People want to belong before they believe.
In Part 1 of our interview with author and pastor Tim Lucas, he explains the origins of Liquid Church, where he is lead pastor, and how Liquid found success reaching a millennial and Gen Z population. Here, he explores more deeply some of the ministry currents he highlights in his book Liquid Church: 6 Powerful Currents to Saturate Your City for Christ (Zondervan) and shares practical ideas for churches to saturate their cities and draw people back through the doors.
Warren Bird co-authors the book and is responsible for the research and statistics you’ve woven into the narrative. What role has he played in Liquid Church’s saturation of New Jersey?
Warren is a global gift to the church. He’s an incredible friend and co-author. But for us, Warren acted very providentially. Here’s the God story: I invited Warren to come speak to our staff back when we had three campuses and they were all portable. Everything was changing, and the organization was in a little bit of chaos. We were having leadership churn. At the very end of the meeting, he’s walking out and he says, “Oh, Tim, I almost forgot, I wanted to give you this.” And he reaches into his bookbag and pulls out his latest book, Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work. As he hands it to me, he says, “Don’t be surprised if an aging church or congregation that’s maybe plateaued or declined at some point approaches you about becoming a campus of Liquid. It’s a national trend that we’re seeing right now with churches like yours that are young and have energy and people, but no assets, and older churches.” Well, the very next morning, at 6 a.m., we got a phone call from the folks at Mountainside Gospel Church asking us, “Hey, would you guys ever consider us becoming a campus of Liquid?” I will never forget that, because it was less than 24 hours later. That’s when the miracle at Mountainside happened. Their senior saints in their 60s and 70s voted to donate their building, their parsonage, their ministries, their assets, everything worth about $4 million, to our church, and it became the first permanent building we ever had and the fastest-growing campus in the history of our church.
God used Warren prophetically. I always tell our staff, “Now understand what God was saying to us. He was saying, ‘Mountainside is going to approach you, but these guys aren’t smart enough to figure it out, so I’m going to send Warren with the playbook, so that they don’t screw it up.’” Through that ministry merger, we became pretty close friends, and we asked him to be on our board of trustees, where he serves today.
Church mergers are an incredibly common method of growing a church. You cite the statistic that 1 in 3 new campuses of multisite churches across North America is birthed through a merger. Should every healthy church that is considering going multisite consider a merger, or are there cases where it’s not a right fit?
It’s a combination. I think right now we are going through an unprecedented time in church history of generational transfer. Baby boomers are aging out. They’re builders, and they’ve done an extraordinary job of stewarding these assets. But in most of these small towns, they’ve got these aging, empty buildings that are at the center of the town. They may even have a better spot than the municipal building. They were once kind of the hub of activity, but now they’ve declined, and sadly, they’re being sold and turned into condominiums, a kickboxing gym, and—here in New Jersey—a bagel shop. There is such a loss for the kingdom, because that entire spiritual legacy is gone forever. But there’s a hunger within that generation to turn this over to the next generation to reach the hearts and minds of their grandkids. That’s happening more and more. We are seeing a receptivity of baby boomers to reach across the aisle, grab the hand of millennials and Gen Z, and do something that becomes a win-win for the kingdom. They’re literally reenacting the gospel. The life, sacrifice, death and resurrection. I think every church, no matter how young, needs to be open to this possibility, because it’s Spirit-inspired.
As a church leader, how do you know your church is ready for a rebirth?
When a church has lost its evangelistic fire. In other words, there’s a sense that we want to reach new people but we’re out of gas. We’ve found that a lot of times people can say, “Oh, it’s a result of sin. Why don’t you have a heart for God?” I don’t actually think it’s like that. I think most of the time, it’s just the natural life cycle of a church. Church is not an organization, it’s an organism. Like every other organism, it’s going to go through birth, growth, life, and then it’s going to plateau at some point, and then begin the decline. It’s called the body of Christ. That’s what our bodies do. I think a lot of us have traditionally thought, Well, it’s just going to go on like this forever. So recognizing what season of life the congregation is in is key.
