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Five Smooth Stones

Keys to a Surprising Adventure

Cities on Hilltops grows out of a surprising transformation God is working in the life of Hilltop Urban Church in Wichita, Kansas.

In 2007, the pastors of Hilltop Urban Church in Wichita realized that the church had hit a wall. Senior pastor Dennis Hesselbarth who had come 20 years earlier, passionate about developing local leaders from the low-income Hilltop neighborhood, had not seen that dream realized. Most leadership roles were still filled by dedicated middle-class volunteers from outside the neighborhood. And many of those long-time faithful leaders were retiring or cutting back for health reasons. If these things didn’t change, the pastors realized, in ten years or less, Hilltop Urban Church (HUC) would be dead.

During 2007, through visiting a cell church in Seattle and attending a recovery group, God began to grow in Dennis a vision for transitioning Hilltop from being a traditional congregation-based church to becoming a church of small groups led mostly by neighborhood people.

Dennis began asking other urban ministry leaders two questions critical to Hilltop’s future:

  • Where are there low-income urban churches that excel in developing indigenous leaders?
  • How can low-income urban churches transition to a home-group-based structure?

Dennis was willing to fly anywhere to learn from churches with the best practices in these areas, but the answers he got to these two questions were discouraging. “You are doing as well as any other urban churches at leadership development,” he was told, and “Small-group-based church usually doesn’t work well in urban churches.” Still, Dennis was convinced that this was God’s vision for Hilltop.

In early 2008 the Hilltop staff asked church consultant Eddy Hall to partner with them in navigating this transition from being a traditional congregation-based church relying heavily on outside volunteers to lead ministries to becoming a network of missional communities led mostly by leaders from the neighborhood.

This “makeover” of Hilltop is being shaped by shifts in five core values--our “five smooth stones.”

          From Saul's Armor
Five smooth stones           
Recruiting leaders
Growing leaders

A year into the transition, Dennis noted that the church had made more progress in developing indigenous leaders in one year than it had in the previous 20 years combined.

  1. From institution to community

Most U.S. and Canadian churches are organized primarily as institutions--organizations that conduct worship services and operate programs. Most of the staff’s time and energy goes into “making Sunday happen.” Church leaders feel pressured to get all the tasks done. Success is measured mainly by how many people attend worship and participate in programs.

Scripture pictures the church as a community. The purpose of church is to nurture healthy relationships--with God, with one another, and with our neighbors. When we do church as community rather than institution, almost everything changes--what we make most important, what we expect our leaders to do, the kinds of leaders we choose, how we make disciples and train leaders, and how we measure success.

While every institution includes pockets of community, and every community includes elements of institution, there is a great difference between being an institution with pockets of community and being a community with elements of institution. Hilltop is making the journey from being a religious organization to being a spiritual community.

  1. From recruiting leaders to growing leaders

For twenty years, most of Hilltop’s leadership has come from staff members and dedicated volunteers from outside the Hilltop neighborhood. From the beginning, the goal has been to equip and empower local leaders, but until recently the church made little progress toward this goal.

At the heart of Hilltop’s makeover is an organic leadership development strategy designed for oral culture, one based on six intentional relationships rather than on reading, writing, and classrooms. This process also helps volunteers from outside the neighborhood unlearn their institutional model of doing church and learn more organic ways of being church.

  1. From complexity to simplicity

During the first year of Hilltop Urban Church’s makeover, several of the church’s largest and most visible programs ended. This was not due to a pastoral or board decision, but rather the natural result of no longer having called leaders available to lead the programs in their previous form. When the programs died, however, the leaders decided to not try to resurrect these programs that required complex organizational skills and depended heavily on volunteers from outside the church. Instead, energy was redirected into several small, organic ministry teams with neighborhood leaders taking on greater responsibility.

  1. From inviting to going

Instead of asking, “How can we get more people to come to church?” Hilltop is learning to ask, “How can we take the church to more people?” Like many urban churches, Hilltop has been known for its caring responses to practical needs--a free weekly community meal, a mobile medical clinic, a weekday children’s club, and a thrift store, to name a few. All these programs took place at the church, and people were invited. Today the church is shifting the focus of its compassion ministries to a network of missional communities called house churches. At Hilltop, house church is the primary setting for transformational discipleship, but it is also the base for doing mission together. At each house church gathering, group members answer the question, “Who is there in your world that needs support and encouragement this week, and how can we together respond with God’s love?” Groups do work projects, give money to a need, make an encouraging visit, or support the birth of a new ministry team. Hilltop’s long-term vision is for dozens of house churches throughout Wichita, each one engaged each week in mission together growing out of personal relationships. When a need is too big for one house church to handle, house churches can team up.

  1. From dependence to partnership

All its life, Hilltop has relied heavily on financial subsidies from its mother church and other outside donors. This dependence severely limits the church’s potential to grow and multiply. For the church to reproduce in other locations throughout the city using the old model would require similar large subsidies at each location. To remove these barriers to growth, Hilltop is moving toward low overhead approaches to staffing and facility use that will enable the church to become financially self-supporting and to multiply into new locations without ongoing subsidies.

While ending dependence on outside subsidies for basic operating expenses, Hilltop does not want to become isolated from suburban churches. Rather, Hilltop wants to develop healthy urban-suburban partnerships. Every church is called to care for people in need. Urban Christians can provide suburban Christians with opportunities to partner with them in meeting community needs in ways that build bridges and empower rather than being paternalistic and promoting dependency. Thoughtfully designed mission partnerships led by indigenous or bicultural leaders can offer suburban Christians opportunities to make a difference while also being stretched to grow.

Cities on Hilltops
Phone: (316) 440-3681