How David Emery and Harvard Avenue Christian Church Are Navigating Transformation
Being willing to adapt to reach new people, building trust, and seeing 25% growth in one year
By: Cory Edwards | Case Studies Church Branding Communications & Marketing Habits & Culture Ministry Branding
Meet David Emery
This transcript is edited for length and clarity. To hear the entire interview, see the video above.
Jason: Hi, this is Jason Bowman from ArtSpeak Creative, here with David Emery of Harvard Avenue Christian Church. David is a pastor who’s helped lead several Disciples of Christ congregations through times of transformation.
He believes church is “at its best when it’s externally focused and empowering disciples to be the Kingdom now.”
Most recently, he served 17 years as the lead pastor of Middletown Christian Church in Louisville, Ky. Now, he’s the lead pastor at Harvard Avenue Christian Church in Tulsa, Okla. They’re a church starting a movement to see 25,000 simple acts of compassion in their city.
Moving from attractional to intentional
Jason: Tell us about Harvard Avenue Christian Church. What’s their history, and how did you become part of the team?
David: Harvard Avenue Christian Church was started in 1959 here in Tulsa, and has had a long history here in the community. The church has been—I would describe them as attractional. But with regards to growth and discipleship, not intentional.
And so I wanted us to make a transition as a church to a transformational model. Something that was discipleship focused and had a stronger push to reaching the next generation in our community.
Leadership through “inspirational and aspirational” core values
Jason: Your first Sunday was Palm Sunday 2020—right at the beginning of the pandemic. Once you were able to get to know the people of the church, what did you think needed to be done to help them move forward?
David: A crisis [like the pandemic] is an opportunity. It comes with a cost in people, and it comes with sorrow and loss and sometimes even death. But in those moments, if we will focus on who God is calling us to be, new things become possible that were not possible before.
We spent a lot of time thinking about those core values, because they were gonna be the process of how we leaned into who we were being called to be.
And so early on in the pandemic, I was thinking, what is it that is going to be the thing that we use to describe in a very simple sentence who we’re gonna be?
I’m a runner. I was out running alongside the river and said, “If our church will just focus on living and loving like Jesus, pointing people to Jesus and helping them live and love like Jesus in their community, what a difference that would make.”
And so what are we as a church that helps our folks do that?
That’s where we came up with our core values. I think that understanding your core values is critical to your mission and your decision-making process. They need to be inspirational and aspirational at the same time.
Where ArtSpeak helped us was we had about eight buckets of them that were defined, but not clearly defined in a way that would speak to our community and our church. And so you guys helped us refine those, and that was super, super helpful.
I came with borrowed trust because of the committee that called me, but I’ve had to earn my trust with people on listening to folks. So part of that has just been relationship building, then celebrating our victories and our wins, and getting the church to focus on its core values and mission as opposed to just returning to what we were doing before.
How to Create Mission, Vision, and Core Values
How to Apply Mission, Vision, and Core Values
Wreck the roof
Jason: When our team first met you at our on-site, they heard you preach a message about Jesus healing the man let down through the roof in Luke 5. It was a call to action to your church. Could you summarize it?
David: A lot of churches like our church are stuck because they confuse their personal preferences with the gospel itself. And so every church I’ve served, we wanna welcome young people. And so the challenge is to help them realize that they have to be able to let go of personal preferences and what they love.
And so in that story, I talked about how Jesus wrecks the roof. And we gotta be willing to wreck some of the things that we love and care about in order to welcome people.
The challenge I left in that sermon was every one of us in this room is concerned about our kids because our kids are a step or two out of the church, which means our grandkids are even further out.
And the reality is that for many of us, our great-grandchildren, probably, unless we take some dramatic steps, will no longer identify as Christian.
And I said, “We all feel pain and sorrow about that. But the reality is, for many of us in this room, we’re still not willing to change the way we do church. We don’t care enough to change the way we do church to reach them.”
And I just set the mic down and walked off.
ArtSpeak’s partnership with Harvard Avenue Christian Church
Jason: ArtSpeak does consulting, branding, websites, and then ongoing creative support. Would just love to hear from you [about] your experience as the pastor with us coaching that team. What have you taken from that process? What’s it been like for you?
David: I get almost emotional even thinking about it. Because when you guys came and sat with us, you understood who we were because you listened and you paid attention, and you were able to see some things in us that maybe we didn’t see in ourselves, but also to confirm some things that we believe to be true.
And it was amazing to watch our team work with your team. When we got some of the first work back we said, “Man, they really do understand us—maybe even better than we understand ourselves at this moment.” And helping us put language to what we were feeling and what we were thinking.
You truly are passionate about helping the church reach people and to make the world a better place. And I know that you guys share a similar vision that we share. It’s not doctrinal. It’s about love and grace and unconditional love, just pointing people to Jesus and continuing to direct them to him.
After a year of 25% growth, what sustainable growth looks like
Jason: You had some great growth last year—I think from the numbers that you said about 25% growth. You have people who are young and old. And people who have been following Jesus for a while, and brand-new people investigating. Where do you see your church headed in this next year?
David: My natural habit is to move quickly and not build teams and build with charisma and just add growth, but it’s not sustainable. And so we’ve been working on building systems that are repeatable and can sustain growth.
We spent this last bit of time just sort of pouring into our staff, and you guys have been partnering with us and coaching our youth and children’s-ministry staff.
In this next season, it’s about continuing to get the flywheel turning and put the stuff in place that will help our church to be able to sustain growth and reach our community.
We’re doing a lot of what I call foundational work. We’re working on the website, on our discipleship process, and on our greeting and volunteer ministries. We have been focusing now on small groups.
And so we’re just working our plan. I don’t think it’s anything big and shiny out there. It’s just being who we’re being called to be.
How can ArtSpeak partner with you as you build toward the future?
When your church, nonprofit, or business faces a time of transition, it can be hard to find clarity, communicate it well, and then lead your entire team in the same direction.
ArtSpeak Creative offers a variety of services to help leaders rally their people so they can lead well.
- Consulting: On-site discovery and interviews, contagious-culture consultation, one-on-one coaching, and more.
- Branding: Strategic messaging and visuals so you communicate clearly who you are to those you’re called to reach.
- Web: Creating a website that acts as a tool to express your vision, capture hearts, and inspire people toward meaningful action.
- Creative: Few teams are equipped to keep up with the speed at which modern communication moves. But ArtSpeak’s creative team can integrate with your team so you can stay on brand and on message, whatever the platform.
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