Rev. Olu Brown started Impact Church in Atlanta 11 years ago with a group of 25 people. Now, it’s one of the 25 fastest growing churches in the country, with almost 4,400 worshipers weekly, onsite or online. He shares tips on reaching people — even those who don’t look or act like “church people.”
At Impact Church, we’re a group of people that some would say don’t belong in the church. We don’t always look like church people or act like church people. That’s the “secret sauce” of who we are. But we have to work to help people to feel comfortable and feel like they can be themselves.
One key practice is what we call extreme hospitality — an attitude that all people are welcome, all people are worthy, and all people have a place. This applies across differing political perspectives and different sexual orientations. It’s the simple yet radical affirmation that all people really are welcome. This stance has won a lot of people to Impact Church and ultimately Jesus Christ. But sadly, it has also turned some people away. When some people say they want to practice hospitality, they mean, “I want to be hospitable to people who agree with me, who look like me, who are in my socioeconomic status.”
Extreme hospitality requires a willingness to share power with others. When I was leading a small group, everyone knew the restaurant where we would be meeting because it was the restaurant I liked. But as people from different cultural backgrounds joined the group, we found they had other tastes in food. As a leader, I had to decide to let go of some of my power for the sake of inclusivity.
At Impact Church, we want to give our worshippers an experience that makes them feel welcomed and valued and that calls them to action. We don’t refer to our worship as a “service.” Instead, we think of it as an “experience.” And one of the things that shapes a powerful worship experience is the use of metaphor. Jesus constantly used metaphors in his teachings through parables. But today, too many churches aren’t doing the hard work of developing metaphors that apply to twenty-first century life. When we give a biblical illustration, we think that a person in the pew quickly understands it. But they don’t.
A good metaphor can shape the experience of your worship from the time someone drives into your parking lot until they leave. Once we were doing a construction worksite sermon series at Impact Church. Our greeters wore hardhats and there were construction-related items throughout the building. Before the sermon was preached or even the first song was sung, people had already been clued into the driving metaphor. Metaphors can be communicated through your digital communication, your bulletin, your sermon.
We are constantly revisioning and revising what we call worship. We’ve found it’s critical to involve a team in preparing worship. So often, sermons and worship planning occur within a silo. But if you rely on a team that represents the diversity of the audience you want to reach, you’ll do a much better job of making a metaphor stretch across generations and cultures and geography.
Knowing your customer
One of the key cultural trends of the twenty-first century is a rise in self-designed systems where people have a lot more choice in deciding what they are offered. As much as I love big-box stores like Target and Walmart, I think the healthiest churches in coming years will be those that are small and flexible enough to change and adjust quickly to a rapidly changing context.
Starting a congregation or taking the existing congregation to the next level of health or growth is similar in some ways to starting a business. You have to know who your existing customers are and who you seek to reach. You have to diagnose the key elements of your community. What’s the demographic forecast in the next ten years? Will there be major ethnic or cultural shifts in the population? You can’t ignore these factors and expect to grow.
Relevance and relationships
Some people think if the church strives to be relevant to the current culture, it can’t remain authentic to its values and core message. But consider the example of companies selling audio players. Over many years, the purpose of their products — to provide a quality listening experience — doesn’t change. But successful companies know that the technology, packaging, and marketing must constantly evolve. One of the primary reasons a lot of churches aren’t reaching younger people is that they are unwilling to retool and repackage their message so that others can hear it and receive it.
Relationships are perhaps the most important factor. It’s hard to draw someone to church whom we really don’t like or understand. I’m finding that younger generations really want deep and abiding relationships with older adults. But these relationships have to be relevant and authentic.
All congregations, whether small or large, are signs of God’s grace. I give glory for how God is using not me but our team at this phase of our mission. I hope and pray that 20, 30, or 40 years from now, when all our faces are different, we will be reaching even more people than our original group could have imagined.