Cornerstone Church

There were greeters everywhere – in the parking lot, at the outer doors, the inner doors, and in every corner of the building.  It was Nov. 8, the second Sunday in the new $11.5 million Cornerstone facility in Caledonia, and Holy Spirit energy was palpable.  Everyone had a smile and warm words of welcome. 

I was immediately offered a cup of coffee and a bulletin with a map of the facility.  I wandered through the Hub, a large gathering area with a staffed information center, a café, and comfortable places to sit.  Wandering into the children’s wing, I marveled at the state of the art welcome center, complete with a bank of computers where parents can register their child, and a name tag spits out. 

I attended the early worship service so I could be assured of a seat in the 816 seat worship center.  The previous Sunday almost 2,000 people jammed into the worship center for the 9:15 and 11:00 a.m. services, triggering a traffic jam in the parking lot.  As a result, Cornerstone will go to 3 services on Nov. 22, and they have decided to enlarge the parking lot as soon as possible. 

Even though Cornerstone is the largest congregation in the West Michigan Conference, the personal touch abounds.  Everyone is positive, greeters are on the lookout for visitors, and the theater style seats even have cup holders!  When lead pastor Brad Kalajainen introduced new members on Nov. 8, he took the time to share personal information about them.  After the new members pledged to support the church by their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness, the congregation verbally welcomed them into The United Methodist Church.  During the greeting time worshippers were encouraged to “fist bump” their neighbors rather than shake hands because of flu precautions.   

Teaching pastor Ken Nash’s sermon was engaging and compelling.  Telling the story of Elisha and the king ofAramin 2 Kings 6, Ken used media, visuals, and personal examples to encourage the congregation to put on the shield of faith in their everyday life.

I thank God for the dream the West Michigan Conference had 19 years ago to start a new church in a strategic area of Grand Rapids that has grown in population beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  Because of Cornerstone’s location and long term visionary leadership through founding pastor, Brad Kalajainen, and many committed lay people, the congregation has grown in grace, spiritual maturity, and outreach as well as numbers.

What Cornerstone has been able to accomplish is the dream of many other churches in our conference as well.  However, the average church in the West Michigan Conference has 161 members and a worship attendance of 95.  There is not one church in our conference that can become exactly like Cornerstone.  Nor should it!  However, each church can identify its own unique mission and become more healthy, vital, and effective in reaching out to its community with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Lay persons and pastors often ask me, “How can we grow?  We’re just a small church.  What suggestions do you have for us to move past internal squabbles and turn outward?”  There seem to be several myths around the idea that large churches are successful because they are large!  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Myth #1: Large churches have so many people that it’s easy for their hopes and dreams to come true.   Reality: Dreams come true not because of numbers but because of vision.  Has your church created a vision statement stating who God is calling you to be as the body of Christ in your specific location?  Have you then formulated a mission statement for how you will live out that vision, along with strategic goals and objectives?  When you begin with the end in sight, every program and ministry aligns with that vision and mission. 

Cornerstone has been able to fulfill many of its dreams because everyone in the congregation knows and is committed to living out the church’s vision and mission.  Even large churches like Cornerstone cannot do everything.  Rather, they identify ministry needs and enthusiastically invite people to be champions in addressing them. This is part of a continual process of casting new vision for the congregation.

  • Cornerstone’s vision: Love God.  Grow together.  Reach the world.  Repeat.
  • Cornerstone’s mission: Cornerstone Church exists to invite all people to become followers of Jesus Christ. 

Myth #2:  Large churches never struggle with money.  Reality:  The largest churches in our districts have the same people as our smallest churches – only there are more of them.  Large churches also have the same financial concerns that smaller churches have – only they are bigger!  In the past year our large churches have had to carefully determine realistic budgets so that they live within their means – just like smaller churches.

The 16 largest churches in the West Michigan Conference pay 20% of our conference’s ministry shares, and all but one of those churches paid 100% of its ministry shares in 2008.  The reason our larger churches seem more financially healthy is not simply that they are big.  They intentionally cultivate a culture of stewardship, make difficult staffing and program decisions in order to pay 100% of ministry shares, and continually emphasize the joy of offering our financial gifts to God.  They also interpret the worldwide ministries of The United Methodist Church to their congregations in compelling ways.    

Myth #3:  Large churches never have to deal with the conflict that accompanies change.  Reality: Churches of every size can get stuck in old ways of doing things and be reluctant to imagine, innovate, and grow.  Even new church starts have to continually reinvent themselves in order to effectively reach out to their constituency with relevant, savvy and transformative ministries.

Much of what worked to bring new people into Cornerstone Church 19 years ago won’t work now because we live in a different world.  When pastors and lay leaders develop relationships of trust and commitment with parishioners, congregations are more willing to change, try new things, address differences of opinion openly and respectfully, and regularly refine their vision and mission.

Myth #4:  Large churches don’t need to worry about getting things done because they have large staffs.  Reality: Staff cannot possibly do the work of ministry in any size church.  Rather, the role of staff is to identify, train, equip, empower, and oversee volunteers to find a ministry for which they have passion.  In fact, most staff members, especially in programming, should not be doing much hands-on ministry at all.  

Large churches have many more ministries and rely on as many volunteers, proportionately, as smaller churches do.  Several of our large churches have a “Sign Up Page” in the bulletin every week where individuals can self-identify their interests and volunteer.  What could be simpler?  There were probably a hundred volunteers in the Cornerstone building on Sunday morning.  Active lay persons are what make churches vital and healthy, whether large or small!

Myth #5: Small churches can never compete with large churches.  Reality: There are enough unchurched people in our district to fill every church to overflowing.  When I asked Brad why Cornerstone sold their old building to another megachurch for a satellite location, Brad shrugged and replied, “I don’t see them as a competitor.  We’re all in this together.” 

Many small churches thrive in the shadow of megachurches because they provide a unique level of caring, belonging and outreach and because one size doesn’t fit all. Each church can find its own niche, define its purpose, and serve in its own mission field, to the glory of God.

At the conclusion of the worship service on Nov. 8, Brad said to the congregation, “There are a few empty seats here.  Your mission this week is to invite someone who doesn’t have a church to come with you to worship next Sunday.” 

Want your church to grow, too?  Invite, invite, invite.

Blessings, Laurie

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