Simplify your strategy

reclaiming gloryA declining church of fewer than fifty people doesn’t need the same structure and ministries it had when it ran one hundred fifty to two hundred. A replanted church must become a focused church. That refocused, simplified church looks different in every context. You will need to determine what your church’s priorities look like as you strive to make disciples in your context.

Simplifying your church structure will have multiple benefits throughout the replanting process, but maybe the most important benefit is to give young families the needed margin to live the Christian life. That’s how ministry is done these days. Older generations expected to be busy at church. Younger families do not. They need space to live their faith outside of the church building. Simplifying your strategy and reducing the time members are expected to be in the church building gives them that space.

At Wornall Road, we asked people to participate in three ways: weekly, gospel-centered worship; weekly community groups; and a lifestyle built around serving. We didn’t expect people to do anything else. In fact, the only gathering at the church most weeks was the church worship service on Sundays. That gave our young families time to be involved in the community and to serve. Thom Rainer’s book Simple Church is an excellent resource to help you think through this process with your church family.

Many older, dying churches have complex and detailed organizational structures that make the decision-making process slow and unresponsive. Your church structure needs to facilitate kingdom growth, not prohibit it. Many churches experienced failures or conflict in the past and, in an effort to see that “that never happens again,” they put governance mechanisms in place to safeguard against missteps. Though perhaps well-intentioned, the result is often a governance system that slows down and deters missions/ministry activity rather than encouraging it. New churches can react quickly. They can saddle up in a hurry and move to the sound of the battle while dying churches argue over which saddles to use. You get the picture. Create a biblical model of church leadership that actually allows those selected to lead, to lead.

Mark Clifton, Reclaiming Glory: Creating a Gospel Legacy throughout North America (Nashville: B&H, 2016).

Marks of a dying church

reclaiming gloryIn the past decade, I have had the privilege of working with many churches through the process of “repenting and remembering” that I mentioned in the previous chapter. I have noticed some common themes in churches that desperately need the invigoration of new life. Many of them show the following characteristics.

They value the process of decision more than the outcome of decision.

Dying churches love to discuss, debate, define, and describe. They live for business meetings—even if few people attend them. In the absence of meaningful ministry through the church, they often spend their time meeting together to make oftentimes meaningless decisions. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that they simply don’t understand how to reach the community. They can’t comprehend how to begin to make real and significant change, but they can still meet and go through the motions of the things they have done for decades. They begin to find comfort and security in the well-known processes of church life. It seems that as long as they continue the processes, they are keeping the church alive. It must also be said that sometimes their insistence on maintaining highly structured processes reflects a lack of trust in each other or certainly a lack of trust in leadership. They want to make sure no one “oversteps” his authority. The lack of trust and need for tight control is but another sign of a dysfunctional church.

They value their own preferences over the needs of the unreached.

Dying churches tend to make their preferences paramount. Those preferences can include music, programs, preaching styles, uses of the building, resources shared with those outside the church compared to resources used for those within the church, and a host of other things. The point is this: Most members of the congregation focus on their own desires in these decisions instead of what would meet the needs of people who don’t know Jesus. They may passionately deny that they value their preferences over the needs of the lost, but here are a couple of tests.

Interview some unchurched people in the community. Ask them if: (a) they would prefer to sit in pews where they might have to crawl over someone who chose to sit on the aisle, or if they would prefer comfortable padded chairs with an appropriate “personal” space between them. Ask them: (b) if they would feel more at ease and comfortable if they were served coffee and allowed to drink it in the worship center. If the majority of the unchurched answered “yes” to A and B, how willing might the dying church be to pivot on a dime and make those changes? A church whose pursuit, with the heart of Christ, is the salvation of souls will thoughtfully and sacrificially consider the interests of others more valuable than the mere personal preferences of the establishment.

They have an inability to pass leadership to the next generation.

They may want young people in the congregation. They may complain endlessly about the lack of young people in the church, but they have no strategic plan in place to identify and place into positions of real and meaningful leadership young leaders, or worse yet, they tend to fight any attempt to put young people in charge of significant ministry efforts. If they do put a young person in a leadership position, the church micromanages him or criticizes him until he just leaves. Leaders will lead. If you don’t provide young leaders the opportunity to lead in your church, they will eventually go somewhere else where they can lead. You can’t attract and maintain young people if you don’t afford them the chance to lead.

They cease, often gradually, to be part of the fabric of their community.

