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.
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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