Chad Fisher on Leading a Millennial Mega-Church
Hello, everyone. Today I’m happy to be chatting with Chad Fisher from Rock City Church in Columbus, Ohio. Rock City Church has been pegged as one of the fastest growing churches in the country for two years in a row, so obviously they’ve gotten some things figured out around those parts.
Chad was a young man who wanted to serve in ministry, but found that there was a real disconnect generationally in the church. Back then his church was basically the youth ministry and he had rarely spent any time in the rest of the church and its services. Chad asked God to use him to reach out to his generation and bring them back to the church, and also to help him break down the generational barriers in ministry. This lead Chad to a desire to plant a new church and he connected with others who helped and encouraged him. As a result, Rock City Church was planted in 2011 and has grown quickly ever since.
Engage young people while also pulling in older generations. // Chad believes that it’s harder for older churches to engage young people. Younger pastors and leaders have an advantage to drawing in young people and really reaching them, while also bringing in the older generations. One way to do this is to reach out to the older generations by asking for advice and using them as teachers and guides to the younger generations. This requires an intentional focus, as Chad says in today’s episode.
Using creativity and branding to reach the young. // Rock City Church recently did a survey asking young people what it is at the church that they believe reaches their generation the best. The most common responses had to do with creativity and branding—things that don’t seem very spiritual, but which can have the biggest impact. Young people are bombarded daily with graphics, videos, and music from companies marketing their brands. Churches can use these same techniques to reach out to young people because it’s something they can relate to and part of the world they know.
Simplicity and generosity. // The two things that Chad believes define Rock City Church and reach out to the younger generations best are simplicity and generosity. The message is simple. The worship experience is simple, without a lot of stage props and flash. The service is simple, focused on the message of Jesus Christ. Young people are looking for simple truths, a clear explanation of what it means to follow Jesus, and exactly what the Word of God says. On the subject of generosity, Rock City has a program called One For One, in which they set aside $1 in honor of each person that walks through the door. They then use that money to bless others. The heart of God is generous—He generously gave His Son to us to save us. Churches should demonstrate that generosity to others and model the heart of Christ through giving.
Too much disconnect. // Chad believes that a lot of churches lose people by having too many videos, announcements, and other things that disconnect or distract the audience from the simple message of Christ. Let the audience hear the Word of God and what it means, without too many distractions. Invite them to join ministry teams or life groups and they can then live the teachings of Jesus through their work.
Learn more about Rock City Church at their website www.RockCityChurch.tv or follow them on Twitter @RockCityChurch. You can also follow Chad on Twitter @CFisherOnline. Email the church at firstname.lastname@example.org or Chad at email@example.com.
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00:44 // Rich introduces Chad and welcomes him to the show.
01:14 // Chad gives us the history of Rock City Church.
04:58 // Chad explains why they decided to name the church Rock City.
07:08 // Chad talks about the difficulties some churches face engaging the younger generation.
09:17 // Chad talks about the advantages of multi-generational churches.
13:35 // Chad offers examples of approaches that resonate with millennials.
15:50 // Chad talks about how Rock City avoids disconnect with the church.
17:49 // Chad talks about generosity and Rock City’s One for One scheme.
21:50 // Chad talks about the impact on giving since launching the One for One scheme.
23:09 // Chad offers practical tips to pastors.
Helpful Tech Tools // Evernote, Lifechurch.tv, Hillsong Network, arcchurches.com
What does he do for fun // Family
Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. My name’s Rich the host around these parts and so glad that you’ve decided to tune in today. We know that you’ve got a lot going on at your church, there’s a lot of things, you’ve got a lot of time pressure in your world and we’re just thankful that you’ve taken some time out to listen in to today’s conversation. We’re hoping that today will be encouraging for you, provide you some good handles and maybe challenge you a little bit, to think a differently about your ministry.
