January 25, 2023

How Large Churches Are Widening Their Front Door – Episode 281 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

how large churches are widening their front door

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What’s Working in Large Churches Now

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This week, we’re kicking off a series focused on what’s working in large churches across the U.S., sharing insights from Christ Fellowship in Miami, Transformation Church near Charlotte, Sun Valley Community Church in Phoenix, and North Point Community Church in Atlanta.  

After talking to leaders from each of these ministries, four key themes came to the surface:

  1. They are intentional about widening the front door and inviting people to follow Jesus.
  2. They are encouraging people to engage next steps and connect with other people beyond Sunday morning.
  3. They are leveraging multisite strategy as a reaction to growth that enables more growth.
  4. They are focused on shaping a strong team culture that leads to a healthy culture in their church.

Though this series is focused on what’s working in larger churches, most of these learnings are still going to be applicable no matter what size church you’re leading. 🙂


It’s no secret that attendance is lower in most churches compared to pre-pandemic levels. However, many churches are starting to see new faces again and have developed effective new strategies to reach people who are outside the church and outside the faith.

In this episode, we’ll focus on theme #1 and unpack the strategies these four churches are using to widen their front door and invite more people to follow Jesus, including:

  • Widening the front door of your church
  • Helping more people say yes to Jesus
  • Strategies to engage more new people
  • Maintaining an outsider-focus
There’s a key difference between churches that experience health and growth and those that experience plateau and decline: Healthy, growing churches tend to embrace change, especially when it comes to reaching new people. [episode 281]… Share on X Healthy churches take calculated risks to expand their Kingdom reach. Every church should be making at least one bold move to help point more new people to Jesus. [episode 281] #unstuckchurch Share on X Many churches have a defined spiritual formation strategy, but they are lacking a strategy to reach new people. What are you doing to make a difference in the lives of people who are not a part of your church? [episode 281] #unstuckchurch Share on X

Webinar: What's Working in Large Churches NOW


Tony Morgan and Amy Anderson recently sat down with senior leaders Chris Hodges (Church of the Highlands), Omar Giritli (Christ Fellowship Church in Miami), and Miles McPherson (Rock Church) to discuss what’s actually working in their large churches now to reach new people and engage people in the life of the church a few years post-pandemic...

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Whether governance, employment, litigation, or other matters, let The Church Lawyers walk alongside you as you navigate legal issues facing your ministry.  Sign up for the The Church Lawyers’ Client Member program today at thechurchlawyers.com.

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. It’s no secret that attendance is lower in most churches compared to pre-pandemic levels, but many churches are starting to see new faces again, and some churches have developed new strategies to reach people who are outside the church and outside the faith. On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy start a new series focused on what’s working in larger churches with some examples of how several churches are widening their front door. If you’re new to The Unstuck Church Podcast, we want to invite you ahead over to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’re gonna get resources to go along with each week’s episode, including our Leader Conversation Guide, bonus resources, and access to our podcast resource archive. Again, that’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Before we get to this week’s conversation, here’s Tony.

Tony (01:00):

The Church Lawyer’s Client Member Program was created for organizations just like yours. Their team of Christian, legal professionals are personally called to empower and protect churches’ ministries and their leaders. They want to help you fulfill your mission by providing biblically informed and ministry focused legal solutions, whether it’s governance, employment, litigation, or other matters. Let The Church Lawyers walk alongside you as you navigate legal issues facing your ministry. Sign up for The Church Lawyers Client Member Program today at thechurchlawyers.com.

Amy (01:41):

Well, Tony, I’m looking forward to this new podcast series that we’re launching today because it’s focused on how churches are winning on this side of the pandemic. So, before we start, can you lay the groundwork for where we’re heading over the next several weeks?

