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Church's Move from Comfortable to Cultural Sees Success

When Woodlake Church (AG) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, moved from doing what was comfortable to meeting the changed needs of its neighborhood community, good things started to happen!

There’s no doubt about it. The one simple word that inspires almost unreasonable fear in many church bodies is the word “change.” Change is not comfortable, it’s unpredictable, and it implies sacrifice.

But what some churches are discovering, when “change” is placed in God’s hands, it moves from fear-inspiring to faith-inspiring!

When Pastor Jamie Austin was voted in as pastor of Woodlake Church (AG) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, seven years ago, he was charged with revitalizing the church. In a nutshell, change was needed.

“I was youth pastoring when I received the call from Woodlake,” Austin recalls. “When they first asked me, I told them no. I loved being a youth pastor and loved where I was ministering. Then they called me again and asked me to pray about, and I agreed.”

Laughing at the memory, Austin says that God started dealing with his and his wife’s heart, so they decided to at least meet with the church. “We decided to go to the interview and talk the church’s pulpit committee out of this — how wrong we were for this position,” Austin says. “We started talking about my experience as a youth pastor, the way I would want to do ministry, the many things I would change . . . , but instead of scaring them off, the more I talked, the more excited they got — everything we said, they wanted to hear!”

Within 24 hours of meeting with the pulpit committee, they were contacted to come as a candidate and hold a service at the church. The Austins accepted the invitation, but decided they would only accept an offer to lead the church if the vote was at least 90 percent for them . . . the final count exceeded 90 percent!

When Austin arrived as senior pastor, he quickly realized that the church was not only aging out (most 50 years old or older), but it was no longer impacting its neighborhood community. Many people who attended were driving in from outside of the area.

“We began lasering in on the needs in our community,” Austin says. “We have a lot of single family homes, children from broken and dysfunctional homes, homeless people, and a median age of 28 to 34 years old.” 

Austin kept his word to the church and instituted massive changes to music, dress, and programming — moves that might be considered by some as “catastrophic.” He reflects on how God had His hand on the church during this time of transition in becoming a church attuned to the culture of the community.

“We are now seeing salvations every week,” Austin says. “These are people who have had little or no knowledge of Christ, so we have quite a few new Christians who are just beginning their journey to spiritual maturity.”

With a good-natured laugh, he shares an example of how recently a new convert was enjoying worshipping God in the back of the church during an altar call — one hand lifted to God, while the other hand was waving a cigarette. “Most people loved it, though an usher let her know we had a place outside the sanctuary for her to finish her cigarette,” Austin says. “This is a good problem to have.”

Austin then makes a keen observation. “A lot of people are all about outreach and the Great Commission when you talk about it with them,” he says, “but it’s quite another thing when they find the ‘Great Commission’ sitting next to them on the pew.”

A few years after the Austins arrived, the church was already reaching capacity and parking was becoming a critical issue. The church owned a prime piece of land in nearby Bixby, Oklahoma, ideal for a new church building. The new location would be more similar to what it was like for Woodlake Church 25 years ago, when the church was in the suburbs rather than the way it is now — borderline inner city.

Sell the Tulsa location and return to the original vision of the church? Perhaps. But what would become of those the church was ministering to now?

God had a better idea — add a church . . . or two.

Instead of moving locations, the church decided to add a second campus in Bixby and send at least 300 people there. Austin would be lead pastor and the Bixby church would bring on a campus pastor. It was a great solution, but as the plans for the Bixby campus unfolded and construction began, God threw in something totally unexpected.

“An AG church in Glenpool had fallen on hard times and reached out to us for help,” Austin recalls. “We responded, but shortly after the pastor resigned.”

Woodlake Church had a dilemma on their hands. The Bixby campus was already underway and, as with any new construction, had considerable expenses. Now Glenpool was a church in distress and for it to recover would also require a significant investment of finances and people.

“But we just couldn’t get Glenpool off of our hearts,” Austin says. “So, we sat down with the board and key leaders, and ultimately Glenpool became our second campus on Easter 2014.”

The Bixby campus would have a soft launch in November of 2015, with a grand opening celebration in January 2016.

With three campuses and Austin doubling as the lead pastor and current campus pastor at the Bixby location, it would seem natural to expect that the three campuses would be very similar in their ministry approach. Not true. Aside from typically having a shared sermon via video, each campus has its own music ministry team, youth group, and other ministries that are focused on ministering to and reaching out to its unique neighborhood community.

Doug Young, campus pastor of Glenpool, explains that the three campuses are very different, ministering to different cultural mixes, and that taking the same approach to ministry at each campus would be ineffective. However, by Austin being the lead pastor, Young says that he has much more time to do what he was called to do — pastor — and as a result the vision Austin has placed before him, that of souls being saved, is being fulfilled.

“We’re getting plugged into our community, the schools, and we’re also now reaching out to the police department to see what ways we can serve them,” Young says. “If every healthy church would just take on one church that’s needing help and revitalize them, it would transform not only that church, but the neighborhood community it serves.”

However, Young quickly adds that taking on another campus/church is a decision that must be bathed in prayer and God directed.

Kendall Hatley, now the campus pastor of the Tulsa campus, says with some satisfaction that oftentimes at their campus “Sunday mornings smell like Saturday nights” as many in attendance are still in the process of making a decision for Christ or recently have come to Christ. But with a focus on outreach and discipleship once a decision is made, the church is seeing the lives of people of all ages transformed.

“When the Bixby campus opened, we were concerned that we might lose our youth group to the new campus, but instead it grew,” Hatley says. “What’s so amazing is that 90 percent of our youth don’t come from a traditional ‘Bible’ home — we pick them up, disciple, and even feed them.”

Perhaps even more amazing is that the only paid staff members at the Bixby and Glenpool locations are the campus pastors — the rest of the staff, from music to youth ministry, are volunteers. All three pastors, Austin, Young, and Hatley, have nothing but praise for the quality volunteers God has provided the church campuses.

“If people allow God to take control,” Hatley says, “it changes everything!”

And the proof? Although church leaders feel the strain at times, weekly attendance has gone from 700 to 800 when it was just the Tulsa campus to seeing a combined 1,100 to 1,200 in attendance every Sunday.

“If you would have said seven years ago that we would have three campuses across southern Tulsa, I would have laughed,” Austin says. “But God has blessed us with phenomenal leaders and volunteers and He’s made financial provision for His vision. In all honesty, we can’t, but God can — it’s all Him!”

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.