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Published: Saturday, 6/16/2007

How to grow a church: Kansas pastor offers tips at Methodist convention

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection United Methodist Church in Kansas City, a fastgrowing
church in the denomination, speaks to the UMC annual convention at Lakeside, Ohio. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection United Methodist Church in Kansas City, a fastgrowing church in the denomination, speaks to the UMC annual convention at Lakeside, Ohio.
ANN RHYAN, UNITED METHODIST NEWS / THOMAS SLACK, UNITED METHODIST N Enlarge

LAKESIDE, Ohio - When the Rev. Adam Hamilton decided to preach a series of sermons on world religions, the first thing he did was his homework.

The pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., interviewed an imam for a sermon on Islam; an Orthodox priest for the sermon on Orthodox Christianity, and a pandit for his sermon on Hinduism.

And when he preached about Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Mr. Hamilton wore the robes of an Orthodox priest, displayed icons on the altar, and showed video highlights of his interview with the Orthodox cleric.

For a sermon series on the Apostle John, Mr. Hamilton dressed in first century garb and wore makeup that made him look 35 years old for a sermon on the Gospel of John; 55 years old when he spoke about the Book of Acts; 70 years old when he preached on the Epistles, and 90 years old when he talked about Revelation.

That kind of creativity and commitment has helped Mr. Hamilton's suburban Kansas City church become the fastest-growing in the United Methodist denomination.

He launched Church of the Resurrection in a funeral home in October, 1990, with about 100 people in attendance.

Today, the church has 13,000 members.

In a lecture at this Ottawa County resort here Tuesday, Mr. Hamilton offered some words of advice and encouragement to the 3,000 delegates attending the annual convention of the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church.

"Start with the Bible. ... Start with the human condition," he said. "Then find how the Bible speaks to this human condition."

He said people don't come to church "to hear about what happened to the 'Izzites' 3,000 years ago."

Mr. Hamilton said pastors should find a pertinent topic and do extensive research on it - "become an expert in one week on a subject."

As an example, he said, many people today are struggling with panic and anxiety attacks. The pressures of modern life produce symptoms of stress that make it seem as if a person is experiencing a heart attack.

To tell them that "the Bible says don't worry" would fall short of what a minister should do, he said.

A pastor could interview psychologists and experts in the field, and use the Internet to research the topic.

Mr. Hamilton, 45, said in an interview before his lecture that he spends about 20 hours a week researching and preparing each sermon.

"My aim is that every sermon series I preach is prepared as though I were teaching a college-level course," he said.

If church members tell their friends that Church of the Resurrection's pastor will be preaching about anxiety and panic attacks, it will attract those who are suffering and looking for help.

"They're so desperate, they'll even come to church," he said with a smile.

Mr. Hamilton said he is constantly looking for ways to bring in people who are "nonreligious" or "nonaffiliated."

"Virtually everything we do, we think about how this would speak to an unchurched person," he said.

He told the assembly that people he built his church on the strength of its Christmas eve candlelight services because people who normally don't attend church will go to that service once a year.

Last December, 22,000 people attended Church of the Resurrection's Christmas eve services - in a building that seats 3,000. They had to hold so many services that the staff covered the windows with plastic to hold candlelight services in daylight hours, he said.

"If you have a good Christmas eve service, people will come back," Mr. Hamilton asserted.

While he had the people there for Christmas, he told them he was going to start a sermon series titled "Conversations with an Atheist" on the second weekend of January. He was capitalizing on the current interest in atheism as seen in the popularity of such best-selling books as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens.

The pastor used e-mail to send invitations to church members, with a way for them to forward the electronic invitation to friends with a personalized message and a brief video.

The first Sunday of the series, more than 10,000 people came to church, Mr. Hamilton said.

One of his most successful projects was to include a 3x5-inch index card in the bulletin one Sunday and ask people to write down "the best three questions they can ask about Christians."

He told them he would preach a series of sermons responding to the most frequently asked questions.

"They came back to hear the answers to their questions," Mr. Hamilton said, adding that "I now have 100 years' worth of sermon material here."

The pastor said he makes brief visits to the homes of all first-time church visitors, just dropping off a coffee mug and a church newsletter and asking if the visitor had any questions.

The entire encounter might only last a minute, he said, but he learns the people's names and makes them feel welcome. If they come back to church again, on their third visit he asks if they want to meet for coffee.

This time, he asks them to tell him their story. "People love to talk about themselves," he said.

Mr. Hamilton told The Blade that he believes the United Methodist Church is in a unique position among religious groups because it integrates "the heart and the intellect."

"Our society is divided by the culture wars into the left and right, and the United Methodist Church has always stood historically in the center and has been willing to listen to and to bring together those things that often are found in opposite camps," he said.

"When people ask me if I'm liberal or conservative, I say, 'Yeah.' I'm both of them. To be a liberal means to be open-minded and generous and open to new ideas. And to be conservative means to hold onto things that are important, things that shouldn't be cast aside. And we do both of those things."

More information about the Rev. Adam Hamilton and Church of the Resurrection is available online at www.cor.org.

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com

or 419-724-6154.



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