Tony (01:53):

Yeah, so let me just give you a little bit of backstory though before we jump into this conversation. First of all, it’s really amazing, but now we have close to 45,000 church leaders that are engaging in our content on a regular basis. In fact, we’ve added over 7,000 new leaders just within the last 12 months. And Amy, I think you know me well enough. I love what we do on our podcast, through our articles, through our other resources, webinars, equipping leaders to accomplish God’s mission. However, our real goal is to really get onsite and work with churches. And over the last 12 months, we’ve had the privilege of being onsite, engaged, helping church leaders/pastors move their mission forward. In fact, in the last 12 months, we’ve worked with 99 different churches, and you can tell…

Amy (02:48):

Aww, you can’t say 100?

Tony (02:48):

I’m an honest former pastor in that I don’t use pastor math. It was 99. I wanted it to be 100. And what’s been been encouraging about that too, Amy, and you know this, we’ve been helping churches of all different shapes and sizes, and what has shifted in the last couple years is we’re helping many more larger churches and that’s been a lot of fun. It’s crazy. In churches of all different shapes and sizes, there are some common themes that we see in those different sized churches. But there are certainly some unique things, some unique challenges, that smaller churches wrestle with, and certainly some unique things that larger churches wrestle with. But that’s really where we’re gonna be going in this podcast series because most of the content that we design on this podcast is really focused on any size church. For this particular series, we wanna just focus on what’s working in larger churches right now. In fact, the churches that we’re going to be highlighting in this series, I would consider them not just large, but very large and to help kind of lay the groundwork for the different topics that we’re going to be hitting, I invited some of my friends from four great churches: Christ Fellowship in Miami, Florida; Transformation Church near Charlotte. They’re actually in South Carolina, but it’s near Charlotte; Sun Valley Community Church in Phoenix, and at North Point Community Church in Atlanta. I invited these friends just to share some of what’s working in their ministries in this immediate season. And, you know, all of these churches, several thousand people in attendance every weekend, and probably tens of thousands of people connected and actively engaged in their ministry. And I will say, though this series is focused on what’s working in larger churches, I don’t want everybody just to tune out if you think, oh, no, I’m leading or pastoring a smaller or mid-size church, I would encourage you. Don’t tune out. And the reason why is I think you’re going to find, even in today’s episode, most of these learnings are still going to be applicable no matter what size church you’re leading, but the focus definitely is just helping, especially the larger churches that engage with our content, what’s really working today.

Amy (05:26):

Well, what were some of the key themes, Tony, that stood out for you, from those four churches as you spoke to them?

Tony (05:32):

Yeah, so there were these four key themes, Amy, and basically we’re gonna tackle one of these themes each of the next four weeks. So the four were: these churches, they’re all intentional about widening the front door and inviting more people to follow Jesus. And we’re gonna talk a little bit about that in today’s episode. Second theme, they’re encouraging people to engage next steps and connect with other people beyond Sunday morning. And I actually think it’s that connecting with other people that may be the key. Number three, they’re leveraging their multi-site strategy as a reaction to growth, and that’s enabling more growth for these churches, and there are several stories to share related to that. So I’m looking forward to unpacking that a little bit in a couple of weeks. And then the last key theme identified was this focus on shaping a strong culture on their staff team really, that’s the priority, but how that strong culture on a staff team then leads to a healthy culture in the church.

Amy (06:39):

Yeah. Honestly, based on the work that we’ve engaged with several large churches in recent months, Tony, none of that’s really surprising to me. But I’m looking forward to unpacking the learnings from these larger churches and helping other pastors and other church leaders put these principles into practice in their contexts. So this week, like you said, we’re gonna focus on that first theme of widening the front door. So Tony, what stood out to you about what you learned from these four churches on that topic?