Members of dying churches rarely live within walking distance of the church. They have typically long ago moved to other parts of town. What was once a community church has become a commuter church. Members drive to the church building, park their cars, walk inside, and conduct their programs then walk back outside, get back in their cars, and drive home. It matters little to most members that the church is even in that neighborhood. Most significantly, the church pays little attention to the needs of the community, and the community pays little attention to the ebbs and flows of the church. If the church closed tomorrow, it is likely that no one in the neighborhood would fear losing their quality of life or that the neighborhood would be negatively affected.

They grow dependent upon programs or personalities for growth or stability.

Declining churches reach for programs and personalities they believe will turn the church around without embracing the changes needed to become healthy again. And it’s hard to blame them for this predisposition since many past church-growth methodologies relied heavily on both. No doubt, as a dying church reflects on its heyday of growth, members recall a particular pastor or two who, by sheer force of personal charisma and leadership, moved the church to a new level. Or they recall a program or series of programs that once attracted all ages of people to become involved in the life of the church.

With that history in mind, dying churches often think that applying programs and hiring personalities will be easy fixes to their problems. They quickly discover that neither fixes anything. In fact, their desire for a “silver bullet” program or personality reinforces their belief that they don’t have to make major changes or repent of past mistakes or sacrifice their preferences for the needs of the unchurched, but they just have to add one more program or hire one more professional to fix the problem. In essence, they are still trying to use primarily attractional methods in a community that no longer responds to those methods. It is frustrating and confusing for a dying church to accept that what worked so well in the past may, in fact, be hastening its demise.

They tend to blame the community for a lack of response and, in time, grow resentful of the community for not responding as it once did.

Declining churches are often slow to believe the problem lies within. Instead of embracing Jesus’ call to transform their nearby community, they tend to believe they need protection from it. They may make attempts at community engagement. They may have a block party or give away food and clothing, but when no one attends Sunday school or morning worship as a result of these attempts, the church’s resentments are reinforced. “They will take our food, jump in our bounce house, eat our cotton candy, and we never see them again” is a refrain I have heard many times.

Dying churches often mistakenly assume the community is there for them. They see the community as the resource from which they can grow, when in fact they need to understand that the truth is just the opposite. The community is not there for the church; the church is there for the community. We don’t have block parties to get people from the community into our building; we have block parties to get the people in our building into the lives of the people in the community. The fact that the community doesn’t respond is ultimately seen by the dying church as a problem with the community, rather than a problem with the church.

Mark Clifton, Reclaiming Glory: Creating a Gospel Legacy throughout North America (Nashville: B&H, 2016).

Try Something (In Fact, Try Seven Things)

Josh HuntI have heard this verse all my life and, until recently, never really understood what it meant:

Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. Ecclesiastes 11:1–2 (ESV)

The new NIV probably over-translates and goes into interpretation. However, I think the interpretation is right:

Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return. Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land. Ecclesiastes 11:1–2 (NIV2011)

Warren Wiersbe agrees with this interpretation:

“Cast thy bread upon the waters” may be paraphrased, “Send out your grain in ships.” — Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied, “Be” Commentary Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 127.

It is verse 2 that I would like to draw your attention to: invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight. My paraphrase: try all kinds of stuff. Keep what works. Discard what doesn’t. If you keep on doing what you been doing, you will keep on getting what you been getting.

Most churches are plateaued or declining. If that is true of your church, try something different. Do something different. Do lots of things different.

Churches need to be research and development labs. We need to try all kinds of things—at least seven!

If you can read 20 questions, you can lead a Bible study group

must-discussOne of the best ways to lead a Bible study group is through a question and answer approach. It is at least as old as Socrates. We have 100 examples of Jesus—the Master Teacher—asking questions. Here are some examples of questions you can use to teach the Bible:

  1. How would you paraphrase this passage?
  2. How do alternative translations translate this verse?
  3. What does ________________ mean?
  4. What would you say is the big idea of this passage?
  5. What does this passage teach us about God?
  6. What does this passage teach us about ourselves?
  7. What does this passage teach us about Christian living?
  8. What does this passage teach us about… prayer… the devil… suffering… the church, etc. ?
  9. What is the application?
  10. What other verses speak to this idea?
  11. What are some stories from the Old Testament that illustrate this truth?
  12. Why have you known that was an example of ____________ (perseverance, etc.)?

If you would like more questions, check out my lessons at church plans at around $10 per teacher per year.

