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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Megachurch That’s Reinventing Itself

I found that the blog where this article was posted may go offline, so I'm posting it here so I can keep it up.

It's supporting documentation for the post Retooling The Mega Church

The Megachurch That’s Reinventing Itself

by Lee Sparks

In January 2002, Walt Kallestad appeared to "have it all" as senior pastor of Community Church of Joy (CCOJ), one of the largest and most vibrant congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. In his mid-50s, he was successful by most standards and could have "coasted" to retirement. He'd earned a doctorate in church growth from Fuller Theological Seminary, authored several well-received books, established a respected conference center, and was sought after as a guest preacher and seminar leader. Yet despite outward appearances of success, he knew something was terribly wrong with both his life and the congregation he served in Glendale, Arizona.

For more than 20 years, Kallestad had poured himself into building CCOJ from a struggling 200-member church into a megachurch of about 12,000. The church had acquired a prime 127-acre parcel of land within view of a new highway, and built modern and multifunctional facilities, including a large worship center, bell tower, conference center, school, and various offices. Big plans were in the works for additional buildings, all intended to meet the program needs of the church.

Then on January 7, 2002, Kallestad's heart gave out. He suffered a massive heart attack and required six-way bypass surgery. Everyone was shocked at the news, because Kallestad was a tall and lanky man who exercised regularly. Now, three years later, Kallestad realizes that his heart attack was symbolic of what was happening at CCOJ. "I was burned out, overworked, overwhelmed, and near to death, but didn't know it."

Medical professionals were amazed that he survived the heart attack. But they also warned him that the recovery process would take a long time. He asked his church for a leave of absence to heal.

Megachurch Pastor Faces Megadespair

In the yearlong leave of absence from his duties at CCOJ, Kallestad found himself reflecting on the spiritual emptiness he was experiencing, and the growing realization that the megachurch he had helped to create was "missing the mark" in transforming people into disciples of Christ. CCOJ attracted a lot of seeking people, but was there much real spiritual growth happening?

Kallestad's physical heart was slowly healing, but his spiritual heart wasn't. In the early morning hours of November 22, 2002, Kallestad found himself on his knees in prayer, sobbing. "God," he prayed. "I'm broken. I don't know what to do." He remembers his body being ice cold and his heart pounding very hard. "The words of ‘I Surrender All' kept going through my head as I kept telling God, ‘I surrender, I surrender.' I heard a voice that quietly said, ‘I have healed you.' I thought the voice was my wife talking to me, but she was sound asleep," he said.

The next day, Kallestad went to his cardiologist, who was stunned with the healing of his heart. Both agreed it was a miracle.

"My heart attack caused me to get hungrier for God," Kallestad said. "I was CEO of a burgeoning organization, and dealing with structures and systems and finances. It wasn't about people and relationships. I could sense God calling me back to what's most important. And when I realized that what we had [at CCOJ] was not working, my hunger intensified."

Insights From an Unintended Sabbatical

As 2003 began, Kallestad continued to plead with God to show him the future for CCOJ and began to consider who would be his successor to his ministry. In the recently published book, Passionate Church: The Art of Life-Changing Discipleship (Cook Communications), he shares how this time away from his ministry did anything but give him peace of mind:

"After my heart attack and six-way bypass in January 2002, I began to consider who might be the successor to my ministry. It would have to be just the right person, someone capable of raising and managing a multimillion dollar budget as well as the staff and programs of a megachurch. It would need to be someone who could effectively reach the 20- and 30-year-olds I was struggling to reach.

"I discussed this idea with other pastors across the country. But it was in Washington, D.C. that I felt the ground shaking all around me. ‘Why would anyone want your church?' a pastor there responded. ‘Anyone who is serious about ministry today does not want to be stuck raising money for maintaining buildings and mortgages. They want to be on the cutting edge of making a difference.' As hard as it was to hear, I knew what he had just said was right."

During his unintended sabbatical and recovery from the heart attack, he had time to devote to study and reflect on the church in the postmodern era. He read books on the "missional church" and the "emergent church." He spent time learning from leaders in these movements, such as Dan Kimball—pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, author of The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Zondervan), and a regular contributor to this magazine. He also consulted with Brian McLaren, often called a guru in the emergent church, and author of A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-Yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian (Zondervan). (Yes, that's the real subtitle.)

