Seven practices of effective ministry

seven_practices_of_effective_ministrySeven practices of effective ministry describes the philosophy of ministry at North Point Community Church in Atlanta. Andy Stanley, Lane Jones, and Reggie Joiner challenge their readers not to keep adding more and more programs before carefully evaluating the ones they already have. Churches have limited resources and they need to be allocated and used wisely. They have identified seven practices to assist in evaluating existing and proposed programs. These practices aren’t about telling churches what they should or shouldn’t do. They’re about equipping churches to ask helpful questions to determine what programs to start, what to improve, and what to stop.

#1 Clarify the win

Define what is important at every level of the organization

Clarifying the win means communicating to our team what is really important. This is essential to keep our team from guessing what a win looks like. We don’t want people following the loudest or most persuasive voice, simply because they haven’t been given clarity about what matters most. It doesn’t help if leaders are all defining the win to suit themselves. The church needs to be clear about what it’s doing, what is expected, and why. Clarifying the win helps your team stay on the same page. As the church grows it’s easy for things to get out of alignment. Effective leaders keep holding up a picture of what the church is supposed to be, and calling people back to this picture. This tends to build a positive momentum for ministry. It also helps us to use our limited resources wisely according to what is and what isn’t working.

There are four key steps to clarifying the win.

  1. Sum up the win in a simple phrase.
  2. Keep the win as specific as possible.
  3. Restate the win frequently and creatively.
  4. Meet to clarify the win at every level

#2 Think steps, not programs

Before you start anything, make sure it takes you where you need to go

Many churches adopt or design programs to meet the needs of members, but few develop clear steps to help move people where they want them to go.

  • A program is defined as ‘a system of services, opportunities, or projects, usually designed to meet a social need.’
  • A step is defined as ‘one of a series of actions, processes, or measures taken to achieve a goal.’

We need to ask ‘Where do we want people to be?’ and then ‘How are we going to get them there?’ These questions help us to focus on growing followers of Jesus. They get us thinking specifically about spiritual growth and the building of relationships in our churches.

Effective steps have three characteristics.

  1. Every step should be easy. If it’s too much of a jump, then people won’t move forward.
  2. Every step has to be obvious. People don’t like stepping into the unknown. They need to understand where to go next. Communicating the steps and their importance is essential.
  3. Every step must be strategic. It needs to lead somewhere. Once we know the specific destination that we want to lead people to, then the steps must clearly move them in that direction.

As we think more about steps and less about programs, synergy grows in our church and ministry teams. People are required to depend on each other, and the silo mentality becomes less of a problem. We’re more likely to see what’s not working and to work together to simplify our processes.

#3 Narrow the focus

Do fewer things in order to make a greater impact

A lot of churches are doing too much, but failing to reach more people. They have A.D.D. Over the years the number of programs grows and grows and effectiveness is diluted.

Here are four reasons churches drift into complexity, making it difficult to simplify their structures.

  1. Some churches have bought into a ministry ‘menu’ philosophy.
  2. Churches feel constant pressure to provide programs on the basis of needs.
  3. Individuals have been allowed to build their identity around a program, not a mission.
  4. Church leaders fear the fallout of eliminating certain programs.

The challenge is to simplify things. We need to learn to say ‘no’ to ideas and ministries that take away from our core focus. Sometimes things that are still working adequately need to be replaced by other things that will potentially work better. We need to design what we do to reach and connect with people effectively. As we narrow the focus of our ministries, relevance increases, people become better connected, quality improves as we try to do less things  better, and we have a stronger impact on our communities.

#4: Teach less for more

Say only what you need to say to the people who need to hear it

We all experience information overload. The danger is that our churches just add to the noise. We need to rethink what and how we communicate.

There are four steps to teaching less for more.

  1. Decide what you are going to say
  2. Decide to say one thing at a time
  3. Decide how you are going to say it
  4. Say it over and over again

These ideas are developed more fully in Communicating for a change.

