5Ms, 4Es, CGS2, and clarity of purpose

When you join with a group of people, a club or an organisation, it’s helpful to know what they’re on about. Join the surf club so as to save lives in the surf. Belong to the P&C to raise money for the school. Sign up with the library so as to borrow books or get free internet. Join the church so as to…

churchWaste your Sundays? Dabble in religion? Make God happy? No. No. No. If you don’t go to church, then there are far better reasons than these to consider. Church is intended to be a gathering of Christian people and people who want to check out what being a Christian is really all about. Ideally, you will meet real people who’ve become convinced that knowing God and having a genuine relationship with Jesus is the most significant thing there is. They will engage on real issues in a real way. It might even surprise you. You could find your life changed in a positive way for ever. Many have.

But again, sadly, you will find some who are simply going through the motions. The same ritual week after week, and no-one has paused to really consider why.

For those of you who are Christians, what’s the answer? What is the church on about? When people visit your church website, what does it look like? If you visit a church, what do you expect they will they be doing and what will they expect of you? If you ask the minister, what will he say is going on, and will it be the same as what the regular members say? Do people know why they belong? Do they know where the church is going, what it values, what’s most important? And if you choose to do more than turn up, do you know how to get more involved? Does the church want your involvement? Do they have a spot for you? And is it obvious?

There’s lots of talk among the churches I know about mission and vision and values. Sometimes it can sound a little corporate and crass. Other times it can seem a bit like applehood and mother pie. And sometimes it reminds me of a little girl wanting to dress up in her mother’s clothes—they look good on mum, but they’re ridiculous on the little girl. But sometimes they help. They really do.

Careful, clear, thought out, simple expressions of who we are, why we are, how we are, where we are, and where we’re going. Clarity, visibility, simplicity, logic—these are powerful things when it comes to getting people on board. I wonder how many church transfers, church shops, and church disillusionments happen because they can’t work out what the church is on about or how to get involved.

One model that has been growing larger on the church landscape in recent years is the 5Ms. Adapted from the Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Church, the Ms stand for Magnification, Membership, Maturity, Ministry, and Mission. This approach sees the Christian life expressed in magnifying God for his glory, welcoming people into the membership of Christ’s body and this church, growing one another into maturity in Christ, equipping one another to serve our brothers and sisters, and to reach out to our world in mission. It’s a continuous and repetitive journey. Every part belongs to the Christian life. There’s a logic in the flow. It’s anchored in the Scriptures. It provides shape and direction for the ministry of the church. It creates pathways for people’s participation. There is nothing sacrosanct about the 5Ms, but they help to keep focused on what matters matter most.

My early ministry years were spent shaping a ministry around 4Es. We were committed to Evangelism (introducing Jesus and calling people to turn to him), Edification (building each other into Christian maturity through the word of God made active in love), Equipping (training one another in Christian service), and Exporting (encouraging people to go into the world, literally, with the message of Jesus).

CGS2A few years back, having read Simple Church by Gieger and Rainer, we decided to align our church mission around CGS2 (though we never reduced it to CGS2). Connect, Grow, Serve, To the glory of God—that was our plan. Our church existed to build connections—connections into our community, connection with God through people responding to the gospel of Jesus, and connections with one another through regular fellowship. We existed to grow in spiritual maturity—through people responding to God’s word, coming before God in prayer, building one another in small groups, and applying the word in their lives. We existed to serve one another—to take the corporate and ‘one another’ language of the New Testament seriously, by actively investing in each other, serving the church in specific ministry teams, and reaching out to love our neighbours. And we wanted to do all this 2 the glory of God—not to us O Lord, not to us, but to you, be the glory forever and ever.

What’s your church on about? Is it clear to people? Are people consumers or providers? Are they passengers or participants? Do you know what you’re doing and why? Does it flow from the Scriptures? How is your church shaped? Does it make it easier to get involved? Are people working together in alignment? If you don’t know, then start a conversation.

 

Qualifications to read the Bible in church

bible-readingLooking for people who can read the Bible out loud in church? Trying to fill the Bible reading roster? Building a team of Bible readers? Then let me ask you “What qualifies someone to be able to read the Bible?” Do they need to have a background in performing arts? Or perhaps have been a newsreader in a previous life? Should they audition for the task? Or complete a training course for reading in front of others? Is volunteering enough or is vetting needed? What makes a good Bible reader?

I’m sure that there are plenty of good ideas that will help people to read well in church, but I wonder if we might overlook the most important qualifications. Here are four qualifications to keep at the top of your lists.

To qualify for reading the Bible out loud in front of church you must be…

  1. One who trusts that the Bible is the authoritative, inspired Word of God. Only if you appreciate the author will you read with the attitude needed to pass on a message from God. We’re not reading shopping lists or Facebook posts. We’re communicating the very words of God.
  2. One who reads the Bible regularly for your own instruction, edification, comfort, encouragement, or rebuke. We mustn’t cause one another to stumble in hypocrisy by asking them to do something in public that they don’t do in private. Let’s get our own house in order before calling on others to do the same.
  3. One who understands the meaning and implications of the Scripture you are reading. This will require studying the passages of Scripture beforehand. If we don’t understand what we are reading, then we won’t communicate the message clearly or faithfully to others. We might need to look up a commentary or spend time with the preacher in advance to help us fully grasp the meaning. The key to good communication is understanding what you are saying.
  4. One who prayerfully seeks to apply the message to your life. This will require us to read over the text well before reading in public so that we can meditate upon it, pray about it, and determine what difference it should make to our life.

Does this all sound a bit much? Does it sound more like the qualifications for the preacher or teacher? Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul called Timothy to devote himself to it.

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.  (1 Timothy 4:13)

There’s an obvious lesson in all this for service leaders and preachers. If we want good Bible readers at church, then we need to find suitable people and give them plenty of time to prepare. We should be willing to work with people in helping them to understand, apply, and communicate the Scriptures. Extra work? Absolutely—and worth it.

Now to go and put this into practice.

Recommended reading (16 June)

readingNext week the church I pastor is looking at what we believe about church. What we truly believe will be shown in how we speak and act. Here’s some helpful food for thought on how we approach church.

Brian Borgman The Danger of Seeking your Dream Church

Carey Nieuwhof A Response to Christians who are done with Church

Check out this infographic of the ‘one another’ verses in the New Testament

Keller, Piper and Carson on Thriving Churches in a Hostile Culture

 

 

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!

Mentoring matters

mentoringmattersFor the last month or so I’ve been particularly focused on issues of leadership development. I’ve been considering the respective roles of mentoring, coaching, and training. These are hot topics these days in many areas and it’s been difficult to know what material to consider. My special interest has been to view distinctively Christian perspectives on these areas, and in particular to see how they can be a help to Christian ministry. I’m discovering there is much to be learned in these areas, but we need to carefully sift the helpful from the not so helpful. Mentoring Matters by Rick Lewis is full of practical wisdom and helpful advice that’s been tested by experience. However, I believe there’s a theology driving this book that is actually unhelpful.

Lewis offers this definition of mentoring:

Within intentional, empowering, unique relationships, Christian mentoring identifies and promotes the work of God’s Spirit in others’ lives, assisting them to access God’s resources for their growth and strength in spirituality, character and ministry.  (p20)

All parts of this definition are important to the author. Mentoring relationships should be tailored, focused on supporting and equipping the mentoree, for their good. The focus is on being, more than doing, and seeking to allow God’s agenda to shape the mentoree from the inside out. They’re more than a friendship because they’re grounded on an agreement between the two parties about the purpose and shape of the relationship.

