The Three Things We Do Together As a Church

Grace Hills is a simple, purpose driven church. That means that we try to do what we’re told to do by Jesus, and little else. There is plenty of debate today about what a local church ought to look like, with plenty of criticism directed at large churches, in particular, for pouring so many resources into the weekend worship service.

I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on our direction at Grace Hills, and I keep going back to a message I shared before we ever held our grand opening service. I had shared that in the gospels, you can find at least three distinct invitations of Jesus. He invited seekers to come and see, believers to come and die, and followers to go and tell. We tend to argue over which of these approaches is best for the church to take in ministry but I think Jesus would say, all of them. 

Much of what we do as a local church relates to the Sunday morning corporate gathering. That’s where we come together to exalt Jesus and worship God. We sing. We preach. We give thanks and offerings. We serve other believers. And, very importantly, we welcome new friends and show them the kind of hospitable family we’d love to be for them. That is to say, we gather, and it’s very important that we do it well.

Another huge part of what we do happens behind the scenes and beyond what the public normally observes. It happens in homes where small groups gather for Bible study. It happens as individuals practice the spiritual disciples such as prayer and Bible study. And it happens as members serve other members in various capacities. As a community, as micro-communities, and as individuals, we’re getting closer to Jesus. In other words, we grow, and it’s vital that we clear the pathway for this growth to happen, and do it well.

And finally, another big part of what we do pertains to causes beyond the doors of the local movie theater where we meet, and beyond the circles in which we do Bible study together. We send missionaries to other places on the planet to pave the way for the gospel. We support local schools and charities with resources and volunteer hours. We take up the causes of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. We go, and going is as important as anything else we do. In fact, if we stop going, our gathering will lose its luster as we fade into irrelevance in our disobedience to God.

Years ago in his best-seller The Purpose Driven Church, Pastor Rick Warren famously said, “A great commitment to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission will grow a great church!” Out of those two key passages of Scripture, we’ve chosen to be about the business of three things, and very little else:

We gather.

We grow.

We go.

And as we invite the rest of the world to join us – those who are yet unattached and unadopted – we enjoin people to do those three things with us. Come gather with us and see the life-giving power of worshipping King Jesus… Come grow with us as we connect with others, mature spiritually, and serve each other… Come go with us as we tackle global giants and take the gospel to the uttermost part of the earth, starting in Northwest Arkansas.

That’s our mission. It’s simple. Let’s keep it that way.

Grace Hills: A Growing Church for a Growing Community

Grace Hills Lobby

I’m in awe of God because He is God and because of all that I know to be true about Him from Scripture. And I’m humbled to be a part of what he is doing in the world today. I just got to share this brief update about Grace Hills Church via Mission:World Magazine. Will you read it and rejoice with me?

Sometimes Northwest Arkansas feels very much like the center of the world, at least culturally. What was once small town America is now a cluster of cities collectively larger than Little Rock and consisting of dozens of ethnic groups and people from every major religious background. The region is also home to the world’s largest retail corporation and a new, American art museum that draws a half million visitors per year. Somewhere around 1,000 people move into the I-49 corridor every month. In other words, we couldn’t plant enough churches to keep up with the population explosion and cultural transformation happening around us. But we’re going to try.

In the four years that we’ve been planting Grace Hills, we’ve met close to 2,000 visitors and now average 250 in Sunday worship, having baptized close to 100 people. A dozen and a half small groups now scatter around the county each week. And we’ve also accomplished one of our biggest goals – we’re planting a daughter church in nearby Siloam Springs – Journey Church, led by Michael and Jennifer Smith and Cody Woodward. Additionally, we’ve sent The Sanders and Crabtree families to Papua New Guineau and we’ve partnered with missionaries John and Alisha Herring in Nixa, Missouri and Ely and Ana Brito-Semedo in Thailand.

The biggest celebration is that behind every number is a name; every name has a story; and every story matters to God. Join us in praying that God would keep sending more broken people our way in need of the redemptive hope of Jesus Christ!

Dear Grace Hills, We’re Making a Big, Bold Move

Grace Hills Church at Pinnacle Hills Promenade Malco TheaterComing to (another) theater near you… Grace Hills Church! We’re moving from the Rogers Malco Town Cinema over to the Malco at Pinnacle Hills Promenade!! And our big opening is January 25, 2015!!