Tony (07:05):

Yeah, Amy, when it comes to widening the front door and growing their reach, these churches are creating more opportunities for people to invite new people. And that really does begin with encouraging people in the church to get back to attending onsite services rather than just watching online. And maybe the best example from the churches that I talked with was Christ Fellowship in Miami, as an example. They experienced, and they admitted it, kind of a slow increase in attendance that first year or more coming out of the pandemic. But then attendance really began to go up this past fall. And among other things, the leadership at the church attributes that resurgence to a strong challenge that Pastor Omar, their lead pastor, made in the beginning of the fall to encourage people to get back to onsite worship. And it really was just a simple compelling challenge to practice what’s taught in Hebrews 10:24-25. You’re familiar with this passage, but it says, “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” And several of the church also mentioned just again, creating intentional, invite experiences. Invitable, Amy, is that really a word or not? I’m not positive.

Amy (08:40):

It is. It works for me.

Tony (08:41):

It is. Okay. All right. Yeah, so creating those intentional inviteable experiences on Sundays for people to invite their friends, and my friends at North Point specifically talked about the fact that they always want to create 50 special events a year on Sunday morning to serve as an invite opportunity for people to invite their unchurched friends and family. However, what they’re noticing is with changing attendance patterns, they’ve started to more intentionally elevate a few weekends a year to serve as Andy calls them, “Come and Sit with Me, Sundays”, in other words, let’s make it a simple opportunity, but intentional opportunity on a few weekends throughout the year, so that we just make that invitation opportunity simpler and we’re creating experiences that are more compelling. Hopefully that means that people in our church are inviting more of their friends and family then to actually come and sit with us on a Sunday morning. And during those times, North Point tries to have something special for the whole family and provides next steps of engagement to encourage new people then to come back. So it’s not just getting a lot of people to the service on a Sunday morning. They want them to have a great experience that Sunday morning and then come back again. And the data that they’re collecting indicates that this strategy is really working. People are coming back. They only have a few of these big scheduled weekends, and they’re evenly spread out throughout the year to guard themselves from becoming over-evented. Now I know that is a made up word, over-evented.

Amy (10:25):

I was thinking that. Yeah.

Tony (10:26):

That one’s made up, but they’re not trying to fill up their schedule and put too many things on their schedule, but they’re trying to create these special big weekends, so that it just makes it more compelling for people to invite their friends and their family to participate. And finally, and this is probably obvious, but it’s worth noting, when you reach new people, it helps you create more momentum to reach more new people. It’s crazy how this works, but way back in the early days of my ministry, my first senior pastor at the church that I first served at, his name’s Mark Beason, and he used to talk about how we grow at the fringes as a church. And what he was referring to is what we experience, obviously, when someone new comes to the church, could be for the very first time, they’re understanding what it means to follow Jesus and the transformation they can experience through a relationship with Christ. And then they experience a church that’s intentionally creating environments and experiences for people to take those next steps. When they’re experiencing that for the first time and they fall in love with the church, the experience, when they fall in love with Jesus, those are the people that have the most friends that are outside the faith and outside the church.

Amy (11:52):

Good point.

Tony (11:52):

And if they are finding something that’s transformative for their life, they’re also more likely then to be inviting all of those friends, all of those family members to come to the church. So you grow at the fringes, and Vicki Gray at Transformation Church, said it this way. “We have an influx of new people connecting at Transformation Church, and we’re seeing these new people grow, and in turn, they’re inviting others to join them in the life of the church.” And so, here, maybe as we think about initially this theme of opening, broadening that front door and making it so that we’re offering steps for people to take towards a relationship with Christ. Maybe the key question that we need to be asking here is, are you creating inviteable experiences in your weekend services and otherwise for people to invite their friends to church?