Mentoring Matters shows mentoring to be an effective way of addressing many problems faced by today’s Christian leaders. The mentor can provide help in encouraging personal spiritual health; non-judgmental friendship and support; safe peer relationships in which to discuss vocational issues; accountability from a person outside the organisation with no positional power; help in integrating the theory and practice of ministry through reflection; and help in reaching specific goals for change.

Lewis argues that everyone in ministry would benefit from a mentor outside their particular church or organisation. Indeed, the advance of God’s kingdom can be helped by the focus on developing more leaders, more frequently, of a better quality, and who will last longer. He provides evidence that in Australia there are as many ex-ministers as there are current ministers and argues that good mentoring can change this sad equation.

A strength of Mentoring Matters lies in how it distils so many different factors in mentoring with clarity and simplicity. I plan to write up a number of checklists for myself based on the material in this book. A good example is this ‘rough guide’ to help new mentors quickly get their bearings on pages 111-118. This is also summarised on the Mentoring Matters website.

Build genuine relationship
Spiritual mentoring is more than an arrangement set in place for pragmatic purposes and cannot be conducted from an emotional distance. An environment of mutual positive regard, respect and heartfelt care is required.

Establish mentoree responsibility
Mentoring is effective only when the mentoree takes responsibility for his or her own spiritual growth and health. There is absolutely no domination or control in healthy mentoring.

Prioritise the inner life
While the whole person is of interest, development of the inner life is fundamental to spiritual mentoring. Our doing flows out of our being. The principal means of bringing about deep inner change is the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the mentoree.

Put aside other agendas
Good mentors do not see mentorees as a means for achieving a preconceived agenda. The mentor’s concern is for the spiritual growth of the mentoree, beginning where the person is at, and working toward what God has designed them to be and do.

Discern God’s work
Mentoring involves a process through which two people together seek to understand what God is doing and saying. This does not need to be an obscure, mystical process. Thoughtful conversations linked with prayer comprise an effective process.

Facilitate reflection and goal-setting
Encouraging reflection and goal-setting in mentoring is aimed at achieving experience-based learning. Reflection turns experience into learning, on the basis of which mentorees can construct and commit to goals and to action steps.

Provide positive accountability
Mentorees set their own goals and action steps and give their mentor permission to hold them accountable for following through on those commitments. Accountability is an opportunity to prove progress rather then to expose failure.

Prepare thoroughly
Both mentors and mentorees will get the most out of mentoring sessions only if they are prepared to review points covered previously, complete any undertakings made, and prepare good questions for one another.

Pursue mentoring energetically
Be deliberately proactive about your mentoring relationship. If mentoring is not made a priority it will certainly be edged out by the huge number of competing demands on a leader’s time and energy.

Encourage mentorees to mentor others
Where a mentoree takes on the role of serving another future leader, the benefit they have received through being mentored is more firmly established in their own life.

Learn from Jesus
Spiritual mentoring is a Biblical process, modelled most perfectly by Jesus. He mentored his disciples by who he was, what he said and what he did. The gospels comprise a mentoring handbook useful to the most experienced mentor.

So what are my main concerns with this book? And how important are they?

mm2A key theme running through this book is the idea of discerning God’s particular will for the mentoree. Mentoring is seen as a specific journey of helping the mentoree to work out where they are, where God wants them to go, and how they can get there. This has to do with discovering what God’s Spirit is doing in their life. An earlier cover of the book describes the book as Identifying and promoting the work of God’s Spirit in the lives of Christian leaders. This has now changed to Building strong Christian leaders. Avoiding burnout. Reaching the finishing line. I’m not aware that the inside of the book has changed at all. My guess is that the new cover has been designed to appeal to a broader audience and to focus on the outcomes of mentoring.

Am I concerned with this emphasis on identifying and promoting the work of God’s Spirit? Am I one of those evangelical Christians ‘who don’t really believe in the work of the Spirit’, ‘who are all head and hands and no heart’?

Let me try to communicate clearly! The work of God’s Spirit must be central in the life of the mentor and mentoree. No equivocations. If we’re not on about God’s work in people, then we’re wasting our time. No amount of mentoring will be of any eternal benefit unless God’s Spirit is at work. Therefore, I believe it is critically important to identify and promote the work of God’s Spirit in the life of the Christian leader.

It’s what the author understands this to mean and his suggested methods for discovering and discerning the will of God that I take issue with. Lewis writes that Godly mentors are attuned to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Out of a deep desire to live a life pleasing to God, they are able to discern the ‘still, small voice’ and are in the habit of following that leading. (p125) While saying that tuning into the Spirit’s work doesn’t have to be a mystical experience, the overall message and vibe of this book is that it is. There is very little mention of the Bible as a source of discovering God’s will. In fact, there is very little Bible in this book at all. Its main appearance is in the chapter called an Ancient Art for a Post-Modern Context where various Bible passages provide part of the justification for mentoring today. Very helpful passages, by the way.

I worry that mentoring conducted along these lines could be unhelpful to the participants. It could lead to people believing they need to be looking for and responding to particular, personal, leadings of God’s Spirit, rather than concentrating on the given, revealed, sufficient, sword of the Spirit, the Bible. Over time the focus turns away from reading the Scriptures, that are able to make us thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17), to reading circumstances, weighing up feelings, or looking for God to speak in other ways outside of the Bible.

My concerns about this book are not so much with mentoring per se, as they are with a perspective on guidance implicit throughout. I would love to see much more in Mentoring Matters about opening the Bible together, searching the Scriptures, seeing God’s revealed plans, to discover what this means for our lives, ministries, and the options before us. A great model of this approach is offered in Don Carson’s book on the topic of prayer, called A Call to Spiritual Reformation. He reveals how his mentor patiently and carefully helped him to pray according to the will of God as they delved deeply into the Bible together. If you’re keen to work through what the Bible teaches about guidance, let me recommend you work carefully through any of the following books:

Decision making and the will of God by Garry Friesen
Just do something by Kevin de Young
Guidance and the voice of God by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne

If you’re serious about mentoring Christian leaders, then you will find much in Mentoring Matters that is helpful and practical. You will benefit from the emphasis on internal transformation, the priority on being before doing, and the focus on genuine relationships at the core of mentoring. But, let’s read with discernment, as we should with every book.

Growth Groups

Passing the Baton-text-S2Growth Groups by Col Marshall has been around now for a couple of decades. For many of us, it’s been the ‘go to’ book on small group ministry. As I’m currently reviewing how we support and equip our growth group leaders, I thought I should read over it again. My immediate thought was it could do with an aesthetic refresh. The number-dot-number section headings makes it look out of date and rather academic. However, the content is as relevant and helpful now as it was back in ’95. If you were to get one book on leading Christian small groups, this would probably be the one to get. It gets you into the Bible, but it also explores the other aspects relevant to leading groups – such as group dynamics, prayer, personal ministry, evangelism, training leaders, and the like.

The real strength of Growth Groups is how it places small group ministry within the wider context of gospel ministry in church. God’s agenda for transforming lives shapes the agenda for these groups. The training course at the back of the book involves studying Paul’s letter to the Colossians and this anchors the earlier material in God’s Word. Colossians takes us from the grand themes of Christ’s lordship and salvation to their practical outworking in the Christian life. For this reason the best way to read Growth Groups is in conjunction with the training course.

