The secret to today's fast-growing churches

05 May 2021 7:04 AM | Josh Hunt (Administrator)

I can summarize my life message in one sentence: you can double a group in two years or less by inviting every member and every prospect to every fellowship every month.

A longer, one-paragraph version goes like this: A group of ten that doubles every eighteen months can reach a thousand people for God in ten years. One of the best ways of growing a group is through relationships. The gospel spreads best on the bridges of existing relationships. Donald McGavran called these The Bridges of God. Hospitality makes relational evangelism intentional evangelism. If we love them they will come and they will come to love our Lord. It is not enough to tell them about a God who loves them, we must love them. It is not enough to tell them the words about grace, we must be gracious to them.

Do the top 100 have anything to say about hospitality? Once again, let me quote the pastor of the nation’s largest church:

When I got out of Seminary I started working with High School students I learned two things real quick, number one. I learned it was possible to create environments where unchurched, unbelieving kids could come and even though they didn’t believe what we believe they would come back the next week to hear more. And I also learned a more important thing. I learned that if you can get unchurched, unbelieving people in a community of believers that are loving each other and caring for each other and being real Christians, that being in that community breaks down the barriers to unbelief. It strips away big objections—good God and bad things happening to good people and all those legitimate questions. You get somebody in the community where the church is being the church and somehow the edges get softer and people’s hearts open up and life change happens. And so, we started creating environments where kids started coming and lives started being changed and do you know where we got the resistance? From the church people! And so one night I am sitting in this meeting. It had been going an hour and a half because we had a band and video and stuff and there are all these wonderful church people … I know many of them, knew many of them for many years, some of them come here now. And the meeting was, “Andy, if you keep doing this, creating these environments, here is what is going to happen, and all the potential horrible stuff and sex drugs and rock and roll and whoa! It’s going to be terrible.

And I just kept thinking, “Where is this coming from?” Toward the end of the meeting a lady stood up toward my right. She is still a friend of mine. She stood up, tears in her eyes, her voice quivering, and she said, “I am amazed at what I have heard. For an hour I have listened to everyone talk about how afraid they are about what might happen. Can I tell you what has happened? My two sons, who have never been involved in a church look forward to every Wednesday night and never miss. And, it you shut down this program, I am afraid they will never step foot inside a church again.” She sat down.

And I made up my mind. I am going to spend the rest of my life finding people who understand that you can create environments in a local church that allow us to partner with people who are fishing. And I want to create environments for people and as they come and as they get involved in a community of believers their belief system begins to change, not because we have confronted, not because we give them specific answers to specific questions, although there is a time and a place of that. But, because they are in the presence, as much as they’ll ever be in the presence of the living savior.

The nation’s largest church is only nineteen years old. It was able to grow so rapidly (in part) because the pastor, Andy Stanley regularly stands before the people and says, “I am in a group that is doubling; I want you to be in a group that is doubling.”

They grow by creating environments where unchurched people can kick tires in an atmosphere of grace and acceptance. They have discovered that if they will love people, people’s hearts will warm up to a message about a God who loves them. They have discovered that if they are gracious to people, people’s hearts warm up to a message about grace. If they will befriend people, people will warm up to a message about, “What a friend we have in Jesus.”

North Point has grown by loving people in common, ordinary, pedestrian ways. But, they are not the only church that does.

Willow Creek and Matthew Parties

North Point is not the only top-100 churches that uses hospitality to reach people. Willow Creek uses hospitality as well. Bill Hybels calls them Matthew Parties. They are based on Jesus’ encounter with Matthew (also known as Levi). Here is the story from Luke 5.

After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:27–32 (NIV)

Based on this example Bill Hybels and the people of Willow Creek use Matthew parties to build bridges to people who are far from God.

Willow Creek wrote a drama that I have used many times to communicate the value of hospitality. (If you would like to teach on the value of hospitality in your church, I strongly recommend you use this video. Available on Willow Creek’s website.) It features a character named Evan Powell who is the quintessential “Unchurched Harry.” He meets a woman he is interested in and she invites him to church. Not interested.

She invites him to a home group Bible Study. Not interested.

People from the Bible study invite him to go bowling. Not interested.

They invite him to dinner. Not interested.