I don’t think ministry merging is necessarily the right next step for some churches. I think there may just be internal transfer that needs to happen, and the millennials are just waiting to be given the keys. We always try to err on the side of saying yes to people, getting them on the bus, giving them some influence, and then we’ll change seats if we need to while we’re in transit. Yes, it’s going to be a little bit of a bumpy ride, but millennials in particular are very cause-driven. They want to have a voice, even if they haven’t earned it. That can be offensive, I think, and rub the older boomer generation the wrong way. They’ve only been there a few months; they haven’t earned it. But if you want to keep them more than two months, you need to give them a voice.
Many of the currents in your saturation strategy target and are sometimes best carried out by young people. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a place at the table for older generations. What does it look like to include boomers so that we honor them by making sure they still feel valued?
The number one thing they are is permission givers. It’s the ability to actually give permission to make some changes without starting from scratch. And that’s why I think you actually have so many church plants starting from scratch. You have these incredible ministries already in existence, but there hasn’t been permission given to come in and move the furniture or change the paint color or music. That takes incredible maturity from seniors, because they’re saying, “You know what? Even with the way culture is changing, we’re not going to have a spirit of fear. We’re going to be open-handed.” That’s incredible. That is one of the greatest attributes of the boomer generation. They have this openhanded sacrificial spirit that quite honestly, my generation needs to learn from.
Practically speaking, we intentionally inserted them into key ministry roles that aren’t necessarily leading from the front, but leading from behind and propping up the front. Handing out programs at the door, doing lay counseling. We try to insert them all over and primarily in Liquid Family, because we have a lot of younger parents who are just trying to figure it all out.
In a young church, we need spiritual fathers and mothers who have miles on the odometer. The biggest request we get from millennials and Gen Z is who can mentor them? Many of them are coming from broken homes, where they didn’t have a spiritual role model. There wasn’t a good foundation of faith, so they’re looking for spiritual fathers and mothers or even grandfathers and grandmothers. As a young church with energy and people, yet no spiritual heritage and roots, what a blessing the senior generation is to us. And they’re saying, “What a blessing the younger ones are to us, because now we have a future, we have a family. We’re passing the baton successfully.”
What’s the most challenging aspect of saturating a city?
I think a lot of churches try to guess how they can make inroads into the city. We try to take the guesswork out of it. This is the part that’s actually strategic, not just Spirit-led. Before we even have a campus there, we go into the town and ask the people what their needs are. We go directly to the mayor of the city or to their office, whoever their representatives are, and say, “What’s something this city needs that you don’t have the budget or manpower for?” They will always have an answer, and they usually do a double take. And then we try to make it happen. Can I tell you what kind of goodwill that earns with the city? The power of no-strings-attached generosity is really the key to saturating a city. Right now, we live in one of the most cynical generations. I think people look at Christianity, and we’re not starting at zero, we’re starting at negative four. They think we’re after their money, we’re trying to convert them, who knows. So no-strings-attached generosity has such attractional power, and it raises a question in people’s minds. They say, “Why would you do that? What kind of church plant that doesn’t have enough money for its own building spends time giving a makeover to a senior center? And, wait a minute, it’s a millennial church?” Now word gets out and people are bragging on you and spreading the right kind of rumors.
Part of your ability to do that is having enough volunteers to make it happen. Liquid Church is blessed to have an abundance of them, but most church leaders struggle to fill every volunteer spot. What’s the biggest change a church can make to increase their volunteer roles?
Avoid guilt and manipulation at all costs. A classic tactic that I see a lot of churches take is they say, “Hey guys, we’re taking care of your kids, but they’re outnumbering us, and we need some help here, guys. And so it’s not cool if you come to service and drop them off. We need you.” It’s this tactic of saying you owe us. It’s well intentioned, but people don’t respond to desperation. They respond to vision. They respond to no-strings-attached generosity. You need to cast some more vision for the lives that are changing.