Hey Grace Hills, we’re three years old! And during these three years, we’ve seen a lot of growth. We started with 30 people in an office and had about 70 when we got ready to launch six months later. We averaged 140 in worship attendance during our first year at the Rogers Malco Cinema and have now grown to an average of about 210 and had over 300 for this past Easter. Approximately 75 have gone “all in” through baptism and we have nine strong small groups going, with a need for several more. Those numbers help us to know where we are as a church, but they don’t even begin to represent all the stories of life change we’ve witnessed.

Dozens of people have given their lives to Jesus, marriages have been saved, addicts have found help and committed to recovery, and people have stepped up to serve others. We’ve sent and supported missionaries to Nixa, Missouri, Thailand, Papua New Guineau and have begun planting a daughter church in Siloam Springs. And we’ve enjoyed a beautiful partnership with Grace Hill Elementary school and have invested hundreds of volunteer hours in the community through We Love NWA initiatives. A couple of our kids ministry leaders are launching BE:KIDS and it’s gonna be big. A lot has happened!

Who We Are

At the core of who we are is a very simple mission:

We exist to gather a community of people who are coming to know Jesus and serving others for the glory of God.

That’s a mission statement that very simply represents the five purposes we believe Jesus founded the church to accomplish.

  • To gather people is evangelism. It’s how we grow larger.
  • To gather a community is fellowship. It’s how we grow warmer.
  • To gather a community of people who are coming to know Jesus is discipleship. It’s how we grow deeper.
  • Serving others is ministry. It’s how we grow broader.
  • And we do it all for the glory of God because everything we do is worship. It’s how we grow stronger.

To put it simply, we’re purpose driven church. Rather than being driven by programs, buildings, budgets, politics, or denominational agendas, we’re driven by a great commitment to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. It’s why I believe we’re growing into a great church.

What we do

We’ve always approached ministry in Northwest Arkansas in three ways, all modeled on the ministry approaches that Jesus took.

We invite people to come and see what we’re all about and what the gospel is all about. So we want to create the very best weekend gathering we possibly can, where things get real, where we focus on truth and grace, and where the gospel is always faithfully shared and connected to where we live life daily. (This is important. I’m coming back to this…)

We challenge people to come and die, which may sound odd if you’re unfamiliar with Jesus’ challenge to His disciples, but an “all in” commitment to Jesus means dying to self and coming alive to a whole new life in relationship with Jesus. It’s becoming like Him in every aspect of our character.

We send people to go and tell. Individually, as groups, and as a church, we’ll do anything to reach people far from God and multiply ourselves.

Where we do it

The “come and see” aspect of what we do – what we often call the gathering aspect – we’ve had the privilege of doing in a movie theater. Admittedly, that wasn’t the plan on day one when we started planting Grace Hills. But three months into our launch team gathering process, we decided to go for it and within a few months, it had opened my own eyes to a new way of thinking about where and how churches gather.

To put it simply, I’ve come to love the concept of a church that gathers right in the middle of the culture, in the marketplace, in what some refer to as the “third place.” Barriers are already broken down for guests, especially those who walk in knowing that they have hurts, habits, and hang-ups. We communicate strongly that we’re a church for the unchurched, the de-churched, and people who long for an environment that is shaped by radical grace.

Where we’ve been gathering is about to change.

I and the Grace Hills staff have spent many weeks praying, fasting, seeking God’s clear direction, and listening for His voice. This past week, we re-visited a spot we only briefly considered before. When the four of us met on the property, it was thirty minutes of confirmation. Here’s what stood out to us…

  • It’s a “third place” where people come to do life beyond home and work.
  • It’s right in the middle of all of Northwest Arkansas, so it’s highly visible.
  • It’s a familiar place to people and to families.
  • It’s an extremely kid-friendly place. There’s a “party room” for our nursery and a playground right out front.
  • It’s an extremely teen-friendly place.
  • It’s a clean, fresh place. The theater staff has done a great job keeping it in tip-top shape.
  • It opens the door to minister to more of Northwest Arkansas and to people and families with all kinds of stories.
  • It’s a theater, so it’s still casual, seeker-friendly, and community-oriented.
  • It’s totally US. Trust me…
  • It’s not permanent. It’s not “temporary” either. And with our vision of spreading and scattering all over the community as we grow, I’m not sure what “permanent” means for us anyway.

