Thriving Among the Dying Churches

Last Sunday we drove past numerous half-empty church parking lots. Finally we found our way to a thriving church that’s bucking the trend–and breaking the rules.

Chances are you’ve never heard of the “lead pastor” (actually, they don’t like titles here) who oversees one of the largest churches in America. More than 5,000 people gather each week in multiple locations throughout the area.

But this is no showy “multi-site” mega-church featuring some silver-tongued orator on a big screen. There’s no professional praise band. No pipe organ. No fancy building.

This is no new church plant. It’s been around for 27 years. And, unlike the majority of churches in America, it continues to grow.

Its leader is no twenty-something hipster. She (yes, she) is 76-year-old Tillie Burgin, a white-haired, soft-spoken Texan whom the locals call Miss Tillie. She leads Mission Arlington in the sprawling urban area between Dallas and Fort Worth. Miss Tillie

We slipped inside Mission Arlington to film this story for our upcoming documentary on the state of the church in America. Many of our other stories depict the decline of the church. But this story illustrates several characteristics that renewed our hope for the future of the church.

Unlike so many other contemporary churches that tout the term “missional,” this ministry consistently acts it out. Using the tagline “Taking Church to the People,” Mission Arlington directly serves hundreds of people every day of the week with spiritual, physical and emotional support. It brings food, clothing, furniture and medical care to all who need it.

And all are welcome. Miss Tillie likes to stress a particular word from John 3:16–“whosoever.” And she doesn’t wait for the whosoevers to come to her. She has empowered thousands of volunteers to take the church to the people.

Mission Arlington has formed 329 mini-congregations that meet weekly in houses, apartment complexes, mobile home parks, community centers and playgrounds. When they fill the available space, they form a new little congregation at a different location. Volunteer ministers lead these small groups through simple Bible explorations for adults, youth and children. If someone brings a guitar they may sing a few songs.

And where’s Miss Tillie? She’s not preaching. She’s not in the spotlight. She’s back at the headquarters praying and encouraging more volunteers to go out to serve in the name of Christ. And her genuine humility is absolutely contagious.

But make no mistake. She gives all the credit to God. As we said goodbye Sunday afternoon, she cautioned us to get this story straight. “This is about what Jesus is doing here.”

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51 Responses to “Thriving Among the Dying Churches”

  1. Debbie Killeffer Reply June 26, 2013 at 5:20 am

    I’m hoping that you’ll include a few standard, typical (small) New England churches in your upcoming documentary. It’s an area that can’t be classified and lumped into the rest of the U.S.of A.

  2. Awesome! Awesome! Awesome! I immediately went to their website and on the surface, I saw ‘in them’ what I have been seeing in my spirit. I plan to contact them, and hopefully go to Arlington to see what they are doing.

    • Jessica Strength Reply June 29, 2013 at 9:51 am

      Tim, I hope you do! Mrs. Tillie and her work at Mission Arlington is amazing to those of us who have lived here all our lives. I’m still amazed that I can show up – ANY time on a weekday – and it’s overflowing with workers, like an ant pile!! Her Christmas Store, Easter Egg Hunt, Food Pantry are never in need of workers or supplies…because God always provides are JUST the right moment. I’ve witnessed it time and time again. It’s something you have to see to believe. My family and I volunteer there quite often and when my girls were little, one of them had drawn a picture for Mrs. Tillie. The volunteers pulled her out of a meeting – that she was LEADING – much to my horror, to give her the picture. Mrs. Tillie wouldn’t have it any other way!! She loves people! It’s amazing! God is so good!

      • Annette Morris June 29, 2013 at 8:03 pm

        Sounds just like Mrs. Tillie! So glad the volunteers stepped out of their comfort zone to give the drawing to Mrs. Tillie!

  3. Theresa wrote: “Thank you for this. What an inspiring woman of God.

    Just in case 329 small congregations didn’t convince people that God is doing his kingdom work through Miss Tillie, here’s a number that might catch their attention, 33,000.

