Avenue Church in Ontario, OH is a church of approximately 250 attendees and has been around for three years. Originally First Church of God, established in 1936, the church was struggling to survive after 80 years of ministering to the community. When Pastors Nate & Liz Hultz joined the congregation in May of 2018, they were excited to follow God’s call to bring revitalization to the church body. But it hasn’t been an easy journey.
“When you go to school to become a pastor, you don’t learn all the other things that you need to do to be successful in reaching others: social media, the business side of church, understanding how to use worship technology,” said Nate. “I quickly learned that if I wanted our church to reach people for the gospel, I had to figure out how to do it myself.”
He researched online, networked with other pastors, and asked people he knew how to go about learning those things he had no clue how to do. “For example, I wanted to sell Avenue merchandise at our church, but I had no idea how to go about getting that started. I knew of a church in Toledo, OH that was doing this well, so I reached out to the pastor, who I had met previously, and he shared with me what they did.”
What Excellence Means to Them
Both Nate and Liz are passionate about achieving excellence in their church because they recognize that that’s how to serve and worship God and make it easier for people to want to meet with Him. “Church is not an experience; it is a community,” said Liz. “But, if you’re going to get people into a specific place to worship together and then send them out to keep doing it elsewhere, you have to have a place that serves with excellence—not perfection, but excellence.” Both Nate and Liz believe the goal of the church building is to create a space that is welcoming, a place you want to invite others to join you in attending; you want people to be excited to come.
It’s not easy getting others within the church body to agree with this kind of thinking and jump on board, though. Liz shared, “It’s a hard line when people desire perfection, especially when you’re in a church revitalization project. The people are doing the same things over and over, expecting different results, so helping them understand that getting where you’re trying to go requires doing something different and doing it with excellence because we serve an excellent and authentic God—that’s a challenge.”
Making physical changes definitely helps some (i.e. updates to the facilities that include fresh paint, updated furniture, and other things to invite people in), but you also have to help the current congregation accept the challenge to move in a different direction. “You have to change the mentality of how they view evangelism, outreach, ministry, everything,” added Liz.
How They’re Working to Achieve Excellence
Avenue Church is getting there. In the past three years, they’ve seen tremendous growth in attendance. Just since Easter of 2021, they’ve gained 100 additional attendees and continue to see new people coming every month. Nate and Liz are thrilled to see this continued growth, and they continue to be amazed that, while they haven’t achieved the level of excellence they desire to be at, the Spirit is moving in their church and blessing them with people who are generous with both their time and finances.
How did they go about achieving this? It’s definitely a process filled with a number of different factors.
Determine Who You Want to Attend Your Church
Their target attendee is a 35-year-old male. Yes, that’s right, male. If they can get the man of the house in the doors of the church, it’s more likely the rest of the family will follow. This means that everything about the church building, ministries and services offered needs to be attractive to that target male. If things are overly feminine, he’s likely not going to stay. However, if it’s not welcoming enough, neither he nor his wife or family will want to come back. There’s a fine balance.
Getting Out of the Comfort Zone
Additionally, they see the landscape of church changing. “We don’t see megachurches lasting because, in general, the Church is healthier when you are smaller and focused on multiplying or reproducing churches,” Nate shared. “We think that’s the Church moving forward, which means pastors have to think differently than just focusing on teaching. The tech world and social media are so important now.” People are looking for something different than what the traditional church has offered.
Building the Right Teams
Finding the right people to fill the roles in the church that they can’t do by themselves has been crucial. “We have to get our teams trained to learn how to do what needs to be done, and then get them training others in the church,” said Nate. Pastors can’t (and shouldn’t) do it all, but sometimes finances only allow for a few paid staff positions. That’s when it’s vital to find volunteers who are willing to learn how to do the rest of the things that keep the ministries going. Pour into them and see how things grow from there.
“Sometimes I feel unseen in this little pocket of our space in Ontario, OH,” says Liz. “I think, Lord, you’ve given us this dream, but I don’t know how to get there. Then, suddenly there are people He starts bringing here to help bring that to fulfillment. That makes me feel seen by God.”
Changing that Congregational Mindset
As mentioned previously, they’ve had to work to change the mindset of the people in Avenue Church to see that people do want something different in a church now. Part of that starts with understanding that the front door of the church is online now. They’ve tried to help the congregation understand how important it is to have a good website and live stream so visitors aren’t turned away.
It’s All About Being Authentic
Along with that challenge, there’s an additional challenge of being authentic both on and off screen. Liz shared, “The number one thing in creating a place for new people to want to come in and stay is that you can’t fake it to make it. You have to be 100% real in your faith in Christ. God has a reason that he brings each person here, and we want to walk along with each one to find that reason.” And the best way to do that is by being real with them up front.
Before starting at Avenue, Nate and Liz had worked in two separate megachurches. What bothered them the most was that leadership wasn’t as concerned about what was happening in the lives of the attendees as much as they were focused on how many people were attending. “That broke our hearts,” said Nate, “because we had said that if we ever were blessed to lead a church of our own, we wanted to lead with authenticity.”
Learning from Others
Another step they’ve done to continue growing their ministry is attending conferences that give them fresh ideas and perspectives on how others are doing church. These perspectives then can inspire them in ways to bring vitality to their own church body.
Recently, they attended the Exponential Conference in Chicago with the rest of their staff and some key volunteers. Each person went with the goal of seeing everything through the lens of Avenue Church, which is all about building relationships. They knew they would see an amazing, large church, but they also knew that’s not the goal of their church.
Liz encouraged the entire team to see how this church did things, listen to the speakers, and experience the worship with the goal of seeing how they could be inspired to improve things at Avenue. As a result, they were blessed to be given advice on how to maintain the priorities for their families as well as for the church, plus they were given ideas on how to continue planning to multiply their church in ways that they might not have been blessed with if they’d just gone to be amazed.
Continuing Education for Practical Skills & Resources
When Nate learned about CFX, he was so excited to discover there was a conference where he could take his entire team to get the practical resources and education to do those things he never thought he’d have to do when he was in seminary. “Finding practical resources is vital because online researching sometimes doesn’t work. Sometimes what you find is 10 years old, and sometimes, there’s not much there to find.” He adds, “A lot of times when you go to conferences, they talk to you about the way you should be thinking and doing things, but no one is actually saying what’s worked and not worked for them. That’s helpful information.”
Keep the Focus on God
Ultimately, as they continue to bring about change through revitalizing Avenue Church and doing what they can to also help other churches in the area that are struggling, they keep their eyes on Jesus and follow after his leading. For the Hultzes, revitalization isn’t about winning people over to attend their church; instead, it’s about helping people build the spiritual foundations in their own lives that keep them grounded in God’s word when Life happens. And as they help to build that spiritual foundation, they seek to love people to help them feel seen and welcome and safe in a place where they can learn more about God.