How David Hawkins and Living The Word Church Are Reaching the People of East St. Louis

How David Hawkins and Living The Word Church Are Reaching the People of East St. Louis

Pastor David Hawkins and his congregation are building an intentionally healthy church in their community. Here’s how they’re making it work today.

By: Jason Bowman | Branding Church Branding Church Planting featured Ministry Branding

Growing a Healthy Church (Almost from Scratch)

Living The Word Church in Collinsville, Illinois, is managing to thrive during quarantine. (Watch the video above to hear the story directly from Pastor David Hawkins!)

They’re feeding the hungry in their community, which expands into troubled sections of East St. Louis. They’ve participated in literacy programs, sending volunteers to a local elementary school to read with children.

And they’ve even seen their online Bible studies fill up with two-thirds of their church body. They are the picture of a healthy and flourishing congregation. But that’s not how it began.

David Hawkins was uninterested in becoming a pastor. He said, “My dad was a pastor for 40-plus years. I saw the backside of pastoring — I saw the closet side of pastoring, so I ran as far away from that as possible.”

He was working on his undergraduate degree in business from the University of Missouri-Columbia, his calling “caught” him by surprise. His dad had passed away, and his father’s congregation of just twenty-four asked him to consider pastoring the church.

He traveled back and forth from college to his church on Sunday and finally decided to accept the pastorate. But things didn’t go the way he expected.

“That morning, everyone comes in, and we start our service, and I say, ‘You all asked me to pastor you, and I feel like this is what God has called me to do.’”

Twenty-two people got up immediately and left the service.

Despite this devastating blow, David continued forward “and from there began this journey of ministry, and what is my purpose, and what is my calling. And somehow God decided to give me the seat on the bus that gets the most bumps called pastoring.”

“God decided to give me the seat on the bus that gets the most bumps called pastoring.”

Creating a Healthy Church in East St. Louis

Pastor David’s new congregation started multiplying quickly. But in those early days, the pressure to impact East St. Louis with his fledgling church weighed heavily on David. With so much cultural emphasis on church growth, he felt pressure to grow his church to the level of influence and clout of the churches around him.

Amid the frenzy, however, he realized that no one was stopping to ask this question: “How are the people doing?”

“I realized that we could do all the ‘production’ well, but if the people aren’t well, or if they don’t see a model of healthiness, what have I really done?

“Healthy things grow. If you do the hard work of laying the foundation now, you can build any kind of house you want to.”

After reading a book titled Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero, David became utterly convinced that healthy churches are the product of their healthy leaders. 

“I think (healthiness is) the missing element of the church today… We often talk about being ‘faithful’ and ‘obedient’ and ‘just trusting God.’ But if I do that from an unhealthy place, I muddy the waters of the Kingdom.”

Moving Away from the “Shotgun Approach” to Messaging

When quarantine hit, Living The Word Church had grown to more than 600 people. They were making an impact and continuing the challenging work of remaining a healthy congregation. 

But by June of 2020, David knew he needed to institute some changes to help his church stay connected and activated in an era of online gatherings. He said he realized that “the internet church is going to be the predominant way we ‘feed’ our people.”

“The internet church is going to be the predominant way we ‘feed’ our people.”

“I needed help with messaging… We had a lot of good stuff, but we were using a ‘shotgun approach.’ Yeah, you’re going to hit something, but you’re going to hit a lot of other stuff, too.”

He hoped fresh branding would help keep the church’s online presence as exciting and connected as it felt when they met in person. But keeping his church connected wasn’t the only issue he faced. 

Living The Word was $1.2 million into a $3.3 million renovation project when the pandemic hit. The church had grown out of several previous meeting spaces, and they had purchased a new building — a former nightclub — to retrofit for the congregation.

But the building needed a lot of work before they could begin meeting in person. Pastor David set a goal to raise an additional $760,000 to make the building occupancy-ready by Spring 2021.

But when he first spoke with ArtSpeak senior strategist Jason Bowman, Jason said, “Before we do anything, we have to establish some intentional Strategic Messaging.”

Laying the Foundation with Strategic Messaging

The ArtSpeak branding team went to work on Strategic Messaging for Living The Word Church. After some research and an initial Discovery Call, we created their Messaging Blueprint and presented the entire document on a phone call.

David said, “The messaging process made me think of a three-letter word: A-H-A. ‘Aha!’ 

“What I learned from ArtSpeak was how to fine-tune a high-level vision into a message that has traction. Now I’m not just speaking from the clouds. I’m bringing our message to the ground.”

