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Rev. Olu Brown on 'doing church differently'

By: By Christa Meland | Minnesota UMC director of communications

Olu Banner

At age 17, while giving the eulogy at his grandfather’s funeral, Rev. Olu Brown heard what he later realized was an audible call to ministry: “I want to tell young people how to get to heaven.” The way he would articulate that call changed over time, but it served as a pivotal moment for him and ultimately set him on a path to become a pastor.

“It was a heart-strangely-warmed moment for me,” he said. “I feel deeply committed and called to shepherding people along a path that helps them to discover their own faith.”

Several decades later, Brown is living out that call and bearing fruit. He started Impact Church in 2007, and by 2016, the Atlanta-area congregation worshipped more than 2,000 each week and had become the 56th-fastest growing church in America.

“In the 21st century, people are craving real relationships,” Brown said when asked about the keys to church growth. They crave real relationships from recreational places and also from spiritual places. “Churches that are growing are first concerned about the heart of a person more than anything else.”

Brown will lead two teaching sessions at the 2018 Dakotas Annual Conference.

In addition to talking about his call to ministry, he’ll provide a glimpse of the spiritual practices that sustain him. For Brown to help others grow in their faith, he knows he must continue to focus on deepening his own relationship with Jesus. He said he’s constantly communicating with God in conversation, and he makes it a point to read through the whole Bible every year with the help of a daily Bible reading plan. He also believes it’s essential to have mentors and spiritual coaches who hold him accountable and regularly ask, “How is it with your soul?”

Brown will also talk about what he’s learned on his quest to reach people for Jesus. Here’s a look at five ideas and practices that have helped Impact grow and bear fruit:

  1. Technology as a tool: Brown believes that churches that are growing understand how technology is being used and have embraced it as a tool for ministry. “If Jesus had social media, he would have told his disciples, ‘tweet into all the world,’” Brown said. Unlike many churches, Impact doesn’t tell people to turn off their cell phones in church. In fact, people are frequently encouraged to take out their smartphone or tablet to look up scripture readings. On a regular basis, worship attendees are also asked to text someone to share how much they enjoyed worship and to invite the person to a future worship experience.

  2. Doing church differently: “Doing church differently” is Impact Church’s tagline. For Brown’s congregation, it’s about practicing extreme hospitality. “All people are welcome, all people are worthy, and all people have a place,” he said. Doing church differently also means thinking outside the box. For example, Impact’s space was designed not only to be a worship center but to be an event center for the community. It’s regularly used for birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, and various other meetings and gatherings. National events have taken place there, and the mayor of Atlanta had a prayer breakfast there during her inauguration weekend. “It endears us to the community,” Brown said. “From an evangelistic and marketing standpoint, it allows our name to be in the community in ways that might not otherwise happen.”

  3. Evangelism in many forms: Brown said evangelism is critically important in the life of his congregation, but it looks different from one person to another. For example, one woman at Impact is inviting her small group to join her in helping those in need through the nonprofit she works for. “She is a deeply committed Christian using her faith in a small group at church to be a greater witness in her day job,” he said. “That is evangelism.” Brown also pointed to Impact’s young people telling their friends about the church’s teen night and inviting them to come. “When a 12- or 13-year-old feels comfortable inviting their peers because they believe in the ministry, then I know evangelism is taking root.”

  4. Innovative worship design: The days that for-profit businesses see the most customers are the days they prepare for most. Too often, the opposite is true for churches. “We prepare the least for the day we see the most people,” Brown said. Churches have bought into a routine that says people will come. But they’re not coming, and churches are consequently declining. “We have to innovate worship—plan, practice, and evaluate worship,” Brown said. Each year, Impact’s worship design team surveys people to find out what’s on their hearts and minds—and they build that feedback into their thematic planning process. “If we don’t go outside to see what people are talking about and struggling with, we become country club worship centers that are insular and don’t speak value,” Brown said.

  5. Surprising people: Some years ago, at the time when offering would have been collected during worship, Impact handed out note cards to the congregation and asked people to list the specific amount they were planning to give that Sunday. Then people were told, “Instead of giving that offering to the church, give that amount to an organization or someone in need.” The church collected the cards and totaled up the amounts listed on them. They represented more than $20,000 that was going to be given out in the community. “People like innovation, they like surprise,” said Brown. 

Check out all of the details for the 25th session of the Dakotas Annual Conference here.