Simple Church

Simple ChurchSimple Church begins with a story about Pastor Rush who, I was convinced, was modelled on me! He’s aptly named because he’s always rushing from one thing to the next. Preaching, visiting, planning (occasionally), emails, emails, emails, meetings, business, admin, family, sports, evenings out with work, days away with conferences, more conferences, patching up problems, helping people resolve conflicts, preparing on the fly, constantly tired, stressed, adrenalin driven, and every week having to do it again! Sound familiar to some of you?

Simple sounds very attractive. I long to get rid of the clutter! Simple is where it’s at. It’s the latest trend. Look at Apple, Google, designers, marketers, book titles… and now churches! This book offered something I was craving. It promised to be my ‘ministry stress detox diet’ and I was keen to take it in! It launched me reading widely on ‘church’, not just about the theology of church (as I’d read a lot of good stuff on what church is), but about how we put things into practice.

Let me start by saying what I didn’t like about Simple Church. 

Firstly, it was too long. How simple can something be if it takes over 250 pages to explain it? At times I found the book annoyingly repetitive and protracted. What I’d really like to see is a condensed version of Simple Church. One that comes to about 20 or 30 pages in length. I’m a big fan of little books! There is a revised edition of the book out now. It includes lessons learned since the first edition. But it’s longer rather than shorter!

Secondly, the constant references to statistical data left me a bit cynical and tired. In fact, I started to skip these sections once I realised their findings were entirely predictable… ‘our research shows the simple church is better on all counts than the complex church!’

Thirdly, I was left thinking that there’s a fine line between simple and simplistic. People could be tempted to think that church is all about process, and if we get the process right then church will be successful. The trouble is, we could have a very successful process that does nothing to build the church for eternity. It may be successfully simple. In fact, it may be successful by a whole range of human measures, and yet fail by God’s measure. As it says in 1 Corinthians 3:10 “…each one should be careful how he builds.”

And fourthly, this book makes all kinds of assumptions about the place and purpose of the church without grounding them clearly in the Bible. There is very little engagement with the Bible, and the foundations of the book seem more sociological than theological. The risk is that this book could simply help a church, with appalling theology, do what they do even better, rather than changing what they do! So I recommend getting a good grasp on God’s design for the church in the Bible, before you get too heavily into Simple Church. A good starting point would be detailed study of the books of Ephesians and Hebrews, combined with reading Understanding the Church by David Jackman.

Now that my gripes are out of the way, let me say this is a very useful book. It’s provided the paradigm for our ministry team to evaluate how we’re travelling as a church. It’s given us a template for thinking about the shape of the Christian life, how we are growing followers of Jesus, and how we encourage this in our church.

The authors, Rainer and Geiger, define a simple church as a congregation designed around a straight-forward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. (p60) Each part of this is significant. It’s designed, thought out, structured, not just thrown together. The process is straight-foward, clear, easy to grasp, known to the leaders and the congregation, and doesn’t keep changing according to the latest fad. The process is strategic, tied to the purpose and vision of the church. It moves people, logically. Church programs are means, not ends in themselves. They provide ways to help people grow together spiritually. The overall plan is for the church to cooperate with God in seeing people’s lives changed for eternity. In considering ‘stages’ of spiritual growth, we shouldn’t consider discipleship as a sequence of steps or courses to be completed. However, we want to see people progressing as Christians and growing together into maturity, so we should consider what we are doing as a church to help this happen.

If your church feels cluttered, with a busy calendar, too many programs, and a lack of overall vision or purpose, then Simple Church offers a plan for a makeover. If you’re intending to plant a church and you want to avoid getting lost in your own mistakes, then Simple Church may help you create a template to follow. It could help by getting you to consider the following four important areas:

The leadership and the church are clear about the process (clarity) and are committed to executing it. The process flows logically (movement) and is implemented in each area of the church (alignment). The church abandons everything that is not in the process (focus).  (p67-68)

The book devotes a chapter to each of these areas, and these four chapters provide the substance of the book. The chapter headings show the thrust of the argument:

Clarity:  Starting with a Ministry Blueprint
Movement:  Removing Congestion
Alignment:  Maximizing the Energy of Everyone
Focus:  Saying No to Almost Everything

The task of creating a simple church begins with clarifying what discipleship is and how it will happen in our church. Let the Bible inform our picture of what growing Christians and a growing church should look like. Then we work out what needs to happen for the church to grow disciples. Specifically, in the terms of the book, what processes need to happen? Of course, narrowing down processes will be somewhat artificial, but it has the value of clarifying where we will be headed. We don’t start by assuming our pre-existing church programs. Rather, we ask what programs will facilitate this process of disciple making.