#5: Listen to outsiders

Focus on who you’re trying to reach, not who you’re trying to keep

Some of us have been in church for so long, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to never attend. We have believed what we believe for so long, we don’t know how an unbeliever thinks anymore.  (p142)

Our churches should be on about helping believers grow and reaching unbelievers. The problem is it’s easier to look inside than outside. North Point Community Church developed a strategy to reach people in their community. They called it ‘Invest and Invite’. Every member is encouraged to make a personal investment in someone’s life and invite them to one of the church’s ministry environments. The responsibility of the church is to create the effective environments for their members to bring people.

This has led to members being more attuned to what an outsider would hear and experience when they come to church. They want to create a positive first impression of church and to make people feel at home. They’re keen for the teaching to be clear and understandable.

Billions of dollars are spent by organisations seeking to understand their market. Churches at least need to listen to the people who aren’t there. When we listen to outsiders, we begin to see our church in a whole new light.

#6: Replace yourself

Learn to hand off what you do

If you fail to develop a strategy to replace yourself, you will…

  • force talented individuals to remain in the wings
  • cause potential leaders to exit the organisation
  • stifle needed insight from valuable team members
  • hinder your ability to recruit volunteers
  • limit the growth of your programs and ministries  (p160)

Succession planning is important. We won’t be leaders forever. Now is the time to use our opportunities to influence and shape those who will come after us. Teaching what we know by apprenticing others helps the ongoing transition of people into leadership roles. If leaders set the example of investing in future leaders, this gets modelled through the church. Every area of ministry should be focused on building leaders for the future. This is critical to sustaining and building long term ministry.

Successfully handing off leadership requires three steps.

  1. Break it down into clear and doable steps
  2. Hand it off. You are giving something away. Many thoughts and emotions will be going on inside of you. Let the new person make their own mistakes and their own progress.
  3. Let it go. Move on. Trust the new guy!

#7: Work on it

Take time to evaluate your work and to celebrate your wins

Self-evaluation is an important practice that must be pursued intentionally. We need to examine what is working and what’s not. It’s not likely to happen effectively unless we build evaluation into our calendars on a regular basis. We need to stop, look back, and review. We need to step outside of our work and take a look at it.

They describe this as ‘creating margin’. It can happen on a weekly basis to evaluate regular activities. It can be done less regularly to review the bigger picture.

When we evaluate, we will discover areas that need improvement. This often means people get threatened when their areas are critiqued. It’s essential to build an environment of trust where we commit to these reviews for the sake of our common goals.

It’s also important to celebrate the successes. Saying thank you publicly is very powerful. Sharing stories builds energy and gratitude for what God is doing.

Review

This book is a helpful tool for assessing the organisational health of our churches. It pushes us to seek clarity and simplicity. It urges us to make a priority of encouraging people to grow in their knowledge and love of God, and to understand how they can serve God in this particular church context. 

My experience of church is that everyone tends to be busy. Busyness is not a virtue. We can be very busy doing nothing of value. Churches can be very busy, but unclear where they’re headed or why. This book is a call to identify what things really matter, what our churches must focus upon, and how we are going to do it. Then we can help people to serve God together.

If you feel that your church is chasing its tail and you’re not quite sure why you’re doing what you’re doing, then this book should help you to ask some good questions.

I found the emphasis on steps rather than programs to be particularly useful. Instead of being content with a smorgasbord of unrelated ministries, it’s more important to be clear and intentional on how one thing relates to another. This encourages us to think about where we want people to end up. How do we want people to grow and change? What will assist this to happen? What do we hope for children over the seven years they might spend in Kingdom Kids (Sunday School)? How do we help people find their way into the life of our church, join a growth group, serve in a ministry team? It helps us to build pathways and show the way ahead. We’ve more work to do on this front – but it is happening!

Communicating for a change

communicating_for_a_changeCommunicating for a Change by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones is both a joy and disturbing to read. It’s a joy because it’s so engaging and well written. It’s disturbing because it asks serious questions about how well our sermons are communicating with people and what difference they’re making to people’s lives. The book is written in two parts with very distinct styles. It begins with the story of a truck driver training a preacher in how to communicate sermons that make a real impact! This section is both humorous and persuasive. The second half shows the imperatives for good preaching being worked out in practice. This is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak!

