Thom Rainer's new challenge called Simple Church

The key may be as much about what you don't do as much as about what you do.


The problem:

Pastor Bob goes to a conference. He hears some great ideas and comes home with a notebook full of things and begins to implement them right away. Six months later, he goes to another conference and comes home with another notebook and begins to implement those ideas. This goes on for several years until they have programs stacked onto programs stacked onto programs. None of them are all that effective. The people are tired. The energy is diffused. There is no direction or progress. The church is going no where. People are busier than every, but there is little progress.

The solution, according to Thom Rainer's new book Simple Church is to get simple. It is to define one simple purpose statement (not a purpose statement and vision statement and mission statement and values statement), then, align everything under that purpose and ruthlessly eliminate everything that doesn't fit.

I see this all the time in my ministry. I come and cast a vision for hospitality ministry--giving Friday nights for Jesus. I explain that I have seen 90% of our visitors join who we have in our home. We did this a month ago and two couples were in my Sunday School class this last Sunday that we had in our home a month ago. We plan to do it again this Saturday night. I have seen it happen more times than I can count, if we can get them into our home, they join our church. Not every time, only about 90% of time.

The difference between growing churches and non-growing churches is not the number of visitors but whether the visitors stick around. Growing churches and non-growing churches have about the same number of visitors (calculated as a percentage of worship attendance). The difference is, in the growing churches, the visitors stick around. In the non-growing churches the visitors don't.

One of the best ways to get visitors to stick around is by having them into your home for an informal time time Diet Coke, coffee cake and card-playing.

After an hour or so of talking about this, I have most people convinced. But, here is what they are thinking, "Great idea. I am in. I am going to add that to my ministry arsenal. I am going to add that to doing Sunday morning, Sunday night, Discipleship Training, visitation, choir, Awana's, and servant evangelism. It is not going to happen. We need to get simple.

One example

Thom Rainer cites a number of examples of simple churches. Churches of all sizes, denominations and parts of the country. One great one was a church called Cross Church. Cross Church's simplicity is seen first in their one vision statement: Loving God, Loving people, Serving the world.

This vision statement corresponds with their strategy.

  • Loving God corresponds with their worship service. They seek to attract people to their worship service where they can be encouraged to love God.
  • Loving people corresponds with their small groups. This is the second step in the process. Steps are very important to simple churches. They do not run isolated, unrelated programs. They follow the advice of Andy Stanley, who pastors a quintessential Simple Church, "Think steps, not programs."
  • Loving the world corresponds with their ministry teams that engage people in ministry.

This is one way, but it is not the only way, and Thom Rainer gives a number of other examples. Let me invite you to think through what this process might look like.

Consider where outsiders first contact the church. Some examples could include:

Normally, the worship service is early in the process. It is usually the big front door.

You might consider a transition event to get people from the worship service to small groups. At Northpoint they call these "Living room environments." (The process is Foyer, Living room, Kitchen.)

Visitation is a historic example of a transition step between worship service and small group.

My recommendation is to do a hospitality event. Try a little experiment in your church for one month. See that every visitor gets an invitation to a home within ten days of their first visit to your church. Track how many of them join.

Think through ministry projects. I have been in a number of churches that encourage each small group or Sunday School class to do a ministry activity on a monthly or quarterly basis.

Think through the disciplines of discipleship. Is there a way we can measure how people are doing in terms of their daily quiet time? This used to be part of our record keeping system, though I don't know of a church that still does that.  Whatever gets measured gets done. We need some way of discerning whether people are just coming to meetings or are they spending time alone with God. One way might be to do some "spot checks" from time to time. That is, from time to time do a survey either in your groups or in the worship service of how people are doing in terms of their quiet time.

How do I get simple?

My one complaint about the book is that the authors did not spend enough time on the how to. I was looking for a long elaborate plan--maybe a hundred pages or more--on how to get simple. What I found was a very simple process in the last chapter. It is less than 20 pages. Surely getting simple cannot be that simple. ;-) Here are the steps:

#1: Design a simple process

Ask the questions: what are we trying to do, and how are we trying to do it. Think steps. Make sure the steps are logical and not too far apart. Begin with a blank piece of paper. Don't try to cram all your existing programming into this process. Talk it through with various groups in the church--lots of groups. Take your time. Design a simple process and keep it simple.

#2: Place your key programs along this process

Hopefully, much of what you are doing now will fit into the process. Choose one church-wide program for each phase of the process. Consider how preschoolers, children and youth are affected.

#3: Unite all ministries around the process

The more people are involved in the conversations about this, the better it will go. People are down on what they are not up on, as Rick Warren says it.

#4: Begin to eliminate things outside the process

OK, this is where the changes are REALLY felt. Everyone believes in a balanced budget, but no one wants their line item cut. Everyone agrees we need a simple process, but they don't want their program eliminated. Take your time. Use your best people skills. Explain, discuss, involve. If yours is an older, tradition-rich church, you may have to allow some exceptions for some time to come. But, keep some forward motion toward simplicity.


Thom Rainer has done extensive research demonstrating that simple churches are more effective than complicated churches. I have left out some of the details of that in this article for the sake of simplicity. I'd encourage you to buy the book and read it in its entirety. It is a good read.