Welcome to the first annual "best practices" issue of Ministry Today. In this article we highlight "models in innovation," three ministries that have successfully defied convention, overcome obstacles and connected with people in new an creative ways.
In the following pages, you'll have a chance to read their sotries, learn from their methods and get a glimpse of what makes them effective in their unique contexts. When you're finished, visit ministytodaymag.com/blog/innovation to answer the question, "What makes a ministry innovative?"
This suburban megachurch is beating the odds and growing a congregation filled with the one demographic whose members supposedly hate big churches the most.
It's been called the Holy Grail of church growthâ€”that sought-after but elusive 20- to 35-year-old demographic. Their energy brings life to a congregation. Their young children give it a future. Yet they are notoriously difficult to attract and harder still to keep even if they come. So it is worth taking notice when a church manages to attract them en masse.
Granger Community Church in Granger, Indiana, is just that kind of place: a thriving, 6,000 member congregation where the average adult age is a mere 36.
What is their secret?
Granger displays a commitment to actively change in order to reach today's culture and, in turn, the lost.
"We're trying to reach people that don't get that they matter to God," says senior pastor Mark Beeson, who started the church in his living room in 1986.
Accepting change can be uncomfortable, but, according to Tim Stevens, Granger's executive pastor, it is essential for the life of a church.
"Most congregations tend to age with the pastor," Stevens explains. "So if you want to connect with the younger generation, you have to do some different things."
Different is a good way to describe a service at Granger. From wireless Internet access to high quality projection screens to an advanced children's play area, Granger is one of the most tech-savvy churches in the country.
While this is an essential part of its ministry, the desire to constantly change goes beyond just having the latest technology. In order to know where it needs to change, the leadership at Granger strategically analyzes itself to look for ways in which it is succeeding and falling short.
Stevens says the church measures results in "a thousand" different ways, including attendance, conversions, baptisms, small groups and involvement in care ministries. Beeson compares them to fruit inspectors who inspect at every step.
One of those tests involves measuring giving, but not in the way you might think. If the per capita giving gets too high, Beeson gets worried.
"It means we didn't have enough people in there who don't get itâ€”too many Christians," he says.
The methods are clearly working. In 2004, Granger was the 27th fastest growing church in the country, according to a Church Growth Today report.
But in an atmosphere geared for outsiders, children and young adults, one might wonder about the plight of seasoned saints. Beeson explains that the trade off comes in the form of being part of a dynamic mission.
"Those of us who are older are trying to be missionaries in a changing culture," says Beeson, whose close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair doesn't seem to fit the image of the pastor of a cool, "culturally relevant" church.
Beeson believes that reaching young people is a fundamental choice.
"You have to be honest about your decision," he says. "If you stick with the music you liked in high school, that's fine. But we've decided not to do that. We have decided to continue to exegete the culture."
For the young business professionals that Granger targets, a huge part of the culture is technology. Accordingly, Sunday morning at Granger is a testament to the eternal love of God as well as the latest innovations of man. The church's professional quality rock band drums and strums in front of a 100-foot screen that flashes images in rapid succession. The sanctuary has an Internet "hot zone" where attendees can access online Bible study tools during the sermon.
"I don't mind at all if they flip open a laptop as I'm preaching," says Beeson. "In fact, I encourage it."
For those who slapped the snooze and stayed home? They can log on to the church's interactive Web site (gcc wired.com) to download the service to their iPod.
Yet Granger's focus goes beyond being tech savvy and creating a hipper-than-thou atmosphere. In trying engage the culture, the pastors are actively listening to its concerns.
"People are asking, 'How can I keep my marriage together?'" Beeson says. "So we do a series on marriage. They are asking about sex, so we do a series on sex."
Of course, Granger's radical approach has its critics. Many believe the church is selling out to popular culture, or, at best, creating a mix that consists of more style than substance. But Beeson cites Jesus' own ministry to justify his church's methodology.
"Most of the teaching that Jesus did came out of the culture of the time," he says. "Somehow we've taken Jesus and made worshiping him dull and irrelevant. When church is boring there's a problemâ€”and it's not Jesus."
To the charge of being cultural chameleons, Beeson says the gospel is what distinguishes them.
"Our strategies have changed as the culture has changed," he says. "But our principles have stayed the same."
Granger's overarching principle is to win people to Christ. An integral part of accomplishing that mandate is reaching kids.
Georgia Fawcett, director of children's ministry at Granger, says their goal is to have kids meet Christ and to enjoy doing it. When the children leave their classes, they zip down giant tube slides that make a McDonald's Playland look lame. Fawcett explains that when children have fun at church, they bring new kids back with them, and they, in turn, bring their parents.
"When I consult churches that are struggling, I always say, 'Your church will never grow without children,'" she says. "Once you tap into the heart of a child, you will reach the parents too."
Reaching the hearts of both parents and children is what they're getting people to do at Granger. Beeson believes that people only get involved when they see a vision worthy of their lives. At Granger the vision has always been the same: to let people know they matter to God.
Drew Dyck is a freelance writer living in Pasadena, California.
