Tending to the Roots

During the pandemic, physical health was on everyone’s minds. But the team at Radiant Church in Tampa, Florida, was also taking a hard look at spiritual health.

“The pandemic exposed a lack of spiritual depth within our church,” Lead Pastor Aaron Burke says. “We realized we had gathered crowds before the pandemic but didn’t do well at cultivating disciples.”

The church decided to renew its focus on overall spiritual health. A few years ago, it launched Foundations, a program birthed out of the desire to ground church members in their faith. It’s basically a yearlong catechism that goes deep into God’s Word. 

“We realized we have this melting pot of all these people from different denominations and backgrounds,” Burke says. “They all have different sources they are hearing stuff from, so how do we become one church? How do we become a united voice when it comes to theology and hot-button issues? With Foundations, we can deep dive into issues and really disciple the church.”

Radiant has seen more than 2,000 people complete the program. This fall, they start the third year of Foundations. Mary Hughes, groups director at the church and location administrator for the church’s Clearwater campus, completed the Foundations course herself and sees firsthand how it’s made a difference in people’s lives.

“Foundations has really pushed spiritual health,” Hughes says. “That knowledge is able to push people deeper, which just gets them connected to the church. I think that having that opportunity to dive deeper really keeps people ‘sticking’ so they don’t go right out the back door.”

Burke confirms that the spiritual maturity that has developed in Foundations grads like Hughes has made the church stronger.

“That health and depth have impacted every metric that we could desire when it comes to people inviting friends to baptisms, to our small groups, to attend on Sundays,” Burke says. “That has been our strategy.”

He notes that Foundations has not only led to individual spiritual growth, but also to churchwide growth in numbers for two reasons. First, because Foundations grads are grounded in their faith, they’re strengthened when trials come. 

“COVID-19 showed us there were a lot of casualties out there whenever there were trials, and there were people who never returned to church and who were struggling,” Burke says. “We realized they just weren’t grounded.”

Second, Foundations discipleship has activated people on mission.

“Now we have a church that knows what they believe and knows what they’re supposed to do,” Burke says. “Those two things together are two pedals on the same bike and are an unstoppable combination. Do the people in the church know who they are in Christ? And do those same people know what they’re called to do as Christians? If we can figure out both of those things, then growth is a byproduct. Now we’ve got grounded people on mission, and that to me is why we experienced, last year, our greatest year of growth ever.”

Burke credits another important factor that contributes to Radiant’s growth: The choice to embrace both the Holy Spirit and the church’s systems of operation.

“I think a healthy church is both Spirit and systems,” he says. “What we hadn’t realized is before the pandemic, we were really focused on our systems of assimilation, of guest experience, of our orders of service. But we never had time to focus on what the Spirit was doing. We’d kind of shied away from some of that pre-COVID-19, but we’ve leaned back in, and it’s been huge.”

Once a month, Radiant opens up the altars in each service to pray for healing, something they’ve seen produce incredible miracles. People want to experience God, Burke says, so Radiant has extended its worship sets a bit and left space for more moments of reflection to let people sense God’s presence.

“I have seen it take our church to the next level,” he says. “There’s structure with Spirit, and I think that’s amazing.”

Jessica Hanewinckel
Jessica Hanewinckel

Jessica Hanewinckel is an Outreach magazine contributing writer.