If you’re not able to participate in a training course, the book still provides an excellent resource for leaders. It’s full of biblical and experiential wisdom on ministry in small groups. The following chapter headings show the breadth of material covered:

  1. The strategy of growth groups
  2. Growth group basics
  3. Pitfalls of growth groups
  4. Preparing a Bible study
  5. Leading a Bible study
  6. Answers about questions
  7. The games people play
  8. Praying in growth groups
  9. Gospel growth through growth groups
  10. Leading for growth
  11. Growing the individuals
  12. The healthy growth group
  13. Starting a growth group
  14. Selecting, training and shepherding leaders
  15. Developing the growth group program

It’s most logical to work through the chapters in the order they appear, but you can dip back into them any way you like. I’ve found that over the years I’ve written all sorts of notes, supplementary ideas, questions and links to other resources in the margins of my copy. It’s covered in underlining and highlighting, with various scraps of paper lodged inside. In other words its a tool – a workbook that I keep coming back to on the job.

Having read this book again in close proximity to reading Spice It UpI can see the overlapping ideas between the two. The latter builds on the chapters about preparing and leading Bible studies and it helps us to engage well with the text and with the people in our groups. Col’s book presents the foundational issues very clearly, and I believe its an indispensable ‘Small Groups 101′ manual. It offers a philosophy of small groups ministry, that’s anchored in Scripture, and from which our practise should flow. The best example of this is the opening chapter that draws us deeply into Colossians and expounds on receiving Christ as Lord and living with Christ as Lord (Colossians 2:6-7).

Chapter 3, on the pitfalls of groups, offered some helpful warnings. With the ubiquity of small groups in churches today, and the variety of purposes they seem designed to fulfil, this book warns how they can easily lose their way. Community, experience, and mission can all become divorced from their biblical significance and growth groups can become much like many non-Christian groups in our world. We’re encouraged to keep God’s agenda front and centre. Sometimes groups can take on an independent life of their own, reacting against the church, the minister, or the preaching. Our purpose is not to create isolated, independent mini-churches, but rather to help the whole church to build itself in truth and love by meeting regularly in smaller gatherings.

Chapter 9, on gospel growth, reminds us not to let groups become introspective cliques. God’s agenda of bringing people into his family through the gospel is to shape the purpose of growth groups. This might not mean regularly inviting and welcoming non-believers into our groups (though some groups could have this purpose), but it will mean keeping the gospel on our agenda. Growth groups are an excellent context to support one another in reaching out to others and to pray for friends’ friends to become followers of Jesus.

Growth Groups is intentional in developing leaders – it’s a training book, after all! But it calls leaders to be committed to expanding the numbers of groups by raising up and training new leaders. Apprenticing leaders is the preferred model, to be supplemented with the material in this book. The course itself involves guided reading of this book, plus a 10 week practical Bible study and training program. Our church is following a similar strategy by encouraging our leaders to have core members in their groups whom they are mentoring into leadership. We will also be offering specific targeted training courses later in the year for these apprentices and others.

If you’re a leader and you haven’t come across Growth Groups, then I recommend you get hold of a copy, read it and scribble what you learn all over it! If you’re looking for a training program for leaders in your church then this is a great place to turn, especially as it’s so comprehensive. If you’re feeling rather stale in your leadership, and you want to up-skill a bit, then why not read a few of the chapters of this book with a friend and discuss them together? If you’ve been reading The Trellis and the Vine then you will find that these books are singing from the same song sheet. And that’s a good thing because it’s about churches, small groups and individual Christians being shaped by the gospel.

Gospel centered leadership

gcleadershipGospel Centered Leadership by Steve Timmis was a hard book to find – simply because I couldn’t spell centered! Now that’s sorted, and I’ve worked through the book, I’d like to recommend it. If you’ve never read a book on Christian leadership, this is a great place to begin. It’s thoroughly biblical and engages the reader with the arguments and implications of the Bible for leadership. It’s Christ-centred (!) as it describes the principles and distinctives and practicalities of leadership. It’s easy to read, focused and brief, with each chapter raising substantial issues to get your teeth into. It’s a practical workbook offering biblical content, discussion of principles, questions for personal reflection or group discussion, and ideas for action.

Each chapter of this book hooked me in with a brief scenario about leadership issues in church. I could identify with each of them and wanted Timmis to continue the story and reveal what happened! This is an excellent way to start each chapter as it helps us to see its relevance before we read it. We quickly move from these cameo intros to looking at the Scriptures, and then the Scriptures are applied to the relevant leadership matters. The use of the Bible throughout is very good. I’ve grown accustomed to leadership literature using the Bible as a springboard for ideas or a proof text for principles. This book does neither. Instead it grounds our understanding of Christian leadership in a biblical theological framework that centres on Christ. I’ve not read much by Steve Timmis, but as I worked through this book I grew to trust his handling of the Scriptures more and more.

Jesus Christ is demonstrated to be the leader of the church and therefore human leaders are to conform to his servant-hearted, cross-shaped leadership and they’re called to expound God’s word so that people respond to Jesus’ leadership. In the chapter focused upon various leaders from the Old Testament, Timmis challenges the simple ‘copy this leader’ approach of so many Christian leadership books, and instead explores how they point us to Jesus. I found this very refreshing. All human leaders will have their failures. Take these, for example: Noah – drunkard; Abraham – coward; Moses – murderer; David – adulterer; Nehemiah – failure. The Old Testament looks forward to a spectacular fulfilment in Jesus. It is Jesus who shows us what true leadership is to be like. He is the true shepherd of his sheep.

Gospel Centered Leadership explores a number of leadership distinctives. These include character, aptitude, wisdom, service, authority, style and leadership. A godly character is the chief qualification for Christian leadership. Timmis draws especially on the letters to Timothy and Titus to reveal that how we live is absolutely critical to leadership. There is to be no disjunction between life and teaching.

The bottom line is this: as leaders we are called to  be examples. Being an example is the primary way we lead. We are called to be intentional in how we live so that we can commend our attitude and lifestyle to others.  (p37)

These verses from the New Testament back this up:

In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.  (Titus 2:7-8 emphasis added)

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
(1 Peter 5:1-3 emphasis added)

The explanation of  a leader’s aptitude to teach is most helpful. It cannot simply be an ability to craft or deliver words. Rather it’s more the fundamental ability to bring the truths of God’s word to bear with relevance into people’s lives. (p43) This can happen in a sermon, a Bible study, a seminar, a personal conversation. The medium is not the most important thing. It’s how the content of God’s word is handled that counts most.

Other aptitudes mentioned in the book are: taking responsibility, influencing others, working hard, making a priority of people, and self-awareness. Each of these areas contain the potential for building and for breaking great leadership. They can become virtues or vices. For example, hard work for the gospel can demonstrate credibility, integrity and commitment. But it can also be mere activism, or an excuse for neglecting family and other priorities. Laziness, on the other hand, in not fitting for the Christian leader and it can sometimes be well hidden behind a facade of ineffective busyness.

