Pilot Program Helps Churches Thrive
The Far West Region’s pioneering spirit and vast geographical spread mean that it’s frequently finding creative ways to address the issues unique to its contexts. With churches in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Montana, as well as Hispanic and city-center congregations across the country, the Far West knows something of diversity and of how to help churches thrive regardless of their challenges.
One of the ways the Far West is helping churches thrive is through a new pilot program. The program is a hybrid of three processes already in use throughout the region (and in some cases, elsewhere in the denomination), which will reinforce the existing strategies of Transformed & Transforming, the RCA’s 15-year vision for ministry. The pilot is a combination of processes to help churches thrive in the areas of discipleship, church health, and evangelism.
Churches can engage in disciple-making through 3DM (short for 3D Movements), in evangelism through Organic Outreach, and in improving church health through the Congregational Vitality Pathway (CVP). Many churches already participate in one of the three processes, which have been implemented in the region by pastors who serve as champions and now coach others.
The common language and values among these processes allow churches to move seamlessly from one to another. 3DM, CVP, and Organic Outreach all affirm that biblical change is a process of discernment between a congregation and the Holy Spirit rather than the implementation of a program with prescribed outcomes. In addition, all three processes value biblical teaching, coaching, accountability, cultural change, outreach, spiritual gifts assessment, and building leadership from within a congregation.
The pilot is “not so much a new thing as a tying together of things that have already been useful here,” says Bruce Bugbee, regional executive for the Far West. “All three get at changing core values in a way that impacts culture. If your church is not involved in mission, discipleship, and vitality, I want to ask, why not?”
Making disciples through 3DM
As early as 2003, when Bugbee began working in the Far West, he heard pastors and church leaders talk about their need for transformation in the areas of church health, discipleship, and mission. And slowly, he has identified individuals he calls “champions” to help with each area.
Bugbee found one such champion in Jeff Allen, who was pursuing ministry as a second career and accepted a call to Faith Community Church (RCA) in Littleton, Colorado, in 2005. After initial growth, the church began four years of decline—and four years of personal transformation in Allen’s life.
Disconnect, loss, major shifts in vision, and lots of easy distractions meant that the congregation was processing grief while trying to grow disciples.
“I came with the right intention—a call to make disciples—but into an existing history,” Allen says.
It was at a 3DM conference that a lightbulb came on for Allen: “[3DM leader] Mike Breen said, ‘When you build the church, you sometimes get disciples. But when you make disciples, you always get the church,’” says Allen. “And that has proven true.”
So, six years ago, Faith Community plunged into 3DM, an international movement of churches with a call to see “Jesus transform the world by putting discipleship and mission back into the hands of everyday people.” 3DM’s key components include small disciple-making groups called huddles, larger groups called missional communities, and Sunday worship. (Read more about 3DM’s format in the sidebar on this story.)
Within a few years of implementing 3DM, Faith Community began to see transformation. Today, both Allen and his wife, Elyse, are certified coaches for 3DM. In 2017, Allen published Small Church on a Big Mission: Cultivating Missional Discipleship in Smaller Churches, narrating the journey of transformation in his congregation. (You can read a part of Allen’s story, published in RCA Today, at www.rca.org/faithlittleton.)
Evangelizing naturally through Organic Outreach
The Far West has a champion for missional vision in Kevin Harney, an RCA pastor serving at Shoreline Community Church in Monterey, California. Harney nurtures a natural and authentic evangelism in his own congregation. He suggests that talking about Jesus shouldn’t be more awkward than telling people about your favorite local restaurant.
After several years of online coaching with Harney, many leaders in the Far West have implemented Organic Outreach. Three classes are now training leaders and Harney anticipates that two more will launch monthly online coaching for the “infusion of evangelistic accountability, inspiration, learning, and planning” that is permeating churches in the Far West.
“Organic Outreach has become an operating system that moves us to do meaningful evangelism in every part of the life of the church,” says Harney. “People come to faith in Jesus and Christians go deeper in faith as they learn to tell the story of Jesus in organic ways.”
Harney published Organic Outreach for Churches in 2011 and has established Organic Outreach International to help “denominations, national groups, regional movements, parachurch organizations and local churches around the world infuse the DNA of their ministries and congregations with a passion for natural evangelism.” (You can read more about Harney’s approach at www.rca.org/organicoutreach.)
Increasing church health through CVP
Two more champions for transformation are Phil Assink, pastor of Faith Community Church (RCA) in Edmonds, Washington, and Steve Norman, pastor of New Hope Community Church (RCA) in Fremont, California. Both pastors have successfully led their own congregations toward health and vitality through the Congregational Vitality Pathway. Assink and Norman codirect implementation of CVP for the Far West and have trained others around the region.
Assink encountered CVP at a 2012 presentation by John Wenrich, then director of congregational vitality for the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) and CVP’s creator. CVP leads churches through a process of becoming a healthy, missional church, pursuing Christ and Christ’s priorities in the world.
After 18 years at Faith Community, Assink led a congregation of 120, and things seemed stable, which seemed to be a good thing.
“People were comfortable,” he says. But he was sensing something else below the surface.
“After we finished the first Pathway workshop, someone said to me, ‘I didn’t know stable wasn’t good.’ But the Pathway shows stability can be the enemy of vitality—and we were in that place.”
The CVP process helped leaders at Faith assess a deeper need for discipleship and a missional focus. According to CVP, there are four types of established churches in the RCA: healthy missional, stable, critical moment, and at-risk. Faith Church was moving toward “critical moment”—not a marker of health—so Assink turned to Jeff Allen. 3DM’s discipleship principles helped the church in Washington move back toward health, and Organic Outreach processes have been implemented to reawaken missional values.
Assink and Norman have since adapted CVP materials for the RCA, and they continue a thriving partnership with Wenrich and the ECC, sharing ideas and new materials they are developing. (Visit www.rca.org/newhopefremont to read about how Norman and New Hope Reformed were changed through CVP.)
Partnering to make it happen
Jill Ver Steeg, director of transformational engagement for the RCA, finds synergy not only between the three processes and her own work cultivating discipleship throughout the denomination, but also among leaders as they collaborate, prepare the pilot, seek funding, and envision its future.
“We’re imagining a new space for these to live together,” she says. “Taking the best of each, coalescing them, and figuring out how to serve the church in deeper and wider ways. My hope is that this pilot will continue to support Transformed & Transforming moving forward—not at all replacing the initiative, but affirming and coming alongside as one way to live it out.”
All three processes are in use by RCA churches outside the Far West Region in conjunction with Transformed & Transforming.
“This is not at odds with what the denomination is doing; instead, I see God multiplying our work, God tilling the soil through people like Jeff and Phil,” says Ver Steeg. “There is no competition, just good partnership.”
To get connected with any of the three processes—3DM, Organic Outreach, or the Congregational Vitality Pathway—contact Bruce Bugbee, regional executive, at firstname.lastname@example.org.