Today it’s our honor to have Chad Fisher with us. Chad is from Columbus Ohio, he leads a church there called Rock City Church. This is one of the fastest growing churches in the country, a few years in a row it has been pegged as one of those, which just means they’ve figured a few things out and are wrestling with some of the right questions and God seems to be blessing their ministry. So I’m super excited to had Chad on the show today, welcome.
Chad – Thank you, thank you, glad to be here.
Rich – That’s great. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Rock City, how did you get started? Give us that story.
Chad – Yeah you know, I think a lot of what we’re going to talk about really comes from our story in the beginnings. I was a 20 something that wanted to serve in ministry but I was finding there was a real disconnect generationally. My church was essentially… as a 20 year old my church was the youth ministry, I was a youth leader and over the course of probably a three year stint in youth ministry as a volunteer, I could probably count on one hand, in the three years, the number of times I attended that church on a Sunday morning, there was just a wide disconnect.
So early on I was serving in ministry and really asking the Lord God, “What do you want to do through me and how can you use me to make a difference?” On one hand it was, “How can you use me to make a difference in my generation?” because I was seeing a ton of my Christian friends that I grew up with and went to Christian school with falling away. Most of them, probably 80% of my Christian friends that I grew up with are no longer walking with Jesus today.
So one was, “How can you use me to make a difference in their life?” Then the second thing was, you know, how can we start to break down the generational barriers that exist in ministry instead of being so compartmentalized where we have our kids’ ministry, our junior high, high school, college and young adults and then finally like the big people church? There’s very little interplay between the age groups.
So ours was just a real desire to make a difference for Christ but also I think in me it was a desire to have elders mentoring me that I could not find. It was to be the church as one that I think Jesus sees in the church.
Rich – Absolutely.
Chad – I just wasn’t finding that. So early on it felt like the Lord was leading us to plant a church. I had no idea what that looked like and what that meant as an early 20 something, so we sat on it for years. I ended up serving fulltime in a church as a youth pastor and a worship leader, I spent about five and a half years in that fulltime role. That didn’t end very well for me and for [Inaudible 00:03:21], so we became sort of like church orphans if you would.
Rich – Okay.
Chad – It was in that season, the in between, a real test of our faith that the Lord began to reawaken this desire to start a church and we felt like we were in a different place, a better place but also a more desperate place as well. The Lord just really connected us with the right people. We connected with the ARC Network, The Association of Related Churches. Another church in our city at the time, we were living in Toledo at the time and Cedar Creek Church out of Perrysburg Ohio…
Rich – They have a great church.
Chad – A great church, great leaders, they recognized something in us that we weren’t able to recognize at the time. So they just became friends to us, encouraged us and helped us realize the dream. We planted the church in 2011 and have not looked back year on year. I say that you can’t plan for growth, but you can be prepared for it and I think that’s been our strategy. You know we don’t have huge growth goals, we’re not trying to break records, we don’t so much plan for growth but we prepare for it. We want to make sure that we’re ready for the people that we expect God to send and we’re able to minister rightly and our staff is prepared, that financially we have the margin that we need to seize the opportunities as God brings them. It’s been a fun story and we’re four and a half years in now at Rock City and I’m loving every second of it.
Rich – Very cool. Now why Rock City for people that aren’t familiar, why that name? That’s a unique name.
Chad – Yeah I guess so, it didn’t seem too unique to us. You know, I guess part of our story was interesting in that we felt called to plant a church before we knew what city we would move to.
Rich – Okay.
Chad – So that’s interesting. So growing up in Ohio that seemed like license to us to pick the warmest coastal city that we could find.
Rich – Yeah.
Chad – So we felt called to start a church. We said, “Let’s move to Atlanta or let’s go to Ashville North Carolina or let’s go to Miami,” just some place warm, beautiful, coastal, just tropical whatever, you know tropical compared to Ohio.
Rich – Yes.