Amy (12:52):

I think that’s a great key question. Tony, I just sometimes wonder if the lead pastors are the ones who can actually answer that. I think sometimes churches need some outside perspective. I mean, we do a secret shopper whenever we engage with the church, but, you know, who are you trying to reach? And get someone in that demographic to give you some honest assessment? Like how inviteable are our weekend experiences? Because there’s always things we habituate to when we’re in an environment too long. And so, you know, if our listeners take this seriously, you know, are we creating inviteable experiences? I would encourage them to get some other perspectives in the mix to answer, are people gonna be likely to invite? It’s often little things, and big, but there’s little things that would prohibit people from actually saying, you know, beyond I like coming here, but I’m not sure I would invite my friend because of this thing that needs a tweak. So anyways, Tony, I know it’s not just about opening the front door to connect more people to the church though. These large churches, as you alluded to a few minutes ago, they’re also helping more people say yes to following Jesus as well. Correct?

Tony (13:59):

Yeah. That’s absolutely right. And of the churches I connected with, maybe the best example of this is Sun Valley Community Church in Phoenix. And by the way, Sun Valley, they’re part of the converged network, whichwas formally the Baptist General Conference. That movement of churches though, Converge, is working to help people meet, know, and follow Jesus. And the movement’s been around for, it’s 170 years now. And so, I love this story because this is a network, a denomination, if you will, of churches. It’s been around for a long time, but we have, at The Unstuck Group, worked with several converged churches, and we’re just saying, these are churches, they’re really committed to that: helping people meet, know, and follow Jesus. And it’s like they have figured out how to move beyond some constraints that we typically see within denominations to really be effectively accomplishing the mission that God’s called them to. Sun Valley, specifically, is a great example of that. But here’s what I’d love to celebrate, related to Sun Valley, and I hope you’ll join me in this. First of all, the church was back to pre-pandemic attendance much sooner than most of the large churches that we’ve engaged with. But I’ve been more amazed at the number of baptisms that they’ve celebrated in recent years. So, listen to this, a lot of numbers here, but this tells a great story. In 2019 alone, and this was the year right before Covid, the church celebrated 729 baptisms. In 2020, which included kind of the core of when many churches, including Sun Valley were shut down, that baptism number actually went up. They celebrated 832 baptisms. Then in the last two years, 2021 it was 726 baptisms. 790 baptisms in 2022. I mean, in case you’re curious, Sun Valley, they have about 7,000 people attending one of their locations every Sunday. And that’s a lot of people. But when you look at those baptism numbers, the number of people that are professing faith in Jesus and getting baptized, that means they’re baptizing more than one in every 10 people who attend their church every year. And so, if you’re looking for a benchmark on are we not only connecting more people to the church, but are we helping people actually say yes to following Jesus? Now, they’re on the high end, obviously, they’re seeing some remarkable results through their ministry. But that’s a benchmark that you could begin to look at, no matter what size church you are, are we seeing one in every 10 people who attend the church, say yes to Jesus, go public with their faith through baptism? And when I asked my friends at Sun Valley about this, they shared that the pandemic did not change their mission that Jesus gave the church. And because of that, they didn’t allow it to be an excuse or a problem that they couldn’t solve. They didn’t circle the wagons and go into survival mode during the pandemic. Instead, they just treated the pandemic as another obstacle to solve. And for the Sun Valley Ministry Team, it just wasn’t acceptable to not, you know, to stop reaching new people for Jesus, just because they couldn’t host weekend worship services in person and on their campuses for a season. And there’s no doubt about it, they did not stop reaching people. In fact, they’ve confirmed that about one third of the people now at Sun Valley every Sunday are brand new to the church just within the last three years. Now part of that obviously has to do with some of the growth that’s happening in the Phoenix Metro area, but a large part of why Sun Valley is growing and reaching new people is because of how they engage their mission. And as one of my friends at Sun Valley shared, and this is a quote from him, “We exist to help people meet, know, and follow Jesus, and we strategically staff and organize around that mission.” And I think that’s what’s key. “More importantly, and this isn’t rocket science, the pastors of Sun Valley have found that the more opportunities that they provide for people to say yes to following Jesus. Guess what? The more people that say yes to following Jesus.” And so that intentionality around that is key. In fact, that leads maybe to the key question that we should be asking as pastors and church leaders. And it’s this: Are we giving people the opportunity to say yes to following Jesus?

