I walked in the darkened auditorium and saw Toby Slough pacing a sixteen-foot path on the stage. On two side screens, I saw close-ups of Toby. There was a blink and Toby disappeared from center stage—then I realized that the life-size Toby was an image projected on a screen.
As the Founding and Senior Pastor of Cross Timbers Community Church in Argyle, Texas, Toby Slough in just five years has seen the church go from birth to over 4,000 in weekly worship.
Part of the spiritual DNA of Cross Timbers is Toby infusing an alarming degree of authenticity into his sermons. He knows and talks about his strengths and weaknesses. Toby’s ability to talk about the needs and vacancies in his life can cause painful self-examination by a listener—leading to Christ-centered life change. God uses the sermons by Toby to bring the truth of the Bible into the lives of thousands of people each week. The “upside” is Toby’s approachability—he is “just” another guy who is wrestling with God in daily life.
Cross Timbers has expanded from one building to a church of “three campuses and seven services” (even as this case was being drafted, CT went to eight services). To accomplish this, they employ what multisite churches commonly call a video venue.
With the upside being Toby’s somewhat self-deprecating approachability, a potential downside is, “Can Toby be authentic when viewed on video?” Is there a human element that only comes when the speaker is “live?”
Toby’s Spiritual Pilgrimage—“I Still Struggle with Anxiety”
One of the fist things that one realizes on meeting Toby is his self-realism, his authenticity. Like Jacob in Genesis 32, he wrestles with God and can talk about his life story. Toby writes:
Life’s battles are inevitable. Living the Dream was born out of my personal, painful battle with panic and anxiety. This workbook offers no easy answers, no “eight simple steps to freedom.” However, it takes an honest look at timeless principles from the Word of God that have moved me and others toward real freedom and healing.
Toby describes his panic disorder:
For many years of my life, I battled a panic disorder. Though I was a husband, a father and a pastor, I struggled with severe anxiety. If you are not familiar with panic disorders, think back to the movie, What About Bob. Bob had a panic disorder. There’s a lot of “Bob” in me.
Allow me to use my favorite analogy to give you a better idea of what I am talking about: you’re driving down the road, just minding your own business and all of a sudden, red lights flash in the rearview mirror. Think about how you feel at the moment—the moment you see those red lights. What happens to you? Your heart starts beating faster, and before you know it, your hands start to shake a little. Your stomach creeps up in your throat as the officer comes up and asks for your driver’s license and insurance. Your head is swimming and maybe you are even short of breath. It does not matter what happens after he confronts you because the anxiety has already set in. You have panicked. Before you can even begin to pull away from the police car, you have to compose yourself for a moment to let the emotions settle.
That is what my life was like on a daily basis. The difference was that it didn’t take getting pulled over by the police for these feelings to attack. Once they showed up, they stayed for a long time. I could forget about even trying to compose myself because the panic took over completely. I know what it feels like to not sleep for seven … eight … nine days. I know what it feels like to be covered in shame and worthlessness because my life was out of control. I know what it feels like to have my digestive system in complete disarray! During the darkest moments of my life, as I was dealing with fullblown panic attacks, I lost seventeen pounds in thirteen days. It was funny. I was walking through the church where I was working, and guys were saying, “Man, you look good!” Have you been working out?” I wanted to say, “No, I’ve just been throwing up a lot.”
My condition was so severe that I firmly believed everything I held dear was going to be taken away. I thought I’d lose my wife, my kids and my ministry. Looking back, I see that those thoughts were totally unwarranted and irrational … but you see, that’s the disorder! There was no reason for me to believe bad things would happen, yet I still believed they would. Fear controlled my mind causing my emotions and body to react violently.
As I look back on these dark days, I know that God was with me because I see how He provided for me through my wife, Mika. He has empowered her to minister to me in awesome ways. Some of the sweetest moments of my life are the times when she would lay over me to pray and read scripture at three o’clock in the morning when I was sobbing uncontrollably.