Wisdom is essential to good leadership and gospel centered leadership will embrace wisdom by keeping God at the centre of all things. The Scriptures teach that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This means much more than trembling in the presence of God. It’s the intention to honour God in all that we do. The alternatives can quickly damage good leadership. The fear of men and women, worrying about what people will think of us, peer pressures, seeking to make a name for ourselves, will all compete with God’s agenda for leadership.

Jesus demonstrates ever so clearly that leaders are to be servants. This isn’t a leadership strategy or an aspect of leadership. Rather it’s the very essence of leadership. It’s what the Christian leader is called to do. Forget self-promotion, parading of titles or degrees, the wearing of special clothing that separates us from the people. When Jesus washed his disciples feet, in the light of his impending death upon the cross, he demonstrated the cost of sacrificial servant leadership. But the willingness of the leader to do anything for his people doesn’t mean that he should do everything. God doesn’t expect us to be omnicompetent. Rather, as we teach the word of God so we are called to equip and empower others to lead by serving also.

Servant leadership is not an oxymoron. Leaders are to lead, but they lead in serving the needs of others. The leader sets the direction for people to follow and they do this by teaching the Scriptures with an awareness of the cultural context of the people. The leader sets a direction to develop a new culture in the Christian community, differentiated from the culture at large. This will affect relationships, priorities and expectations. It will be created through prayer, Bible teaching, example and influence. (p88) Leaders will take initiative to lead, and failure to take initiative may be an important indicator of one’s unsuitability for leadership.

The final section of the book deals with putting leadership into practice. Timmis admits that his chapter on decision making might be controversial. He calls for a consensus approach to decision making, claiming that this is the best way to care for all people and their issues. He encourages us to take the time to hear people’s concerns and to take on board their ideas. A consensus approach still requires the leaders to lead. They need to convey their vision and seek to persuade people of where the church should be headed and why. Leadership is about guiding people in God’s way, not getting our own way, and this takes time, patience, and good two-way communication. The principles in this chapter are excellent and I can see them working in in obvious ways in a small church. However, they raise many complicated issues for a large church with multiple staff, congregations, ministry departments and so on. More thought is needed here and such issues are teased out in other places (including some helpful work by Tim Keller on changes to decision making with the growth of a church).

Very helpfully, there is a chapter on what to do when leaders fail. And they will! In a fallen world, many Christian leaders will fall into temptation. We only need to read our New Testaments to see how quickly this can happen. Timmis gives good guidance in such situations encouraging other leaders in the church to not despair, nor simply to echo the woes of others, nor to assassinate the leader. No leader can or should ever replace Jesus. At such times we need to be reminded explicitly that Jesus is our only Saviour and he cares for his flock. Being reminded that this is God’s church frees us from many burdens.

Gospel Centered Leadership is a brief but important book. I’d recommend it to church leaders to read through and discuss together. Do the homework, read the Scriptures, answer the questions, raise your own issues, and work on building a common understanding of Christian leadership in your context and culture. I’ll be recommending this book to our Growth Group leaders, youth leaders, children’s leaders and others. You can, of course, read this on your own to great profit, but I’d recommend grabbing a few others and getting them to read it with you. If you’re a leader this will help you to develop other leaders. And if you’re not it will help you evaluate whether you could or should be seeking to serve others in this way.

Building Leaders

Malphurs-Building-LeadersNow that my brief is building leaders, I figured that I should read a few new books in the area. Building Leaders, by Malphurs and Mancini, seemed on topic and came highly recommended. I must confess that I wasn’t looking forward to reading this book. I worry when people have written lots of books on the same topic that they’ll be stretching out material for the sake of more royalties. But I hadn’t actually read any of their books on leadership, so I shouldn’t have been too quick to judge. It took a while, but it was a helpful read. Much in the book was familiar, but it helped to have things organised and spelled out with detail and clarity. I’ve already begun putting into practice a number of its lessons.

The authors have identified a lack of churches committed to training leaders. Most would claim to be, but closer analysis shows that it isn’t really happening. It’s not that ministry isn’t happening, but that these ministries aren’t developing leaders who will continue and grow the ministry. People aren’t taking the time to train others to lead. Sometimes we don’t feel the effects of this until people move on and there’s no one to replace them or until the ministry becomes too big for the current leader to lead. When we compare the attitude of the military who make this an ongoing priority, or when we look at the model of a teaching hospital, we can see how much churches can take leadership development for granted. Unless we plan to grow leaders we won’t.

Malphurs and Mancini offer a definition of a Christian leader:

A servant who uses his or her credibility and capabilities to influence people in a particular context to pursue their God-given direction.  (p20)

They define leadership development as:

The intentional process of helping established and emerging leaders at every level of ministry to assess and develop their Christian character and to acquire, reinforce, and refine their ministry knowledge and skills.  (p23)

It’s important to recognise that this is intentional. We have a responsibility to make it happen, not simply to hope that it is. Notice also the emphasis on character, together with knowledge and skill. Christian character is essential for Christian ministry leaders, for this is what God is seeking (and producing) in his followers. You can’t follow what you don’t see in the leader, so all these things matter.

They also discuss the importance of empowering leaders to lead, describing empowerment as:

The intentional transfer of authority to an emerging leader within specified boundaries from an established leader who maintains responsibility for the ministry.  (40)

This contrasts with directing, abdicating and disabling. For leadership to develop it must be applied. You can’t simply learn to drive a car by reading a book or sitting in a classroom. People need to get into the driver’s seat and give it a go. Likewise leaders learn to lead by leading. Good tuition, support, ongoing guidance, feedback, and praise will all be helpful, but ultimately the emerging leader needs the opportunity to give it a go.

Malphurs and Mancini seek to ground their understanding of Christian leadership in the Bible. I don’t think this is the strength of their work. They are careful to avoid teaching that the model of Jesus or the apostles gives us principles of leadership to follow, but they highlight the practices they see for us to learn from. This boils down to a model of recruitment – selection – training – deployment. These chapters feel a bit like things are read into rather than out of the text, but they offer wise processes to follow nonetheless.

The book is divided into 4 parts and it’s the 3rd part, The Process for Developing Leaders, that takes us to the nuts and bolts for making it happen. The strength of these chapters are how things are broken down into identifiable strategies. I realised that we have implemented many of these ideas and suggestions, without always thinking through why or how things fit together.

It’s been particularly helpful reading this book in close proximity to The Trellis and the Vine. There’s much overlap between the two, with this book being a lot more prescriptive, descriptive and highly structured. One interesting point of comparison relates to what to we are seeking to develop in a Christian leader. The Trellis and the Vine highlights conviction, character, and competency, whereas Building Leaders identifies character, knowledge, skills and emotions. Or, to put it another way: being, knowing, doing and feeling. The extra emphasis on emotional intelligence is helpful, because it’s a good indicator of someone’s capacity for healthy relationships in an intensely people focused area (ie. ministry leadership).

Malphurs and Mancini identify four types of training:

      1. Learner-driven training
      2. Content-driven training
      3. Mentor-driven training
      4. Experience-driven training

This breakdown is very helpful in helping us to think about how we train and why. Some methods of training overlap or integrate the different approaches, and they each have different strengths and weakness.

Learner-driven training

The up-coming leaders effectively take responsibility for their own training. It focuses on what they can do on their own. Listening to talks, watching DVDs, interviewing other leaders, attending classes or seminars are among the possibilities on offer.