I’m excited!! Our staff is excited!! And I believe you’re going to be excited too!

The “Why” is what matters most

I remind myself of our core values constantly. As we move forward, we’re still going to believe the Bible completely, take big risks for a big God, do whatever it takes to reach the lost, make sure everybody belongs, be crazy about broken people, worship without holding back, walk with people on their journey to maturity, and bring out the best in people. And best of all, what’s next for us allows us to be fast, fluid, and flexible and to more firmly plant ourselves to multiply all over Northwest Arkansas!

Grace Hills, I love you, and I can’t WAIT to take this next leap with you!!! We’ll be meeting in our new space on Sunday, January 25th, 2015!!!

What to Do When Your Church Seems to Be Dying

Temple Baptist Church Sarnia New Roof

No church leader I know wants to see another church close its doors. We need every local church, now more than ever, if we’re going to fulfill the Great Commission as soon as possible. I’m a Baptist who still believes in the perpetuity of biblical, local New Testament churches until Jesus comes again. But each local church in history has tended to have its own life cycle. Some are revived and have a whole new life. Others disband and dissolve. And many churches limp along in mere survival mode for a couple of decades until their stalwart generation is gone and then close their doors.

Here’s a hard truth. Sometimes, churches need to die. Sometimes, churches need a miraculous healing and fresh breath of life. God is certainly in the miracle-working business and is alive and well on His throne, but under His sovereign reign, history proves that miracles aren’t always in order from His perspective.

If you think your church might be dying, here are some possible next moves.

Assess the situation.

And here’s the tough question you must ask to have a meaningful assessment: Will we, by fighting for our survival, consume resources such as money and energy that could be better invested in other ways for the growth of God’s Kingdom? And here’s the kicker. To turn things around, you won’t be able to do what you’ve been doing. Things will have to change radically and painfully, and very few churches survive the transition. You’ll have to let go of the reins and give up control. In other words, you’ll have to do the very thing human beings are most afraid to do for your church to have a chance at new life.

If, after close inspection, deep prayer and fasting, and the counsel of godly leaders your church comes to the conclusion that life must go on and revival must occur, brace yourself. What comes next is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. It’s why Ed Stetzer often says that “it’s easier to birth babies than to raise the dead.”

Know that God wants more than your faithfulness. He wants you to be fruitful as well.

This is the point at which many who are reading these words with a defensive posture will be proclaiming that all is needed for a church to thrive is faithfulness to sound doctrine and the preaching of the gospel. I believe these are foundational. I also know plenty of churches that are, as Vance Havner put it, “straight as a gun barrel doctrinally and just as empty spiritually.”

To be faithful requires our adherence to the Scriptures as God’s Word, to Jesus Christ as Savior and Head of the body, and to the Holy Spirit as our source of power. But fruitfulness also requires wisdom, teamwork, sweat and toil, and a methodology that fulfills the unchanging mission of the church.

Let go of your church as you’ve known it.

Everything has to be on the table. It’s possible, and even highly likely, that your church is being held back by some rather significant factors such as the leader, the building or location, the power structure, the worship style, poor communication and broken systems. Many churches are dying because they’ve hung onto seemingly harmless traditions that actually alienate them from those outside the faith by creating an impassible cultural wall.

Many churches are dying because they’ve handcuffed their spiritual leaders with an inverted structure. The sheep are controlling the shepherd and threaten to vote him out if he doesn’t tow the line. This is epidemic. And also common is the lone ranger leader who has all kinds of freedom and power but is too afraid to share the load of ministry by empowering other leaders.


Get help.

We want new church plants to be under the wing of a “mother” church until they’re on their feet. I think it’s pertinent that churches in “resuscitation” mode do the same. Seek out the help and oversight of a church that is thriving. Obviously you will want to seek the leadership of a church that is like-minded theologically, but it’s also vitally important to be able to recognize and appreciate the value and effectiveness of other methodologies. You need coaches, consultants, and mentors if you’re going to turn the ship around. Call them the triage team, if you will, and listen to their wisdom.

