Engaging and radical, one-time college basketball player Ed Young Jr. is on a fast break across America to get pastors and church staff to develop ministry game plans that will send folks out the doors after worship believing that God is their hero.
A national TV/radio pastor, author and trendsetter, Young’s passion is to reshape the methods of the America church.
The church Young founded in 1990 in Grapevine, Texas, has grown to about 20,000 members. A 2005 survey of 2,000 church leaders ranked his Fellowship Church No. 4 among the 50 Most Influential Churches in America.
“I had no idea 16 years ago that our church would turn out the way it did,” Young said Monday in Scottsdale in an interview between workshops in one of a dozen Creative Church Conferences he expects to lead this year in his mission to turn churches into the “most creative, innovative and alive place on the planet.”
Young, 45, author of “The Creative Leader,” has built a ministry cutting through the formality and stuffiness of the traditional church. With high technology, he has stitched together his huge congregation split across four sites in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
With stunts, stories, humor and surprises, the energetic and playful Young has strived to “relate to life and contemporary culture.”
Once the megachurch pastor was preaching while a rope was lowered to the stage. He grabbed it and was taken high above his audience, as he kept on preaching to make his point. During a three-week series on tithing, Young used piles of cantaloupes to illustrate wealth, cutting them open and making a mess to make a series of points. While doing baptisms in the church’s large pool, he arranged for a scuba diver to push a fake shark fin through the water to dramatize his message.
“One of the first things you need to do is create tension,” he told the 325 people attending the conference at Citichurch Scottsdale. Breaking the routine, taking risks and following a “change-conflictgrowth” formula lead members and their congregations to new levels of spiritual maturity, he said. “It’s the way you walk with the Lord,” he insisted.
In his fast-paced lectures, Young challenged pastors and church staffs with his own Ten Commandments for church operations. Among his commands were “Thou shalt cut the creative fat,” intentionally trimming music, preaching and programs so an appetite for more is created.
“Cancel things that don’t work,” he suggested. “You have to dismount a dead horse.”
Another: “Thou shalt not steal an idea without making it better.” He noted that pastors are forever exploring each others’ books, sermon series, ministries and programs for something to borrow. It’s OK to use it, he said, “but make it your own” by putting it through one’s own “creative colander.”
“When I imitate and copy a series, I had better make it better,” he said.
“Thou shalt always plan as a team,” he coaxed. “Together everyone adds more,” he said, noting that pastors are not the sole fountainhead of ideas for a congregation. The former Florida State University basketball player (1979-81) said he could preach interminably using basketball and fishing stories, “but my creative team says, ‘Ed, you talk about that too much.’ ”
“I love to rhyme on the dime yours and mine every time,” Young said, but “my team says, ‘Ed, you rhyme too much.’ ”
In the national survey on the most influential churches, Fellowship Church was outranked only by the storied Saddleback Church in California led by Pastor Rick Warren (author of “The Purpose-Driven Life”), Pastor Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and Northpoint Church in Georgia, led by Andy Stanley. Young finished just ahead of Joel Osteen (Lakewood Church in Houston) and ahead of such famous preachers as T.D. Jakes (No. 8), Ted Haggard (No 10), Robert Schuller (No. 14), Jerry Falwell (No. 28) and James Kennedy (No. 38). His own father’s church in Houston came in at 33.
“Dad and I have two of the 10 or 15 largest churches in America,” said Young.
“I kind of have a unique background in that I grew up in a Christian home, with my father as a pastor,” he said. “Due to sports, I was around a lot of people who were believers, but on the other hand, around a lot of people who had no idea about a personal relationship with the Lord.” In college, he took basketball teammates to church and observed what occurred, especially how the language used and the music sung left his companions cold. “I saw church through someone’s eyes that they really didn’t have a clue about what was going on,” he said.
Young vowed that any church he would start would be one “everyone can connect with no matter who they are, where they are or how close or how far way they are from God.” He called on church leaders to emulate the preaching of Jesus Christ, a master communicator to the masses who used vivid word pictures and stories.
Young told them to ask themselves three questions: “Are you structured for growth? Who are you really reaching? Where are you putting your money and resources?” Fellowship Church, he said, has found that about 52 percent of its members came without previous religious backgrounds, and “Dallas is the belt buckle of the Bible Belt!” With so many neophytes, he said, creativity and relevance are essential to hold them and start them on their faith journeys.
He credited much of the church’s dramatic growth to people inviting friends and “one person telling another person.”
Terry Crist, pastor of hosting Citichurch Scottsdale, described Young as the “model of leadership in the 21st century in that he is biblically based and culturally relevant.” Crist recalls joining 4,000 pastors at a Dallas conference where Young taught. “It was a lifechanging experience for me and our team,” he said.
Many churches strive to balance teaching biblical truths with connecting to the changing, fickle culture, he said, but often fail. “Ed is an incredible inspiration to a lot of young pastors who are looking to do church in a new way.”
Mike Burnidge, senior pastor of North Ridge Community Church in Cave Creek, said Young emphasizes how “God is the same, but the church evolves.” Burnidge, a pastor for 10 years, remembers that as a family therapist he tailored his work to each family as creatively as possible.
“What is unique about what Ed is offering is that it is really a mechanism to reach people at 10 different places in life . . . and bump them in their walk with God.”