Adam Hamilton: Leading beyond the walls

May 29, 2014

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,” Rev. Adam Hamilton told members of the 160th session of the Minnesota Annual Conference.

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.

“You can’t be an effective leader without having a healthy ego, but having a healthy ego also means you recognize that the tendency might be to think more of yourself than you ought.” We must do things to cultivate humility in our 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 self-effacing leaders.” ?

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 hungry to be inspired,” he said. They want to leave church having been taught something they didn’t know and “they want someone to say ‘you can do it and here’s why and here’s what it looks like.’” They want to know that their offering is a way of telling God they love him rather than a way to pay the utility bill.

People also want to hear messages that relate to their lives—and in order to do that, we need to find out what their yearnings and questions are. Hamilton said he regularly asks members: What sermon could I preach on that would speak to your unchurched friends and that you would invite them to come and hear? 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.

Intentional evangelism and outreach

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.” But unfortunately, Hamilton said, “many churches are suffering from low self-esteem” One pastor once told him: “I wouldn’t go to my church if I wasn’t paid to be there.” Says Hamilton: “Your job as the pastor is to make it be the kind of church you would come to if you weren’t paid to be there.”

Hamilton asked: How is your church known in your community? How do you want to be known in your community? And how are you working to change from how you are known to how you want to be known?

He said weddings and funerals provide a prime opportunity to reach new people and to make your church known. “Your job is to let people see how much you love them,” he said. “Do the most amazing wedding you could possibly do so everyone there learns what the Christian meaning of marriage is. Touch their heart.” And invite them to return. Share your faith with them, and tell them you’d like to baptize their children too.

“People don’t come to church because of your superior theological arguments,” said Hamilton. “They come because you care about them.”

One of the last things Hamilton offered was this: 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. “The future of the church hinges on the leaders we cultivate,” 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.

“How many will your local church help call to ministry? How many will your church help go to seminary?” he asked.

“If the United Methodist Church in Minnesota is going to have a future, it’s going to be because of the decisions that the people in this room make in the next decade,” he said.

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

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