They invite him to a music festival. Not interested.

They invite him to a vintage car show. Bingo. Evan can’t resist. He loves vintage cars. He goes to the vintage car show and discovers one of the guys in the group has two vintage cars. This guy invites him over to see the cars and a friendship develops. The friendship opens the door for Evan to become a friend of Jesus. Everything changes when we love people rather than just telling them about Christ’s love.

Here is a typical Matthew Party in Hybels’ own words:

Back in the early days of Willow, we talked with such frequency about the “Matthew Party” story in Luke 5 that it became part of the fabric of our church culture. Operating with Matthew’s intuition for discerning next steps in the lives of seekers became sort of a way of life, and lots of us started throwing Matthew Parties, for want of a better name. They weren’t part of a formal, programmatic effort. They were just casual ways to help people who were outside the family of God to get inside the family of God. Willow folks would grab a few people from the office and a few people from church and host a backyard barbeque or a pool party or hang out shooting pool in someone’s basement. During the eighties and nineties, we heard of scores of people coming to faith as a result of these parties.

Over time, my desire to reflect Matthew’s remarkable courage kept increasing. I got addicted to sticking my neck out there just as he did, pulling believers and nonbelievers into the same room and trusting God with the results. After a while, although the larger-scale buzz at Willow died down, I was one of those eternal optimists who never stopped believing in the power of the party. I never stopped seeking ways to gather some new-life friends together with some old-life friends just to see what might transpire. I never stopped rejoicing over that particular work of the Holy Spirit in my life, who used the simplicity of throwing a party to craft me into the type of person who better reflects the heart of the Father.

At Christmastime last year, I did what I have done every year following Willow’s Christmas Eve service: I threw a Matthew Party. Despite wall-to-wall meetings, planning sessions, and run-throughs that week, my mind kept drifting to the Matthew Party that was only days away. I couldn’t wait!

I had invited about twenty people who were living extremely far from God, by their own admission. These men and women had never been to Willow before, had never been to my house before, and spiritually speaking would profess to be “going it alone.”

To that group, I added about twenty people who were in the Seeker Slow Lane—the remedial class of Christianity, you might say. On the rare occasion when I would badger them mercilessly, they’d agree to come to Willow. But it was sporadic attendance at best, usually involving a fair amount of kicking and screaming on their part. Most of them had been to my house previously to attend other parties, and all of them knew I was “working” on them, nudging them along the (very) slow path to God. Maybe they would step across the line of faith someday, but in my estimation, it was going to take some time. A lot of time.

In addition to the twenty or so people who were very far from God, and the twenty or so people who were in-progress types, I had sprinkled in a dozen or so very strong Christ-followers from Willow to mix it up a bit. The screening process for this group in particular had been intense! I knew I couldn’t afford any overzealous types showing up. No truth vigilantes. No bounty hunters. Just normal, mature, relationally intelligent, open-hearted, radically inclusive people who understood how high the stakes were that night—after all, I was going to put them in a room with friends of mine who, apart from a bona fide miracle, would spend eternity apart from God.

As with every other year, fifteen minutes before guests arrived, my heart started beating fast. I’m sure the tension I felt was completely natural—I had no way to control the outcome of the party, no way of knowing how the guests would interact, and no way to prepare for the exact conversations that would unfold and what God would choose to do as a result.

But I wouldn’t have traded that anxiety for anything in the world! As I greeted the first guests to arrive, I braced for the adventure to come as a final burst of adrenaline exploded. Here we go!

I wish you could have been there to watch what unfolded that night. In my house in Barrington, Illinois, in the twenty-first century, we enjoyed an approximation of Matthew’s first-century experience. It was incredible to witness so many God-moments in the making, not to mention it was just a heck of a party. The first time I glanced down at my watch, it was well past midnight, and guests ended up staying until two o’clock the next morning—and only left then because I kicked them out.

So what was it that gave it the buzz? What made it such a magical, edgy experience? I mulled over questions like those in the hours and days that followed. Want to know what I decided? The single greatest reason that the party was such a success was because the Christ-followers I’d invited from Willow did exactly what Christ wants all of his followers to do: they took a walk across the room.

