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The Generosity Factor: Why Growing Churches Feel Compelled to Reach Out

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Have you ever looked up a word in the dictionary, thinking you roughly knew the meaning, only to find out it meant the opposite of what you thought? Maybe I shouldn’t admit it, but this happened to me when I looked up the words “centrifugal force.”

Merriam-Webster says it is “the apparent force that is felt by an object moving in a curved path that acts outwardly away from the center of rotation.” As it turns out, I was thinking of centripetal force, which is “the force that is necessary to keep an object moving in a curved path and that is directed inward toward the center of rotation.”

As my online physics lesson continued, I learned that these forces are two different perspectives on the same activity. From the outside, it can be easy to see the centripetal force keeping an object in rotation, but we can miss the force pushing outward.

We may have the same perspective when we look at the fastest-growing and largest churches. You can imagine a growth spiral with such an inward centripetal force that the church doesn’t have time for anyone else.

It is true that it takes a massive amount of time and effort to keep up with rapid growth and to keep new believers and attendees in a discipleship process. But for many churches, there is also an outward focus that goes beyond outreach and evangelism. It is a partnership with and an investment in other churches and ministries in the gospel.

Every year, LifeWay Research, in association with Outreach magazine, surveys churches from across the country to discover the nation’s fastest-growing and largest churches. These numerical outliers fascinate us. What is so different about these churches that their growth is so high? Better yet, what about their story would allow us to see God’s activity that defies the experience of most churches?

[The 100 Fastest-Growing Churches in America, 2017]

As we gather numbers, we also explore patterns that may be helpful to other churches. This year’s survey led us to a theme: the relationships and investment in other churches and ministries. We won’t claim all fastest-growing and large churches have this bent, but as we asked about their interactions with other churches, stories of collaboration quickly surfaced.

Previously, LifeWay Research has found a similar pattern with church plants. As we surveyed church plants across 17 denominations and church-planting networks, we found that one of the most consistent predictors of a church plant having higher attendance, seeing more new commitments to Jesus Christ, and reaching financial self-sufficiency is its financial and time investment in other new churches.

It seems a little counterintuitive. At the very moment the viability of your own church is at stake, one of the best ways to foster its health is to invest in other churches. That same principle holds true for some of the largest churches in the nation.

Investing in Other Churches

Motivations for partnering with other churches vary, but one of the most common is tied to a church’s vision.

For BridgePoint Church in St. Petersburg, Florida (No. 89 Fastest-Growing), connecting with other churches is essential to its vision of seeing gospel saturation in Pinellas County. In addition to a goal of planting 10 churches in 10 years, Lead Pastor Tim Whipple realized it’s not just about BridgePoint expanding itself.

“We are better if we equip and come alongside existing churches that may need some energy and vision and direction, and let them help us reach the people and saturate the county at a much more rapid pace,” he says. “We realize we can’t do it by ourselves.”

At Fairhaven Church in Centerville, Ohio (No. 84 Fastest-Growing), Lead Pastor David Smith saw a natural opportunity to give back to the community in which the church had previously been located, and to extend the vision of the church to not just be a church in a community but “really be a part of it.”

“We have missionary in our middle name [the church is affiliated with The Christian and Missionary Alliance], so we do pretty well in sending people all over the world,” Smith says. “But what about this local community of people? And how do we help churches in those underserved communities find hope and walk alongside them?”

Fairhaven didn’t just give this idea lip service. The church gathered pastors together and asked what the biggest challenge was in addressing problems in the community. This informed how Fairhaven would do ministry—and it also built relationships. Church leaders learned how to make the community stronger, how to strengthen other churches and how to address issues of poverty and racial polarization.

Steve Hutmacher, executive pastor at CedarCreek Church in Perrysburg, Ohio (No. 56 Largest), said it this way: “Obviously, one church cannot reach the entire world, so we believe in multiplying churches. We have five locations, soon to be six. But we really believe that to achieve our mission of reaching the world, we need to partner with and help equip other churches to do the same thing.”