We treat our volunteers like royalty. In some churches the pastors are on a pedestal. Here at Liquid, it is our volunteer leaders. We spotlight them in messages. We put them in our weekly highlights on social media. I use them all the time as my sermon illustrations. They’re the ones whom the Lord is really working through. For example, our parking team’s job isn’t to park cars. Their job is to put on a Mickey Mouse hand and give a high five to a special needs kid that makes coming to church feel safe for them, because we’re going to launch an anchor in their heart for Jesus that’s going to change their whole family’s legacy. So, understand, this has almost nothing to do with parking cars. That’s the role, but it’s all about relationship. That’s how we cast it. We call our volunteers our Dream Team. And we say, teamwork makes God’s dream work. You were made for something bigger, and it’s about life transformation. Who doesn’t want to be part of that?
You cast vision to your volunteers to show people the love of Christ so they can then earn the right to share the gospel. They’re walking the walk, not just talking the talk. It’s an example of showing before telling that you say is critical to community saturation. Why does a show-then-tell approach need to be front of mind when we’re trying to reach the culture for Christ?
That’s the overarching message of the book. We live in a show-then-tell culture. The old adage is that people don’t care what you have to say until they know how much you care. But the reality is, with the gospel, for the last thousand years, it’s been the opposite. It’s been a tell-then-show approach to evangelism. That is, we have the gospel, the good news, and we’re going to proclaim it. The proclamation of the gospel has been at the heart of evangelical culture for a thousand years. But then we’ll demonstrate it by our good deeds.
We believe that in this post-Christian culture, the order is reversed. There needs to be a demonstration of the gospel in deed, and then we’ve earned the right to proclaim it. When you look at the gospel, it’s like Jesus had this double barrel shotgun of proclamation and demonstration. A lot of times when he enters a village, the Bible says he was healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. And then it says he proclaimed the message of the kingdom. In other words, first he showed the good news, and then he told them exactly what it means. I think we need to get back to that first-century approach where we let our actions proclaim the good news, and then it earns a fresh hearing to those who are interested, whose hearts have been opened.
That’s what we’re seeing with our special needs families. We said, “What would that look like for the community, not just those families in the church?” We found out that the families in this community who don’t even go to this church pay hundreds of dollars to do occupational therapy at a sensory gym for their kids. We had a heart to reach those families, whether they come to our church or not, so we built a sensory gym in our church, and now we open it to the community free of charge during the summer. That’s more of a show-then-tell approach. We’re going to show you our heart for the kingdom and for God’s kids, and we hope you come. I think that’s the only way to come in the back door and counter the cynicism toward evangelical Christianity that’s absolutely toxic in our culture right now.
Another idea you’ve flipped on its head is the discipleship journey. The path to discipleship has traditionally been to believe first, belong second. But when it comes to discipling the next generation, there’s a paradigm shift taking place, from belonging first to believing second.
One of my spiritual mentors, someone I’m in debt to as a leader and pastor, is Rick Warren. He wrote The Purpose-Driven Church. It is such a helpful resource, and it really informed a whole generation. But it was based around a very linear faith path. 101, 201, 301. That’s the kind of church I grew up in. The idea was that you would make a decision for Christ, and then you would join the family. Then you go through a membership class, and then through a theology or New Testament survey. Then you’d receive the doctrine, and you could begin serving. If you checked off those boxes, maybe you could slide into home base and go on a mission trip. That was a very linear approach to discipleship.
Here’s what we’re finding: Millennials want to slide head-first into third base. That’s the best way I can describe it. We have story after story of people in our church where their first step wasn’t even stepping foot in our church. They hear from a coworker that we’re taking a trip to bring clean drinking water to kids in Rwanda. And they say, “That’s awesome! Got any openings?” The compassionate cause has captured their imagination. For us, it’s a God thing. For them, it’s a good thing. We always say, “You know what? We’ll swim to that island. We’ll meet you there.” Because what happens is, when they get involved in the cause of serving and they rub shoulders with other Christ-followers who are deeply committed, then they find out that we’re not total weirdos. These are people with big hearts who are trying to change the world, and what did they say? For Christ. So they read the Bible and it doesn’t make them haters, it makes them world changers? That’s incredible. Again, show, then tell. People want to belong before they believe. They want to meet the family and kick the tires of this thing before they buy it, because there’s so much hypocrisy and poisonous cynicism that’s infected our whole culture. We need a new paradigm for evangelism.