When the Willow people had first arrived, they gathered in little Creeker circles, safely huddling together to talk about the weather, the Christmas Eve stage set, plans for the weekend, you name it. (They had to start somewhere, I guess.) But then, after about twenty minutes, it happened—and I was so proud of them when it did. One by one, they looked around the room and started excusing themselves from each other’s company. “Well, I’m not going to stay in this circle all night,” they would murmur as their minds raced. I’m going to walk across the living room and stick out my hand and introduce myself to someone.

“Excuse me,” they would say, with a complete lack of confidence. And then slowly they turned and walked. And how I related to the thoughts they had as they made those walks. I’d made hundreds of similar walks across rooms, and I knew how fast their hearts were beating, how dry their mouths were becoming, how curious they were about what would take place once they said, “Hi. My name is …”

Every step of the way across my living room that night, each Christ-follower was thinking, I have no idea how this is going to turn out. I don’t know if this guy is going to want to talk to me. I don’t know if that woman will want to engage in conversation with me. But you know what? I’m going to give it a shot. I’m going to pray every step of the way as I walk across this room, I’m going to introduce myself, and then I’m going to step back and just see if God does anything more.

The discussions instantly began to light up. I was so grateful that the Spirit was opening doors! Everyone at the party had attended the Christmas Eve service together, and that shared experience provided the perfect conversational springboard. Some people talked about how they’d never been on the inside of a church before. (What an honor that Willow was their first experience!) Others admitted to just needing “more facts,” and still others had recently purchased Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life, intending to read it over the holidays.

As I meandered through the crowd that night, I thought about all of the requests I’d made of God in the days leading up to the party. “Oh, if this person and that person could get together and be in conversation with one another, that would be incredible!” Or “If only so-and-so and my other friend could chat, that would be so kinetic—they have so much in common.” Sure enough, while I wandered around my own home that night, refilling drinks and making sure people had enough to eat, I would catch a glimpse of those exact pairings occurring. “God is good!” I whispered quietly. “God is so good!”

Thankfully, no Pharisee types showed up at my house that night to throw water on the delicate sparks that were flickering. I remember walking back into the kitchen with a feeling of soul-level satisfaction. It took hours before that buzz wore off! Finally, after I had given everyone the boot, I halfheartedly picked up the remaining dishes, grabbed stray glasses, and headed back into the kitchen, dazed by the significance of all that had happened.

Sometime just before daybreak, my mind still racing from the mystical aspects of the party, I thought to myself, the whole thing comes down to nights just like this one. The future of the kingdom of God comes down to whether individual rank-and-file Christ-followers will do in their everyday lives what just happened in my home tonight!

It really is true: the spread of the gospel—at least in today’s reality—boils down to whether you and I will continue to seek creative ways to engage our friends, inviting them to explore the abundance of the Christ-following life and helping them choose eternity with God instead of settling for a terrible fate when this life is all said and done.8

Rick Warren has done a similar thing. His words:

For years, Kay and I would host an informal coffee in our home on the fourth Sunday night of each month. Called the “Pastor’s Chat,” it was simply an opportunity for new members and visitors from the previous month to meet us face-to-face and ask any questions they had. We’d place a sign-up sheet out on the patio before Sunday services and the first thirty to sign up would get to come. The chats would last from 7 to 10 p.m. This simple act of hospitality brought in hundreds of new members and established many relationships that Kay and I cherish today. Hospitality grows a healthy church.9

Rick Warren’s Small Group Pastor, Steve Gladen teaches all of their small groups to use parties as a means of reaching people:

Follow his example and host a neighborhood picnic or barbecue. Plan to go to a lake or park and have everybody in your group invite a friend. Or have a Super Bowl party. Relax and have fun. The sole purpose of this social event is for your small group to get together with seekers and build relationships. But don’t expect lost people to act like anything but lost people. That’s one of the huge mistakes we make. We start with this sort of judgment and condemnation rather than just saying, “Man, we’re so glad you’re here. Come on in.” Just remember that they need Jesus. This is your chance to show them the love of Christ. Just accept them.10

Doubling groups and hospitality are two tools of top-100 churches. There is one more thing we must do to see a doubling group movement.

Josh Hunt, Doubling Groups 2.0 (Josh Hunt, 2015).

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