Content-driven training

This focuses on the transfer of knowledge. It often flows from a pre-determined curriculum and tends to be one-way communication where important content is delivered. This is often the ‘go to’ strategy because we want to make sure people have the right information before they are let loose. However, it is rarely sufficient to equip people to lead.

Mentor-driven training

The distinguishing feature of this training is the trainer. This approach combines relationship with information, and modelling with teaching. Such mentoring will normally involve a loop of instruction, modelling, observation and evaluation.

Experience-driven training

The emphasis here is hands on – actually doing ministry. It’s on the job training. Experience prevents us becoming theoreticians, knowing lots about leading without actually being able to do it.

Recognising these different approaches to training opens up new opportunities  and contexts in which to train prospective Christian leaders. Building Leaders identifies 16 different ‘venues’ – what I’d prefer to call ‘contexts’ – for training leaders, and it demonstrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of each. For example, a classroom is good for content-driven training, but weak on showing how things actually happen. Apprenticing is ideal for relationally-based training, but it’s harder to stick to a syllabus.

Some training will deliberately utilise a number of strategies and contexts together. For example, we are reshaping how we equip and support our growth group leaders and there are a number of aspects to the training. People will meet with a mentor at least once a term for a personal catch up and feedback. They will be part of a vision meeting with all the leaders once a term to prepare for the new program ahead. Leaders will be encouraged to find one or two core members of their group to apprentice as leaders for the coming year. These apprentices will be offered a small group leaders course later in the year which will impart important information on our expectations of leaders. By breaking down our thinking about training and what we are seeking to achieve, be can be far more effective in preparing our leaders.

There are some excellent, if not overwhelming, ideas in these chapters on developing leaders. If you are a leader of leaders, then I’d recommend you spend some time in this book. You could use it help you audit what you are doing in training, how you’re doing it, and why. This book could help you to add to your armoury of training strategies, to be more focused, and to rekindle your excitement for training. The authors urge us to build evaluation into our leadership development strategy. For me, this is the place to begin, but once we make changes and try new things we’ll need to keep on evaluating. Most churches had good strategies and programs once. We just forgot to evaluate them and many of them stopped working. Time to lift our game again.

Mistakes leaders make

mistakes-leaders-makeDave Kraft has had plenty of time to make mistakes and to observe others doing the same. He’s been in Christian leadership for more than 43 years serving with Navigators and a variety of churches. In his recent book, Mistakes Leaders Make, he offers ten warnings of what not to do as a leader. This is an easy book to read. It took me less than a day, but I’d recommend taking it more slowly and working through the issues and questions he raises more carefully. It’s readability is increased by the style of writing. He follows the pattern of Lencioni in telling a story about a church and its various staff. While the church is fictional, the characters and issues are very real. Each chapter introduces a new character, and their mistakes, before teasing out some principles and practices.

Kraft recommends letting Psalm 139:23-24 be your prayer as you work through each chapter.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!

The list of mistakes is very sobering. I have experienced temptation and failure in a number of these areas. Each one is worth considering carefully.

  1. 1. Allowing ministry to replace Jesus

The first mistake is very subtle and easy to deny. How could you possibly replace Jesus with ministry when ministry is about serving Jesus? You can and I have! It’s easy to be so caught up with the responsibilities of ministry that we neglect our relationship with our Lord. I don’t have time to talk to God because I’m too busy doing things for him. Successful ministry can become more important that honouring the one we serve. I think this area is a big trap for senior pastors and it has an awful ripple effect. Families, staff teams, and churches all suffer as this happens. The key to this mistake – indeed the solution to each of the mistakes in this book – is to keep Jesus at the centre of our lives and all we do.

2. Allowing comparing to replace contentment

Comparison versus contentment is another perennial fight for Christian leaders. Every denominational gathering, leadership conference, or ministry fraternal offers the temptation to pride or envy. How many on your team? Have you planted a new church this year? What’s your budget? How many people come each week? It’s a fools game. The solution is to be content with who you are, where you are, what you are doing, and what God is doing through you. (p33) Just remember you are God’s person, entrusted with God’s people, and God’s ministry. If you must compare, then ask yourself the question whether you are being all that you could be for God.

3. Allowing pride to replace humility

Kraft argues that pride is the root cause for the undoing and fall of most leaders. It’s so easy for the ministry to become all about us. He quotes Gary Thomas in his book, Thirsting for God:

Proud women and men relate everything back to themselves. They are all but incapable of seeing any situation except for how it affects them. Empathy is something they may read about but will never truly experience.  (p44)

Pride can be a particular issue for young, gifted leaders who experience success early in their ministry. It’s easy to be swept up in the praise, to believe we are the cause of our own success, and to lose sight of the contribution of others. Most significantly we can take our eyes of the Lord of the harvest altogether. I believe that this was a struggle of me at times. The solution is to refocus regularly on the cross of Jesus Christ and the extraordinary grace that we’ve been given from God.

4. Allowing pleasing people to replace pleasing God

People pleasing is a trap. If we spend our time worrying about what everyone else will think of what we do, then we will be torn this way and that and never lead effectively. Ultimately we play to an audience of one – God himself. He will judge our motives, words and actions. As Proverbs 29:25 says, The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.

5. Allowing busyness to replace visioning

Busyness is a great enemy of Christian leadership. Too few leaders spend time thinking, praying, dreaming, looking ahead, and planning. The urgent gets our attention and we fail to set clear vision for the future. This mistake leads to ineffective and overly busy ministries, burnout of people, and disillusionment with what we’re doing. Leaders must look to the future. We need to be concerned with what could be not simply with what is.  This is a hard lesson to learn because we are so often tyrannised by the urgent. Let’s make time in our calendars to think, pray, reflect, dream, plan – both on our own and with our teams.

6. Allowing financial frugality to replace fearless faith

The temptation is to think that this mistake is one that only church boards and parish councils make! This is not true. We began our ministry on a shoestring. We had to clear a substantial debt in the beginning and for a number of years I was paid 6-8 weeks late. Everything was done on the cheap, money was kept and saved rather than spent, and I became overly concerned with getting a bargain. We need to be financially wise, but also filled with faith. We should remember that God is our provider and he calls us to use his resources for the advancement of his work.

7. Allowing artificial harmony to replace difficult conflict

We are not to be so loving that we don’t speak the truth, or so truthful that we don’t speak with love; there is a fine balance between the two that is essential to all human relationships, especially among church staff and in a leadership role.  (p79)

Avoiding conflict can be a big problem among Christian leaders.  I’ve been in staff meetings where it’s obvious people aren’t on board, but they remain compliant or passively aggressive. It’s awful! We’re tempted to work around people rather than confront them. Sometimes people are unable to do their job and we’d rather compensate for them at great cost to the organisation, than confront them or move them on. Conflict can be very healthy for teams. And healthy conflict depends on trust and relationships. I recommend reading Patrick Lencioni for more on this.

8. Allowing perennially hurting people to replace potential hungry leaders

There are always hurting people in our midst and the compassionate leader can find him or herself overwhelmed with trying to care for them. Eventually the leader is unable to keep it up and goes on stress leave or resigns. The problem is we try and do it all ourselves. Leadership is about building teams of people to share the load. We need to take the time to get the right people onto the team bus with us and them help them to find the right seats according to their gifts, abilities and passions. Grow the team and we grow the capacity to care. Leaders must be team builders.