Ironically, though, while Mika was a great source of comfort, she was also one of my greatest sources of stress. Yes, she was constantly there for me, but even with all of her compassion and love, she never really got what I was going through. I would use all the analogies I could think of to try to get her to understand, but she just didn’t get it! She would say things like, “Toby, just quit thinking about it!” Again, she was trying to be helpful, but judging by her response to me, she really did not understand. It was incredibly painful knowing that the one I loved the most had no frame of reference by which to grasp the enormity of my struggle.
As far as making it through my days at work, here was the drill: I would get in my car to drive to the church on a Sunday. On the way, I would pull over on the side of the road and throw up. Once I made it to church, I would lay my head down on my desk and sob. I would tell God that there was no way I could get up in front of a room full of people and preach. Then someone would knock on the door, and it would be time to go. Somehow I would walk out and stand and preach. To this day, I don’t know how I did it. It was a different kind of preaching—it was out of utter desperation. When I was done, I would go back to my office and lay my head back on my desk and begin to cry again. Mika would come in between the services to pray over me and give me a verse. Then I would go out and do it again. That happened for months! I wondered, “God, how in the world could you call me to ministry and yet allow me to face this battle?”
At the peak of my frustration, in my little house in Keller, Texas, about three o’clock in the morning, God and I made a deal. I said, “Lord, if you pull me out of this—if you will just let me sleep again, eat again, start to function again—I promise, I’ll tell the truth about the battle I faced, and I’ll do my best to help others who are fighting the same battle.” God didn’t deliver me overnight, but He did start me down an incredible road to freedom.
I remember walking into the counselor’s office for the first time. It was tough because, I am embarrassed to admit, I thought counseling was a great idea for everybody else but not for me. After a while, though, I got over this delusion because I knew I needed help—I really thought I was going crazy. I was convinced that the little guys in the white suits were going to come pick me up in a rubber truck and take me away (and at this point in the fight, that would have been fine with me!) Anything was better than where I was.
Even in print, there is a sharp sense of self-realism in Toby’s words. It is not sugar-coated or covered with the varnish of psychobabble. It is easy to see why thousands are drawn to his preaching.
Beginning a Church in a Bar
Toby and others felt a calling to start a church in Argyle, Texas. There were thirteen families that wanted to begin the work in this town of 1,800 people and one stoplight. Toby had been a pastor before. He describes the difference of taking an existing church versus starting a church as “then we knew what we were against and now we know what we stand for.”
The new church began to meet on Sunday nights in October 1999. “We took ninety days, until January (2000), to define who we wanted to evangelize, but we didn’t want to be reactive.” Simultaneously, they were looking for a place to meet. Toby comments:
We met a lady, an unusual lady, who ran Texas Lil’s Diamond Dude Ranch Bar, and she had a room at the back. It’s hard to beat being free and it was free. You had to walk through the bar to get to the room. 127 showed up on the first Sunday, 70 of those were well wishers and friends.
Their goal was to get out of the back room and into the big room of the bar. On Easter Sunday, 1,000 people showed up. Beginning in a bar set the spiritual DNA of the church:
You didn’t get churchy people coming to the bar. People used to say, “you guys are weird because you meet in the bar.” It didn’t bother the people that we were reaching. Most had been there the night before.
Toby wore jeans and it felt “anti-church.” He says, “we did stuff to freak church people out.” They didn’t want a bunch of “discontented church folks.” They wanted new believers. The meditation before communion might be a movie. They did non-religious “stuff,” such as secular music.
Their motto became: “a series of mid-course corrections.” Toby saw that everything was in flux and constantly changed. They hired a Music Pastor before other pastors, including before they hired a Children’s Pastor. They had only two people leading the church and its services, and their wives led the programs. Toby comments:
Every week we needed more workers. We were asking for volunteers every week. This was not your “easy seeker service.” We were unapologetic in asking for believers to do the work. I wish it was that way now …
Vision was and is a non-negotiable—you don’t have to like me, but you have to be loyal to the vision. We wore out early families, but many stayed. Two left because they got tired.