The big idea and the small group

big ideaThe Big Idea Increases the Likelihood of Application and Transformation

We believe that life change is most likely to occur within the context of community. Giving people a chance to sit in a circle with others on a similar spiritual journey and discuss the content of the previous weekend celebration service significantly increases the likelihood that they will actually apply the topic to their lives. Even the most dynamic and interactive celebration services tend to be primarily didactic: we talk, we sing, we dance, they listen, they watch. Small groups by nature are experiential and discussion oriented and, as a result, more likely to foster life change. In addition, because the topic of the discussion guide is tied directly to the topic of the weekend celebration service, every weekend our campus pastors and teaching team have a great opportunity to invite people to explore the topic further in a small group.

Small groups by nature are experiential and discussion oriented and, as a result, more likely to foster life change.

The Big Idea Diminishes People’s Fears of Leading a Small Group

One of the greatest challenges in launching new groups and keeping existing groups healthy and growing is identifying and recruiting potential small group leaders. We have found that the most common fears among potential small group leaders are the following:

“I don’t know enough about the Bible.”

“I don’t have enough time to be a good leader.”

“I’ve never thought of myself as a leader.”

The weekend prior to the launch of every Big Idea series, we publish a small group discussion guide with a small group lesson that parallels each week’s topic in that Big Idea series. Developing these discussion guides and making them available to our leaders significantly reduces their insecurities regarding leading. The Bible verses for discussion are included in the discussion guide, and the lessons require minimal preparation with helpful insights and directions for the leaders. (See the appendix for a link to a sample Big Idea small group discussion guide.)

The Big Idea Eliminates the Question, “What Do We Study Next?”

Small groups tend to become overly focused on the topic of their discussion, often at the expense of developing relationships and experiencing genuine biblical community. The relational small group experience can easily slip into more of a classroom teacher/student context. Anyone who has ever been part of a small group has spent more than a few sessions trying to answer the question, “What do we study next?” Recently I was told of a small group leader who spent hours researching possible topics for future study. On the evening he presented his ideas, someone in the group brought a new book he had been reading and in a matter of minutes hijacked the conversation. The leader’s research was forgotten, and the group was swayed by this persuasive member to “vote” for his suggestion. The group membermeant no harm, but who do you think knew more about what the group needed? And what are the chances that the leader will put so much time and effort into researching future topics? Sticking to the Big Idea minimizes this challenge and offers small groups an easy plan to follow when it comes to subject matter.

Small groups tend to become overly focused on the topic of their discussion, often at the expense of developing relationships and experiencing genuine biblical community.

The Big Idea Provides Another Avenue to Communicate Vision

Our small group directors collaborate with the leader of our teaching team to write the small group discussion guides. Since these directors are responsible for the overall health and direction of the small group ministry, they have a great opportunity to provide vision and direction for the small groups through the content of these guides. While we consistently communicate vision through our monthly Leadership Community gathering, weekend celebration services, e-communications, and so on, the content of these guides gives us one more vehicle through which to communicate to our leaders and small group members.

The Big Idea Increases the Quality of Small Group Experiences

Small groups are a risk! They are a low-control venture and by nature are a decentralized way to pastor and care for people. We want to do whatever we can to make our leaders as successful as possible. With the proliferation of small group discussion guides (both good and bad) and an array of other uncontrollable variables, the quality of any given small group experience will be uncertain. Even with a well-trained leader, a small group can easily be derailed by choosing content that is less than stimulating or by selecting a discussion guide that does not foster life-changing conversations. While many factors contribute to a great small group experience, writing our own curriculum or discussion guides increases the likelihood that each group will have an outstanding small group experience.

We have found the Big Idea to be very effective in helping our small groups to become places of real life change and transformation, not simply places where people can gather more and more information.

It’s too late for Adolf Stec of Chicago, but our hope is that his tragic life and death will serve as a constant reminder that people all aroundus are suffering from Information Isolation. They have access to loads of data with the touch of a finger, yet at the end of the day (or at the end of their lives), all of that data might ultimately do them no good at all. However, as a community of faith, we can help people combine that information with life-changing relationships in small groups, and they can experience true transformation.

We have found the Big Idea to be very effective in helping our small groups to become places of real life change and transformation, not simply places where people can gather more and more information.

Dave Ferguson, Jon Ferguson, and Eric Bramlett, The Big Idea: Focus the Message—Multiply the Impact (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).