For our church this has meant identifying three steps in the process: connecting, growing, and serving. We desire to see people connecting with God and each other through the gospel of Jesus. We desire to see people in the church growing together into maturity through applying God’s Word in their lives. And we desire to see people using their time, resources, and gifts in serving the church and the people around us (especially in helping people connect and grow).

Once the process is designed, it needs to be implemented. This involves placing programs alongside the process. If you are auditing your existing programs in line with your clarified process of disciple making, then this may be rather confronting. There may be areas of the process that are completely unaddressed. You may have programs that you can’t fit in anywhere. You might discover the need to refocus some of your programs to reach your goals.

We’ve followed the example of other churches by specifying some programs as integral to our process. For example, we run a regular ‘connect’ course that is designed to be an entry point for connecting people into our church. It is designed to introduce them to the message of the gospel, to the vision of our church, and to people at church. This helps some people to decide that our church is not for them and others to be clear about what they’re jumping into. Once people have decided that they want to be part of the church, we then encourage them into ‘growth’ groups which provide a relational context for people to grow together spiritually. Then, as we get to know people in growth groups, we can encourage them to ‘serve’ in ministry teams throughout the church. We have many service options including kids ministry, youth work, music, welcoming, international student outreach, and much more.

The next step is to get the whole church aligned with our process. This means the leaders, the programs, the calendar, the announcements, the congregations, everything and everyone. People and programs need to be held accountable according to our agreed process. Staff should be recruited and deployed according to the process. Understanding and unity are increased through such alignment. And we avoid clashes and clutter.

Simple Church has pushed us to consider what programs are critical to disciple making, and to make these programs our focus. But we still have a long way to go in creating alignment across our church and its various programs.

The book says, and others with experience tell me, that focus is where it gets ugly! Rainer and Geiger write:

OK, this is where the change is REALLY felt. Please notice that here is the only time in the entire book we used all caps to emphasize a point.  (p240)

People appreciate clear processes, purposeful programs, and the unity created by people moving together in the same direction. People love clarity, focus, and simplicity. But if you try to axe their favourite program because it doesn’t contribute to the process, watch out! We grow very attached to the things we create and maintain. We’ll probably disagree that our program is part of the clutter! So, lots of love, care, skill, and communication will be needed if we’re going to get all our programs aligned to our process and purpose. And it might take some time.

Change can be very difficult. It involves loss and grief and uncertainty. Some things disappear while others take their place, and not everyone is happy. But if we’re failing as a church to grow followers of Jesus, if we’re simply going through the motions, propping up the programs, and feeling constantly, mind-numbingly, busy, and without clear purpose… then change is essential. Of course, we can make these changes without ever reading Simple Church. And there are other good tools available to help us. But if we’re stuck in a bit of a rut, and we’re keen to see our churches growing followers of Jesus, then it might just be worth a look!

Sticky teams

I’ve been a pastor in an independent church for some time now. We don’t own any property, but we’ve been meeting regularly in community centres, clubs, schools, and universities. Our church is free of many of the trappings and restrictions of traditional churches. We’re not big on ceremony. We’re not into dressing up to go to church. You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of a particular denomination to get involved. In fact, a lot of what we do is being worked out ‘on the run’ and could probably described as pretty amateur.

Our church culture and community doesn’t have a lot of history. We’ve had to invent a few wheels and learn a fair bit from trial and error. It’s not that we’re making up new doctrines or teaching. We’re not abandoning the traditional understanding of the Christian faith. In fact, we’re very keen to be shaped and directed by the Bible in all we believe. It’s more to do with how things are done around here. 