Stanley’s philosophy of preaching is this:

Every time I stand to communicate I want to take one simple truth and lodge it in the heart of the listener. I want them to know that one thing and to know what to do with it.  (p12)

He’s critical of approaches to preaching that try to say too much and end up not saying anything clearly at all. Whereas a typical sermon might have three or four different points, an intro and a conclusion, his approach is to keep it to one point. Make your one point, make it clearly, apply it well! This may sound too simplistic. What if the passage of Scripture has three or four separate points? Then, he would say, we have sufficient material for a series rather than a sermon. I seem to remember a certain J. Chapman saying something like this! If the preacher can’t find the one major point of the text, then he has more work to do until the one big idea is clear.

Having one big idea does not constrain you to simple five minute, one point, messages. Presumably, the text of Scripture develops a flow of logic to arrive at the big idea. If so, then this will usually offer the best structure for your message. Follow the flow. You may discover three or four sub points, but they won’t be separate and unrelated ideas. Rather, they will develop the argument to arrive at the one big idea.

Stanley suggests that we see a sermon as a journey:

I’ve always thought of a sermon, or any talk for that matter, as a journey. You start somewhere, you go somewhere, and ultimately you end up somewhere. The question is, did you end up where you wanted to go?  (p38)

With this image in mind, a sermon outline should be like a map. It guides us on the journey to the big idea. We go from here, to there, to our destination. This is the sermon journey. By contrast, some sermons simply put marks on the map and then talk about the different places. They don’t show us the best routes between places or how to get where we need to go.

As a preacher it is humbling to think about how few of my sermons might actually get remembered long after they are given. Most likely, very few. If I was asked what were the four points in my message on Sunday, I might struggle to remember every one (let alone a twelve point sermon I gave once!) But one point, taking things deeper rather than wider, should be different.

Stanley distils seven imperatives from his story that he applies to preaching. And I think he’s made his point, because I can’t remember them all without looking back at the book! His points are as follows:

Determine your goal: What are you trying to accomplish?

If you don’t know what you are trying to do with your preaching then you won’t know if you’ve achieved it. I agree with Stanley that our goal should be much more than imparting information from the Bible. I’d argue that we are seeking to apply the gospel-shaped Word of God to people’s lives, for the purpose of God transforming their lives. This is something we ought to be passionate about. People’s lives hang in the balance. This isn’t take it or leave it theological education.

Pick a point: What are you trying to say?

The point might be an application, an insight, or a principle. We need to find the central idea that holds everything together. This will lead the preacher to address two questions: (i) What is the one thing I want my congregation to know? (ii) What do I want them to do about it? Stanley calls us to work hard in our preparation, digging around until we discover this central idea, building everything around it, and then making it stick. This will mean omitting material and shaping what’s left to make one coherent point.

Create a map: What’s the best route to your point?

Stanley has his own template that he uses on most of his sermons. It goes like this:

Me -> We -> God -> You -> We

orientation -> identification -> illumination -> application -> inspiration

This template ensures logical flow. It begins by raising issues that connect with the hearers. People need a reason to listen. There should be a tension to be resolved, such that they’re eager to hear how God’s word answers their questions and resolves the tension. This leads to the “So what?” and the “Now what?” questions, before finally casting a vision for how things could be when God’s word is applied.

Internalize the message: What’s your story?

We’re called to own our message, to internalize it, and to know it personally. Stanley urges us to preach with conviction and passion. There’s something less than persuasive about a preacher who stumbles over their notes, while telling us how important the message is! For the author, this means knowing where he is going so he is not note-dependent. Some things are written in his notes and others are not. The key to knowing the message isn’t rehearsing a text, it’s knowing the map, where you want to get to, and being clear about the key points along the way.

Engage your audience: What’s your plan to capture and keep their attention?

If communication is to be compared with taking people on a journey, then it’s important that they stay on the bus with us! Stanley challenges the common suggestion that people have shorter attention spans these days. He says the key issue is our ability to capture and hold their attention. If people are on board, can see where they’re going, and they want to get to the destination, then they’ll stay with us. It’s up to the preacher to work hard at being engaging, not to blame people for disengaging.

