What is Different about Christ Church?


The Vital Church Ministries Newsletter August 28, 2003

Equipping and Encouraging Episcopal Church Leaders to Fulfill the Great Commission

by The Rev. Kevin Martin

As I have presented seminars and workshops over the years, I have learned to pay attention to the questions that people ask me, especially the repeat questions. Since I took up my new position with Vital Church Ministries in January and began my work out of Christ Church, Plano, Texas, without a doubt the most frequently asked questions are about this extraordinarily large and fast growing Episcopal congregation. What is different about Christ Church?

Christ Church was started in 1985. The founding vicar David Roseberry and his wife Fran gathered a small fellowship in their home at the beginning of the church's life. 18 years later, Christ Church has some 4000 plus members and the average attendance at the four weekend services totals around 2200. While Christ Church is not the largest Episcopal Church in the country, it may have the highest number of people regularly worshiping here.

I have known David since about 1989 when I first interviewed him for an article I was writing. As you can imagine, in coming here, I had my antennae up because I too am interested in how an Episcopal Church can grow so large so quickly.

Most large Episcopal Churches in the U.S. have been large for some time. Most got large in the 50's and 60's. They may have experienced additional growth in recent years, but they were already building on the momentum of their historic size. Two examples of this are St. John the Divine and St. Martins in Houston. Both were large and under their present rectors have continued to grow. Some of our large churches remain large although they have been in decline for a number of years. The Cathedral in Atlanta (once our largest congregation) and Trinity, Boston would be examples of this pattern.

This is important information to know because it points out why the growth at Christ Church is so extraordinary. This growth has all taken place in a growingly secular culture. I have long felt that a research project worth doing is to study our congregations that have gotten large since 1980. If we identified these, we would see the evangelistic Episcopal Churches that had made the best transformation to the emerging new culture.

This is how we could do the study. We should identify all Episcopal Churches that had less than 200 average attendance in 1980 and that today are over 400. Then we could have a small team visit them and identify what they are doing right and what can be shared with the rest of us.

This would be a much more significant study than the brief snapshot that is offered about the "fastest growing Episcopal Churches" over the past year few years. This kind of study often identifies the smaller pastoral church that has recovered under a dynamic and energetic new pastor.

Think of how size affects percentages. If a church goes from 75 to 100 in average attendance over three years (not unrealistic for a recovering and revitalized Pastoral Church) it has had tremendous percentage growth.

One of my favorite examples of large church growth is the year that St. John the Divine started its alternative 11am informal service. That year this one church offset the entire lost of the 60% of our smallest congregations (fewer than 75 people a Sunday) in the Diocese of Texas. Interestingly enough, this was not that high of a percentage increase for St. John's. However, they added about 300 people to their average attendance. That is about the equivalent of adding four new pastoral sized churches!

Christ Church would stand at the top of the list of my proposed project and I came here eager to know what made it such a fast growing community. I am now prepared to comment on this, but it is interesting that it has taken me six months to get a good handle on it.

It was easy to identify some characteristics right away. The Rector is a dynamic church leader with a clear vision. He is a strong communicator and an effective teacher and preacher. The staff of the parish is outstanding. They are some of the finest church professionals, volunteers and overall leaders that I have ever met. And the worship, it almost goes without saying, is outstanding, uplifting and inspirational every service. But I've long known that excellence is a shared characteristic of large churches.

I also saw two strong parts of this growth in the Rector's view of the church. "Christ Church is really a two layered congregation," he once told me. "We have seeker friendly and sensitive weekend worship which draws large numbers, but we also have an intentional discipleship ministry behind this. We encourage two types of people. Those willing to search spiritually and those who we invite to enter a deeper relationship with Christ." This is reflected in the Church's mission statement, "To make disciples and to teach them all Jesus commanded."

I also noticed that the Rector is never really content or satisfied with a leveling out or acceptance of the status quo. He constantly encourages the staff to be sensitive to new people and to continue to grow ministries that reach out to new people. But I know large churches that do all these things, and still do not experience this kind of growth.

Then two weeks ago, the lights went on in a new way for me. I was reviewing a new book for Abington Press by Lyle Schaller. (He always has a new book coming out!) Interestingly, his book is on small congregations, but in the opening chapter he talks about the "organizing principles" of small and large congregations, especially how they are different. I intend another article that will talk more about his book and some insights on the future of small churches, but his reference to large, fast growing churches with attendance over 800 fits Christ Church.