Kallestad slowly became certain that the church-growth methods he knew, wrote about in his doctorate, and used to build a megachurch, weren't working anymore—not even cutting-edge methods of entertainment evangelism. "In our zeal to attract seekers, we became very presentational," he said. "We believed no one wanted to give anything, no one wanted to sing anything, no one wanted to be known—all of the ‘seeker principles.' In my spirit, I knew that the old principles and practices, including those for seekers, weren't working. And I was dying inside."

A String of Kairos Moments

The combination of a new awareness of life's finiteness, the uncertainty of CCOJ's long-range future, and his sense that the church-growth methods he knew were either obsolete or irrelevant, frequently brought Kallestad to his knees in prayer. He remembers praying, "God, I'm going to fast and pray constantly. Help me. And I'll go anywhere in the world. I'll do anything. God, show me what you're saying to the church."

God would answer his prayers, but in ways he couldn't have dreamed. One of several kairos moments occurred when he called professor Eddie Gibbs, his doctoral advisor at Fuller, and asked him where in the world the church was successfully reaching people (especially those in their 20s and 30s), building an authentic community, and transforming the area where they lived. "Without hesitating, Eddie simply said, ‘Sheffield,' " Kallestad recalls.

Sheffield? As in Sheffield, England? Movie buffs remember the northern England city as the setting for the 1997 film, The Full Monty.

Gibbs told Kallestad about Sheffield's St. Thomas Church, an Anglican and Baptist church, which had grown into one of the largest churches in England, with more than 2,000 attending weekly worship. What intrigued Kallestad even more was the fact that 80 percent of the people at St. Thomas Church were under the age of 40, and 70 percent under age 35.

Without hesitating and without calling ahead, Kallestad boarded a flight from Phoenix to England to see St. Thomas Church for himself in April 2003.

The Man From the Desert Visits Sheffield

Upon his unannounced arrival to Sheffield and St. Thomas Church, Kallestad was immediately impressed with the vitality, spiritual depth, and community among the people. He met Mike Breen, the rector and team leader of St. Tom's (the widely used nickname of the church by its people). By all accounts, the men immediately clicked with where the other was in pastoral leadership. Both men were simple, unassuming, and articulate but not "slick." They felt a connection that both believe was a kairos moment.

While Kallestad had spent his career focused on land, buildings, finances, programs, and attendance growth, Breen had spent very little time on any of those. Instead, in the 10 years he had been at St. Tom's, he had focused nearly all his energy on building community among the people, nearly all of whom were unchurched and young. Instead of building facilities, raising money, and maintaining administrative structures, Breen invested his time and leadership on training leaders for small groups.

The emphasis at St. Tom's during Breen's tenure was effective small-group leadership. The primary requirements for being a small-group leader are an open home, a willingness to share what God's doing in his or her life, accountability for one's actions, and devotion to prayer for the people. Each small group meets about three times a month.

Once several small groups were functioning, four or five small groups would then become part of a "cluster," which would meet about once a month for learning as a larger group. Cluster leaders were responsible for finding venues for the meetings, and have been quite creative in securing them. Clusters meet in coffee shops, bowling alleys, office meeting rooms, pizzerias—almost anywhere that will hold the size of the cluster. Then, about once a month, all of the clusters met for a "celebration," a high-quality worship service.

Early in his ministry at St. Tom's, Breen abandoned virtually all the theories and programs he had learned in seminary and other training. He quickly saw that "student books" and other printed material simply didn't work with a visually oriented generation. The written Word, Breen knew, would have to take a visual shape to reach them. Over time, he began to use simple shapes such as the circle, the semicircle, the triangle, the square, and the pentagon to describe various aspects of Christian life and leadership. He found that the people could easily grasp and retain what they had learned by referring to the shapes. More important, the small group and cluster leaders could use the simple shapes in their leadership for teaching and accountability. That way, Breen didn't have to lead every group or cluster, but was instead able to provide a consistent theological framework for St. Tom's culture and ministry. These teachings evolved over the years and were first called LifeSkills and then LifeShapes. Breen and Kallestad have recently published two books describing the LifeShapes method of discipleship: Passionate Church: The Art of Life-Changing Discipleship (for church pastors/leaders) and Passionate Life (for lay leaders) (both published by Cook Communications).