Many of my friends in ministry don’t have to think too much about leadership structures in their churches – they simply are what they are. They’re Presbyterian, so they have elders, sessions, presbyteries and committees of management. Or they’re Baptist, so they have deacons and congregational meetings and pastors and water! But how do things work when you’re independent?

Last year, I made a particular focus of reading widely on issues of leadership and church life. I read, so as to better diagnose our own condition and to digest ideas and input for moving our church forward. One book that was very stimulating and resonated with many of our issues and concerns was, Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne.

The basic idea of Sticky Teams is to achieve unity in alignment. Getting people on the same page, with the same goals, and headed in the same direction. In particular, it focuses on getting the church, the staff, and the governing body of the church united in vision and purpose. A number of our leaders read this book and they had various reactions to it. Some were sold on the ideas, while others were more reflective and circumspect. The value lies in working through these things together.

Unity is fundamental to the church. At heart, it’s not something we can create for ourselves, but something achieved by God himself. As it says in Ephesians 4:4-6:

4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

God unites Christians together spiritually, but then he calls us to live this out practically. It’s not enough to pay lip service to unity. It raises real challenges for how we treat one another, and how churches are to function. See the previous verses in Ephesians 4:1-3:

1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Osborne values three types of unity in the church – doctrinal unity (what we believe), respect and friendship (how we treat each other), and philosophical unity (how we do things around here). The importance of philosophical unity is often overlooked, but it is critical to getting people headed in the same direction. It is often harder to achieve than the first two.

There’s nothing academic about this book. It’s been worked out in practice and we’re invited to learn from the experience of the author. It offers many practical tips and great ideas that we might easily take for granted. For example, as we seek to build unity in our church leadership teams and meetings, consider if these issues might be making it hard:

Does our venue help or hinder our meetings?
Are we ignoring the relationships of the people on the team?
Are we meeting often enough or too often?
Is there a constant turnover of people or is it a closed group?
Are there too many members on the team to be productive?

If you want to avoid politics shaping the agenda of your church’s governing body, then there are lessons to be learned here. One gem, is the importance of looking for leaders, not representatives. Representatives are more likely to see themselves as lobbyists for their particular area. This can reinforce the silo mentality, polarise areas of the church, and hinder progress through controversial issues. Leaders should be people of spiritual maturity, who fit well into the team relationally and organisationally, and who are aligned with the vision of the church. And remember that CVs always look better than people, and that character matters more than ability.

Osborne offers helpful insight to how an organisation changes its shape and function as it grows. He illustrates this with a sporting analogy:

The changes we had to work through at each stage of growth resembled the changes an athlete must make every time he or she switches from playing one sport to another.

Growth produces predictable changes in the way leaders and leadership teams relate and carry out their functions, changes that are remarkably parallel to the changes an athlete must go through to transition from running track, to playing golf, basketball or football.

How does this translate? He sees a solo leader or pastor as being like a track athlete, who works with others, but basically performs alone. As things grow they become more relational, like a game of golf, where buddies work together doing much the same thing. As we grow further, we resemble more a basketball team, where complementary roles and positions are vital to making things work. With significant growth, multiple staff, congregations, departments and so on, the organisation resembles more the complexity of an American Football team. The important thing is that we must change as we grow, and we must help people navigate these changes.

There is so much detail in Sticky Teams worth digesting. But it’s also worth highlighting its overall shape and structure. There are three parts. The first highlights the problems, the second seeks to get people on the same page, and the third aims to keep people aligned. We mustn’t stop with the first bit. Diagnosing a problem is not enough – we need to prescribe a way forward. This book works to help us stay united through clarity about where we’re going, equipping people to get there, and communicating what is expected.

Sticky Teams can be treated as a workbook or a manual. It’s worth picking up again and again, reading and re-reading, with a highlight pen or a pencil. I suggest it’s best read in community with others – there are discussion questions at the back of the book. Remember, it’s not the Bible. It’s not fool-proof. And it’s not the only way to think about or do things. But it’s aim is to get us thinking and doing, and not to leave us stuck in the vortex that simply repeats the same old failures year after year.

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