    Check out this link to GM where together MissTillie and GM make Christmas possible for 33,000 children.”


    • Miss Tillie also leads a program that will feed Thanksgiving Dinner to about 20,000 families each year, she also leads a Christmas store for needing families, and also a Bicycle gift program for children at Christmas with recycled bicycles donated through the community.. Tillie Loves the lord and Wow, she proves it every day
      Love in Christ, Ron H.

  4. Good stuff.

  5. Wow! Thanks be to God for sister Tillie’

  6. Excellent! Go Miss Tillie!

  7. This is what church is all about – outside the walls – into the neighborhood/community. I’m all for this future. Thanks Thom. I’m excited to see your documentary.

  8. Great example! I hope Mission Arlington has someone to follow after Miss Tillie! Praise God she has numerous volunteers working together. I have no doubt one of them is apt to rise up, if God so chooses.

    • Brenda, they have lots of capable people on the team. But I don’t see Miss Tillie slowing down any time soon. We literally could not keep up with her!

    • Brenda. Ms Tilly’s son, Jim is also very involved. They have 7, yes only 7 paid staff members. The rest are all volunteers. I have volunteered with them for years. It is amazing. Ms Tilly’s love for Jesus and for people is inspiring!

  9. How absolutely wonderful to hear such good news—about the Good News! Thanks Thom!

  10. How inspiring! And what a great example of Jesus!

  11. 45 years ago when I first started in Ministry in Texas I remember meeting Ms Tillie and hearing about the work she was doing it has been a joy to watch and learn how she has led in so many directions When I hear about multi sites being new, I always shake my head and want to say no they have been around for years we just didnt know that was what they were called because as Ms Tillie would say “we are doing what Jesus would do” How refreshing it was to read this thanks Thom

  12. Jacquelyn (Lynn) Shuffler Reply June 27, 2013 at 8:43 am

    All churches need to sit up and take notice! Isn’t this exactly what Jesus did during his time on earth…carried His message to the people where ever they happened to be! Praise God for the “Ms Tillies” out there!!

  13. Linda wrote: “I loved this post. She is a prime example of what we all should be doing.”

  14. Joan wrote: “What a wonderful lady, one of God’s special children.”

  15. Butch wrote: “What a great story about the church doing church and not just being church! What an inspiration Miss Tillie is and what a great example she sets for all of us.”

  16. Joseph wrote: “Miss Tillie, my new hero.”

  17. Brendan wrote: “This is what church is all about.”

  18. Paul wrote: “Like many others, a church that gets it.”

  19. Joel wrote: “How awesome is this!!!!!!!!!!!!”

  20. Cynthia wrote: “Inspired!”

  21. John wrote: “Unassuming Tillie leads a church of thousands. Great story.”

  22. Sharon wrote: “A REAL CHURCH, right here in Texas doing the REAL thing, the great commission and led by a REAL woman of God! MY kind of church. before you judge a church led by a woman, LOOK AT THE FRUITS IT’S PRODUCING AND LOOK AT HOW GOD IS BLESSING IT !!”

  23. This is what we need in England too, more church people reaching out to the community, not preaching exclusivity or being self-righteous or obsessed with social status, just people preaching and living the Gospel and doing something useful and helping people down on their luck. Long may she continue!

  24. we had the privlige several years ago participating in a section 8 apartment complex in fort worth that worked closley with mission arlington…. what a blessing to see people share the joy of her ministry…. so many woulld move in with no furniture and presto here would come mission arlington truck with beds bedding tables and chairs etc…….. fort worth is home os southwestern babt seminary approx 8.000 students and so many personally became involved and im sure helped spread the movement all over the country there are lots of youth groups that go for mission trips to help over summer and spring break………. her son is a pastor of a church in arlington grace babtist………

  25. Miss Tillie is following in Jesus footsteps. Go where the people are…don’t expect them to come to you!

  26. Love Miss Tillie and all the folks at Mission Arlington! When we were managing apartment complexes, we partnered with Mission Arlington in so many ways! Love them so much!