Our vision was and is to bring people to Christ in authentic community. Everything goes through that filter. That bus is leaving the station and you have to be on it. Every decision will have that in mind. Will some program better position us to reach people, to be authentic?
We are not a deep Bible teaching church. We are an anti “sit and soak place.” The answer to everything is not “throw a class at it.” We are tired of giving Christians an excuse to not serve because they are going to a class.
By month eight, the new church found that “moving each week is a huge drain.” The logistics and reality of rented facilities was a weekly struggle. So they built a miniature version of the bar and barn. Toby drew a sketch of the new barn facility on a napkin at Denny’s. It symbolized the spiritual DNA, replete with wood walls. “We are not very smart—a guy donated ten acres so we built the building near the utilities because we were so cheap, but it was a bad location on the property.” It looked so much like a barn that people would stop and ask to board their horses. After building it, weekly attendance jumped to 300 people.
More people came, and not just from Argyle, but from neighboring communities. They went from one service, to two, then three services. However, they had little money to build new buildings. One day, Toby shared that they needed $30,000 to build a balcony:
A guy walked up with a check for $30k after the service—crap, I should have asked for 70k! The only book I should write is what we have done wrong.
We were drinking out of a fire hose. There were phone calls, ministry, music sessions and sermon planning—all born out of necessity. We hired people for a season, great people for a church of 500 but not 5,000. One of our founding members was a sound guy who was perfect for a church of 500 in the bar. But, our needs changed as we became a church of 5,000. So, we had to let him go. The pain of it was when he said, “where’s your loyalty, I was with you from the beginning.”
Cross Timbers outgrew the barn and built a “bubble building.” Toby says, “We built the bubble because it was cheap. I saw it at Saddleback Church in California. We are in unincorporated Denton County, so no one could complain about it. The big sell was to get back to one service, but we went to two services in a month.”
From 2000 to 2005, Cross Timbers grew from seventeen families to 3,500 in worship each week.
“Supernatural Trust” in Jim Kuykendall
Cross Timbers was growing and problems were mounting. Toby felt increasing pressure to meet the needs of the staff. He also knew he wasn’t the right person to lead the staff. Toby says:
My life was one of disappointing people. I was being forced to manage it all. I didn’t have a lot of high capacity leaders. Who should I give leadership to?
I had known Jim Kuykendall for twenty years. I have a supernatural trust in Jim. I could hand him the keys and get out of the way.
He was the campus pastor of the largest multisite in the nation, Life Church in Edmond, Oklahoma. I want to get to multisite, yet I don’t know how to get there—and I don’t know that I want to pay the price to get there; there is a corporate reality to getting there which will be a challenge.
Toby’s first thought was to have Jim be a co-pastor, but left it to Jim to call himself an Associate Pastor or Co-Pastor. Jim took the title of Associate Pastor. Regardless of the tile, “everybody on staff reports to Jim.” Toby comments on Jim’s first year:
Jimmy didn’t get the DNA of Cross Timbers. He had to experience it for about a year. In month eleven, he finally got it. I put him in the wrong position for a year.
His only point of reference was where he came from and he talked about it too much. Emotionally I was done. I surrendered. I should have walked through more with him. I should have sat with him more in meetings. The major turn was in month eleven, then we got into multisite.
When some of the most influential people had a conflict, they wanted Toby to be there. However, he insisted that only Jim would be there and run the meeting.
Jim sees that God has blessed Toby with a gift to communicate and that it is up to other staff guys “to do the rest.” The stated goal for the other pastors is “we want pastors, they might teach some, but we want gifted pastors who have pastoral hearts.” Once a month all staff come together for a day of spiritual enrichment, to refuel and do no work. Jim may teach, then Toby gives vision.