Remembering the Starting Point

Red Rocks Church in Littleton, Colorado (No. 4 Fastest-Growing; No. 26 Largest), once had about 50 people attending. Offerings were only at $200 to $300 a week, when a missionary in Africa asked if the church would buy him a van.

The leadership asked the congregation that weekend to do something crazy: collectively give $10,000 for the van. And they did. Lead Pastor Shawn Johnson said, “I didn’t know whether to be happy or mad that our church could actually give that much [but hadn’t been].”

Later that week, Red Rocks’ commitment to buy the van was challenged. First, they didn’t have the money to pay their $2,500 rent. Second, the fire marshal inspected a renovation to their small meeting place and demanded the stage be replaced with fire-retardant wood at a cost of $6,000. They literally could not meet again without this repair.

The five church directors knew the missionary in Africa would understand if they couldn’t follow through on the commitment, but one of them asked, “Didn’t we say that is who we are?” They agreed. “Let’s do what we felt like God called us to do, and let’s let God take care of that stuff.”

They sent the money to the missionary, knowing they would need to contact the congregation to say they were shutting down. But a pastor whom they hadn’t talked to in years called the next morning and said, “I was praying this morning and God told me to send you some money. Do you guys need money?”

The pastor sent the amount they needed, almost to the penny. Red Rocks paid the rent and fixed the stage, and the church met the next weekend. They continue to meet today, and they continue to show the same generosity.

Other churches remember what it was like to struggle and not have anyone offer help. Whipple recalls BridgePoint’s experience as a church plant. “We were a ‘beggar’ church looking for people who would invest in us and invest in the vision and mission that we felt called to do here in St. Petersburg,” he says. “And the truth was that not many churches were willing to make that investment. We got a lot of ‘we’ll pray for you’ quotes. We got a lot of pats on the back. But we didn’t get a lot of support.”

In fact, one church even told them they could identify with where BridgePoint was, because 10 or 15 years prior, they had been there. But they still didn’t help. Whipple told someone after that meeting, “If God blesses us and we have an opportunity, we will never do that. If somebody comes to us with a vision and mission and purpose and wants to reach people for Christ, we’re going to come alongside and support in whatever way we can.”

Developing Two-Way Partnerships

Helping other churches can take many forms. Fairhaven Church has replaced a heating, ventilation and air conditioning unit for a church that was stuck in the heat as it hosted community events, led a prisoner re-entry program and hosted high school students. They have helped a church with its electric bills, supported block parties, and purchased backpacks for another church to fill and give to students in their underserved community.

Fairhaven has also helped the churches they partner with by sharing resources, ideas and ministry principles, including tips on how to put an event together, run guest services and handle finances. One church that contacted Fairhaven in need of $10,000 left with advice on making a $20,000 adjustment in how to do things and eliminated the financial need altogether.

Most of the help Fairhaven provides other churches is for one-time projects, but one long-term need it met was to pay the health insurance premium for a pastor whose church could not afford it. Smith says, “We want to make sure we have a long-standing relationship with them. We don’t want a hit-and-run kind of situation when we’re helping a church.”

While many of the fastest-growing or largest churches have merged with other struggling churches, that isn’t the only way to multiply. Smith summarizes Fairhaven’s relationship with its partner church: “We want to be two churches working together, proving to the city that we can cross racial and economic walls and pull them down in the name of love and in the name of hope.”

BridgePoint noticed a local church was struggling and asked how it could help. Initially the response was, “No, everything is good.” But after trust was developed, BridgePoint was able to help the church with a new sound system and air conditioning for its facility.

Leaders at another church approached to see if BridgePoint would buy their property, but Whipple sensed that wasn’t the real problem. They then admitted they couldn’t make their payroll. When BridgePoint wrote a check to get the church through the rough time, the leaders asked what it would mean for BridgePoint. Whipple answered, “It’s not about us. This is about keeping you alive because there needs to continue to be work where you are, and if you close your doors, that’s a loss for the kingdom.”

Whipple adds, “Sometimes, it’s not about physical things. It’s just letting them know they are not alone.”

