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Adam Hamilton: Leading beyond the walls

By:  Christa Meland

Churches that are fearless and Spirit-led and have a future in the 21st century are the churches that do whatever it takes to be the body of Christ in the community and the world, Adam Hamilton told members of the 21st session of the Dakotas Annual Conference.

Photo:  Adam Hamilton encouraging people to lead beyon the walls of the church.  Photo by Charity Kerr.

Hamilton, who led three teaching sessions at this year’s conference, explored what it means to “lead beyond the walls” through effective leadership, inspirational worship and preaching, and intentional evangelism and outreach. He is founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas—which has grown from four people in 1990 to more than 18,000 in 2014 and is the largest United Methodist Church in the country.

Effective leadership

Effective leaders, Hamilton said, always try to model for others what it means to be a follower of Christ.

“Great leaders radiate joy and possibilities,” he said—and great leaders are always doing things to cultivate humility in their hearts, he said. Trustees at Hamilton’s own church put a “reserved” sign at a parking spot right near the entrance so that he would always have a close spot. He asked if he could choose a different one—and he selected the furthest one from the church, “not because I am humble, but because I want to be humble,” he said. “People are drawn to leaders who are self-effacing … and they’re repelled by leaders who think they’re too good.”

Being an effective leader is about putting people first, he said. It’s finding something nice to say to the cranky store clerk and praying for people who you might find it hard to love. It’s about doing whatever it takes to make people feel welcomed at your church. People come to faith in Christ because you care about them, Hamilton said. “It’s all about the people.”

Inspirational worship

Leaders also must inspire. That means creating worship services and sermons that are invitational and that touch hearts. Hamilton said we often mistakenly assume that visitors and the unchurched know the terms we use and the rituals to which we’ve grown accustomed. But many do not—so one way we can demonstrate hospitality is by briefly explaining the meaning of the sacraments as they are being performed and decoding unfamiliar words and phrases in songs (his example was, “Here I raise my ebeneezer” in the popular hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”).

“People are so hungry to be inspired, and they’ve lost most of their inspiration during the week,” he said. They want to leave church having been taught something they didn’t know, having been inspired, and having been called to action—they want someone to say, “Here’s one thing you can do” this week when you leave church to make a difference in the world or grow closer to God. They want to know that their offering is a way of telling God they love Him and making a difference in the world rather than a way to pay the utility bill.

People also want to hear messages that relate to their lives. Hamilton said he regularly asks members: What sermon series could I preach on that you would invite your unchurched friends to come and hear and that they would be interested in? What do they not understand or want to know? And how can I help you grow as a Christian in the coming year? Where are the places you’re hurting or feeling stressed or overwhelmed by life? He then creates sermon series based on their responses. One topic that he has frequently preached on and that he recommends to all churches is: understanding God’s will—why bad things happen to good people.

Intentional evangelism and outreach

We live out our faith in part through action, but “you have to be able to talk about who’s Jesus and what has he done in your life,” said Hamilton. “I tell people about Jesus because he’s the truth and the way and the light.”

Hamilton asked if conference session members could answer these questions: Why do people need Jesus Christ? What difference does He make in my life? Why do people need the church?

When people ask members of your congregation where they go to church, you want them to say, “I go to the Methodist church and here are five things I love about my church.” He encouraged attendees to “help your church rediscover that it’s beautiful.”

A key to growing churches is doing a good job following up with first-time visitors. During the first four years after Church of the Resurrection launched, Hamilton would go to the homes of all first-time visitors on the afternoon of the day they came to church. He’d give them a coffee mug, tell them how much it meant to have them at church that day, and encourage them to return. Then, after a visitor had been to church a few times, he would call and tell them he’d like to meet in person and offer a few times when he’s available. Those visits were all about sharing stories and getting to know the person and his or her life and journey. Of the 400 visitors Hamilton met with during those first four years, 399 became members.

“People don’t come to church because of our superior theological arguments,” Hamilton said. “They come to faith because we know their name . . . What draws people to Christ is relationships and the opportunity to be in community.”

Hamilton ended his teaching sessions by encouraging Dakotas United Methodists to help prepare future leaders for the church. The United Methodist Church has 14,000 pastors serving 34,000 churches in the United States. Only 927 of them are under the age of 35.

“Our future hinges on helping outstanding young people … hear the call and empowering them to lead the church,” he said. At Church of the Resurrection, children in third grade and eighth grade (confirmation age) are asked to think about whether God is calling them to be a pastor someday. Hamilton’s goal is to have 200 pastors come out of Church of the Resurrection before he retires.

“Could you have one pastor come out of your church in the next five years?” he asked attendees. “How many … young people are you going to help answer the call?”

“The Dakotas needs you and Christ needs you to be the church,” he said.

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.


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