* In 1963, total gifts were $19,718. Had to forgo 22 needed pews that year because of debt.

A church is a living being and has a life force that causes it to grow. When placed in the sunshine of a good location, blessed with a pastor that could keep the peace and given enough time, it moved up against the 200 barrier.

Cliff was the ideal pastor to take the church through the 200 barrier. Though not particularly visionary, but a good old boy that everybody liked (almost everybody), he communicated well. He had big, puppy dog eyes that he could moisten slightly in key political crossroads. This is not to say he was insincere or manipulative, but only that he was wise as a serpent. He was street-wise and had political savvy. He nearly always got his way. The key value of the church for Cliff was family. He often said, “The gospel compels us to get along with each other,” he used to say. A good church member was one who kept the peace. You don’t set the woods on fire with this kind of pastor, but he very ably guided the church through the 200 barrier.

One of the big obstacles of breaking this barrier for Calvary was an auditorium that was full at 220 people. Oh you could cram 280 in there if you seated people carefully. But we in the great Southwest like our space and the auditorium felt full above 200.

We filled the auditorium every fall and watched it taper off the rest of the year. For years we struggled with the philosophical dilemma of dividing the church by going to two services. In late October 1983 we made the plunge and attendance stair-stepped 15%.

A couple of things helped insure the success of the 8:30 service. We had the choir come to the early service, stay for Sunday School, sing in the early part of the late service, and slip out when we greeted guests. This ensured that the service would be viewed as a first class service. It also insured that a critical mass would be there. If twenty-five people “had” to come early, they would bring their families and their oikos of closest friends. The pastor preached the same message and the services were identical, with the exception that the early service’s sermon was shorter. Sunday School started at 9:45. This time constraint also contributed to the success of the early service. It was common to have more people in the early service than we did in the late service.

Looking back, starting a second Sunday morning service is the easiest thing in the world for a church to do. All you have to do is get up an hour earlier, recruit greeters, and make sure your musicians show up and you are ready. This is far easier than staffing a second fully-graded Sunday School. But the church struggled more mentally and emotionally with that service than any of the three others we have started.

The reason starting a second Sunday morning service is so difficult is because there is a major paradigm shift between the traditional churches and the multi-service church. These paradigm shifts do not take place easily.

By the time Cliff had gone, and a new pastor had been here a year, we were out of space again. Rather than having simultaneous worship and Sunday School at 9:45, we opted to start a Saturday night service and Sunday School. We reasoned that starting a Saturday night service would create more space than a service simultaneous with Sunday School. First, we were using the auditorium for a college class. If we had a service at 9:45, we would lose the auditorium for Sunday School space. Second, parking would be a problem because both buildings were filled simultaneously. Third, already crowded nursery facilities would be taxed because both worshipers and Sunday School attenders use the nursery. What we did not calculate was that only about 25% of our
people were willing to attend on Saturday nights. This however, was a moot point because we ended up starting a 9:45 service and 11:00 Sunday School 14 months later.

When we started the Saturday night service, we decided to go to an alternate, contemporary format. Contemporary has to do with
instruments – piano, synth, bass guitar, vocal band and drums – and the selection of songs: mostly choruses. We do not have a choir or organ in the contemporary services. (When was the last time you heard a choir and organ on a top 40 station?)

This decision was based mostly on a “vision” I had at a Petra concert. Petra is ahead-banging Christian rock and roll group. I like Petra just enough to not be offended, but not enough to be captivated, as the other 3000 people – mostly kids – were. I looked around and these kids were enthralled and going absolutely nuts. I thought, “I wonder what these kids do on Sunday morning?”

It is not too hard to find out. Once I sat back there with them. They talk, giggle, pass notes, tell jokes-anything but listen. This is not because they are bad kids. Their parents would behave no better at a Petra concert. There is a cultural gap between teenagers and pre-babyboomers.

Later, someone gave me an Integrity Hosanna tape. It all crystallized. We can’t do Petra, but we can do this. A little more contemporary, but not extreme. When I told the staff they were elated, “That is a great idea, Josh. We look forward to watching you make that happen.” We have a saying on our staff, “You have an idea? You have a job!”

So, I dusted off my music minor from college, stole some of the better musicians from the choir and off we went. People didn’t seem to fully appreciate our musical talents at first. But they love it now. One person commented, “Man, I went to church on Sunday morning and it was boooring. I was saying, ‘Somebody plug this thing in.’ How do people stand it on Sunday morning?” Of course, it would be easy to find those who love Sunday morning and could not worship at all on Saturday night. Both meet needs.

The most popular group to respond to Saturday night was the Young Married group. You understand if you have ever tried to get a young family ready on time on Sunday morning. The second most responsive group was the college/singles.

We conducted a telemarketing campaign to boost the attendance on Saturday night. It worked reasonable well. In doing the Saturday night service, we learned the two keys to starting a new service:

a. people move in groups, and
b. people follow leaders.

If you want to start a new service, you will not get three people from each class to do it. You will have better response getting a group to move en masse. Part of the group will usually stay behind and create a new group. You solve one of the Christian education’s most difficult problems: the creation of new groups. You do not have to divide on some arbitrary criteria, like age 28. You simply ask everyone to move. The ones that do not move form a new group.