For CedarCreek, most of the churches they partner with are church plants. Their partnership involves not only financial support but also friendships. The church has helped another local church with sound and lighting systems, supplemented the pastor’s pay and provided a car. They also send people to work in the church’s clothing and food ministries.

“We want to come alongside and help them be successful,” Hutmacher explains, “because we really feel like, as a whole city, we are going to be successful when they’re winning, as well.”

When Red Rocks was experiencing faster growth in attendance than in giving, they were hurting financially. Then they met the staff of a church worse off than them—and that church desperately needed to fill an open staff position. Even though Red Rocks couldn’t hire the people it needed, its leaders realized they could change the whole dynamic of another church if they helped with its hire. They sent almost all they had to the other church.

There have been times when Red Rocks knew a handful of local churches were struggling financially, so it sent those pastors a Christmas bonus. Johnson explains, “We want to make sure we’re taking some financial risks that don’t directly benefit our church.” His advice to other churches is the same advice he gives to people in his church: “Start being generous now before you feel like you can actually do it.”

For BridgePoint, partnering with other churches and ministries is a two-way street. The staff invites other churches to join in ministries such as outreach to the homeless, building beds for children, outreach in the sex-trafficking industry and serving in schools. The church also assists the work of a local Dream Center and different recovery organizations, plus points people to Celebrate Recovery groups at other churches.

Whipple explains, “We discovered a long time ago you don’t have to be good at everything, but you find out who is good and you come alongside them.”

Overcoming Challenges

Whipple feels the biggest hurdle in partnering with other churches is fear. Church leadership may feel afraid that if it sends their people to another church, those people will stay. “We really try to send people back,” he says. “When they discover something here, our encouragement is, ‘Go back, tell you church about it, get involved, share this there, implement it there.’”

“The biggest challenge,” Smith adds, “is to make sure you’re actually making systemic change and not doing something that simply makes you feel good but actually hurts the community because you’re not doing anything of value. It’s hard because you don’t want to create a dependency—you want to establish a relationship that is authentic.”

Johnson admits, “One of the hardest things to do is to actually support a church in your city—and [it’s] even harder to support a church in your city that reaches the same demographic as your church does.”

A local church similar to Red Rocks went through an unforeseen struggle, and Red Rocks responded by helping pay the other church’s mortgage.

“That was maybe one of the tougher tests because we were helping a church that was reaching the same people,” says Johnson. “And truth be told, if that church would’ve folded, more people would have come to our church. We always say we’re on the same team, but sometimes it is harder to live that out.”

Reaping the Benefits

BridgePoint had seen evidence that another church in St. Petersburg was fractured, isolated and very turf-oriented. As it worked to tear down those walls through partnerships with other churches and ministries, BridgePoint’s people have come to see all the congregations as one church.

“When our people are able to see that being fleshed out, it encourages them and gives them energy to continue to do that in their daily lives,” Whipple says. “When they get to see that actually work and see how God can use that, it’s fuel.”

One of the benefits Fairhaven Church has received through assisting other churches is the realization that generosity is not stagnant. “Generosity begets generosity,” Smith explains. “As we’re able to be generous to other churches, they’re in turn generous to other churches. And it just keeps going. It’s something that can be paid forward.”

The very thing that Fairhaven sought to help others with, they found in their own church. Smith explains: “The greatest thing that we’ve discovered is that brokenness is everywhere. That brokenness has been uncovered within the congregation here at Fairhaven, where people have discovered their own brokenness in helping people in their brokenness. That has been phenomenal.

“Every church has a need. For some churches, the need is financial. For some churches, the need is getting people out of their comfort zones. When you get churches together to empower each other and to serve side by side for a long period of time, that brings great joy.”

These stories could tempt some readers to contact one of the generous churches mentioned in this article in the hopes of getting something from them, but that would be missing the point. The example these churches have set is not about getting, but about sharing for the sake of the kingdom of God. They are making a great impact for the kingdom through both centripetal and centrifugal forces. They are looking to grow their churches and disciple their people, but they are also seeking ways to reach out and help other churches for the good of God’s kingdom.

Check out the 2017 Outreach 100 »

Scott McConnell is executive director of LifeWay Research.