9. Allowing information to replace transformation

It’s not what you know, but what you do, in dependence on the Holy Spirit, with what you know that makes all the difference.  (p99)

It’s easy to be so consumed with preparing, teaching, and passing on information, that we lose sight of the purpose of seeing people transformed by God. If we are teaching and learning, but never changing, then we have a massive problem. As leaders we should be on our knees asking God to transform us and the people we lead.

10. Allowing control to replace trust

Stressed and busy leaders are high risk to be controlling rather than trusting. We might fear things going wrong or getting out of control. We might worry that someone else will stuff things up or not do them properly. We might be jealous of others and try to guard our reputation. Good leadership is about helping others to have a go, to grow, and contribute, and be the people God made them to be. After all, this is God’s church and God’s ministry, so let’s lighten up and trust God!

This is an insightful and practical book. It cuts deeply. I recommend it especially to young blokes coming out of theological college who are planning to conquer the world! It’s also a must read for senior pastors who know deep down that they keep running in the red zone on empty!

Leadersense

I’ve just taken on the role of developing leadership within the church I serve as a pastor. It’s a wide role and open-ended. What type of leaders – do you mean pastors and ministry apprentices? Will it include members of the congregation? Is this about growth group leaders? What about children’s and youth leaders? Aren’t they someone else’s responsibility? Will this involve women as well as men? Shouldn’t each area of ministry be doing this anyway? Will you be creating new opportunities for leadership? And these are just some of my questions! I’m sure you can think of dozens of others. The role is really about making sure we’re recruiting, training, equipping, supporting, and multiplying our leaders across the church. The answer to every question above is ‘yes’!

It’s easy for us to be very monochrome when it comes to thinking about leadership. We might limit our focus to paid staff for example and say that they’re our leaders. We could think of the governing body of the church as the leaders. Or we might limit our thinking to all the people who have the title of ‘leader’, such as our growth group leaders, kingdom kids (Sunday School) leaders, youth leaders, service leaders, and so on. If we think role as well as title, then we have leaders (or at least we need leaders) in all kinds of places. Every ministry team needs a leader. The growth of a church requires a corresponding growth in the numbers and calibre of leaders. Leaders need to understand God’s agenda for church, the church’s vision for ministry, the needs of the people they lead, and the importance of continually replacing and reproducing themselves.

This may seem like common sense – and it is! But, as someone once said, good sense isn’t that common! It’s easy to assume that leadership will arise naturally, that people will automatically understand what’s expected of them, that they’ll step up to the plate, do a great job, and all will go well. In the real world, leadership needs to be taught and caught. It needs to be encouraged, supported, resourced, and held accountable. We have to develop pathways to move the right people into leadership, and equip them so that they’ll lead people in the right way.

The Scriptures are the foundation for understanding leadership. God made people. He knows us inside out. He knows how we tick psychologically and engage relationally. Jesus, Paul, Peter, Moses, Joshua, David, and others, show us and teach us God’s purposes for leading his people – why to lead them, where to lead them, how to lead them, who should lead them. My plan is to draw on the riches of God’s word to build and inspire leaders in our midst. And, more importantly, for each of our leaders and yet-to-be leaders to dig deeply into the Bible, to shape and equip their leadership.

large_einsteinAnd yet, I don’t subscribe to the view that says “If you can’t find it in the Bible then it’s not worth knowing.” The Book of Proverbs shows how much can be learned by astute observation of this world we live in. God has created sharp minds who have much to teach us in many areas including ‘leadership’. We can learn from great leaders throughout history. We will be warned to avoid the mistakes of the past and inspired to reproduce the wisdom that worked. Bookshops abound in leadership books and, while many aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, there are some real gems out there. Leadership happens in all areas of life and organisation and we can draw on our experiences in other contexts and the experiences of others in similar situations. All this must be firmly bracketed by the understanding that leadership in church should be fundamentally about leading people in their relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, in the strength of God’s Spirit. No Harvard Business Review best-seller will take you there.

olddogI’ve been in this leadership game for years and years, but I’ve still got so much to learn and apply. My hope is that this old dog can learn a few new ‘tricks’! My goal and prayer when it comes to leadership is to develop God-informed and worldly-wise, practical and principled, organisational and personal, uncommon and common sense.

I’m keen to grow in my ‘leadersense’.

Beyond the first visit

Welcoming is a gospel issue. Our God is a welcoming God. Jesus died so as to welcome people into relationship with God and with each other. He calls his followers to show hospitality to others as an expression of God’s love and grace. So how can we make this a vital feature of our congregations? One way is to be genuinely friendly when people come to our church. Next is to take the initiative in welcoming, follow-up, hospitality, and inviting people to join with us in what we are doing. Nearly every church assumes it is friendly and welcoming, but it’s not what the insiders think that really matters. We need to learn to see things from the outside in. How do we come across to visitors and guests? This book invites us to take a look.

Beyond the First Visit: The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to your Church by Gary McIntosh is a book worth reading. I’d advise following the author’s suggestion:

To get the most out of this book, as you read each chapter, make notes in the margin of the book, scribbling your thoughts and ideas. Then make a list of action steps that you want your church to take during the next year to get ready for company. (p14)

McIntosh begins by suggesting we review our terminology – stop speaking about visitors and think of guests instead. We don’t always want visitors, but guests are expected. Visitors are expected to leave, but we plan for guests to stay and we make arrangements so they can. A guest mindset is what we need in our churches. This book encourages people in our churches to become great hosts. The following checklist is a good way to assess how and where we can improve:

  1. Invite your guests with a personal invitation.
  2. Arrive early to make sure everything is ready for the guests’ arrival.
  3. Greet the guests warmly at the entrance and escort them to their seats.
  4. Assist guests in understanding what is taking place.
  5. Anticipate and answer as many questions as possible in advance, so guests do not have to ask.
  6. Do something extra to make your guests’ visit special.
  7. Walk guests to the door and invite them back. (p17)

Welcoming guests doesn’t always happen naturally. We need to plan for it to be done well and it’s the responsibility of the church, not the guest. It’s worth thinking about how we’d treat a guest in our home, and applying this to church. We’d invite them in, offer to take their coat, show them where they can put their bag, take them into the appropriate room, invite them to take a seat, offer them a drink, ask them how they’re doing, engage in conversation, invite them to the table for a meal, let them know where the bathroom is, and more… And yet, when it comes to church, so often we expect people to work everything out for themselves. Healthy churches will take the responsibility for welcoming people and helping them to get involved in the life of their church.

People will sometimes make assessments of your church on the basis of a single impression. The long grass surrounding the old stone building makes it look abandoned and unused. The out of date website communicates that nothing much happens anymore. The paint on the sign, making it hard to read the service times, indicates that they don’t want me to come. Whereas the attractive brochure describing the Christmas Carols, with pictures of families, and a warm invitation to come along, makes me think my family could fit in here. It’s worth considering all the first impressions we make as a church. What assessments are people making about what we’re like? If we can’t work it out ourselves, then ask others – those who’ve come and those who haven’t.

Churches who have their own properties are urged to think of the impact their facilities have on others. Are they welcoming or alienating? McIntosh suggests a stroll around, examining everything that people will come into contact with when they check out your church. A mother with a couple of young kids isn’t likely to return if her first experience of the bathroom is a gloomy, smelly, dirty, inadequate facility. If all the parking spaces near the building are reserved for church staff, then you get the message of who’s most important. If things are bright and clean, if directions are clear, if people say ‘Hi’ and smile and offer to help, then second visits become much more likely.

