Tape on the pews: As we return, let’s not repeat a failed restoration
OKLAHOMA CITY — There’s tape on the pews. It’s blue and…
ATLANTA — “We have the right message,” said Marcus Brummer, echoing a sentiment expressed by modern-day Churches of Christ for more than a century.
So why, in metropolises like the Peach State’s capital, do Churches of Christ dwell in the shadow of megachurches that pack thousands of worshipers into massive buildings on Sundays — not to mention sports venues like Mercedes Benz Stadium, where tens of thousands will watch Georgia’s Bulldogs battle Ohio State’s Buckeyes on New Year’s Eve?
Those questions drew Brummer, a member of the Renaissance Church of Christ in Atlanta, and 366 fellow believers to the first “Nehemiah Next Level Up Summit.” The three-day national event, hosted on the Renaissance church’s new campus near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, focused on equipping churches with tools for growth after two years of pandemic restrictions and lockdowns. The church’s senior minister, Orpheus J. Heyward, led the summit.
It’s true that “narrow is the way which leadeth unto life,” as Jesus said in Matthew 7. But those words weren’t meant to be a fallback for churches whose numbers have stagnated or declined, Next Level Up organizers told The Christian Chronicle. Churches of Christ have the right message, Brummer said, “but we’ve been missing the mark in getting it out.”
The Renaissance church invited 30 speakers and organized them into seven learning tracks, including leadership development, organizational management and personal growth. Most came from Churches of Christ, with a few from Christian Churches, community churches and consulting businesses. One speaker, Don Wilson, is a Christian Church minister who helped his congregation, Christ’s Church of the Valley in Arizona, grow to 28,000 worshipers.
“We want to know how that happens,” said Brummer, who works with the Renaissance church’s Men of Valor ministry and its praise team. The summit’s goal was to explore best practices from leaders who are “very, very successful in growing large, impactful ministries.
“It’s not just about the number,” Brummer said. “It’s definitely about the impact.”
Preachers alone can’t inspire church growth, said Natasha Hartry, who chairs Word Made Flesh, a ministry of the Renaissance church.
Word Made Flesh reaches out to prisons, shelters and youth development centers, she said, “actually meeting those people and figuring out exactly what those needs are, and ensuring that as a congregation we can pull together to try and meet those needs.”
Organizers of the summit encouraged congregations to bring teams of members to attend separate learning tracks, compare notes and reconvene to develop their own strategies for growth, Hartry said.
The goal, Heyward said, is to “empower the post-COVID church.”
Like many congregations, the Atlanta church moved its services entirely online at the height of the pandemic. As it refined its digital capabilities and production, its audience grew.
Now in-person attendance is about 750, but the church’s online audience can be close to 2,000. Many view the services from far outside Georgia — and a few from outside the U.S. The church has established an online community as it attempts to engage with its digital viewers.
Increasingly, Christians are becoming hybrid worshipers. One congregant recently told Heyward, “I’m going to be your first- and third-Sunday member,” attending worship every other week and otherwise worshiping from home to save on gas.
“COVID has changed how we think about options,” Heyward said. “How do you navigate and minister to a church that is saturated with options?”
The biblical Nehemiah, somewhat like church leaders in the post-pandemic world, faced the difficult task of inspiring people to renew their commitment to God after a long, chaotic period away from their place of worship.
The summit’s namesake served as cupbearer to the Persian king after the Babylonian captivity. In the Old Testament book bearing his name, Nehemiah recounts his return to Jerusalem to oversee the reconstruction of the city’s walls.
“He’s going to build the infrastructure to a broken-down community that has been in disrepair now for more than 100-plus years,” said Richard Barclay, senior minister for the Stonecrest Church of Christ in McDonough, Ga., as he opened the summit with an exploration of Nehemiah’s story.
Along the way, Nehemiah encounters setbacks, government-mandated delays and fierce opposition from neighboring peoples. In Nehemiah 6, leaders who oppose Nehemiah’s work ask to meet with him in a village on the plain of Ono, secretly planning to harm him.
Thus, Barclay urged church members to “discipline yourself to say ‘Oh no!’ to Ono” as they build infrastructure for growth.
The Renaissance church recently underwent a massive infrastructure project of its own. Formerly the West End Church of Christ, the congregation dates back nearly 122 years and was predominantly White until the 1970s, when the neighborhood demographics began to change, resulting in an influx of Black members and the hiring of a Black minister, Wesley Brown.
Brown, who died in 2017, was the longest-tenured minister in the church’s history, serving for more than 30 years. Heyward came to West End in 2003 and succeeded Brown as senior minister in 2007.
In 2018, the church moved to its new facility and renamed itself Renaissance. The congregation secured a loan from The Solomon Foundation, a nonprofit church extension fund that was a sponsor for the summit. The foundation serves congregations associated with the Restoration, or Stone-Campbell, Movement, including Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.
Renaissance is one of more than 100 predominantly Black Churches of Christ that have received loans through the foundation, said Doug Fultz, a longtime preacher for Christian Churches and vice president for the nonprofit. In the past 11 years Solomon has worked with about 500 churches, which have experienced combined attendance growth of 160,000 and 60,000 baptisms, Fultz said.
“We’re very excited about what’s going on in here tonight,” Fultz said as he addressed the summit, “because this is catalytic to a whole movement of churches.”
Don Wilson didn’t seek to build a megachurch, he told the summit-goers. The Arizona congregation he served grew into the thousands through simple, one-on-one evangelism, he said.
God wants churches to grow, he said, but numerical growth alone shouldn’t be the goal. Other speakers echoed that sentiment.
“You can pack your pews but have no impact,” said Tradanius Beard, minister for the Northwest Church of Christ in Southaven, Miss. He taught classes on leadership during the summit.
“Our attitude is twisted because we are more castle-minded than Kingdom-minded,” Beard said. “‘Kingdom’ is beyond your local congregation. God wants to invade earth with heaven.”
Eighteen members of the Northwest church attended the summit, including Danielle Johnson, who serves in the Godly Women Excelling in the Master’s Service (GEMS) ministry as well as in the young adult and media ministries.
“I didn’t know what I was walking into,” said Johnson, who enjoyed hearing ideas from the diverse presenters. “I love that they opened up about the trials they went through to get where they are.” The conference also helped her see the church globally, realizing that her church in the suburbs of Memphis, Tenn., can reach souls in India and beyond through online evangelism.
Cleathus Waddy was one of three members of the Greater Metropolitan Church of Christ in Kansas City who attended the summit.
“Everyone came in and was beyond educated,” he said. “But what I (also) got was a deep worship experience that made me find myself wiping the tears over and over and over. They didn’t just give us information; they gave us true Gospel to our souls.”
ERIK TRYGGESTAD is President and CEO of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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