Start over. Completely.

It’s possible to keep the name of your church the same, stay in the same location, and keep the same leadership. But it’s also necessary to lay all of these on the altar if a new name, a new spot, and a new approach to ministry will more effectively reach your community.

There are absolutely success stories out there from which to learn. Pastor Jeremy Franklin turned it around at Oasis Church (formerly Grace Temple Baptist Church) in Arlington, Texas. Pastor Bruce Moore gave his church one year to live and shared with them the date of their final service if they chose to remain the same. Now, Christ Fellowship in Tampa is a thriving, evangelistically effective multi-cultural church in the heart of a metro area. Pastor Dom Ruso has led a formerly large church that had experienced significant decline to shift things and grow again at Temple Baptist Church in Sarnia, Ontario (hear Cary Nieuwhof interview with Dom about his experience transitioning a declining church via Cary’s Leadership Podcast).

And that painful cutting loose of our attachments and traditions and embracing of a whole new future is just the beginning. The hard work lies ahead. Therefore, if you can’t or won’t take radical action, then it’s time to do something altogether different, and it’s not as negative as it sounds at first.

Die. With dignity.

Imagine closing your church doors with heavy hearts, but high hopes for the future. It’s happening in pockets across the country as churches decide to release the kingdom assets they’re currently sitting on and invest in new works. Gather the leadership, chart a course for closing, dissolving assets, and re-distributing all assets to new church plants and missions agencies. Ideally, link up with the particular church plant that will be using the funds and host a joint-service with them near your final Sunday and make it a big celebration.

A grain of wheat seems to die when it falls to the ground, but it actually produces new, fresh life. And so can your church!

One of my mentors, Grady Higgs, often said he’d hate to be the church sitting on an enormous savings account when Jesus returns. Remember the big assessment question: Will we, by fighting for our survival, consume resources that could be better invested in other ways for the growth of God’s Kingdom? It could be that the greatest act of ministry in the history of your church is to unselfishly invest yourself back into the Kingdom by helping a new birth happen.

Pictured: Temple Baptist Church in Sarnia, Ontario – a healthy turn-around church.

When Things Get Real in a Church Plant

Grace Hills' Second Service

A snapshot taken in our first official “second” service, 1/19/2014.

I am humbled! Today marked the 2nd anniversary of our launch as Grace Hills Church. Today, we also launched a second morning worship service – something I’ll write about later. And today, we began a new teaching series called Healing: Recovering from Life’s Hurts, Habits, and Hang-ups.

We had a record attendance. 240 people came, 47 of whom were kids, and 2 young adults received Jesus as their Savior. THAT never gets old! That’s the highlight – two young ladies who are going to heaven now, for whom life will never be the same again.

What really humbled me the most, however, was that I started the message off by declaring, “My name is Brandon. I’m a Christian who struggles with anger, and here’s the story of what that has looked like as Jesus was worked in my life to help me understand and start to heal.”

And the result of risking saying something like that to my Grace Hills family? People were thankful. People felt free to say, “I’m broken too.”

We’ve been determined from day one that Grace Hills will be a church OF broken people with a message FOR broken people. We embrace messes and value messy ministry. We’re a safe place for people with struggles and we believe that, though broken by sin, there is forgiveness and healing in a relationship with Jesus.

I’m taking away some big blessings from today…

  • Jesus saves, and Jesus alone, and He’s powerful to save people from every background imaginable.
  • Risks are worth taking, like launching two services when we hadn’t filled up the room we were in. It worked.
  • Getting real matters. Transparency matters. And I don’t ever want to go back to faking it. Ever.
  • If God can use me, He can use anybody, and He has and He will!
  • Volunteers are awesome! From the early setup crew to the kids volunteers to the greeters and the coffee makers, I LOVE the people who invest their heart and their energy into making Grace Hills what it is.

And we’re still just getting started. God is at work, gathering a community of believers who are coming to know Jesus and serving others for His glory. And I can’t wait to witness what is next!