“Now I’m not just speaking from the clouds. I’m bringing our message to the ground.”

Fresh Vision Statement

Through this process, David approved a fresh vision statement that would inspire and motivate his congregation and leadership team after his previous statement had grown “stale.” He wanted to call people up higher by honing in on the specifics of what God had called them to.

From “Love God, Love Others, Serve the World” to “Find Healing, Restart Your Fire, Make A Difference.” He broke it down for us.

1. Find Healing

The message of healing is “huge for us. Post COVID-19, there’s going to be a need for people to find real, authentic healing … Soul-searching healing that can only be found in God.”

2. Restart Your Fire

“We really go after the person who has just fizzled out. They could be church displaced. They could love Jesus but just be done with church. We come for that crowd. We want them to know, ‘This is the church for you — healthy.’”

3. Make a Difference

“God called you to serve the world. You don’t need a title. You don’t need someone to give you a certification. Go do what God’s gifted you to do! 

“And so it has inspired our people.”

Leveraging Audience Personas

But the part of the Strategic Messaging process that has proven especially helpful to David as a leader has been the “audience personas.” Based on demographic research and the input of key decision-makers, personas make the audience more than a set of demographics — it makes them real.

Here’s a lightly edited version of Living The Word Church’s personas: 

“Ryan and Joanna are a Millennial couple who:

  • Hunger for a real church experience 
  • Have questions about faith that can be wrestled with and who want to know more
  • Want to be the answer to the pandemic of racism 

“Antonia is a young single mom who:

  • Has had a troubled past
  • Has struggled with substance abuse 
  • Has been in and out of abusive relationships
  • Knows there is something more than what her current life is

“William and Rosa are a Gen X couple who have three kids, and are:

  • Feel the nudge to say “yes” to Jesus as they approach big life milestones
  • Hungry for revival done miraculously and powerfully without all the hype
  • Want their children to get a feel for the wider world”

Pastor David says, “This is what ArtSpeak did for us: I lead off every meeting with those personas.” He uses the personas to determine ministry goals and budget, saying, “No funding can go to any ministry without meeting the objectives” of one of these three personas. “We are putting the bank on that.”

In the above video, ArtSpeak Senior Strategist Jason Bowman said to David, “I love how you’re building on your messaging. And I love how passionate you are about Find Healing, Restart Your Fire, Make a Difference. It’s not that those are magic catchphrases.

“The message lives in the win-win when it’s authentically you and it connects with those you’re called to reach. I love that now, after it’s finished, you’re building your leadership, church, and focus, around that target.”

>>Related Article: Why Your Church Needs Strategic Messaging

Building the Future on a Solid Foundation

Now, David sees positive momentum at Living The Word, and it starts at the top.

He said, “We were able to create life in our leaders — so go the leaders, so goes the church. And so our leaders got reignited in that process. And now they’re leading in with a newfound passion.”

His experience with the Strategic Messaging Blueprint for Living The Word taught him the importance of telling a story, so he partnered with ArtSpeak to tell their building campaign story.

He shared the resulting webpage and brochure with his congregation and some strategic partners in the community.

They raised $265,000 in a single month.

One of those strategic partnerships — The Crossing Church — resulted in a local news story that helped him share a message of hope and racial reconciliation with a broader audience the week of Easter.

“It helped us — a church that doesn’t really have the socio-economics to pull this off ourselves — gain support across the region and the nation. Our messaging helped us have a clear ask, a clear direction, and a clear story.”

“Our messaging helped us have a clear ask, a clear direction, and a clear story.”

>>RELATED ARTICLE: How to Create a Fundraising Brochure that Moves People to Give

Though their building is still unfinished, Living The Word Church held their inaugural meeting in their new building on Sunday, May 9, 2021.

Ready to Build the Future?

Pastor David Hawkins and Living The Word Church implemented their Messaging Blueprint to pinpoint their mission and go all-in on the people God has called them to reach.

And we even asked David what he would tell leaders uncertain about the investment in strategic messaging. He said:

“Do it today. It’s a good stewardship move to hone in on precise messaging. When you know what you’re here for and define that in measurable ways, I think that’s God saying, ‘Thank you for being good and faithful stewards.’ 

“I would tell any pastor that if you want to motivate your leaders and your church constituents, put a message in front of them that clarifies who you are and who you’ve been called to reach. It will give you purpose behind what you do and even provide opportunities to reach your goals.”

If you think you might need Strategic Messaging to meet your goals as an organization, we’d love to help. 

Fill out the form below for a free 30-minute consultation, and let’s start reaching people together.