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How we helped our people grow spiritually

Cally Parkinson of the Willow Creek Association recently contacted me saying she wanted to write a case study on Legacy Church because they had observed the improvement in our church's spiritual growth through the comparison of our two REVEAL surveys taken in March, 2010 and March, 2012. I was surprised by the request since we had nothing to compare our progress to except our two survey results. So, we gathered some of our "spiritual growth team" around a conference call with Cally, and we told our story. 

Rather than describe the case study, here it is in its entirety. I am thankful to the ministry directors, church leadership team, and two members who made up our spiritual growth team, and to the staff and members who implemented their plan to "help people trust Jesus."
Legacy Church, Plano, TX
Case Study (c) Willow Creek Association, 2012

Picture the nation’s 70th most populous city—one named, in 2006, as the best place to live in the United States. Note that 53.3 percent of this city’s residents have at least a bachelor’s degree and that CNN Money ranked it the wealthiest city in the U.S., with a median average income of over $77,000. Then consider that in 2010, Forbes magazine named it the safest American city of 250,000 or more, that its schools consistently rank among the best in the nation, and that its unemployment rate is less than half the national average.

So where’s the challenge? Well, in all of the above. Because while Plano, Texas, appears to have “a church on every corner,” only about 30 percent of its self-reliant, self-assured residents attend services. “It’s a pretty remarkable place,” says Legacy Church’s Senior Pastor Gene Wilkes. “But even though we’re in the Bible belt, where there is a strong subculture of churched Christians, the majority of people are not. And as the rest of the culture has shifted away from its need and dependence upon faith and the church, that’s been particularly true here in Plano.” Despite 25 years as part of the city; despite its dynamic, dedicated staff and plenty of resources, Legacy Church’s leaders suspected it should be doing more to foster its people’s spiritual growth.

In the past, Legacy had used Natural Church Development resources to determine how they fared in this area; then, while attending the 2008 Willow Creek Summit, they heard about REVEAL. “We hadn’t assessed our spiritual growth for years, so we needed kind of a baseline of where we were,” Gene says. “When Willow put REVEAL together, it was something we knew we could use.” So in March 2010, Legacy took its first survey.

Clearly, the 300+ adults in the congregation were on board, with an almost-unheard-of response rate of 62 percent. What they had to say, though, was somewhat less impressive.  While satisfaction with the senior pastor was strong at 78 percent, only 58 percent were satisfied with weekend services and even fewer (49 percent) were satisfied with the church’s role in their spiritual growth. Daily Bible reading applied to just 15 percent of the congregation, and only 21 percent very strongly agreed with the attitude of “Giving away my life.” Thirteen percent acknowledged that when it came to growing their faith, they were “stalled.”  In short, Legacy Church, long a part of its extraordinary community, generated survey results that could best be defined as … ordinary.

Defining the Destination

“To be honest, I think REVEAL told many of us what we already knew,” says Life Group Pastor Tammy Dillon. “But we needed tangible figures to substantiate that. So when REVEAL confirmed that we had a fairly biblically illiterate congregation, it just affirmed that we needed to do some definite work in that area.”

To define and launch that work, Legacy created a Spiritual Growth Team, made up of the pastoral team and a leadership team including congregants and staff. At first, the groups met separately, discussing what they’d learned about spiritual growth, the insights Legacy’s survey had uncovered, and what the church’s priorities should become. Then the two teams joined forces to discuss and endorse a plan of action. They began by titling REVEAL’s spiritual growth continuum “The Way,” and re-naming its four levels of spiritual maturity to more closely align with Legacy’s culture and language. Retaining the initial segment descriptions of Exploring Christ and Growing in Christ, the third and fourth segments became Living with Christ and Dying for Christ.

Gene admits that the team wrestled for quite a while with the Dying for Christ description, but concluded that it best represented the ultimate perspective—the “if you will come after me, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” perspective—of this most spiritually mature segment. The team felt this bold description could be especially meaningful to the members of their successful, goal-oriented community. The idea that faith in Christ requires sacrificing personal treasure is one thing in a community that is barely scraping by. It’s quite another when the success formula includes an abundance of such treasure.

Moving Toward Maturity

Legacy’s segment descriptions not only set the stage for spiritual growth, they also helped the team define the church’s four key objectives toward its congregants’ forward movement:  (1) Challenge me to grow; (2) Understand the Bible in depth; (3) Help me with my prayer life; and (4) Help me serve in my passions and spiritual gifts.

Challenge Me to Grow

Embracing the ultimate goal of Dying for Christ—in itself, a challenge for Legacy’s people—prompted the church to devise various ways to communicate and reinforce this description of spiritual maturity.

During January 2011’s Vision Month sermon series, for instance, Gene taught on what a Dying-for-Christ life would look like—and how that aligned with Legacy’s mission statement to “Trust Jesus as the church, at home, and in the world.” (CDs of these messages continue to be distributed to visitors.) The launch of Legacy U, a classroom-like teaching time offered before Sunday services, also challenged congregation members to grow. Not surprisingly, the first class it offered—named The Biggest Loser—focused on the Dying-for-Christ level of spiritual maturity.