The two organizing principles of these churches, he contends, is a "confident Christology and a sure and certain reliance on the authority of the Scriptures for the Christian life." Schaller contends, and I believe he is right, that these two organizing principles allow the large church to gather large numbers of spiritually hungry people and to encourage and grow them as disciples.

What does he mean by confident Christology? Here are his words:

"These congregations proclaim an orthodox statement about Jesus Christ. They proclaim that Jesus was the son of God, he was both human and divine, he did die on the cross, he did rise from the dead on the third day, and his life and death atoned for the sins of human beings. They also believe and teach that Christ will come again. They believe and teach that we live in a world filled with sin and evil. Redemption is possible only through Jesus Christ."
Here is what he says about the authority of Scripture:
"These congregations do not raise human reason nor human experiences nor tradition to the same level of truth or guidance as Scripture. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that this focus on certainty is not only clearly defined, it also is presented in a persuasive manner that minimizes internal division. Why this emphasis on persuasive preaching and teaching? We live in a culture filled with persuasive messages from exceptionally skilled advocates of a huge variety of goods, services, views, ideas, dreams, and experiences. In order to compete effectively in the contemporary public square, anyone proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be a persuasive communicator."
Now compare this with our smaller and stable congregations. In order to illustrate how important this is, let me share with you what the average pastoral church in ECUSA is organized around and then point out how different this is from Christ Church and why it makes them so hard to grow.

The 125 ASA Episcopal Church is organized around three key principles.

  1. The community or village where we know each other. We weep with those who weep, bury those who need to be buried, mourn those who leave and welcome back those who return.

  2. The Church Year. In practice most Episcopal Churches plan their life not around Christology, but around the Christendom oriented church year.

  3. And in most places, such a church is organized around the emotional energy and ability of the Rector to relate to the members, set goals and influence harmonious cooperation.

No wonder they are so hard to grow! Items 1 and 3 limit the size. And item 2, no matter how meaningful to long time members, is irrelevant to secular people.

Now, don't get the wrong impression. Christ Church appears on the surface mainly Episcopal. We wear vestments (albs and stoles.) We use the 1979 Prayer Book rite II service (all services use the same printed bulletin that contains all the liturgy and music.) We sing from the 1982 Hymnal and we blend the best in contemporary Christian choruses and music. Even our 8 o'clock service blends the music; remember that an old timer here is around 50 years of age!

But almost all visitors and most members consistently say, "Christ Church isn't a typical Episcopal Church." Of course, size is part of this. The median Episcopal Church has 80 people on a Sunday and our average is around 125. However, you can sense that they mean more than size.

What is the heart of this? What makes Christ Church seem so different? What has brought about this extraordinary growth? The liturgy, worship, music and preaching are centered on Christ and the Scriptures are offered as authoritative to anyone who wishes to follow after this Christ as a disciple. Those who are seeking something in their lives are invited to "listen in" and invited to begin to study Scripture in one of our many ministries and small groups.

Let me make one other observation about Christ Church. At the present moment of crisis within our denomination after General Convention, Christ Church has become a symbol for many in the church who are unhappy with the actions taken there. Is it because we are raving fundamentalists who hate others and who vilify homosexuals? Think about this, there are 2200 people here at worship. Most are college-educated folks. Do you think that they are not affected by the issues related to homosexuality in our culture, in their world, in their families? Of course they are.

Christ Church welcomes all people just as Jesus did. But the organizing principles of this church that have allowed it such extraordinary growth and affected so many peoples' lives in the Dallas area put us in direct contradiction to the present majority of leadership in ECUSA. They have, shall we say, more "ambiguity" about their Christology and the authority of Scripture.

Here too, Schaller has some things to say to us:

"In matters of religion, certainty can be a unifying rallying point while ambiguity often is a divisive central organizing principle. The larger the size of the constituency, the more likely ambiguity on doctrine and teaching will be divisive and the more likely certainty, if executed in a persuasive rather than divisive style, will be unifying. This generalization applies to both congregations and denominations in American Protestantism."
Remember that Christ Church is the host for our Church in the 21st Century Conference September 17 - 19. David Roseberry is one of our keynote speakers and several of the staff here will be sharing workshops on how to reach the un-churched and make disciples. Come and learn from those who know how to do this in the growing sea of secular people.

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