Chad – My wife and I were in a car driving to Atlanta and there’s a place called Rock City, it’s in Tennessee. It’s a little scenic view thing and actually it cost a little too much for us at the time to even go and see what the view looked like, but the sign said Sea Rock City and it just sort of clicked to us and our dream and desire was, “Lord put us in a city that we can really shake, that we can really make an impact, a difference in.” We were in Atlanta looking and praying and there seemed to be many churches shaking that city. Atlanta has a lot of churches, great churches.
Rich – Yes.
Chad – But we just didn’t feel like that was us and when the Lord eventually called us to Columbus we felt like there’s a lot of great churches in Columbus but this city, there was a feel that we could shake this city, we could rock this city. So really that’s where it came from, I’m not overly spiritual.
Rich – No that’s cool.
Chad – It’s kind of, yeah.
Rich – Cool, well let’s look back at part of what you said earlier. I appreciate what you were saying around, which to me I think for some people that are listening might seem like contradictory; at one point saying, “I don’t see a church that’s maybe being as effective as kind of reaching my generation,” and this idea of like 80% of your friends who were in the church turning away, but then at the same time saying, “I want to create a church that’s kind of multi-generational.” Those seem at odds with each other, tell me about that.
Chad – And I think they probably are at odds with each other in a lot of ways, particularly for older churches. I do think that it’s much harder for older churches to engage young people, it is very difficult. I think that there’s this whole new wave of church planning and it’s being led by a lot of young pastors and it’s not that older churches can’t engage young people, it’s just harder for them.
Rich – Right, right.
Chad – I think that we, as young pastors and through this amazing church plant movement that’s really happening right now across the nation, churches are popping up everywhere and they’re growing fast, they’re reaching lost people.
Rich – Yeah.
Chad – I think we as young people have a unique opportunity in this moment to be the ones to engage the elder generation. So it’s not that the elder generation isn’t trying to engage young people, it’s just very difficult when it works that way. I think that we need young pastors, young leaders to be wise enough to know that we don’t know all the answers, we’re not smart enough on our own, we don’t have the experience that the elder generation has. We’re just finding that it’s a unique opportunity for us, as young people, to not just surround ourselves with young people, but to be absolutely intentional about building into our teams people from elder generations that can speak into our lives, that bring wisdom experience and it doesn’t happen by accident.
Rich – Right.
Chad – It’s very, very much an intentional effort on our part. We talk about it a lot, we give examples a lot of people that we’re connecting to. You can see it on our staff, we all don’t look the same. We have one husband and wife that just joined our staff, they’re 67 and 62 years old, not something you might expect from one of the fastest growing churches in America, one of the youngest pastors in America leading a church like Rock City.
Rich – Yes.
Chad – But we love it. We love what he can bring, they’ve served in ministry 30 years.
Rich – That’s amazing.
Chad – So we’re learning a lot from them. I just think it takes a real intentional focus to do that.
Rich – Right, so why don’t you kind of unpack that a little bit, what would you say some of that intentionality your trying to bake into Rock City, around reaching millennials and this kind of multi-generational deal?
Chad – Well I think, no matter what church you are, I think that to reach young people, programming is almost everything right? So it amazing, we just sat down with a group of young interns, like young millennials to older millennials, but there are a lot of young millennials.
Rich – Right.
Chad – We said, “What do you see in Rock City, ways that we’re being successful at reaching millennials?” The one thing that came up in every category in every meeting was creativity and branding. Things that seem like the least spiritual, but it’s like that persona, it’s what we see in the world. We see very clear imagery, there’s clarity and communication when you look at the brands that are like running the world, but then you walk into a church and there’s nothing relatable, usually. So I think that a lot of the programming, the marketing, the graphics, the video, that side of ministry really matters to young people.
What we found out though is that when you make programming, shape your programming around reaching millennials, you are automatically going to reach their parents and their grandparents.
Rich – Interesting.
Chad – When you get a 25 or a 35 year old that walks through the doors of your church, maybe they grew up in the church but they have then left the church, it’s been 15, 20 years and that parent, that grandparent has been waiting for that kid for the last 10, 15, 20 years, can’t do anything to get them to step foot in a church but now they’re seeing, not only is my son going to church but he’s serving, he’s giving, he’s going on mission trips, he’s posting videos on Facebook, he’s wearing flat bills that have his church name on it.