What’s the big idea?

big ideaI was in a graduate class when I heard the Big Idea explained for the first time. The professor, Jim Pluddeman, challenged my classmates and me by saying that the Bible was written to be understood and applied. He said, “The effective teacher is like a person who takes a strong rope, ties one end around the big ideas of Scripture, ties the other end around the major themes of life, and then through the power of the Spirit struggles to pull the two together.” I was just beginning to understand that accomplishing the mission of Jesus would mean focusing on one Big Idea, not trying to juggle competing little ideas.

Jesus did not confuse people with a lot of little ideas. Instead, he presented one Big Idea with a clear call to action: “As Jesus wasbe accompanied by obedient action. We are implicitly telling our people that just because they hear the truth doesn’t mean they necessarily have to live it out. We are telling our people that what is really important is saying it and not doing it. walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him” (Matt. 4:18 – 20).

I can’t help but notice that Jesus didn’t say to Peter and Andrew, “Come, be Christians.” Here’s how Don Everts puts it in a terrific little book titled Jesus with Dirty Feet:

Jesus was not a Christian.

He never asked anyone to become a Christian, never built a steepled building, never drew up a theological treatise, never took an offering, never wore religious garments, never incorporated for tax purposes.

He simply called people to follow him.

That’s it.

That, despite its simplicity, is it.

He called people to follow him. . . .

It is never morethan Jesus’ call: “Follow me”

and a response: dropping familiar nets

and following, in faith, this sandaled Jewish man.

It is never more than that.

Two thousand years of words can do nothing to the simple, basic reality of Christianity:

Those first steps taken by those two brothers.

Peter and Andrew’s theologywas as pure as it gets:

Jesus said, “Follow me.” And we did.

When Jesus met someone for the first time, he challenged them with one Big Idea: “Follow me.” A Big Idea that was simple but not easy. If Peter and Andrew were asked, “What did Jesus teach you today?” there is no way they would respond like this: (Silence.) “Ummm . . .” (More silence.) “Ummm . . .” (Still more silence.) “Ummm . . .” And if they did, it would not be because they were confused and didn’t understand, but rather because they were stunned at the boldness and size of Jesus’ request. This Big Idea was very clear, and the call to action could not be misunderstood. The simplicity and clarity of that Big Idea, “Follow me,” was what catalyzed a movement of Christ followers into action. And these Christ followers knew what was expected of them and would do anything and everything, including trade their very lives, to accomplish the mission of Jesus.

What about “deeper teaching”? That is what the rich young ruler wanted. He came to Jesus and began to explain that he already knew the commandments — “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother” (Mark 10:19) — and that he had obeyed these commands since he was a boy. He wanted more. He wanted boy. He wanted more. He wanted a midweek service. He wanted graduate-level teaching. With clarity and simplicity, Jesus challenged him with one Big Idea when he said, “One thing you lack. . . . Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). The message was clear. It was a call to action. It was a Big Idea that was simple but not easy.

When Jesus met

someone for the first

time, he challenged

them with one Big Idea:

“Follow me.”

What would happen if we challenged people in the same way? What if we gave people one clear and simple Big Idea and asked them to put it into action? That is exactly what we have been attempting to do at Community Christian Church and the NewThing Network for the last several years. Every week, we give all of our people of every age and at every location one Big Idea and ask them to put it into action. The challenge is simple and clear — but never easy. That’s the Big Idea.

Dave Ferguson, Jon Ferguson, and Eric Bramlett, The Big Idea: Focus the Message—Multiply the Impact (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).

Only transformed people can live the John 10.10 life

catterpillarImagine a Canadian caterpillar chomping away on a plant in September. You whisper to this caterpillar, “You better get started. Winter is coming.”

“Where do I need to go?” responds the caterpillar.


How far is it?

3000 miles.

He doesn’t really understand how far Mexico is. He doesn’t understand 3000 miles. But he thinks to himself, “I am going to have to try really, really hard.”

3000 miles would be a long way for any animal to migrate, but for a caterpillar, it seems impossible. And, of course, it would be impossible except for one thing. God created a caterpillar with DNA that allows it to enter the tomb of a chrysalis for a few weeks and come out a butterfly. As a butterfly, it will just do what butterflies do. Every year, millions of butterflies make this 3000 trek to a place they have never seen. There secret is not trying really hard. Their secret is transformation.

This is precisely the word Paul uses when he says that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Do something–anything–different

Josh HuntWisdom from the wisest man who ever lived:

Plant your seed in the morning and keep busy all afternoon, for you don’t know if profit will come from one activity or another—or maybe both.  Ecclesiastes 11:6 (NLT)

Note the phrase, “you don’t know.” From a more straightforward translation:

In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.  Ecclesiastes 11:6 (ESV)

You don’t know what is going to happen if you try this or that. You don’t know what is going to happen if you cancel this or start that. You don’t know. You can’t know. So, try something—anything—different.