Let’s Make Disciples of All the Nations… Today!

Sad List of Unreached People Groups
This “sad list” of 2,500 unreached people groups was unrolled during our service today. Photo by Kristen H.

Jesus told us plainly, don’t talk about a harvest happening someday. Look at the fields that are white for the harvest today. As long as we see the Great Commission as some far off, unreachable goal, we will remain far off from reaching our goal.

Earlier today, 175 people gathered in a movie theater in northwest Arkansas as Grace Hills Church. We’re less than two years old with a modest budget and a long way to go toward being a “grown up” church. But we’re serious about making disciples of all the nations, today, even before we seem ready. I’m moved by how this young body of people have gotten swept up in the Spirit’s desire to carry the gospel further. A few things we mentioned and celebrated today…

  • Michael Smith is a month and a half into a one-year residency with us, after which he’ll go plant a Grace Hills daughter church.
  • A dozen and a half Grace Hills members are heading out in six days on a trip to Honduras and for most of them, it’s their first time out of the country.
  • We’re investing in the Brito-Semedo family who have moved to Thailand to plant churches and share Jesus.
  • We’re also investing in the Herring family and Refuge Church in Nixa, Missouri, a plant that will be launching soon.
  • We’re blessing the Crabtree’s and Sanders’ who are moving to Papau New Guinea to reach an unreached tribe of people after they get their hut built.

And then there are the things we have going on for northwest Arkansas, such as:

  • A growing kids ministry that is about to multiply by starting Cinema56 just for 5th and 6th graders.
  • A student ministry that has taken off recently and is already seeing more than a dozen teens on a Wednesday night in a living room.
  • Celebrate Recovery will be launching early in 2014 at the conclusion of our Road to Recovery sermon series.
  • A lay counseling program to address the soul care needs of our community.
  • A partnership with a local school to provide for some families in need over the holidays.

We could wait until we have a building of our own, a larger budget, or a more stable cash reserve. But the story of Jesus is one that needs telling now. Today. In this moment. Don’t fall into the someday ministry trap. Go to the nations today!

Creating Excellence With a Tiny Budget

When we began planting Grace Hills, we didn’t have the quarter of a million dollars that some plants in America start out with. We had way less than that in fact, so we had to figure out how to hack some things together, and I’m convinced it’s made us stronger. We learned to do the very best we could with what we had, and we’re still doing that.

A lack of resources is merely an opportunity to be extra creative.

The Values of Excellence

The first thing we had to do was clarify our “values” concerning excellence, and we came up with five. These are not an official statement – just random thoughts that guided some of our early decisions.

  • We do things with excellence (the best we can) for God’s glory.
  • We refuse to make an idol of excellence – excellence isn’t the goal, disciples are.
  • We refuse to allow the pursuit of excellence hold us back. We won’t wait for perfect conditions before taking risks.
  • We will learn from models, valuing effectiveness over originality. We don’t need credit, we need life.
  • We will be a model, sharing our excellence with others, or at least sharing what we’re learning from both failure and success.

Some churches value excellence way more than we do, and that’s great. But for us, excellence is kind of “assumed” while we take action.

Faithraising In a Church Plant

I hate fundraising and donor development, but I love faithraising. When giving is an issue of discipleship, we have nothing to fear in teaching a young church how to become generous. So your budget woes are usually temporary if you’re effectively discipling people, excepting an economic downturn. When it comes to raising funds, I believe its important to understand your financial values. For example, at Grace Hills:

  • We believe giving is a discipleship issue, so we make no apology for calling on those who have committed themselves to our covenant to invest in the vision.
  • We believe the ethical handling of money is essential, so we outsource all of our bookkeeping and we don’t let Pastors touch money if at all possible.
  • We believe in taking risks in faith, thinking big and thinking ahead for God’s glory.

The Tools We Use

If you’re going to do things on the cheap, you’re going to need to know where to go for tools and resources, and here are just a few of my own favorites:

And there are plenty more. If you have a favorite or offer resources yourself, feel free to share in the comments below.