Rich – Yes.
Chad – Like, when did that become cool?
Rich – Right.
Chad – Or to put your church on a shirt and wear it right? I don’t know when that became cool but it’s because God is doing something in their life. So the parents and grandparents see that, so they start to come. What they feel immediately when they walk through the door is when they look around, they’re not used to seeing so many young people in church and so there’s a barrier there. So the quicker you can break down that barrier, when you as a younger church see an older person walk through your doors, you better engage them within the first two minutes.
Rich – Right.
Chad – You better welcome them warmly, you better give them the grand tour, you better treat them like they’re royalty. Why? Because you need them.
Rich – Right.
Chad – The church can’t be healthy if we’re not a church of all ages.
Rich – So true.
Chad – So it takes intentionality in our part and I think for older churches the challenge is going to be staffing younger, empowering and engaging the younger generations and of course that’s going to be easier for me to say than do because we’re a young church, but 20 years from now, we’ll be faced with that.
Rich – Right.
Chad – Are we staffing younger? Are we surrounding ourselves with creatives that are doing things that don’t make sense to us but they know that they make sense to their generation? So we’re intentional. Our board is very diverse age wise. Our staff, like I said, we’ve just had a 67 year old, a pastor of 30 years join our staff. We love that, it says a lot to the 20 somethings on our staff as well that, you know what, we all don’t have to look good in a flat bill.
Rich – Right.
Chad – We are and we don’t want the 67 year old with a 45 year old and a 55 year old to feel like you’ve got to be in skinny jeans and wear Air Jordan’s to do ministry. You come as you are, you look who you are, you should be who you are and young people are going to respect you and you’re going to have an opportunity, not only to learn from the young people but the young people are going to have a great opportunity to learn from you.
Rich – Absolutely, I think there’s a lot of pastors that are listening in, they would say, “Gosh I feel like the millennial generation, we’re not doing a good job,” and sometimes they can try those kinds of superficial approaches like, “I’ll cut my hair shorter, I’ll grow a beard and I’ll put on skinny jeans,” and that doesn’t resonate. What would you say, or maybe more deeper philosophical kind of approaches to ministry that you feel like are resonating well with millennials? Are there any of those that go beyond kind of the surface?
Chad – I think simplicity and generosity.
Rich – Okay tell me about that.
Chad – Those are the two things that really define our church. So simplicity, the messaging is simple, the worship experiences are simple. We don’t use a lot of like… we don’t do stage props and use a ton of message illustrations and we don’t stack our services with a bunch of announcements and try to fill it up with as much as we can fill it up. We start with worship, we say, “Come on let’s stand and worship,” so we start with worship. We might have a bumper video, mostly we have a bumper video that might be a minute or two that will lead the way from worship into the message. The message is about Jesus, it’s the straight gospel, it’s not a watered down version of the gospel. The gospel is simple, the gospel is life changing, the gospel is convicting, the gospel hurts sometimes when you hear it, but what young people are looking for is they’re looking for simple truths, they’re not looking for how to try to convince people to follow Jesus. What they want to know is what does it mean to follow Jesus, what does the Bible say?
Rich – What does it look like, yeah?
Chad – What does it look like? What does the Bible say about the cultural issues that we’re faced with? Don’t tiptoe, just give them Jesus, teach them the word of God. Then they’re going to have the opportunity to either say yes or no.
Rich – Right.
Chad – And because you’ve been honest and forthright and you do so in love and the message is simple and there’s not a bunch of frill and add ons, you know, you end the message, you give them one last time to respond to Jesus, maybe sing a worship song at the end and then, “Before you leave, hey three things we want you to know,” and that’s it. So very simple services, very simple programming.
