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Reflections on a Ministry Career of Facilitating Extraordinary Congregational Growth

“The period of ‘Walmarting’ of the church is coming to an end,” was only one of the messages the Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller shared with the audience at the recent Exploring Series event at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. Ordained in 1988, Waller, senior pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia, spoke on the topic “Reflections on a Ministry Career of Facilitating Extraordinary Congregational Growth,” speaking on transitions the church, especially the black church, has made.

He considered the 1960s, where the church was full and became an integral part of the Civil Rights movement – Waller once sat on the lap of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was young – through the years when a generation of men, now in their 60s, left the church and either had no church home or, particularly in Philadelphia, moved to the Muslim faith. Church leaders in the 80s, including the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., brought on a movement to hold onto Christianity while embracing African American culture, and a return to Sola Scriptura – scripture alone, which brought a movement back to the church.

As we entered the 90s, the growth in economic opportunities and the DotCom era brought on the “theology of conspicuous consumption” – prosperity gospel – which helped people feel good about stuff they had. Some split from traditional churches and saw congregations growing in new neighborhoods where new money equated Jesus with prosperity. Those congregations are seeing decline with the DotCom bust and subsequent economic setbacks, and change in the “megachurch.”

Waller noted that the church is called to grow, but not measure growth alone. It needs to “love people – love others,” he noted. He then shared some key points:

Critical to congregations:

  • They need to craft their “congregation code” and speak a standard congregational language. It is important to encourage the long tenure of the pastor to get to learn the people and craft the code to those people. A church can’t keep switching leaders.
  • The congregational code needs to be developed to meet the present needs of the community. This includes language about family relationships, which are part of the needs of the community.
  • The church needs to return to scripture, and use scriptural language to describe the church structure. The code needs to sound like scripture, not denomination jargon – this generation doesn’t care about denominational issues, the want to know “Are you spiritual? Are you true to scripture?”
  • It is important for the pastor to stay true to authentic self, reflect their authentic self in the direction of what they do.

Internal challenges

  • Constant change: Who moved my cheese? is a constant question Expect change of some type every 2 years. Change does not always bring pain to the pastor – there is also pain caused by pastors changes.
  • The pastor is challenged to consider his or her own sense of understanding as pastor – changing role, especially in large congregations, from shepherd to rancher, from someone who does everything to others doing part of the work, and parishioners asking for things that make the pastor look at the changes as they affect the pastor.
  • Adding staff changes who the pastor is and how they are seen.

External challenges

  • There is suspicion by academy and community – is the megachurch really a church? Is the church growing or swelling – cancerous cell growing too fast causes swelling but not beneficial growth. Does the church love God or does it love itself? Does the church exist for itself or for the community, and what are the visible signs of the church existing for the community? The local megachurch is often equated to TV evangelism – hermeneutical suspicion is a painful reality. The academy needs to take seriously and engage with today’s reality to be relevant in its educational offerings.

Using the example of his congregation, Waller noted that a large church has large resources and i able to help lots of people – and Enon has the financial ability to give back 10% of its income. He noted that his first church has a total budget of $65,000, but that Enon can give that same amount to help a single organization or church, and it should do so because it can.

He noted again that the church is facing significant challenges, and the “Walmarting” of the church is over. Most mega churches in decline, and hundreds of churches in foreclosure. Enon is growing at a rate of 1-2% a year compared to 5-10% in its days of large growth.

Congregations and pastors need to look at how they work. He noted “Jesus sent the seventy,” and members want to gather to share what they have experienced in ministry. They can do embedded ministry, get in there and do it, and then “we’ll meet back here on Sunday for the celebration of what you do and what you experience.” Pastors and churches need to do what Luther did, “the same stuff we need to visit again, and scripture alone will inform or sustain,” Waller suggested.

Watch the livestream recording of Pastor Waller and “Reflections on a Ministry Career of Facilitating Extraordinary Congregational Growth”


View a slide show from the event (click on any image to go to the Photo Gallery):

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