They hired a few pastors from outside the church, such as the Pastor of Leadership Development. The focus, though, was to develop people in the body to be leaders, as pastors. “We probably did our last outside hire,” says Jim. “If we bring guys onto staff who have been on other church staffs, they have a very difficult time understanding our culture. We are not like many other churches; we are just who God called us to be.”
Jim hired an Executive Pastor for operational control of the church. This freed Jim’s schedule from having to deal as much with operations. He was able to focus with the campus pastors as the multi-church concept grew. There have been changes in the organizations. In August 2006, a major change was proposed since there was confusion because of the structure. By bringing in a Pastor of Leadership Development, the Executive Pastor and Leadership Pastor will be peers, reporting to Jim. Previously it was a fragmented system, “We don’t like hierarchy, but we had to do it for clarity.” Cross Timbers continues to grow. Jim adds, “With all our mistakes, it’s a good thing it’s God’s deal, otherwise I would be scared to death.” Staff sometime joke that CT means Changing Times, not Cross Timbers.
Jim and Toby have only one scheduled meeting each week for two hours, but “our offices are across the hall from each other, so we always talk.” They haven’t had huge relational issues between the two of them.
Jim is the stable rock. I am ‘half girl.’ I have the anxiety disorder and am emotional. Jim is the anchor. We complement one another. We go to ball games together. We talk together every day.
Jim can vehemently disagree with me. And, 98% of the time, he can change my mind. I feel zero threat from him and zero turf war. It’s almost like we are married.
My wife appreciates Jimmy. My best friend said to Jimmy, “Jim, thanks for giving me my friend back.” I can now go on vacation. I trust Jimmy’s judgment completely.
Toby recommends not adding more people to the leadership team. He feels that it stifles creativity because groups get too big. He likes keeping it small so people can challenge and question one another. He advised breaking the leadership into function and need; “let others lead the groups and you give advice.”
Struggles and 700 People Leave
Cross Timbers has had its share of struggles. They realized that the congregation was coming on Wednesday night, but “that was keeping greater things from happening.” They wanted church members to be in their homes, asking neighbors to come to a Bible study. They didn’t want the members to just invite neighbors to the church gathered. There was a feeling that Cross Timbers was asking members to do too much, spending too many hours at church.
Cross Timbers had a Wednesday service for believers. “Wednesday was ‘open your Bible and here it is’—Sunday is not like that. Sunday is more than just seekers, but both seekers and believers.
It was one thing to see the need to change Wednesday nights and another to make the change. Without considering the repercussions and the importance of timing, the decision was made to cancel Wednesday nights. That process caused 700 people to leave the church.
Toby says, “It was a great mistake in cancelling it before having the necessary infrastructure for more life-groups. We should have been farther along in the life groups. However, we later got seventy percent of the church signed up in life-groups and had seven weeks of curriculum. Then there was Thanksgiving and then Christmas. At which point we asked ourselves, “Now what are we going to do?” We didn’t have a team member to get ready for it. We had two people who were kind of doing it, but the budget didn’t allow for a fulltime staff person. So, we lost thirty percent of our people from life-groups.
Now was have forty percent and out goal is seventy percent. Thirty percent of our church comes to church once a month. If we had 100% in life-groups, then we would be a church of believers. We need 25% tire kickers to see if it is for them.” “In a perfect world all the ministry would happen in small groups. Sermon-based small groups is the key, with service. We have ten-week onramps. There is homework in the bulletin and sermon notes on the other side. The leaders then get a five minute CD each week and training twice a year.” The church now has four staff members devoted full time to developing the life-group leaders and groups.
Use of Video Venue
Toby quotes Larry Osborne as saying that church leaders like church bigger and the people like it smaller. Video venues are ways to have smaller worship spaces and still have the benefits of a larger church.
Cross Timbers spent close to a half a million dollars on cameras, projection equipment and an editing studio. This enables them to record two high definition signals.
