Lessons learned visiting 40 churches in 40 weeks

by Christina Darnell
Posted 1/07/15, 12:10 pm

California filmmaker Sharon Bollum decided to visit local churches all across the country in 2014, following the route of Interstate 40, which runs 2,500 miles from California to North Carolina. The project was called “40 Churches in 40 Weeks.” In each of the churches, she spoke with pastors and church members to try to learn what churches are doing well, and what they need to do better.

Based on the questions you asked and the answers that you received, what were some of your main takeaways? We asked every pastor if he had a vision and a mission statement for the church, and, naturally, they did. And then I asked them what percentage of their church body did they think could adequately relate the vision and mission of their church. And they all, almost 100 percent of them, believed that 100 percent of their church knew their vision and mission. Yet, when we asked the church members, it was almost no one. And I began to wonder, how would we be different if we really did understand the vision and the mission for each individual community? If we got the people more onboard with it, then would it show up in the way that they lived? 

Another huge surprise was asking church members if they could define the word “disciple” or “discipleship.” From one end of I-40 to the other end of I-40, we had a couple of people who could give us an adequate definition for either of those words. The overwhelming majority defined “disciple” or “discipleship” as inviting your friends to church. I thought, holy cow. If they don’t even understand what it means to be a disciple, no wonder we’re having an issue with Christians not really growing and maturing and becoming more like Christ year by year.

Among churches that you would consider healthy churches, what were some of the common characteristics that you noticed? The biggest thing, and we noticed it the minute we came on their property, was the passion of the pastor. The more he felt excited and fascinated by the Word of God and the spirit of God, the more that seemed to filter into the people who came on Sunday. They were usually great communicators, but not always. But their heart was just right there, and I think that made a big difference.

Were there any others? There’s a lot of discussion around the right way to do church. There’s the postmodern generation that feels like the contemporary church model is dead, and now it’s just time to build these little life groups of people who share their same life stage. But … some of the greatest examples of healthy churches were those that were multigenerational, those that viewed the older generation as a resource and not just the people who used to be useful in the church. And then the attitude of the older generation toward the younger generation [was] they respected them and they respected their leadership and there was a collaboration between them.

If you had to boil it all down to a few sentences, what would you say you’re hoping to accomplish through this project? I wish I could boil it down! I’ve been trying to boil it down for a year! I think the No. 1 goal is to get Christians to recognize that everything that we do is a reflection on the reputation of the church and the reputation of Christ and to take some personal responsibility for that. And I think the biggest breakdown is that we aren’t leading people to that sort of commitment. We want them to be committed to our church so that they won’t leave and go elsewhere, but the discipleship factor is secondary. Another big one would be to encourage pastors of smaller churches in smaller cities. The voices that are leading the day for church ministry and outreach programs are all megachurch models. And there’s a sense of competition, that the smaller churches have to be able to offer the same full menu of services that the larger churches are able to, and if they can’t, then they feel inferior. I would like to encourage the pastors that they can stay committed to the calling that God gave them right where they are and trust that God has got all of the rest of it all worked out. It’s not about a club; it’s not an entertainment center. It’s a church body.

What else do you think is important for people to understand about your project? I want people to really understand that we didn’t go at this like a restaurant critic. We didn’t go to churches and score them on how well we enjoyed or liked what we saw. This was really about looking for the things that are invisible, the intangibles, and the patterns and the practices that seem to work together to create a vibrant and healthy church community. We were looking for what works and facing up to what doesn’t work, but … we love the church. I personally am burdened and long to see the church become stronger and healthier so that we can have the impact on the world that we’re intended to.

Listen to Christina Darnell’s full interview with Sharon Bollum on The World and Everything in It:

Christina Darnell
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