Amy (18:52):

So good. Love hearing those stories. Well, what I’m seeing in larger churches, Tony, is that they’re continuing to try new strategies to engage new people. And are you, are you noticing that as well?

Tony (19:02):

It’s really one of the key differences I’ve noticed through the years when it comes to why some churches experience health and growth and others get stuck and experience plateau and decline. Healthy growing churches tend to embrace change, especially when it comes to reaching new people. And these four churches are no different. Let me give you some examples from each one of these churches. As I mentioned, North Point started doing these “Come sit with me” experiences during the pandemic, and that included starting an outdoor Christmas tree lighting. We just had it a couple months ago. It was amazing, by the way, and I’m already hearing stories from some of the people that I’m running into on Sunday morning at the church. These are people who were at one of those tree lighting shows and have already come back for a Sunday service at North Point. Christ Fellowship in Miami, they started to offer new online experiences for kids, students, young adults, and, how should I say this? Maybe we’ll just say online experiences for adults who are not as young as the young adults. Okay. Amy, can I say it that way?

Amy (20:09):

There you go.

Tony (20:10):

But what they’ve learned is they’ve started these new online opportunities and with that coupled it with a new follow up process to better engage first-time guests, and the folks are just connecting with their ministry for the very first time. Transformation Church, like I said, they’re located near Charlotte. You may know Derwin Gray, Derwin and Vicki, great people. We’ve enjoyed, at The Unstuck Group, engaging with their ministry through the last several years. They’re getting ready to launch their very first multi-site location because their church is growing and they want to continue reaching new people in their region. So it’s another example of a church trying something new to continue to reach more new people. And then Sun Valley, which if you haven’t figured it out, is consistently very intentional about making the gospel as accessible as possible to people who are unfamiliar with Jesus and the Bible. They have also started new campuses, new locations, during the pandemic. They’ve launched new alpha groups to have spiritual conversations with people who don’t know Jesus. And they’ve just started a new show that streams on YouTube. Amy, have you checked out the new show that Sun Valley’s offering? It’s called Cigar Preacher. You should check it out because it’s a creative way that Pastor Chad is using to try to engage people on spiritual conversations, but it’s not focused on people that already follow Jesus and are already connected to the church. What they’re trying to do is they’re trying something, and I love this. They’re just trying something to begin to engage with people that are outside the church and outside the faith. So check out Cigar Preacher on YouTube. Of all these churches, what you’ll notice is as I start to rattle off some of these new things, they’re all beginning to take some calculated risks to expand their kingdom reach. And I love that. I think every church should be making at least one bold move to help point more new people to Jesus, and regarding embracing change when it comes to reaching new people, let me share this specifically from Pastor Chad at Sun Valley. He offered this regarding their online content. Chad shared that during the pandemic, they started doing daily devotionals on video. They started hosting prayer nights online, and he and his wife do this from their home. They’re upping their engagement with social media and adding a podcast. And he shared that they’re continuing to do these things on this side of the pandemic. So, you know, in the middle of all the shutdowns and everything, every church was trying to do what they could online to engage new people into continue ministry. Pastor Chad is indicating that they’re continuing to do these things and invest in these opportunities to engage with people online. And by doing that, he believes it’s giving people a higher sense of connection, even though they aren’t physically in the room with him. So people are feeling more connected to the church, and he’s convinced that people feel closer through technology when it’s done artfully and it’s done strategically. So if you were to hop on Sun Valley’s website and you start to, you know, kind of just see what they’re doing through their web strategy, through social media, through YouTube and so on, you’ll notice it is done very well. And Pastor Chad thinks this is part of why they’re getting more connection with more people in this season. So I think if you’re listening, pastor, church leaders, and if you’re thinking about how do we open our front doors, widen our front doors, and invite more people to take next steps towards Jesus, the key question here is, what bold moves do we need to be making to reach more new people for Jesus?