Staffing With a Tiny Budget

It’s easy to over-staff, but it’s dangerous to under-staff. I’m a big believer in staffing ahead of growth. I believe in leadership and so from early on, we wanted to expand our staff as quickly as possible, but we obviously couldn’t afford to pay a bunch of full-time salaries. So we became creative in our solutions. For example…

  1. Seek passionate people. Passionate people don’t have to be paid large salaries. They recognize the privilege of doing what others would love to do for free. I don’t mean that you should make people starve, but find people who are passionate enough to find creative ways to make ends meet.
  2. Ask for volunteers. One of the things that impressed me most when I was on staff at Saddleback Church was the number of people who volunteered. The total number was well up into the ten thousands, but what I saw in my little corner of the world – the Communications Team and the Office of the Pastor – were volunteers who were working twenty to forty hours because they believed in the vision of the church. Many staff members started as full-time volunteers.
  3. Develop disciples and hire the best. To pit it another way, hire from within whenever possible. It’s not always practical to do so, but some of the best staff members you will ever have will be people who were discipled and developed within your church family.
  4. Use multiple part-time staffers. Today, it’s possible for talented people to innovate when it comes to earning a living, especially in the entrepreneurial atmosphere of a new church plant. We are two years in with a staff of six and none of us would be considered “full-time.” We all do something on the side that sustains our ability to work for Grace Hills.

Going Technical On a Budget

There are companies that do great work for the church at high prices. There’s nothing wrong with paying a lot of money for a cutting edge web presence, but it isn’t necessary, especially for a new church plant.

  • There are free resources such as,, and, all of which can be used to establish a free web presence, but the branding capabilities will be limited. Nonetheless, if you have no money for tech, start with these.
  • If you have a little bit of money, you can go big while going technical on a budget with a hosting account from Dreamhost, which offers an easy one-click install of WordPress, and a premium WordPress theme from ThemeforestStudioPress, or Elegant Themes, and a host of others. With this solution and a little bit of technical knowledge, you’ll spend less than $100 to get going.
  • If you have a little more money and lack the technical knowledge to get a basic template-driven website up and going, two of my favorite design studios offer church-specific solutions at good prices – Monk Development and ChurchPlant Media.

Promoting On a Budget

Direct mail works well in some locations and not in others. Either way, it’s expensive. It’s beneficial if you can afford it, but if you can’t, it’s still possible to promote what God is doing on a budget, especially using social media, which I wrote about yesterday here. And in addition to social media, we have had great success using MailChimp for our email marketing. Since Grace Hills started, we’ve spent $0 on traditional marketing. All of our growth is organic.

And beyond advertising and “promotion” is good old-fashioned service to the community, which is often cheap or free and speaks more loudly than a well-designed piece of marketing material.

Facilities On a Budget

Property is expensive and buildings are even more so. They are also maintenance nightmares for a new church plant. And in our present culture, a new church plant needs to establish that the church is a movement of people, not a location. So I have a few rules when it comes to buildings in a new church plant:

  • WAIT! Wait to lease by renting a theater, school, or other venue part-time. Wait to buy land until you’ve leased a while. And wait to build a building until you’ve paid off land. When it’s time to grow, it’s time to go, so moving isn’t the issue. The issue is that if you don’t wait, you’ll be saddled with debt and a building to maintain ahead of the time when you’re really capable.
  • Maximize spaces. Figure out how to make the most of things. We’ve created a nursery in a movie theater by using colorful roll-out carpets and plastic preschool fencing. We’ve created a coffee shop inside the theater’s lobby. And we’ve done lighting and sound effectively in a space that really isn’t conducive. We have a great screen, but we use our own projection. Figure out ways to squeeze the right things into the right spaces.
  • Think NEAT, not NICE. Again, I assume I’m talking to people who don’t have the money for the “best,” so think about being neat, clean, and safe rather than being elegant or fancy. Right now, pallets are big in the church decor and stage design world. With the right lighting and design creativity, you can make things look great without dropping a ton of cash.

Finally, to close out, just some from-the-hip random advice for creating excellence on a budget…

  • Be a hacker.
  • Think bigger than where you are.
  • Value volunteers, big time!
  • Know your culture and what it will take to reach it.
  • Ask outsiders what they think.

And at the end of it all, do the best you can with what God provides for His glory!

photo credit: (aka Brent)