Find your voice: What works for you?

Authenticity communicates volumes. Authenticity covers a multitude of communication sins. If a communicator is believable and sincere, I can put up with a lot of things. But if I get the feeling that I’m listening to their stage personality, big turnoff. I imagine you are the same way. I want to hear you, not your best rendition of your favourite communicator.  (p169)

Having said, “Be yourself”, Stanley won’t allow us to hide behind our bad habits. We need to work to become clearer communicators. If we’re going to improve then we’ll need to listen to ourselves, seek constructive feedback, and make changes. And keep on doing this!

Start all over: What’s the next step?

Preachers get stuck. Sometimes we just can’t seem to get to the big idea. Other times we can’t work out how best to communicate it. This is the reality. It doesn’t always come easily or on time! We are ultimately inadequate for the task of preaching God’s word, so we need to learn to depend upon God. It’s only the work of God’s word and Spirit that will change people. I must never forget this. Clever communication is not enough!

When we get stuck, it should lead us again to prayer. Please God, work through me and your word, by your Spirit, to transform people. Stanley also suggests going back and asking five questions. He finds these questions regularly give him renewed traction:

  1. What do they need to know?   INFORMATION
  2. Why do they need to know it?   MOTIVATION
  3. What do they need to do?   APPLICATION
  4. Why do they need to do it?   INSPIRATION
  5. How can I help them remember?   REITERATION

So what do I make of this book? And will it help our preaching?

To be honest, I found it refreshing and stimulating. It made me think again about the earnest responsibility and important craft of preaching the Scriptures. Preaching is something we should take seriously, keep practicing, keep learning about, and be open to making changes. The creative approach of this book models the passion of the authors that we should do this well. It’s God’s precious life-transforming word we’re handling, so let’s give it the respect it deserves.

13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 14 Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. 16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.  (1 Timothy 4:13-16)

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.  (2 Timothy 4:1-2)

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.  (James 3:1)

Communicating for a change is a potent double entendre. ‘Communicating, for a change’ is a sad indictment on some preaching. Words are spoken, but the hearers are rarely engaged. Communicating for a change‘ is what we’re called to do. Preach the word so that people are moved to trust God and follow him with their lives.

I believe this book can help us to work at clarity in our preaching. Unless you believe that you should be offering a verbal commentary on every detail of the Bible passage, then you will need to be selective in your handling of the text. Being faithful requires you to let the Bible speak, and this means working hard to understand the issues, the logic, and the overall message. It means speaking in such a way as to reveal God’s word, not disguise or veil it.

I have some concerns bubbling up as I read this book. The author seems to start mostly from human issues and then find Scriptures to address them. The danger of this angle is that we control the agenda. A book-by-book, chapter-by-chapter, or passage-by-passage approach to preaching forces us to deal with whatever issues God’s word places on our agenda. It keeps me from my hobby horses and it helps me reevaluate my priorities.

I wonder also whether it places too much importance on the message being fully memorable. If preaching helps people get into the text for themselves, then as they go back to the passage afterwards (like good Bereans, Acts 17) God’s word should become clearer and more readily applied. Or to put it another way, we don’t want the listener to remember more of what the preacher said than what the Bible says. Surely, the preacher is to fade into the background and let God’s word take centre stage. I think Stanley would agree with me here, and say it’s all the more important we preach with clarity and conviction.

I love the call to passion and engagement in preaching. Great preaching warms the heart. Dull preaching puts people off God – and that is not excusable. I’ve listened to some sermons that sound like a person talking about their PhD. They obviously know a lot about the topic, and it means a lot to them, but it hasn’t engaged me or any of the other listeners, it seems. I’m not quite sure why we need to listen or what point the speaker is trying to make. This book calls us to make a priority of engaging people.

I’ve never heard Andy Stanley preach, so my assessment of this book is not shaped by the talks he produces. At the end of the day it’s not about the right model or technique. It’s about communicating God’s will to the hearts and minds of others, so that the gospel transforms their lives. This must be theologically-driven. It’s the nature and power of God’s Word that will lead me to handle it with great care and to be deeply concerned about the way it impacts others.