At St. Tom's and in LifeShapes, Kallestad found the model he had been praying for. St. Tom's emphases were almost all exactly the opposite of CCOJ's. While CCOJ emphasized the large event of entertaining corporate worship, St. Tom's emphasized small-group accountability and was content to worship only once a month as the whole church. While CCOJ was burdened with mortgages and organizational demands, St. Tom's administration was relatively lightweight and low-maintenance. While CCOJ relied on its ordained pastors and other paid staff for virtually all leadership responsibilities, St. Tom's relied almost entirely on lay leadership in small groups and clusters and appeared to be living out what Martin Luther called the "priesthood of all believers."

Within 36 hours of being at St. Tom's, Kallestad knew he had found the answers to his prayers. He became convinced that his megachurch needed a megachange of emphasis from "bigger and more" to "smaller and deeper."

The English Invade Phoenix

In yet another example of a kairos moment, Kallestad's visit coincided with Breen's decision to leave St. Tom's. Breen said he made that decision just prior to Kallestad's visit. Kallestad recalls being there when Breen announced the resignation. Breen believed he had done everything he could for St. Tom's, and sensed God leading him to something new, even though he didn't know what the new thing was. And since St. Tom's leadership model didn't depend heavily on him, his departure didn't mean the church would fall apart. In fact, the opposite has happened: St. Tom's continues to grow.

Indeed, the leadership of St. Tom's had grown and deepened so much that the Church of England commissioned a band of lay leaders as The Order of Mission, the first apostolic missional order authorized by the denomination in 1,000 years. Its members take vows of purity, simplicity, and accountability.

Kallestad arrived there on a Sunday and spent Monday with Breen. By Tuesday, Kallestad believed the Holy Spirit was leading him to work much more intimately with Breen. "On that Tuesday morning, I met with him and said, ‘Mike, I think God is calling you to come to America and work with us,' " Kallestad said. "I didn't go there intending to hire anyone. We certainly didn't have an official call committee or anything like that. I just knew in my heart that God wanted it."

Not only did God call Breen and his family to Phoenix, but God also called several longtime leaders at St. Tom's and members of The Order of Mission. They arrived last summer to begin importing the LifeShapes principles they learned and practiced in Sheffield to CCOJ.

As one might expect, change never is easy for a church, and it hasn't been for CCOJ. Kallestad said mixing the existing staff with the folks from St. Tom's has created a Brady Bunch-type of staff. The "old kids" haven't been exactly sure what to expect with the arrival of the "new kids." About 30 percent of the staff has changed, including some of the pastoral leadership who has been with CCOJ for many years. Kallestad said the change has "frozen the fringes" of the people, with many taking a "wait and see" approach to the changes. However, Kallestad has also seen an increase in small-group involvement and more people in their 20s and 30s coming to church. He's determined for the church to be more entrepreneurial, and to slim down to a "lightweight, low-maintenance" administration.

Kallestad admits that several people (including long-time leaders) of CCOJ have wondered whether he's "gone off the deep end" with a midlife crisis brought on by a severe heart attack. When asked that question directly, he smiled and said, "Yes, I have gone off the deep end—I've gone deeper into God than ever before. God didn't cause my heart attack, but God had to reshape my heart, my vision, to do a new thing in my life and at this church. Since we opened our new campus in 1998, fewer people in our area are now going to ours or any other church. How does it profit one to build a great church, but lose the community?"

Lee Sparks is senior associate editor of Rev. Magazine.

Authors note: Longtime readers of Rev. Magazine will recongize Walt Kallstead from a profile we ran in 1997, when this magazine was known as Vital Ministry Magazine. That article, "Risk Taker, Vision Maker," focused on CCOJ when it was at the cutting edge of using "entertainment evangelism" in worship - a mix of contemporary music, video clips, humorous vignettes, computer-generated images, brief gospel messages and a come-as-you-are environment to reach "seekers." (If you'd like to get a free copy of that article, please e-mail your request to Lee Sparks) Kallstead re-examined his approach to ministry after a severe heart attack and sense of despair overwhelmed him in 2002.