Overland Missions, Cape Canaveral, Florida
Overland Missions uses high-tech innovations and heavy-duty equipment to take a 'high-touch' gospel to the most remote locales on earth.
By Jon Rising
Philip Smethurst's method of evangelism involves a 15-ton Mercedes-Benz truck that used to be a German military troop carrier. The Overland Truck, as he calls it, comes with freezers, refrigerators, a GPS system, a satellite telephone, tents, a kitchen, inflatable rafts and space for 20 people. Nothing else would do for the founder of Overland Missions, a missions organization dedicated to empowering the Third World indigenous church and taking the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth.
Their motto: "Any road â€¦ any load â€¦ any time."
Overland's mission often takes its people to some of the most inhospitable and hard-to-reach places on the planet. To reach people who are almost impossible to get to, the organization has taken innovative steps with technology and equipment on the front-line mission field.
In addition to the Overland Trucks, the organization also uses Caribbean sail yachts, Amazon river boats, GPS navigation equipment and Google Earth photos. It was Overland's innovative use of technology that first drew Dave Philips, Overland's director of operations, to the ministry back in 1999.
"That is what first caught my attention," says the 24-year-old Philips. "I knew this was a ministry, but it also included all the things that were important to me as a young person who wanted adventure, who wanted to use the elements of technology."
But, according to Smethurst, who founded the organization in 1999, the technology and the gadgets are only a means to share the gospel.
"This not like a tour," he says. "But an apostolic mission."
So while a young Philips was initially attracted by the spirit of adventure and the technology, it was the apostolic mission that brought him back.
"Seeing things like blind eyes being opened and lame people walking and the reality of the gospel touching people's livesâ€”and in a place like an African village where there was nothing but poverty. When I saw that," says Philips, "I said this is what I want to do for the rest of my life."
In 2007, Overland has expeditions planned for Africa, Indonesia, Thailand, Patagonia, Mexico, Zanzibar and the Amazon. The trips take either 14 or 21 days. Overland's staff rates the difficulty of the missions as either medium or challenging. The specific missions, dates and ratings can be found at overlandmissions.com. Anyone who can raise a couple thousand dollars can join.
Different expeditions use different modes of transportation, depending on the geography of the location. Missions to the Caribbean use 56-foot sail yachts, missions to the Amazon use river boats and some missions are so remote the team can only backpack.
The Overland Trucks come in handy for African missions. In addition to carrying the team and its provisions, the massive trucks hold a huge amount of spare parts and equipment to repair mechanical issues on the road.
Since breaking down can sometimes mean being stuck several days away from the nearest bit of civilization, being able to make repairs on the fly is essential. The drivers are trained on the trucks for two years.
"We've changed out three whole engines in the bush," says Smethurst, whose own background includes both military and expedition training. "We've only had to send in another truck to pull one out one time."
In addition to the short-term missions where the teams help out local churches and share the gospel, Overland is also investing in permanent, long-term efforts.
They are currently building a permanent basis for their African operations close to Victoria Falls, near Livingstone, Zambia (David Livingstone, the 19th-century evangelist/explorer of Africa, is a hero to Smethurst).
Though bleary-eyed from a late-night planning session that has left him running on a mere three hours sleep, Smethurst becomes animated when talking about the Victoria Falls project. He uses Google Earth to focus in on the location. The facility has both a training center and a 6,000-square foot warehouse. Generators and solar panels power the remote site, and Overland can run the site seamlessly from Florida through satellites.
The satellites also broadcast live Bible school instruction every day.
But it's not just the technological innovations that allow Overland Missions to lay claim to the designation, "cutting edge." Their ministry strategies show innovation as well.
The organization's LIFE (Living In Family Environments) Project is an attempt to help comfort and empower sub-Saharan African communities ravaged by the AIDS virus. The crisis in Zambia alone is staggering: one in every five adults is infected with HIV.
"In all this wonderful, multi-billion dollar effort to rescue Africa, somebody forgot to ask the Africans what they would do to solve the problem," LIFE Project director Jim Hoyle says of the global relief effort.
Hoyle says that Overland took time to listen to the tribal chieftains and has developed a simple strategy to assist the Africans.
The LIFE Project seeks to place the children who have been orphaned in "support families" rather than orphanages. The chieftains have communicated that institutionalizing children is not the African way, says Hoyle.
Using its Overland Trucks and working in concert with other non-governmental organizations, the LIFE Project plans to empower villages by promoting healthy lives, providing quality education, protecting children from abuse and combating AIDS and other preventable diseases.
"This does not require billions to start," Smethurst says. "We can just go with what is given."
Hoyle and Smethurst say that they have an easily achievable goal of helping 250 villages this year. That would aid 7,000 orphans and 2,000 widows.
While it may take some innovative thinking to help the widows and orphans, the injunction to do so is as old as the book of James.
Jon Rising is a freelance writer living in Central Florida.
Templo Calvario, Santa Ana, California
Something From Nothing
The fastest growing community development corporation in America, Danny de Leon's Templo Calvario is redefining the marriage of church and charity.
