The Free Methodist Church – USA bishops’ nine strategies include a call to “honor fruitfulness” with a commitment to “increase the number of growing and fruitful Free Methodist churches by encouraging and aiding successful leaders and their ministries” and “to tell the story of these ministries to the rest of the denomination.”
Bishop Matthew Thomas recently contacted the largest Free Methodist congregations in the United States and asked about their Holy Week and Easter services. The requested information included decisions for Christ, baptisms and attendance. A dozen congregations responded and reported a combined attendance of 41,732 with 929 decisions for Christ.
“This is worth celebrating,” Thomas said. “Even though Easter numbers are always larger, to have 12 churches with a total of over 40,000 people worshipping and nearly 1,000 decisions is worth our collective joy.”
Timberlake Church in suburban Seattle reported 100 people saying yes to Jesus for the first time at one of the church’s 14 Easter services across five campuses.
“We intentionally merge an interactive multimedia worship experience with a practical and relatable biblical message that anyone can apply to their lives,” said Jon Swanson, Timberlake’s communications pastor. “No matter where a person is at in their faith journey, we believe each one has a Next Right Step.” (Visit fmchr.ch/timberlakenrs to learn more about Timberlake’s Next Right Steps discipleship program.)
Journey Church in Castle Rock, Colorado, experienced its largest attendance ever this Easter with 3,479 people — up from 1,265 people attending Easter services in 2018. The church baptized 33 adults and 11 children in the next few weeks after Easter.
“In the past year our church has been experiencing the blessing of rapid growth,” said Travis Waits, Journey’s operations pastor. “We are doing all we can to build people, and help them take their next steps with Jesus.”
Revelation Church in Bozrah, Connecticut, had total attendance of 1,955 for eight Easter services and 56 salvations, which were followed by 17 baptisms the following weekend. The church has invested in advertising its Christmas and Easter services, and the Easter theme was “Back to Square 1” with a logo and graphics consisting of blue and purple cubes.
“Because our generation is media-driven, we have learned how to best get creative with logos/sermon titles/stage props that will get people into our doors to hear the good news of Jesus Christ,” said Heidi Grohocki, Revelation’s administrative assistant and the wife of Lead Pastor Matt Grohocki. “Once people are here, we trust that the Holy Spirit will do the rest. Will they all come back? No, but many do. Did they all pay attention during service? No, but many did. Did all of the lost get saved over that weekend? No, but some did.”
Some of the most fruitful FM churches were planted in recent years, but others have a rich history of fruitfulness such as the 111-year-old Deer Flat Church in Caldwell, Idaho, that saw 3,000 people on Easter weekend following Holy Week observances that included a Passover Seder on Maundy Thursday. Leading up to Easter, a sermon series focused for several weeks on “With Jesus in Jerusalem” and concluded on Easter Sunday with “The Event That Changed the World.”
“Deer Flat works tirelessly to ensure that every time we open the doors, it’s meaningful and done with great purpose,” Deer Flat Lead Pastor Dave McGarrah said. “In other words, we don’t work to just create attenders. We are also committed to staying authentic while we strive to bring meaning (Jesus) to everything and everyone. In turn, our flock is incredibly faithful to invite because they know it’s going to be life-changing for their friends and the community.
Other fruitful churches also didn’t place all of the emphasis on Easter Sunday. The Lamb’s Fellowship in Lake Elsinore, California, observed Good Friday through “an interactive ‘art walk’ with artistic renderings representing each station of the cross,” Lead Pastor Buzzy Enniss said. “We invite people to come participate by walking through the stations and engaging the pieces of art, the guided meditations, the performances and, in many cases, doing an activity that brings them into a deeper reality of what each station was like.”
Enniss said the Lamb’s Fellowship also reached many children from its community through a Saturday morning Easter egg hunt with 10,000 eggs “followed by a magic show with the gospel message interwoven throughout the performance.”
Another of the bishops’ strategies is to “partner strong.” Sage Hills Church in Washington state lived out that strategy by partnering with another church in the Wenatchee Valley for a combined Easter service that Pastor of Administration Jim Harbour described “as a unified body with the goal of reaching our community together in a combined worship service. The largest venue in the valley was secured and tasks were divided up to complete this goal.”
With the focus on communicating that Jesus is “greater than any one problem, person or church,” Harbour said, the churches attracted 5,000 people to the single service that resulted in 140 commitments to Christ and 127 baptisms.
Another church partnering strong is Christ Community Church in Columbus, Georgia. Lead Pastor Derrick Shields said the congregation has continued its outreach efforts since Holy Week, in part, by “partnership with public schools in our area. We have a great relationship with an elementary school and host a quarterly awards ceremony here at the church for students that display the Spirit Of Uncommon Leadership (SOUL).”
Christ Community also has summer study groups along with summer outreach teams serving in various locations that include a local rescue mission and a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp. “Teams are encouraged to look for opportunities to connect with those who do not have a relationship with Christ,” said Shields, who added that many community members connect with the church through its Celebrate Recovery ministry.
One of the fastest growing Free Methodist churches is Southern California’s 6-year-old Chapel of Change that reached more than 2,000 people on Easter weekend with a total of 15 services that included a “Hip-Hop Easter” gathering that Senior Pastor Brian Warth said “celebrated Easter through musical expression, spoken word and jazz” and a 10 p.m. candlelight Good Friday service designed to “reach more people with a Catholic background.”
Throughout the year, Chapel of Change uses other outreach efforts that smaller churches could easily implement.
“One of the creative things we do is have a prayer booth right in front of our churches. We set up a chair and table and signs that read ‘free prayer.’ We get many hurting people who stop by for prayer,” Warth said. We have had people throw themselves down on their knees as they cry out to God in tears.”
Chapel of Change is one of 19 U.S. churches planted with support from Light & Life Christian Fellowship in Long Beach, California. Many of the churches are within close proximity to their mother church.
“There are now eight other churches which Light & Life has planted, replanted or helped start within 15 minutes of our church,” said Light & Life Lead Pastor Larry Walkemeyer, who also serves as the director of equipping and spiritual engagement for Exponential. “Why? Because we want to reach more unreached people for Christ.”
Walkemeyer has seen the fruit of Holy Week outreach. He shared the story of Jorge Cepeda, who “had never been in a Protestant church when he visited us on Palm Sunday 2018. He came back on Easter Sunday and surrendered his life to Jesus. He was baptized a month later along with his two teenage children. Then he became a member and a year later is one of the leaders in our church and, more importantly, is discipling someone younger than himself.”
Cepeda’s story reveals the importance of intentionally connecting with visitors, which will help ensure that they return and become active participants in the church.
For example, Timberlake has a First Impressions Team with a commitment to radically welcoming people. Connections Pastor Jada Swanson shared that a Mother’s Day guest met her with tears of joy shortly after checking children into the middle school ministry. The guest said, “I have attended many churches, but I’ve never felt so welcomed.” How people are treated may affect how open they are to the gospel. “When people feel welcomed as soon as they arrive, their hearts are more receptive. Ultimately, we desire for them to hear and respond to the message,” Swanson said.
Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined Light + Life in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media.