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What makes Highland work? Leadership, honesty, empowerment

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Outside the church building on Highland Street, the noon sky looks like rain.

Inside, church members are pouring out their hearts.

Huddled in a semi-circle, lights dimmed except for a spotlighted “confessional” seat, the members of the Close Encounters class share painful childhood memories, struggles with sin, the triumphs and tragedies of child-rearing.

The class members shed tears, pray with a group of visiting church elders, and sing in spirited worship.

In a congregation of nearly 1,500 people, the Close Encounters class is a church within itself. Class leaders receive handbooks that talk about “Sunday School as a Mission-Driven Strategy.” Authentic relationships and active outreach are among the chapters.
Highland’s shepherding-through-Sunday-School was a “course correction” made in the late 1990s, say church leaders. The community-minded congregation was investing itself so heavily in midtown Memphis that internal matters were being neglected.

The church conducted its own research and crafted an answer reflecting its specific circumstances.

Highland’s leaders work to be true to who they are where they are.
But the church isn’t slick. It isn’t a clone of any other church of Christ or any church-growth model. It is who it is — flawed, as churches are — and populated with broken people needing Jesus Christ.

Its hometown, Memphis, is filled with the desperately poor and with massive racial tensions.

Its physical facility, landlocked in midtown by properties too expensive to buy, is limiting growth.

But the church’s decision to move, announced in February, has disturbed members who fear the church will abandon its mission to the city,

For more than four years, the church’s energy has been consumed by the question of going or staying.

Highland is dealing with a lot.

Yet, the breadth of the church’s ministries is staggering. With the help of sister congregations, Highland plants and supports inner-city churches; sponsors the campus ministry at the University of Memphis; works with six ministries for the needy; and supports missionaries in Papua New Guinea, Ukraine and the Philippines.

Church consultant Bob Finch says, “No church anywhere that we know of has as many people doing as many things in (facilities) as small as yours.”
And, 80 percent of those who worship at Highland also attend the Sunday School. Thom Rainer, author and theorist who has studied 30,000 churches, says, “I don’t know of any church … that has more involvement in Sunday School than Highland Street.”

So, what makes all this possible? What makes Highland work? What does it come down to?

Highland’s leaders would quickly say their congregation shouldn’t be seen as an ideal. Recently, the church scrapped a complex Sunday schedule it hoped would help overcrowding, but instead complicated matters.

With that in mind, here are seven realities viewed as the “Best of the Best” at Highland:

• Conflict is derailed by a long history and tradition of unity.

“This church has been at peace for 76 years. Our message is ‘if you want to make trouble, don’t come here,’” says Harold Shank, pulpit minister.

What about instrumental music? “We use no instruments at all,” Shank says. “That’s a fire we just don’t want to fight.”

• Impassioned leadership is valued and encouraged. Shank is impassioned about serving the needy. Fellow pulpit minister Chris Altrock is passionate about reaching postmoderns. The shepherds view those passions as a resource to be nourished.

• The innovative Sunday School plan provides belonging.

“When people think of Highland, they think of their small group,” Altrock says.

• A clear focus on two goals — “serve the needy” and “save the next generation” — grounds all the church’s activities. An empowering environment makes it easy for members to be involved, active, creative.

“We have, one by one, told people, ‘We think God has given you a gift; we want you to use it,’” says elder Dave Kelly

• A prayerful belief — that God’s will, not their plans, is the author of their future — guides decisions.

Highland has tried six times to buy land, Kelly says, but “even though we thought God had pointed the way … those doors closed for a reason. The message was ‘not here, not now.’ So we are starting again.”

• Questioning the status quo, the easy and the popular typify Highland.

Altrock says Highland’s vigorous approach to ministry can go against our fellowship’s culture — which says, “Let’s keep things flat.”

“We strongly communicate high expectations but don’t require people to sign anything when they join the Highland family,” he says. “We encourage and model high expectations. “We strive to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Filed under: Churches That Work Staff Reports

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