Keys to a
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
- 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 |
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.
- 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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- From dependence
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.