The book contains many ideas on letting people know about church. I nearly gagged at the direct marketing/phoning suggestion! The best idea was simply word of mouth! Spread good rumours! If your church matters to you, if it encourages you, if it’s great for your kids, if you love getting to know God with others, if Sunday is a highlight of your week… then spread the rumour! But be warned. Don’t talk things up too highly. People like their expectations to be exceeded – not let down.

Getting Beyond the First Visit helps churches to examine the pathways for people getting involved and belonging. This can be very simple in a church of 100 or so, but may require much more organisation and communication in larger churches. There is no one size fits all. Some smaller churches may be small because they’re not good at letting others in. The danger for large churches is that people come and go and no one notices or cares. This book helps us not to take it for granted.

At one level this is very light book. It’s not big on theology and there’s not much Bible. It devotes a lot of attention to surface issues and impressions, and a few of the suggestions made me cringe. But overall, it’s full of helpful analysis and practical suggestions that will get us thinking about how we can do better. The central issue is so vitally important. At a time when our churches are becoming more and more marginalised, we need to make every effort to connect with people. People need to know God today, as much as they did in our parents’ generation, and as much as they did in Biblical times. Our churches shouldn’t make it hard for people to get to know God. There’s no excuse for unfriendliness. It’s not up to our guests to ‘make themselves at home’ while we go about our own business. It’s our job to welcome, introduce, connect, and build genuine relationships.

I bought this book last year, so as to examine the issues afresh as we began to plant a new church. If you think about the principles being discussed, rather than simply looking for practices to adopt, then I believe you will find it a useful tool. Church planters should get a copy, but so too should existing pastors and church leaders. How long since we reviewed this area of church life? Have we ever? Maybe things are in need of a tune up, or even a serious rebuild. This book can help you to think it through, without spending $1000s on a consultant – unless, of course, you want me to come! 😉

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: Aligning the Ministries of your Church through Creative Collaboration by Ferguson, Ferguson and Bramlett challenges churches to think hard about the message we communicate and how we go about doing it. Fittingly, the strength of this book is its big idea. Disturbingly, I found some of its weaknesses lie in the details.

If you go to church regularly it’s a worthwhile exercise to write down how many different little ideas you have to take in each week. If you consider the welcome signs or banners, printed handouts, messages on the screen, various announcements, the MC or leaders comments, intros to songs, the songs themselves, children’s talks, prayers about different topics, video clips, Bible readings, the sermon, various connected or disconnected points within the sermon, more songs, closing comments, conversations over supper or morning tea… you can see the problem. What message do you take home from church? Add to this the family context – if children and youth are looking at unrelated material, learning about different things, and engaged in different activities, then families could have dozens of ‘take home messages’. What gets remembered? What sinks in? What gets put into action? This book argues for alignment, getting our message focused. It’s premised on the observation that more information means less clarity and less action.

We have bombarded our people with too many competing little ideas, and the result is a church with more information and less clarity than ever before.  (p19)

The passion behind the big idea is for churches to be communities of transformation, not simply information. This requires genuine relationships and a focus on personal change. Small groups, for example, aren’t to be tutorials or study groups, but rather places where people care and share, challenge and support, confide and confess, learn and grow together. At Community Christian Church, where the authors serve as pastors, they adopted sermon-based studies to align the small groups with the weekly church celebrations around the same big idea. This approach is much the same as that described by Larry Osborne in Sticky Church. Yet, not only do they seek to align small groups with the big idea, but also families, ministries, congregations and other churches in their network. One big idea shapes everything they do.

What does this look like? It begins with planning the preaching program a year ahead. Topics and series are worked out and positioned carefully with regard to the annual calendar. At thirteen weeks out, the teaching team write a short essay that fleshes out the series and each topic within. These are called big idea graphs. The graphs are distributed to the relevant people so that at nine weeks out a creative team meeting can brainstorm how to shape the church service by the big idea. This meeting will include the leaders of teaching, drama, music and other areas needed to determine and shape the service content. At five weeks this gets a reality check. At three weeks the teaching team and the small group curriculum writers collaborate to construct a big idea sermon and discussion guide. At two weeks the big idea teaching manuscript is finished so that preachers in different congregations or churches can take the manuscript and personalise it to their own style and to suit their congregations. This is also passed on to the media team and others who will organise slides, graphics, scriptures references, and other things needed for the particular service. The whole process is very collaborative and teams are the order of the day. Even the sermons are a cooperative exercise. The long lead times opens options for creativity and ensures that things are done well.

There is much to like about this approach, but I will reveal my concerns first. The authors openly admit that topical preaching is their preferred and normal practice. They brainstorm and discuss possible sermon ideas and vote on which ones to pursue in the following year. It seems that much of the creative work in preparing sermons takes place as people share their ideas about the topic. Working out which Bible texts might be relevant to the topic is only done after the topics are nutted out. I don’t believe this is the healthiest approach to determining a preaching plan. It can mean we’re driven by popular ideas and what we think people will find interesting. Many important themes addressed in the Bible will never be heard and certain hobby horses will often get ridden. I’d much prefer to follow a staple diet of expository preaching so that we let God’s word put the topics on our agenda. Look to get a balance from different parts of the Bible and mix it up from time to time with some specific topics and occasional messages. In fact, I’d love to see a book like this written from the starting point of expository preaching.

I’m also worried about what doesn’t really get described in this book. One example is their skeleton for weekly adult services:

  1. Praise choruses (opening of service)
  2. Campus pastor moment (greeting)
  3. Creative element (video, sketch, or song or a combination)
  4. Teaching
  5. Communion
  6. Giving back to God (offering)
  7. Praise choruses (closing of service)  (p133)

While admitting that we can replace the nouns we see with whatever describes our own church’s style, system and mode, it concerns me what they’ve left out. Where does prayer feature? Where does Bible reading fit in? What preparation goes into these areas? I have to admit that the heavy emphasis on the creative arts and the silence about prayer and Bible reading in the church service left me concerned. The storyline of this book is about BIG church and is dominated by the ‘performance’ on weekends. This is not to say it’s irrelevant to small churches with single pastors. I think there’s some great wisdom here, but it needs careful transposing.

So what did I find helpful? Let me focus on two strengths of The Big Idea. Firstly, the alignment of message in the church. My experience is that too often we have many little ideas competing for people’s attention and the message we most want people to hear gets seriously diluted. We have so many announcements that we forget most of them and can’t differentiate their importance. Sometimes the songs have no relationship to the message. Or the prayers are completely unrelated to everything else going on. Or the talk seems more like a commentary than a sermon, picking up too many ideas from the Bible passage without highlighting and applying the main one.

I’m not beating up on our church now. I’m very encouraged by the fact that our church has a weekly team meeting to discuss each service, make sure the different parts are connected, link the music to the message, integrate the kids talk, discuss priorities and emphases with the service leader, and more. We’ve also been following the same teaching programs with adults, youth, and children and this has enabled us to pool our resources and help families to focus on the big idea each week.

The second strength of this approach, is the emphasis on preparing well ahead. It worries me when I keep hearing of pastors writing their talks on the Saturday night before church, the kids talk being thrown together without much thought, the Bible reader being organised as we walk into church, the musicians not being given or not learning the songs until just before church. It doesn’t need to be this way. It doesn’t take any more work to be organised weeks ahead, but it does require discipline and organisation. 