  27. Side note: When Tillie went to Korea to spread the gospel(50+ years ago) the first day there she wrote back “Help, with a touch of humor, someone stole all my shoes, please send shoes,”.

  28. I think Tillie would chuckle to see her refered to as MIss – she’s a MRS – she’s been married forever and her husband partners with her at the mission – I like to refer to her as Saint Tillie ! Great lady who has truly answered Christ’s call to feed the sheep and care for people – she demonstrates a Christian servant in every way – can’t wait to see your film!

  29. Miss Tillie is God’s hands on earth. When you are with her, you can feel the love and the strength. The greatest lady I have ever known.

  30. Amen Miss Tillie…we love you….I attend one of Miss Tillie’s churchs in Arlington.

  31. Where is Miss Tillie? I stopped by to see her and she was on a ladder at the dumpster, working!

  32. You would need a weeks worth of film to see how much the angel does for anyone in need.
    Never ever takes a day off and speaks kindly to everyone. She has touched not only my heart and soul but thousands and thousands.

  33. I live in DFW. Too bad the Mega church pastors dont preach Jesus name but would rather have their name spoken than Jesus. I might have to join this movement as pastors preaching their word and not God’s word has driven me from the church. Home is where I pray.
    Great article

  34. Great story. Inspiring. Hope to see/hear of more of these stories. Your opening, however, seems to be filled with dripping sarcasm: “…this is no showy ‘multi-site’ mega-church featuring some silver-tongued orator on a big screen.”

    I’ve met many of these pastors you paint with a broad brush. Most are men and women of God who have no desire for a show. They want to help people meet Jesus in any way they can.

    I’m hoping your documentary isn’t another slap in the face for these pastors who are doing an amazing work in a very difficult culture.

  35. I’m sure she does some good things for some people, but in my opinion she had no business holding a central administration position in AISD. She was narrow-minded, and it was obvious she had her own agenda.

    • Too bad you only used your initial to take a swipe at this precious, loving servant of the Almighty God. I’ll pray for you by your initial of “J” that your unresolved feelings of resentment will lead you to forgiveness and love in your relationship with Jesus, the loving Savior of mankind. Charla

  36. Make no mistake, though. The lady CAN preach!! with the same fervor and love of Jesus that she works daily.

  37. Everyone in ministry needs to take the “Tillie Tour” and see this amazing work of the Holy Spirit.

  38. I have not personally met Ms. Tillie, but she came to my rescue when an elderly neighbor was having trouble keeping her great grandchildren in school, because their absentee mother kept pulling them out. I did not know what could be done but I knew who to call. Tillie told me all about the correct forms to have my neighbor sign so that she would have the custody possible to keep the children who lived with her in school. My neighbor was so thankful for the help and that has always been the kind of help Mission Arlington gives…practical and immediate help for those in need. I look forward to seeing your documentary.

  39. I’m happy to see Ms Tillie getting her props…She is a wonderful kind person…shes helped my family and friends…you can donate just about anything to Mission Arlington…Im also proud to say my son went to the elementary school that honors her & her husband…

  40. I met Miss Tillie although I didn’t khow who she was when she stopped by in front of me while I waited to see Ken about a wheelchair the other day.
    I can say there was a presence about her that made me want to be around her. She was surrounded by a warm light aura that makes me feel like I’m in the presence of an angel.

  41. Miss Tillie, one of the most humble people you’ll ever meet. It’s the perfect place to donate things you need to give away. My grandson loves to take new toys to Mission Arlington at Christmas for those less fortunate.

  42. Linda Stannard Davis Reply July 2, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    I love Tillie Burgin!! She is a definitely a roll model for all of us. She truly exemplifies the kind of life that Jesus taught us to live.

  43. Mission A is AMAZNG!! Our church youth group goes there at least once a year. You always go to be a blessing, but always end up being blessed!! Fantastic organization.

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