Santa Ana is not an easy place to live. In fact, it's the hardest city in the country to live in, according to a 2004 study on urban hardship by the Rockefeller Institute for Government.
Templo Calvario sits right in the troubled heart of Santa Ana, an immigrant town where 80 percent of the population is Hispanic and 50 percent are foreign-born, according to a 2005 U.S. Census Bureau study.
Yet despite taking its congregation from such an economically humble place, Templo Calvario is a thriving church with one of the largest ministries to the poor in the country.
"People sometimes think it's the rich who want to help and get their hands dirty, but here we have nobody in the upper echelon of income," says Daniel de Leon, Templo's founder and senior pastor. "It's the poor helping the poor."
In the last 30 years de Leon has helped turn a small group of believers into the largest bilingual Hispanic church in the United States by far, with 6,300 attendees. Templo's ministry to its community has garnered a reputation that has extended all the way to the White House.
The church and its coalition of 30 partner churches feed more than 900,000 people and give away $10.6 million worth of food, clothing and household items annually. Templo Calvario also operates a day-care program, after-school centers, a public charter school and an economic development ministry. All these operations are under the umbrella of the fastest-growing faith-based community development corporation in the nation, the Templo Calvario Community Development Corporation.
"Pastor de Leon, through his work with Templo Calvario, is a wonderful example of a dynamic religious leader who is improving the quality of life in our community through his outreach services and moral leadership," says Miguel Pulido, mayor of Santa Ana.
Templo is one of only a few churches doing such large-scale community service in the country, and here's what de Leon says makes it work:
Volunteer staff. One of the biggest overhead costs for any ministry is wages, he says, so Templo relies on 15 to 20 people for free labor every day.
"There is no way to do inner city ministry without volunteers," de Leon says. The volunteers are mostly poor because "the middle class Christian wants to give money, but it's hard for them to give their time and they don't see themselves doing [this kind of labor]," he says.
Finding food. Procuring food is a constant challenge, de Leon says. The church purchases some food from food banks, while donations from ministries like Operation Blessing provide additional sources.
But donations can be tricky. Some donors require detailed reporting. Big donors usually want to get rid of large amounts of food all at once. When they offer, say, millions of tomatoes, "You have to take it all," de Leon says. It costs Templo Calvario hundreds of dollars a month to discard food that has spoiled before it can be given away.
Like most local church food ministries, Templo isn't at the top of the receiving order.
"The big boys that operate in big quantities get the best product," de Leon says. "We get the residual when they want to get rid of it."
Transportation. Without vehicle donations we couldn't do it, says de Leon. The Trinity Broadcasting Network and Operation Blessing donated two 28-foot trucks. Forklifts were also donated.
"We lay hands on the forklifts and pray they keep working," says de Leon, laughing.
Forklift batteries alone cost $700.
Use church facilities. Templo Calvario doesn't charge its community development corporation to use the church's building.
"We're frugal with how we spend our money," says de Leon.
Good organization. Some people want to dive right into food ministry without proper organization or paperwork, he says.
"You need to cover yourself spiritually and legally. The enemy is always at work looking for opportunities to mess up something like this and hurt the cause of Christ," he says. "If one rotten tomato, literally and figuratively, gets out there, you can be in a lot of problems."
Compassion ministries attract local and state governments' attention. Once inspectors and health officers start asking questions, a church's paperwork comes under close scrutiny.
"You must either be a ministry of the church or be a 501(c)3 [non-profit organization]," he says. "If you're not organized right, and if your facilities aren't right, they really come down on you. It sounds mundane but it's important because those are the things that come and bite you."
Publicity. De Leon says many ministries have no idea how to get the word out. He recommends creating a nice PR packet and taking every opportunity to meet local leaders. The most effective way to spread the word is when an influential leader hosts a home meeting and allows you to explain your ministry vision to his friends.
But Templo Calvario relies mostly on word of mouth. One donor, who now sponsors an annual breakfast for senior citizens at the church, found out about Templo from his house cleaner.
Proper expectations. Compassion ministry "takes money from you," says de Leon. "The more you expand the ministry, the more it costs you."
He says he has yet to see the day, and probably never will, when his compassion ministry is not running in the red.
Right motive. Compassion ministry must be a heart thing.
"It can't be a thing of the head. It can't just sound like a good idea," de Leon says. "If it's genuine and from God and from your heart, it doesn't stop when you don't have money. You'll do whatever it takes. The head thing makes people feel bad. The heart thing makes them feel good."
Templo Calvario is building a new sanctuary that seats 3,000. De Leon preaches twice in Spanish and once in English every Sunday. He has been an associate of the Billy Graham Association, conducting crusades in Latin America, and was the first and only Spanish host for The 700 Club. He meets regularly with President Bush.
Of his church's compassion ministries he says, "I don't think we do anything new. It's about giving a cup of cold water in His name. That's what the Lord said and that's what we're doing."
Joel Kilpatrick is a freelance writer living in southern California and the author of A Guide to Understanding Evangelicals and Their Habitat.