Leading Through Big Changes in a 100+ Year Old Church with John Hill

Welcome to the unSeminary podcast. We’re talking with John Hill from First Church in Wheatfield, Indiana.

Being diagnosed with a cyst in his brain made John think about where his life was going and prompted him to pursue his dream to have greater kingdom impact by pastoring a church. In 2014 John and his family ended up at First Reformed Church of DeMotte, a dying church in rural Indiana. John is with us today to talk about how the church rediscovered passion for the great commission, and how he navigated the conflict that came with changes to the church, which ultimately led to it becoming one of the fastest growing churches in the country.

  • Explain the changes. // Week after week during changes, John would take the opportunity to cast vision whenever and wherever he could. When preaching sermons he worked hard not only to communicate biblical teaching, but also explain why the church was making changes. Initially people resisted the changes and John would have people in his office daily, expressing their concerns. As John listened to their hearts and also explained why the changes were important to reach the lost and make visitors feel more welcome, over time this built unity and excitement, especially as the church began to grow again.
  • Justify the reason for changes. // Is the principle act of worship and obedience to God living out the great commission? If the answer is yes, then we need to help people in our faith communities see that. In order to reach those people you’re not currently reaching, try things you’re not currently doing. Services at First Church used to be in Dutch and there were some congregants that still remembered that. When older members realized that their parents died to themselves and put aside their native language so that sermons could be preached in English and the next generation reached, it helped the older members understand why changes to things like music were needed now in order to reach Millennials and Gen Z.
  • Get to know your congregation. // Since there were only 200 people in the church when John and his wife came, they made it a point to get to know all of the families there. Over the course of a year, they would invite each family over for dinner at their house to spend time getting to know them. This also allowed them to hear their guests’ thoughts, or become aware of gossip or other problems that may be happening in order to address them.
  • Listen to everything. // As the leader of a small church that’s trying to make change, John can still address the center of almost every conflict which rises up that he hears. The conflicts are many and varied, but John believes it’s important to spend a 30-minute phone call a few times a week caring for people by listening and addressing issues. Let people know that you care about them and help them through the issues they have.
  • Some issues are weightier than others. // Issues within the church can fall under three broad categories: leaf issues, limb issues, and trunk issues. An example of a trunk issue is believing that Jesus is God; without that, you don’t believe a basic tenet of the Christian faith. A limb issue would be sex before marriage. It’s a sin, but there is grace for it and it’s an issue many people are working through in the church. A leaf issue is something like infant baptism, which while a tradition at First Church, is not something everyone agrees with and that’s ok. There is more room for a difference of opinion on some issues than others, and some areas require more discussion and help.
  • Check in regularly with your people. // As a leader, the things going on in the world right now with the coronavirus are a real challenge. John seeks to be a beacon of light, hope and strength to his staff and church each day, even when it’s really hard. Relationships and morale with your staff and core team are extremely important.  
  • Evaluate the staff. // First Church uses a staff evaluation form which helps John engage with his team over their goals and performance. The form also helps evaluate whether a team member will be getting a raise or needs to take corrective action in an area. This tool is used throughout the year and checked over monthly or even weekly to keep up with individual goals.

You can find out more about First Church at first.church.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.