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Registration is now open for the 2017 Reach Summit. The weekend in Grand Rapids (October 20-21, 2017) will offer workshops and speakers, plus the chance to worship and connect with growth-minded leaders, clergy and laity. The impact of the Reach Summit and network groups can be illustrated in a tale of two churches.

First, consider St. Paul United Methodist in Rochester: its new worship service in the gym is an unpredictable experience. “We’re trying to engage people with all their senses,” said Jonathan Reynolds, associate pastor at the United Methodist congregation. Lighting effects, sounds, videos — all fair game. Guests love it.  The “postmodern” service debuted in January in response to a projection that Rochester’s population would grow by about 5,000 over the next few years. “If we weren’t growing with the community, we were missing a huge opportunity,” he said, echoing the Great Commission and Reach’s mission: to equip churches to reach more people for Jesus.

To the west, Nashville UMC is celebrating a win, too. After taking part in a Reach Network group about systems, the rural church began implementing a new connection card. While the change sounds small, having a card has already proven successful in assimilating guests. One woman who recently started attending has already participated in two outreach events. “I think the connection card is the reason for that,” said Karen Kinney, pastor at Nashville and Vermontville United Methodist churches. The connection card is simply less intimidating.

The common denominator of these two churches’ stories — the influence of the Reach Summit and network groups — is fueling other meaningful changes in ministry across Michigan.

Speakers at the Reach Summit this year include Olu Brown, lead pastor of Impact Church in metro Atlanta, Ga., one of the fastest growing UMCs in the United States. Brown also authored Zero to 80: Innovative Ideas for Planting and Accelerating Church Growth and Leadership Directions from Moses: On the Way to a Promised Land. His multiethnic congregation stresses inclusivity and relevance to its community. Joining him will be Dawn Wright, chief operating pastor for Impact Church. Wright is also an associate minister at Greater Mount Carmel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

New this year will be a pre-conference intensive session on multiethnic churches. Speakers In-Yong Lee and Rodrigo Cruz kick off the event Friday morning before the Summit begins. Lee, pastor at Cokesbury UMC in Charlotte, N.C., will speak about her passion for creating and sustaining diverse ministries in the U.S. Cruz is the lead pastor of The Nett Church, a multi-ethnic church plant near Atlanta, Ga. The congregation exists to be “nations experiencing transformation together.”

Clergy who have attended the Reach Summit praise its power to ignite creative thinking in their churches. The summit attracts people with a passion for bearing more fruit in their ministries, said LuAnn Rourke, pastor at Bethany Church in Clio. The workshops and speakers “shows us opportunities we didn’t know were there.”

Network groups are a natural next-step after the Reach Summit. Throughout the following year, group members drill down into the details of topics introduced at the summit. “The summit fires people up,” Reynolds said. “The network groups equip and encourage and support you as you’re trying to continue the difficult work (of ministry).” Some groups bring in experts and nationally known speakers or teachers. Others meet in churches where ministries are thriving, so group members can ask questions and see processes in action. All provide access to the group leader and colleagues who are passionate about improving ministries to reach more people.

“It’s very practical,” Reynolds said. He was in Dirk Elliott’s new church group for one year, and now is in Gary Step and Ben Ingebretson’s group: New Services for New People.

Jackson First UMC Discipleship Pastor Tim Trommeter is in his second Reach network group. Since his participation, Jackson First has created a new hospitality team, redesigned its gathering area, and completely rethought its assimilation system and how it runs small groups, he said. The change “creates a whole new atmosphere.”  Jackson First — which has been creating disciples for Jesus since before Michigan was a state — has an aging congregation that worships in a “strictly traditional” sense.

Yet the changes inspired by Reach have attracted a younger generation. New small groups exist — for instance, one for runners, another for parents.“What I really like about Tom Arthur’s systems group is that it’s not a cookie cutter, ‘here’s how you do it’ (group),” he said. Instead, “‘Let’s talk about how your specific church culture, and how we can adapt it.’” For that reason laity are encouraged to participate in Reach groups with church leadership. Their attendance can make or break implementing a new system or service at the church. “(When) I went by myself, there wasn’t a good translation between the laity team and me,” Trommeter said. On the other hand, when the hospitality and small groups team leaders were there, they “brought the passion back. Everyone gets on the same page. Everyone gets revved up together.” Trommeter begins his new appointment in July as associate pastor at Redeemer UMC in DeWitt, and said all the leadership skills he’s learned here go with him.

There’s a personal value to joining a network group. Brian Kelley said he’s enjoyed having questions answered by others, especially as the needs of his youth group change. He’s in his second year of Bridget Nelson’s network group for reaching youth. For instance, he heard one youth leader share that she channels restless teens’ energy into meaningful work; the teens, not the adults alone, run the teens’ program on Sunday nights. Kelley said creative problem-solving happens more often in a group.

For Rourke, the value of being in Elliott’s Reach group has been the opportunity for “those slow-down moments,” where people can have conversations about site-specific ways to do ministry. “All that helps to shape me and expand.”  “A lot of my peers say, ‘I don’t have time to invest a whole day a month,” said Rourke, who will begin her new appointment at Port Huron First in July. But “God works in community. Investing a day (each) month has given me an incredible return.”