Rich – A question for you. So I’m a 40 something guy, leading in a church that 10 years ago was really hip and I think we still are, I still think we do some cool things, but what would your challenge be? I think my sense is, some churches, we can over program, to use your language, there’s kind of the frill and the add on, what would be some of those things that you’ve seen as more typical in say a generation older programming that for your church if you like, “That’s just too much, we need to pull back from that.”
Chad – Oh man, feeling like you have to start with the song that people know.
Rich – Okay.
Chad – Like something from the top 40 radio or something.
Rich – Like Taylor Swift?
Chad – Right, nothing wrong with that.
Rich – Yes, I get that. I asked you, I asked you to give it to me, come on.
Chad – But it’s an example because I think when people come to church they just expect to hear something that is Christian right? I mean they’re in church so you don’t have to play something from outside of church.
Rich – Yes.
Chad – I think a lot of churches tend to just do way too many videos, way too many transitions. There’s way too much disconnect from our time of worship which should just jump in and then our time of hearing the word of God and being able to respond. It’s like we try to put so much into it that disconnect is everywhere.
So I just think simple. I think also programming, not programming but the way that the church functions. So we say, “If you walk through the doors of Rock City”, we say, “we want you to experience Jesus here in this worship experience, we want you to find a life group because we all need friends that are going to help us follow Jesus and we want you to serve on a ministry team.”
Rich – Right.
Chad – That is it. “As you’re experiencing Jesus, as you’re serving on a ministry team, as you’re engaging in a life group, guess what, you’re going to live out the heart of God, you’re going to learn what it means to be generous, you’re going to learn how to share your faith, you’re going to grow in your faith, you’re going to be challenged.” So we don’t have a bunch of programs, ministries.
Rich – Right, classes all of that stuff.
Chad – We just say, “Get in a life group, serve on a ministry team, bring your friends and family and unsafe coworkers and neighbors to church with you and let’s keep winning the people around us to Christ.” So just the ask is simple, the message is simple but it doesn’t mean shallow.
Rich – Absolutely, earlier you had mentioned generosity, that kind of stuck into me, that’s something that you really saw as a value, you want your church to be generous as well. Tell me a little bit about that.
Chad – Yeah generosity, it’s in our DNA and it is in the DNA of Christianity right? I mean God is generous, he gave his son, he didn’t have to, he did.
Rich – Right.
Chad – So everything we do as a church we’re looking at it as, “Okay, how are we reaching lost people and how are we modelling the heart of Christ?” And the heart of Christ means God and the heart of God is generous.
So one of the things we do to break down the barrier is people expect to walk through the doors of a church and they are asked for money. One of the things we let people see every Sunday is, “Just for being here, we’re making a donation in your honor.” So just for showing up through something we call, One for One, for every person who walks through our doors every week, and it doesn’t matter if you attend two services we’ll count you twice, every week we’re going to set aside $1 to meet a local or global need, we call it One for One. So if 2000 walk through the doors this weekend, we’ll give $2000 this week to a local organization or a global need. If 3000 people walk through the doors, $3000.
So it’s really cool and what we’ve found is, in the early days of our church, when it was just a few hundred, there were stories like, “Hey, through One for One we were able to bless a single mom with groceries and here’s a letter she wrote.” Obviously we don’t say who it is all the time but, “Here’s a letter. Here’s how just for being a part of this church, for showing up, we were able to bless this family.”
As our church has grown we’ll take an entire month, sometimes we’ll take two months and say, “For August and September, for every person who walks through our doors we’re going to take One for One and we’re going to give it to this,” and you’re talking about multiplying thousands of dollars that can meet practical needs.
Rich – That’s incredible.
Chad – A lot of church pastors they’ll say, “I don’t know how we can do this, how can we implement it?” The reality is when we implemented it we had no idea how it would affect our bottom line, we had no idea how we could afford it, we just decided to do it.
Rich – Right.
Chad – And realized that as we began to do it the giving increased, the generosity of the people increased.