- The first signal is for the large screens on stage left and right. This is a head and shoulders shot of Toby. The camera for this signal can pan to follow Toby as he speaks. The signal can also be cut to a Bible text, video or other image.
- The second signal is for the very large screen on center stage. The screen is sixteen feet wide and nine feet tall, projecting the speaker at just a little larger than life size. Because the screen touches the floor, it gives the appearance that the speaker is present in the room. Toby can pace on the sixteen foot width—the camera does not pan with him, it is static.
How realistic is the sixteen foot wide screen?
I walked in the darkened auditorium, and saw Toby Slough pacing a sixteen foot path on the stage. On two side screens, I saw a close up of Toby. So, I thought that Toby was live, practicing his message. Then, there was a blink and Toby disappeared from the stage—then I realized that it was a projected image on the screen.
High definition television was just gaining popularity in 2006, and high definition video projection was rare. So few people were accustomed to seeing such a sharp image at life size—startlingly realistic! It is the virtual pastor.
Toby has found that preaching to a camera is a challenge. The challenge is to not use words like “tonight”—although the video is recorded on Saturday night. A challenge is to ask a question of the audience and not make it appear that you are only addressing the live audience. Time is a challenge as well. With a tight schedule on Sunday mornings, there is no time for a rambling sermon that goes fifty percent overtime.
The schedule for most of calendar year 2006 was grueling on Toby. He agreed to preach at five services for the year. “What you become is the teacher and directional leader of the church. The campus guys are the pastors, not me.” His favorite is Sunday 8:30 a.m. in the gym and Saturday night at 5:30, because he gets to “see people.”
There are currently three preaching venues—Keller (an acquired church, see below), Argyle and Liberty. Argyle and Liberty are across a parking lot from each other.
A Sunday schedule is daunting:
5:30—Toby is live at the Keller campus. This service is recorded for all the video venues on Sunday. He comments, “I get one shot at 5:30 here on Saturday and give it my best, to give it to all the campuses. I worked harder on it but my teaching style is tested because the audience is not as alive.”
8:30—Toby is live at the Liberty campus, then he walks to the Argyle Campus (the “bubble” auditorium)
9:00—Video venue in Keller
9:30—Toby is live at the Argyle campus, then drives eighteen minutes to Keller. “I walk out of the car, someone holds the door, and I get on the stage and speak. I’m captured by it, energized by it. I don’t think about where am I. The driver knows where I am supposed to be.” He has no interaction with the people after this service.
10:15—Video venue at the Liberty campus
10:30—Toby is live at the Keller campus, then driven back to the Argyle campus (“bubble” auditorium) eighteen minutes. He has no interaction with the people at the 10:30 Keller service.
11:30—Toby is live at the Argyle campus. “Sometimes at 11:30 it is a mob scene, and freaks me out. There is a line of people who want to talk to me, and I am hurrying people along to get to the next person.” Preaching is the hardest at the 11:30 service, as he sometimes skips a part of the message.
11:40—Video venue at the Liberty campus
They have baptisms almost every Sunday. If the people share too long, Jim gets on the phone and tells the next live venue that Toby will be late. So they make plans to start late or add another worship song.
Cross Timbers has a goal to add a campus a year for the next five years. When this interview was conducted, the church had seven services—when the case study was edited, they had eight. They desire to never add a service that isn’t video.
The “Campus Pastor” is the leader of the campus. He does everything but teach. Toby is slowly turning away from doing weddings, doing only three weddings a year. Yet, Toby never turns down a funeral, although the campus pastors do many of them because they are at the hospitals with their members.
With the addition of the video venue and the Keller campus, attendance went from 3,500 to 4,500 in one year. Their hope was that there would be 5,000 in weekly worship by the fall of 2006.
Giving went up also. They set a target budget of $100,000 and received $108,000. More people are serving in the congregation. They see that the growth regenerates older members, as they want to be a part of something new and fresh.