Try something different because you can know this. You can know what will happen if you don’t try something different. If you keep doing what you have been doing, you will keep getting what you have been getting. If you want more, do more. If you want different, do different.

You will reap what you sow:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.  Galatians 6:7 (NIV2011)

People often ask God to violate this principle when they pray. In essence, they pray, “Lord we are going to keep doing what we have been doing, but we are asking you to give us different results.” Never going to happen. If you keep doing what you have been doing…

You can’t plant corn and pray for beans and expect God to give you beans. If you plant beans, you will get beans, even if you pray for corn. God cannot be mocked. If you keep doing…

So, if you like what you are getting, keep doing what you are doing. If you don’t, do something-anything-different.

Revitalization just can’t be this simple!

who-moved-my-pulpit-3d“We’ve never done it that way before.”

“That doesn’t work at our church.”

“The people in the community won’t respond to us.”

The story is true. I have modified some elements to preserve the anonymity of the pastor, but this story is based on real facts, real numbers, and real people.

The issue is common. The church was inwardly focused. The solutions were lacking. Even more tragic than the dearth of solutions was a congregation that was apathetic, disillusioned, and distrusting.

The leadership of the church had a bold vision. The church of three hundred in worship attendance would invite to church three thousand unchurched in the community in three months. The vision was simply called “3 x 3 x 3.” Every church member was encouraged to invite at least ten people during those three months. They would report their invitations digitally, and the church website would keep track of the total.

But Pastor Greg sensed the apathy. The vision was bold, but the apathy was greater. And he began to hear the excuses articulated above. He knew this vision would fail if some change did not take place.

Greg told the congregation he wanted their permission to do something smaller as a trial run. It was his version of lowhanging fruit. He called it “Invite Your One.”

Instead of a massive invasion of the community, they would ask every member to invite at least one person to church on a specific Sunday. They would have about a four-week build-up time, where each member shared the name of the person they invited. The cumulative number of invitations would be posted on the website.

Friendly contests were suggested. For example, the adult small groups pastor challenged each group to have the greatest number invited.

On the initial Sunday of the build-up, the pastor, elders, and staff shared the names of their invited guests. There was a palpable excitement when Greg shared the name of his guest: the mayor of the city.

It was really a simple concept. Everyone invite at least one person for a specific worship service. For Greg and the leadership, Invite Your One was low-hanging fruit. The commitment expected of the members was low: invite one person to church.

The buy-in was much better than the massive 3 x 3 x 3. And though the leadership still had detractors, doubters, and discouragers, Invite Your One proved to be a great success.

The church’s worship attendance increased over 50 percent on that day, from 300 to 465. And though the number settled to around 360 in subsequent Sundays, average worship attendance was still up 20 percent.

Beyond the numerical growth, something even more importantly began to take place among the members. They experienced positive responses when they invited people. They previously believed the myth that no one would come to the services if they invited them.

The congregation was moving from an inward focus to an outward focus. Momentum was in place. Doubters had been convinced or sidelined. The church was now ready for more significant change.

Who Moved My Pulpit?: Leading Change in the Church by Thom S. Rainer

The Zig Zag Path

cropped-IMG_7016.jpgThe path to a growing church is a zig zag path.

The path to discipleship is a zig zag path.

The path of following God is a zig zag path. It is rarely without detours.

Look at Abraham, you will find a zig zag path.

Look at Moses, you will find a zig zag path.

Look at Joseph or Nehemiah or David or Paul. A zig zag path.

Co-founder and president of Logos Bible Software said:

It may not be possible to move directly to your goal, but you can make sure that every turn you make is in the direction of your goal. Imagine yourself moving down a sports field with the ball; there may be a defender on the straight line between you and the goal, and you may have to zig left or zag right. What you don’t want to do is run in the opposite direction or give up territory. Keep moving, and keep turning toward the goal. — Bob Pritchett, Start Next Now: How to Get the Life You’ve Always Wanted (Bellingham, WA: Kirkdale Press, 2015), 17.

Or consider this quote from Berkouwer

This life cannot be represented by an ascending line; it will always appear as a zig-zag line, indicating our falling and rising again. — G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Perseverance, Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 154–157.

As Swindoll said it, it is three steps forward, two steps back. Zig. Zag.


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