Amy (24:15):

Again, today we’re talking about what’s working in large churches, and Tony, we’re specifically focused on this theme of being intentional about widening the front doors. Is there anything else that we haven’t covered that stood out to you?

Tony (24:26):

Amy, again, this probably isn’t a surprise, but for all of these churches, they’re focused on making a difference in people’s lives and not just the people who are already connected to the church. I mean, none of these churches will ever be accused of being insider-focused. And this looks a little different though, from church to church. So let me give you a couple of examples. At Transformation Church, as an example, pastor Derwin has held the conviction, and this is from the very beginning of their church, from their ministry, that he is called to disciple people with the gospel through cultural hot button issues. And you would see this if you were to look at some of the messages on their website. He explained that people have flocked to the church in recent years because they want a Kingdom of God perspective on divisive cultural issues. And he and his wife, Vicki, started the church. And they’re just convicted that many people are tired of the Christian faith being hijacked for political or other reasons. And it’s one of the values of their church. And this is the way they state it, they want to “communicate the timeless truths of God’s word in a way that displays the relevant nature of the gospel to address contemporary issues.” I love that. And mainly because I think Jesus wanted that truth to come out in his context in that same way. But by being willing to engage these tough topics head on, Transformation Church is growing significantly, and they’re dealing with the great problem of trying to accommodate more and more people. And that’s one of the reasons why they’re stepping into multi-site. And we’ll talk more about that in a couple weeks. That’s one way that these churches are trying to make a difference in people’s lives. But let me give you one more example, this time from North Point. North Point has added a new word to their ministry strategy, and it’s called “endear.” They want to endear themselves to the people in the community. So instead of just working to get people into the church’s space, they’re looking for opportunities to make a difference in the space of the people that they’re trying to reach, the people that they’re trying to serve in their community. And this is happening through service projects. They’re working with local nonprofits, as well as trying to partner with local organizations. You see this in some of the special events that they’re doing, or special events that they’re engaging with with other sponsors in the community. And as one of my friends at North Point shared, and this is his quote, “The point is we’ve realized that the days of turning on the lights and having people just show up, those days are over. We have to go out and endear the community in order to engage with it.” So here’s the last key question for today. If you’re thinking about how do we reach more people for Jesus? How do we broaden and widen that front door? This is the key question: What are you doing to make a difference in the lives of people that are not yet a part of your church and not yet a part of the faith?

Amy (27:41):

Well, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (27:45):

Well, I hope you’ve been encouraged and challenged by what these larger churches are doing to widen the front door so that they can reach more new people for Jesus. Amy, it did strike me that their learnings mirror the part of our Unstuck Consulting Process where we help churches clearly define their reach strategy. Those things that we related to regarding weekend services, online ministries, engaging in the community, all of that is part of the conversation we have with churches to clarify their reach strategy. And what we’ve seen, of course, is that many churches have a defined Spiritual Formation Strategy, but they’re lacking a strategy to reach new people. And if that’s your church, we’d love to help you get clarity around how is it that you can widen your front door to connect with more people and to help point more people to church and faith. And if you’re interested in that, you can reach out to us today at theunstuckgroup.com. And then also we’ll be diving deeper into what’s working in large churches now at a free webinar on February 23rd. And Amy and I will be joined by Chris Hodges from the Church of the Highlands, Pastor Omar, who I mentioned earlier, from Christ Fellowship Church in Miami, Miles McPherson from Rock Church will also be joining. We’re going to be having a conversation around what’s actually working for reaching new people and engaging people in the life of the church a few years post pandemic. And you can register for free to join us at the link in your show notes.

Sean (29:23):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. At The Unstuck Group, our goal is to help pastors grow healthy churches by guiding them to align vision, strategy, team and action. In everything we do, our priority is to help churches help people meet and follow Jesus. If there’s any way we can serve you in your church, reach out to us today at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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