The key to leading the group to move is getting the leaders to move. I am not talking necessarily about the teacher, although it will probably include the teacher. I am talking about that inner core – the ones the others see as a click. Get them to move, be enthusiastic about moving, and you are almost assured of the critical mass necessary to launch the new congregation.

Two other things we learned:

a. Every fully graded Sunday School (now called Bible Study since it is on Saturday Night) does not need to be fully graded. We were unable to move any youth in that first move. Now, three years later, we have a Junior High group. Give us three more years and we will have a Senior High group. That is OK. Every fully graded Sunday School does not need a class for every single group. We just told people that if they had youth they would be happier on Sunday morning.

b. It is really helpful if you have one or more “champions” for the new congregation. I am not sure why, but I have a real affinity for this group and have become that champion. It survived in part out of my personal interest in building the group. I invited hundreds of people. I would say to visitors, “A lot of our young marrieds come on Saturday.” You see, people are not going to naturally try church the first time on Saturday night. Someone needs to be constantly inviting Sunday morning visitors to try this alternate time. The whole culture favors Sunday morning. The champion will help tip the scales.

When we started our 9:45 service, it was a piece of cake. We had learned how to do it. We started with a group: college students. We enlisted leaders. We used the contemporary format to attract our target audience. We also used the same space for the service that they had been having in Sunday School. (I mentioned that the college group met in the auditorium.) If they were our only worship attenders we would have a good group. The church was used to the idea of starting new congregations. There was no political resistance. Our most successful service has been the 9:45 hour. We can only conclude that a Sunday morning contemporary service is a winning combination.

The 9:45 worship service was so easy and so successful that it lulled us into failing to realize the white water ahead. There were some major barriers in getting beyond five services a week.

There is another paradigm shift that takes place at six services. Maybe bigger that the shift at two services.

The big shift has to do with the stamina of the pastor. Our pastor is a preaching machine. Pull the string in his side and his mouth opens, his hands begins to gesture and out comes as eloquent a sermon as you have ever heard. But you can only pull that string so many times.

How many times can a man preach in one day? That is the wrong question. The question is, how many times can he preach in a month? A longer cycle needs to be considered. You can do anything for a week or two. That is why it is so dangerous. You can do it for a week or two so you think you can do it forever. But preaching five times a week is quicksand and sooner or later it is going to get you. A preaching team is needed. Even so, we have struggled at this point.

We have struggled to share the pulpit with Chuck Swindoll. Also there are plenty of people that just do not think they have heard a real sermon unless the senior pastor has preached. If a church has an acceptance of more than one preaching pastor they are far ahead on the journey toward a multi-congregation church.

The other part of this paradigm shift had to do with the Sunday evening service. We have had a very successful Sunday evening service. It is our believer’s service. (For others this may be on Wednesday evening, but the principle is the same.) By the time you have five other services, the believer’s service is past 80% of total capacity. For many people this believer’s service was the unifying factor for the church. They could They could deal with being “fragmented” into all these services as long as we were “all together” on Sunday night. The only problem was that space was restricting the size of the core leadership circle of the church. We tried two Sunday evening services, but it did not work. We may come back to it again, but for now, we remain on this side of the divide.

Next year’s experiment in breaking the next barrier to becoming a truly multi-congregation church will be our shift to a preaching team approach. We received the idea from Willowcreed Community Church, South Barrington, Illinois, where Bill Hybels, Lee Strobel, Jim Dithmer, and Don Cousins all share the pulpit. Hybels sets up the schedule and coaches the other pastors. He assigns topics that match the gifts and temperaments of the men.

We do not, however, have the resources of Willowcreek. But we will be experimenting with a four man preaching team: the pastor, two associate pastors and a skilled laymen. Sam will still probably preach 60% of the time. He will set up a schedule of rotation among the others and work with us on our topics, as well as hone our skills through coaching and evaluation. Even though we do not have the skill to produce high quality sermons twice a week, it is far easier to preach three good sermons every two months than to come to the plate with two base hits every single week.

The verdict is still out on this model. But, if we can break past the multi-service model into the multi-congregation model it will be like inventing the warp engine. I believe we will be able to go places never before thought possible. As they were contemplating the teaching team approach, Bill Hybels said it this way:

My vision, and it is totally supported by the elders, is that we will be the first megachurch to ever break the rule that unless the senior pastor teaches all the time, the church goes into the tank. If we can grow through this era, I say watch out!

Four months later, in a message entitled, “Advancing the Kingdom Together,” he has nothing but positive things to say about the
approach. He even intimates that if they had not gone to this, he may not have survived. You can lead five services a week for a while but after a while it will sap the life out of you.

During this whole process I began reflecting on the New Testament model for the church. It occurred to me that they did not have distinct local churches in one geographical area, but were rather a multi-congregation church. They were overlapping circles led by a team of elders, a team of preaching pastors.

By making incremental experiments toward this model we have found it to be a positive one. Our experience leads me to say…

The church of the next millennium will not look very much like the church of the this millennium, not will it look like the church in which we attended Vacation Bible School. It will not be a traditional church with a one pastor to one people meeting once a week paradigm. That worked well on the prairie, but will not work in a highly urbanized world. Rather, it will be a multi-congregation church. A church with many congregations and a team of preaching pastors meeting at several locations and numerous times.

It will look more like the early first millennium church than the late second millennium church.

Lord, I want to be in that number.

(The above information was published by CHURCH GROWTH TODAY, 1992)

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