If Foursquare is to grow, the movement’s churches must have a strong identity. But that can mean making decisions that seem to fly in the face of reason—such as the one that saw attendance drop at Light of the Nations (Denver South Foursquare Church) in Colorado.
Soon after its founding in 2009, the church began drawing a large number of Nepali-speaking immigrants. These visitors soon made up the overwhelming majority of the growing congregation founded by Senior Pastor Andy Millar. It seemed to be a wonderfully fruitful start.
But despite the success in numerical terms, “in time, I realized there was a problem,” Andy recalls. For though the church had been founded to be a multi-cultural place—as expressed in its slogan, “A Denver Mosaic of the Body of Christ”—the preponderance of one ethnic group was in danger of stifling that vision.
“Anybody who would be visiting from Latin America or Africa would say, ‘That’s nice,’ but not come back,” Andy recalls. “And that was really missing the mark of what God called us to be. It was defeating our real purpose.”
So Andy stopped translating the services into Nepali from the front of the church, instead providing headsets for translation along with those available for other language speakers. The number of Nepali-speaking attendees did drop as a result—but the church’s diversity once more began to reflect its calling.
“A constant struggle for me, and I think for any leader, is to keep the course set on the direction that you are supposed to be going in,” Andy reflects.
Keeping Purpose Clear
Clarity of purpose “sometimes causes you to make some hard decisions about where your dollars go,” notes Senior Pastor John Wiley. Soon after he founded River Christian Fellowship (Kansas City East Foursquare Church) in the poor Raytown area of Kansas City, Mo., the congregation poured the little cash it had into buying up a dilapidated local park and swimming pool.
The renovation made an impact on the local community and caught the attention of civic leaders. In another expression of its commitment to the neighborhood, the congregation bought and equipped a truck to go around making home repairs free of charge. But after a couple of years or so, John realized that the vehicle was standing idle.
“We were wasting resources, like insurance,” John remembers. “It was time to get rid of it and realign the resources with what we were doing. We don’t want to memorialize where we have been.”
Too often, churches put the strategy cart before the vision horse. They confuse what they are doing—such as home repair outreaches—with what they should be doing—their calling as a catalyst for community transformation or a refuge for displaced internationals.
“You can’t get strategy until you have a direction, and that has to come from God,” says Gary Dunahoo. Taking over as senior pastor of LightHouse Church (Newbury Park Foursquare Church) in Newbury Park, Calif., in August 2011, he was mindful that in coming to a strong, established church he was “joining what God has been doing.” So he led the congregation through the Personality program, developed by Foursquare Communications Director Brad Abare, which helps churches review and clarify their identity.
That, in turn, led to discoveries about areas where the church was not doing well in living out the values it espoused—such as encouraging ministry involvement but then having systems that made it difficult for newcomers to get plugged in. As a result, the church made a crucial shift in staffing, adding a director of operations in place of an executive pastor to oversee systems and programs.
Discovery Through Trial and Error
Sometimes the process of discovering a church’s core identity can involve a little trial and error, Andy Millar notes: “It may sound counter-intuitive, but a lot of times we strategize and come up with a vision statement, but we don’t really know who we are or where we are going until we live it out for a while.”
By way of illustration, Andy tells of a new university campus that opened without pathways set out between buildings. Rather than lay out routes ahead of time, the architects decided to wait and see what lines the students favored, and then incorporate those into the plan.
This kind of wait-and-see approach does not mean that pastors have no part in shaping their church’s identity—clearly, many congregations thrive in response to strong, bold leadership from the front.
Though Gary Dunahoo was deliberately hands-off when he arrived at LightHouse, he believes in the importance of strong leadership, “but not in the sense of someone who leads in a hierarchical sense, who doesn’t listen. A strong leader is someone who has a healthy sense of his or her own identity.”
Such a leader can help reawaken a lost identity. New Hope (Keaau Foursquare Church) in Keaau, Hawaii, had dwindled to just a handful and was on the brink of closure when Marisa Estrada Hall visited on assignment in April. She took along some participants in the Celebrate Recovery programs she ran in jails and drug treatment centers, and spoke on hope. Her message and the testimony of the changed lives of those with her touched a chord.
“They needed some kind of motivation, to be in action,” says Marisa of the struggling church, where she has since been appointed senior pastor. “Their belief in God has been brought back,” with plans for new outreach in the community to “let them know that the church is alive.”
Importance of Individual Faith
The New Hope turnaround underscores that, however dynamic a leader may be, ultimately the church’s identity must be rooted in the individual faith of every member.
John Whelan, senior pastor of Hope Chapel (Nashua Hope Foursquare Church) in Nashua, N.H., initiated “an intense focus on their individual relationship with Christ” when he took over as senior pastor of the church earlier this year. The congregation has crystallized its purpose in one phrase: “To know God and to make Him known.”
That “requires that we have an ongoing, intimate, close relationship with the Lord,” affirms John. “That’s the only way we can get out of the way and allow Him to build the church.”
Such a process takes time, though, which can be especially challenging for a newly arrived pastor facing “pressure to produce,” John notes.
“I wish it were a fast process, but it is not,” observes Jason Doescher, who arrived at Living Hope (Hanover Foursquare Church) in Hanover, Mass., in January. “You can’t have mission without identity,” says the new senior pastor, who has been shepherding the congregation through lots of discussions, hearing members’ personal stories.
Jason believes it is vital “to make sure people know who they are before we just try to ‘do something.’ We have to find our identity in the figure of Jesus, and our mission or assignment comes from that. If we don’t understand who we are, and are just trying to do things like other churches or other organizations, we will have missed not just our true assignment, but really who we are.”
Around 60 churches to date, including The Dream Center in Los Angeles, have used Brad Abare’s Personality process to help organizations better understand themselves. And though congregations such as John Whelan’s and Jason Doescher’s have been proactive in encouraging their new congregations to pause, reflect on, and refine their identity, too often such focus is only prompted by “pain points,” Brad notes—falling attendance, splits, financial problems or leadership struggles.
How much better to boldly face the issues surrounding identity and calling before these pain points are ever reached.