Understand the Bible in Depth

In response to the very low number of its congregants who had reported spending time in the Bible, Legacy was determined to make this a fundamental practice throughout the church—for everyone from preschoolers to adults and across activities ranging from life groups to Sunday sermons. Common to all of these audiences and initiatives would be Zondervan’s newly released book, The Story. “In the fall of 2010, when we got our REVEAL results back, we also found this book,” Tammy says. “It came to our door a month before we were about to gear up life groups again. God literally landed it in our lap—like boom, in our lap! So we threw out what we were going to do and said, ‘No, this is God’s answer to how we are going to help our people understand the Bible.’”

Here, too, the staff adapted this resource to Legacy’s congregation. (“That’s kind of what we do,” Gene laughs.) They divided the book’s contents into segments to cover all twelve months of 2011, then broke the material down into six daily reading assignments per week. And for those who didn’t want to carry a book around all year? “They could get a daily email to read—all they had to do was click on it,” says Tammy. “Or they could even listen to the material on their smartphones—it would speak the assignment out loud to them on their way to work or while they were carpooling their children.”

And the children? They were equally engaged, as Children’s Director Marcus Lloyd’s team purposefully and creatively kept them in the Word, right alongside their parents. “For the kids to really understand this, we thought they would need to be learning the same things as their parents,” he says. “So we looked for the best way to input the Bible into the home that would keep every age group talking about the same things—whether that was at dinner time, in the car leaving church, or whenever they were together.”

The result was a Family Notebook covering the entire year. For every week, it provided the Scripture being discussed in Sunday’s service as well as a story synopsis, the story’s main point, and the best ways to enter a discussion of the story. It also included questions appropriate for different age groups—preschoolers, elementary, and youth—to launch family-wide discussions. “We made that available to every family for the first semester—January until June,” Marcus says. “During the summer we gave them some other things to do, then we went back with some new pages for their notebooks in the fall.”

Help Me with My Prayer Life

Just as the church had added Legacy U before Sunday services in early 2011, in early 2012 it began to provide extended prayer time following Sunday services. This increased emphasis on personal prayer coincided with Sunday sermons and life group studies based on this key spiritual practice. “We didn’t have a ‘How to Pray’ class or anything like that,” Gene says. “Instead our spring emphasis was Jesus’ prayer life in the book of Luke. We let Christ in the gospels be the example that guided our church-wide emphasis.”

Life groups have long been highly valued and extremely well attended at Legacy Church, with participation at 89 percent, compared to a much lower 50 percent average among all surveyed churches. So these less formal gatherings, which are based on participant interaction more than leader-led teaching, provided an ideal opportunity to explore the topic of prayer. For example, in February 2012, in addition to the newly available Sunday morning prayer time, Legacy’s life groups launched a 12-week series on the Lord’s Prayer. Once again they provided emails and other encouragements. And once again they fostered family discussions by overflowing the topic into children’s ministry in some very tangible, experiential ways.

Help me serve in my passions and spiritual gifts

Unlike prayer, which offered huge potential for growth, Legacy’s serving initiative has been more a combination of growth and refinement. “A value we’ve held for a long time is ‘You’re most like Jesus when you serve,’” Gene explains. Now, though, congregants would broaden that value by serving “in the church, through the church, and on my own.” Specifically, they would move more of their serving off campus and into their community. While the children’s ministry continues to depend on its volunteers, various other in-church programs were curtailed, freeing up time for more “through the church” options. “We started looking toward partnering with other churches to take some things out in the street where the people are,” Markus explains.

It hasn’t been easy, but Legacy’s success in this effort speaks for itself.  Instead of holding its annual Fall Festival, something many Plano churches do each year, Legacy suggested joining forces in 2011. Although it took a tremendous amount of coordination and collaboration, several churches agreed, holding a joint festival at a local school and contributing the event proceeds to an area food pantry. Building on this success, Markus recruited half a dozen area churches to serve in “Love Where You Live,” a weekend clean-up effort in partnership with city government, during which church volunteers picked up trash, repaired homes and otherwise served an area of Plano that Markus describes as “needing some love.”

Then Pinecove, a big Christian camp in Texas that takes its camp to a church campus each summer, asked Legacy if they would be the host church in the summer of 2012. “We were like, ‘Well, our kids in this area just go to camps all summer long,’ says Markus. “What if we partnered with a couple other churches and took the camp to the lower income area of our city—and then scholarshiped all the kids who wanted to attend?’” Four Plano churches did exactly that, sending their volunteers to serve about 70 kids who otherwise would never have had such an opportunity.


In the midst of their response to its initial REVEAL survey, Legacy opted to check its progress with a follow-up survey in March 2012. The result was encouraging trajectories across the board. Satisfaction with the Church’s Role in Spiritual Growth rose from 49 to 65 percent, for instance. And dissatisfaction plummeted from 21 to 12 percent. Small group participation (89 percent) and serving at the church (66 percent) far exceeded the average of 50 percent in each category. And what about that all-important area of spiritual growth? The Growing in Christ segment, formerly at 47 percent, dropped to 41—because Legacy’s “Living for Christ” and “Dying with Christ” segments grew in statistically meaningful ways, from 23 to 27 and from 24 to 29 percent.

Such movement not only affirms the church’s bold new descriptions of spiritual maturity, it also generates admiration for members of Legacy’s congregation—who, even in light of their secular success, are now stepping up to embrace a “to die is gain” definition of eternal success.
 If you live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson will hold a REVEAL workshop October 25, at Watermark Church, Dallas. I recommend you attend and see how this tool can give you a true picture of our church's spiritual health and proven ways to help them grow in the areas they identify as their most challenging areas of spiritual growth.