You can do it: Hamilton's recipe for church growth

Rev. Adam Hamilton, a recognized expert in church vitality, shares secrets with Annual Conference attendees during his "Leading Beyond the Walls" presentation that continues today, June 12, at Bethune-Cookman University. Photos by Steve Wilkinson.

Audience reacting to Bethune-Cookman Concert Chorale

The Bethune-Cookman University Concert Chorale has Florida Annual Conference attendees on their feet many times during a moving performance of hymns and gospel selections that preceded Rev. Adam Hamilton. Photos by Steve Wilkinson.

DAYTONA BEACH – Rev. Adam Hamilton, the leader of the largest United Methodist church in the nation, is on a mission.

His goal is to share his expertise with every conference in the denomination, to help churches restore their vitality.

“You’re my 39th annual conference in seven years,” Hamilton told those attending the Florida Annual Conference on Thursday night at Bethune-Cookman University.

His congregation at the Church of the Resurrection sends him on sharing missions to conferences for three weeks every year.

“We believe in The United Methodist Church. We believe in the gospel and the way that we proclaim it and preach it and the DNA that’s a Wesleyan DNA,” Hamilton said.

“We think that it has the greatest opportunity to reach nonreligious and nominally religious people in the 21st century. We think we have an approach to the gospel that really matters.” 

His church, on the outskirts of Kansas City, began in a former funeral home with four members: Hamilton, his wife and their two children. By 2012, it had grown to nearly 9,000 worshipers regularly attending, according to the church website.

Hamilton is known as a leader in the church, said Bishop Ken Carter when he introduced Hamilton to conference attendees.  “He has a passion for the renewal of the church and for connecting with the next generations.”

By offering his training through conferences, Hamilton said he hopes to inspire, encourage and equip church leaders and laity by providing “concrete and tangible ideas that work in any size church.”

Hamilton listed three differentiating factors between churches that are vital and those that are not: effective leadership, meaningful worship and preaching and missional outreach to the community.

He focused on the attributes of effective leadership at Thursday’s session. He was scheduled for two additional sessions on Friday to continue discussing the other two essential ingredients for vital churches.

The need for a new approach is apparent, he said.

A crowd packs the Bethune-Cookman Performing Arts Center for Adam Hamilton

A crowd packs the Bethune-Cookman University Performing Arts Center in anticipation of the university's Concert Chorale and Rev. Adam Hamilton on the program.

“We have pockets where there are vital churches that are really growing like crazy, but we have a whole lot of churches that are really struggling. There are no children in them. No teenagers. No young adults,” Hamilton said.

Becoming a church that connects with its congregation and beyond is not a matter of size, Hamilton said.

To illustrate that point, he showcased a video featuring Margie Briggs, pastor of Drake’s Chapel and Calhoun, two small churches in Missouri.

Briggs, a lay leader at the time, was asked to step in to help the churches.

Drake’s Chapel had seven members at the time and Calhoun had 30.

Now, seven years later, Briggs is the pastor at both churches. Drake’s Chapel now has 40 members and Calhoun has 75.

In the video, members of both churches described how Briggs turned things around.

The churches had been losing hope as the congregations dwindled.

Briggs changed the atmosphere. She delivered inspiring sermons. She paid attention to church members’ needs. She began outreach programs, members said.

“As God works through all of us, the energy that comes when you feel like you are a part of the kingdom of God is just something that can’t be held back,” Briggs said in the video.

“If it can happen in Drake’s Chapel and Calhoun, it can happen anywhere,” Hamilton said.

Adam Hamilton at podium

Rev. Adam Hamilton tells Annual Conference attendees how to be welcoming with communications on websites and in person.

Effective leadership is essential if churches want to engage their members and attract new ones, he said.

It’s important to be open to learning from others, said Hamilton, noting he has picked up ideas from churches in Russia, South Africa and Honduras.

There are key differences between managers and leaders, Hamilton said.

Managers plan and budget, while leaders establish direction and cast vision, he said. Managers develop policies and procedures, while leaders align people and resources to accomplish a vision.

Managers control and problem solve, he continued, while leaders motivate and inspire. Managers create predictability and order, while leaders create chaos and change, he said.

Good people skills are crucial for effective leadership, he added.

Leaders need to pay attention. They need to celebrate what’s going right and address shortcomings, he said.

Appreciation is important, too, he said. “Two words that every leader needs to say multiple times every week: Thank you.”

Effective leaders need to persevere, especially when the going gets tough.

“There are pastors that are right of the edge of saying, ‘You know what? Forget it. I don’t want to do this anymore. It just is too hard. I’m sick of it,” Hamilton said.

He understands. He felt that way in 2004 after one of his sermons prompted 800
members to leave his church over the course of the next eight months.

When that happened, he was thinking of leaving his church and asked his wife if she would be OK if they went somewhere else.

“My wife said to me: ‘Of course, I will go with you wherever God calls you to go. I just want to know that God’s called you and you’re not running away.’ 

“The truth was, I didn’t hear God calling me. I just was running away. It hurt.

“So, I kept suiting up and showing up and praying and saying, ‘God, please perfect me and use this painful time to bring some good from it,” he said.

“There are some of you sitting in this room and you feel like giving up right now. Don’t give up,” Hamilton said. 

There’s work yet to be done, he said.

“The job of a leader is to close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be,” Hamilton said.

In his Friday morning presentation, Hamilton talked about the importance of reaching out to people in church and on the Internet using words that Christians and newcomers from all walks of life can understand. He also discussed ways congregants can welcome newcomers to their church.

“The one thing I can’t get on TV church … is the people.”

Hamilton’s last presentation will be in the plenary session that starts at 1:30 p.m. today (Friday) in the B-CU Performing Arts Center. Click here for more information about Annual Conference 2015.

-- B.C. Manion is a freelance writer based in Tampa.

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