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Best practices and role models: four churches, four sizes

First Baptist of Orlando, FL
First Baptist of Orlando is a role model of the strategy Becoming Christ-Centered, which senior pastor David Uth summarizes in a statement he routinely makes to his 6,000 congregants: “We’re not here to make you Baptists; we’re here to make you disciples of Christ.” This statement may sound glib, but it reflects the idea that the goal is not to inspire people to fall in love with the church and all of its activities; the goal is to help them fall in love with – and surrender their lives to – Jesus.

In all of its teaching and communication, First Baptist is direct and unambiguous about the discipleship goal of its ministry. But that’s not its real distinctive. What distinguishes First Baptist, and other thriving churches like it, is their persistent, overarching commitment to that pursuit. The salient point is this: Everything starts by committing to the life-changing (not activity-creating) goal of discipleship and making it the top priority for all ministry efforts. The resolve of best-practice churches to achieving this objective is so steadfast that they risk letting people walk out the door – in fact, they encourage them to do so – if becoming a follower of Christ is not a commitment they’re willing to make.

Harbor Light Church, Fremont, CA
Pastor Terry Inman of Harbor Light Church with 1,000 attendance, says, “The most feedback I get from my congregation is not on my sermons; it is when I tell my own story about my walk with God and my family’s walk with God.” He understands that it is not his words, but his actions that speak the loudest. And he is intentional about letting his congregation in on how things are going in his relationship with God.

Transparency is key. What congregants see modeled in these leaders is not perfection so much as a work in progress. Leaders of the top 5 percent churches share their failures and their struggles. They let their congregations see their flaws so everyone can learn from their mistakes.

tThe Bridge Community Church, Wildwood, MO
Tim Gray started The Bridge Community Church in rural Missouri in 2006 with eight people and $156. Today, his church of 400 is anchored on a cell family model that is flourishing, largely because he equips cell leaders for success. While Tim’s leadership requirements may seem quite ambitious by normal church standards, his disciplined approach provides food for thought about what people who lead within their church are willing to do to serve Christ.

Tim’s cell leaders, for example, receive 35 hours of training in Bible teaching, pastoral care, and biblical counseling. This is after they’ve experienced the 14 hours of training required to become a church member. Members also sign a covenant allowing someone to mentor them and committing to mentor someone else. Tim defends these high standards, saying, “We are commanded to go and make disciples, not members or pew dwellers. But empowering people is not enough. You don’t just hand over the car keys without making sure your child has driver’s training. You cheat your church if you give away leadership and don’t train the leaders. People want training. Our mission is to equip as many as possible to be capable of equipping others.”

Tri-County Church, DuBois, PA
David Bish, lead pastor of Tri-County Church (890 attendance) who coined the “I don’t go to church; I am the church” motto of this best practice, empowers people to live into this vision in three practical ways: Preach it! Teaching is imperative. “I am the church” is central to Tri-County’s annual vision-casting series.

Reinforce it! Beyond the teaching, Tri-County dedicates a wall in their sanctuary to visual images that illustrate what “I am the church” looks like. They distribute t-shirts on which the phrase is prominently featured. And they distribute response cards regularly, to capture and communicate stories congregants share in answer to the question, “How were you being the church this week?”

Do it! Being the church also has a corporate “doing” component. Every fall hundreds of attendees don their t-shirts and join together for a weekend of community serving.

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