Cross Timbers is targeting a Denton campus. It will be about eighteen miles away from the Argyle campus. They plan on it being video venue from the beginning and having a core of 200 people. As the leadership piece is the hardest piece of each campus, they are taking their top leadership to the campuses. Toby says, “We took our strongest leaders and sent them out—bringing in associates to train them and be with them.”
It is no wonder that in 2005, Outreach magazine cited Cross Timbers at the 94th fastest growing church in the United States. In 2006, the magazine published Cross Timbers as the 21st fastest growing church, hitting the number six slot among independent churches.
Let’s start with attendance. In October of 2005, Anchor church had 200 on a Sunday. After being acquired by Cross Timbers, weekly attendance rose to 900. An acquisition? What is that in the church world?
Toby explains the acquisition of Anchor, a non-denominational church. “Last October (2005), my phone rings. Now I knew the Senior Pastor at Anchor five years ago, and he asked if he could talk to me. The pastor said, ‘you probably know what this is about; I am not the leader to take Anchor to the next level. My church is in decline and I’m not the guy to lead it into the future. Would you consider letting us become a part of Cross Timbers.’”
Toby outlined that Cross Timbers doesn’t merge with other churches, that it would have to be an acquisition. Several churches have approached Cross Timbers about merging. For Toby, a merge is an incomplete union: “They want me to come teach, but keep all their own programs and people and Sunday School teachers. They want to keep this program or that, this staff guy or that one.” For Toby, a merge is two congregations joining their resources, but an acquisition is a genetic change.
For a campus to be successful, it must accept the spiritual DNA of Cross Timbers. The leaders must have the ability to change any program, any staff person and any leader. It must be “Cross Timbers through and through.” It was a quick transition. The discussion began in November and Cross Timbers “Keller Campus” opened on January 1 with 200 people. By June 11, the church had grown to 950 people.
The acquisition had challenges. Jim Kuykendall comments: “We committed that if we were going to open another campus, that it would be video. But 200 people were there, and we were taking away their name and pastor, so Toby made the commitment to teach live.” The Keller campus is fourteen miles from the Argyle campus, an 18 to 22 minute drive. Jim continued, “The multisite people say that is too close, they say thirty minutes—but it has worked. We will see more and more of this type of church acquisition.”
Toby has some intriguing comments about the growth of Cross Timbers, such as “we just fall into things.” He also says, “My life used to be one of disappointing people. I was being forced to manage it all and I didn’t have a lot of high capacity leaders. Who should I give leadership to?” He had the sagacity to bring Jim Kuykendall as his Associate, and focus on his strengths.
Toby is still very human. He says, “On Sunday at 2:00 pm—I go into a deep, dark depression. I am very aware of my body, the physical thing of this. I can’t do the sugar thing at 9:30, otherwise a really crash. I never go out to lunch. My wife goes out and gets something. We have lunch, read the paper. I can’t sleep on Sunday afternoons. I don’t get tired but depressed. I call Jim and he gives me the “you the man speech.” I come to work on Monday and make some plans. We have to have a production meeting on Mondays, my least creative day of the week! But, I feel it on Monday at noon—I am smoking tired.”
There are significant questions for the future:
- How will Toby deal with the existing and growing challenges of being pastor and “virtual pastor” to CT? The “upside” is Toby’s approachability, “just” another guy wrestling with God in daily life. Can his authentic style of preaching continue as “virtual pastor?” What would the signs of burn-out look like?
- CT has grown from one campus to three, and is considering going to five campuses, with ten to fifteen services. How will it work? Can the church and Toby handle the growth as they have in the past? What new paradigms will they need to explore?
- Is there a size limit for the “virtual church?” CT is effective on a regional level, but can it scale to a national level? If CT continues to grow, in ten years it could be a church of 50,000-100,000 people, with a budget of $1 million a week. What then?
View the photos and footnotes from the original PDF: Cross Timbers