We also don’t reward ‘yes’ with a gift. I mean we used to, but we thought why give something to them just for getting their information? Why not model for them what this church can do? So we say, “If you’re a first time guest, we so much value you and if you fill out a guest card, for every first time guest card we get this weekend we’re going to make a $5 donation in your honor to one of the most well-respected and known non-Christian organizations in our city, it’s called the Mid-Ohio Foodbank.”
The Mid-Ohio Foodbank is what’s stocking the shelves of almost every food pantry in Ohio. It’s not a Christian organization per se but they’re doing the ministry of Christ and people love that, it’s like, “Man, just for filling out a card, this card is worth $5,” and through our partnership with Mid-Ohio Foodbank they are able to provide $50 worth of groceries for every $5 donation because they’ve got partnerships with banks and they’ve got matching donors and they’ve got partnerships with Kroger and other places that are in the food market. So they’re able to take a $5 gift, put $50 worth of groceries on a person’s table.
If you’re a guest, are you not going to fill out a card if you know like, not only is this $5 but it’s going to provide $50 worth of food? It just lets people see what the church is all about and it lets people start to understand the power of the collective. Like when we collectively come together and make up our minds to do something significant to be generous to make a difference, together we can do more, serve more, reach more, give more than ever we could do on our own. So those are just little ways that we…
Rich – Fantastic, that’s great. I love that. I love what you’re doing there with first time kind of guest bribe for the lack of a better word.
Chad – Right.
Rich – Now did you see any kind of difference in response rates on any of that stuff? Obviously it’s a huge..?
Chad – Overwhelming.
Rich – Really?
Chad – Yeah, I mean it has been hard for us to figure out, we started that, I would say early Summer we started that and we went from probably 40 to 50 guest cards a week to 90 to 120. So it more than doubled. So the question for us is, are we just in this incredible season of growth, different from the last season, or is it the donation that we’re actually giving to someone else versus giving to you? I think it’s probably a little of both.
Rich – Yeah [Inaudible 00:22:21].
Chad – An overwhelming difference, we now look back.
Rich – That’s fantastic. I know in our church, I just want to affirm and people that are listening in who are saying, “We could never do anything like that, the One for One or what you’re doing on the first time guest stuff there.” I just want to affirm you to step out in that. We’ve seen that in our church and when we step out in generosity, whether it’s kind of mass mobilization stuff or doing reverse offerings or doing this kind of thing that we’re talking about there, our experience has been that the Lord meets us there financially and that has been incredible. I know there are some people that live in the fear of that.
This has been incredible, anything else? There’s a lot we could talk about, a lot we could dig in on. Chad is there anything else you’d like to say before we jump into the lightning round?
Chad – Can I just give a really practical tip to pastors?
Rich – Yes please do.
Chad – Okay, so when we were in the early stages, you know we had 200 or 300 people, so One for One cost us like $300, maybe it was $311 okay?
Rich – Right.
Chad – You’re not asking for giving but you can say, “Through One for One this week we were able to provide $311 in groceries.” Okay say it. Don’t ask for anyone to give a $311 check but they will, every time.
Rich – Right.
Chad – I mean it was amazing to us. If we said, “Hey this week we were able to provide $620 and whatever through One for One.” Someone would write a $620 check to cover it, people started adding dollars to their giving just because they didn’t want the church giving for them if they weren’t giving themselves. So it’s like, you don’t have to ask people, sometimes just let your lights shine before men so that they praise your father in heaven, they see your good deeds and they get excited about it. If you have that fear, and we did right? So just say, “This is what we were able to accomplish last week,” and someone’s going to approach you in the lobby and say, “Hey pastor I want to cover that.”
Rich – Right.
Chad – Or, “Hey pastor, I want to double that.”
Rich – Right, right.
Chad – Then you get to go to that single mom and say, “It’s not £200 in groceries it’s $400 because someone in the church has doubled it.” They wouldn’t have given that any other way.
Rich – Right.
Chad – So tell the stories because the stories are what challenge people and inspire people and you’ll be so amazed how God works in the hearts and in the minds of believers and they’re going to step up and cover that bill.