I’ve always worked to get a draft preaching plan in place a year, or at least a term, ahead. This requires a lot of work, reading the relevant books, working out the preaching units, determining the big idea, conveying this briefly in a sermon title. It may mean setting aside a week or more to achieve it. We’ve mostly published these for the upcoming term so people know where we’re headed and can prepare as needed. In the preceding term I’ve been working on the upcoming book of the Bible, reading commentaries, writing notes and drafting ideas. I put these in a note book and draw on them when I get to preparing the actual sermons. I’ve tended to prepare the actual sermons in the week that I’ll deliver them. However, one year I managed to get about six weeks ahead with my talks. I’d write the rough draft weeks ahead, and tune it up in the final week. I can testify to this delivering a better product and removing a lot of stress. If I had my time again, I’d like to make this normal!

Our youth programs are worked out a term ahead and publicised. This enables the team to share responsibilities among the leaders while keeping to the big idea. Working on the children’s ministry material well ahead helps the creative process and good integration with the adult and youth programs.  Other churches manage to prepare Bible study and discussion guides for the upcoming teaching series. (We’ve only managed it once or twice, but we do manage to get them out each week!) These guides connect with the sermons. This means the big idea of all sermons needs to be worked out well ahead, so that the studies are integrated with the teaching. Advance planning assists the music teams to choose songs that connect with the big idea. It ensures we think carefully about what we’re praying about. It opens the door to creative ideas that we could never pull off the night before. And it takes some of the stress out of planning church.

All in all, I’d recommend this book to pastors and leaders as they look to the year ahead. Read it through before you spend a few days with your team planning for 2013. You did plan a planning time, didn’t you? Or perhaps you’re well organised and have already done it!

Your church in rhythm

A catch-cry of recent years has been the search for ‘work-life balance’. Very few of us would be brave enough to claim achieving such equilibrium. And what is true for individuals has also been true for my experience of church. There are so many things clamouring for our attention and we feel guilty every time we notice that some aren’t getting any. So it was quite a breath of fresh air to read Bruce Miller’s Your Church in Rhythm. In his preface he argues for rhythm as the best picture of a healthy life and critiques the so-called balanced life as being…

…unbiblical, impossible, and toxic.

Here’s some questions to ask yourself right now:

Has our church got everything in balance?
Are we reaching out enough?
Are we giving enough time to preparation of sermons and lessons?
How is our care and counselling ministry?
Are we leading well? Are we developing leaders effectively?
Are we praying enough?
How are our administrative systems and processes?
How are our ministries to children and youth?
Are our small groups vibrant?
How are we doing at following up with our guests?
How is our communication with the church family?
How is our discipleship process?
Am I reading enough to grow personally?
Am I current on email and other correspondence?  (p. xxii)

If you’re a church pastor, elder, leader or committed member of your church, then I’d bet you’re probably feeling guilt, guilt and more guilt after reading this list. We just get one thing humming when another falls apart. We start to feel good about what we’re doing and then realise how much more is not getting done.

Miller gets us asking the question, “What time is it in your church?”. If we understand the times, he believes that our experience of church and ministry will become more effective and enjoyable. There will be less fatigue and burnout, less boredom and apathy, more enthusiasm and engagement, we will work harder and rest more thoroughly, and there will be greater outcomes for the kingdom of God. Does it sound like the kind of book you’d like to read? You can’t lose really. At least you’ll be able to tick your ‘Commitment to professional development’ box when you finish!

Your Church in Rhythm describes two types of time: kairos and chronos. Kairos time is experienced time, shaped by organisational stages and ministry seasons. Chronos time is measured time, it’s cyclical, and can be divided into days, weeks, months, quarters and years. Recognising the impact of the stages and seasons helps you to determine what is most appropriate for now. Understanding the five chronos cycles enables you to pace your ministry better.

By choosing rhythm, you will invite your church to live in harmony with the flow of life – to be content in all circumstances, to make the most of the moments, to rejoice at all times – and to set your hope on what’s to come.  (p. xxv)

A guideline is offered to understanding organisational stages in a church. The life span of a church is broken down into five stages: inception, growth, maturity, decline, death or renewal. This can be complicated further by recognising that larger churches are collections of congregations and ministries which also have their own life cycles. These stages rarely follow a simple straight pathway and are commonly impacted by crises or major transitions. What’s important is that we seek to discern what stage our church is in, to understand the times, so that we can identify what best to focus upon now.

Ministry seasons are shorter than organisational stages. They may only impact one ministry area, they can be experienced more than once, and a church could be in several seasons simultaneously. Throughout this book Miller engages helpfully with other literature and I will be following up various leads. In this chapter he draws on Kubler-Ross’s research on loss and grief cycles and John Kotter’s important work on change management. These perspectives are useful for appreciating what churches and ministries go through over time. If a church loses a pastor, gains a new one, shuts down a ministry, starts up another, builds a property, restructures its leadership, negotiates a difficult crisis, seeks to increase its giving, plants another church, or goes through a period of transition – these are seasons, not simply events. Their impact needs to be appreciated and navigated well.

Miller identifies six strategies for getting your church into rhythm, and then a conclusion that is a must read! The following table (p169) highlights the structure of this thinking:

rhythmI won’t develop each strategy in any detail, as I don’t want to simply repeat the content of the book. The real benefits will come as you get into the book for yourself, identify your own organisational stage and ministry seasons, and consider the impact of the different chronos cycles on your church, people and community. You may disagree with the specific stages or strategies identified in this book, you may disconnect with some of his examples or illustrations, but I believe Miller’s overall thesis is both helpful and liberating. Let’s briefly skim over them.

Release expectations

Releasing expectations involves accepting that we can’t do everything. There are limitations placed upon us by our stage and season. There’s no point envying churches that are in different stages or wishing we were in a different season. Releasing expectations helps us to grow in contentment and focus on the time we’ve been given.

A heart at peace gives life to the body,
but envy rots the bones.  (Proverbs 14:30)

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
(Philippians 4:11)

Consider a church that has just been planted and is getting underway. Now is probably not the time to worry about developing lots of ministry programs, you don’t need detailed systems in place, and you’ll manage fine without a sophisticated newcomer follow-up process. Just work hard at getting to know each other, invite people to your place for a meal, set the tone for your church community, relationships, and gospel priorities. As you move into your growth stage, as you add staff and become more complicated, then you will need clearer processes and systems so that you care effectively for the church and continue to reach your wider community. But there will be a time for this, it can wait for a while!

Likewise, recognising the seasons you are experiencing will help shape your focus and enable you to release expectations. If you’re falling well behind budget and encouraging your regulars to give, it’s not the time for embarking on a new program to reach all the local schools. If you’re transitioning between members of staff, it’s probably not wise to introduce a bunch of new ministry ventures. If the church has been impacted by a season of grief, then it’d be wise to forget the rah-rah and allow people the space to work through things carefully.

Seize opportunities

Open your eyes to the opportunities around you. Sometimes we can be so locked into our longterm strategic plans and goals that we fail to take up valuable opportunities before us. We need to discern whether to hold to the plan and pass on the opportunity, or to alter the plan and seize the opportunity. Evaluate your motives, ask what’s at stake. Most importantly, weigh things in the light of God’s agenda.

Any opportunity worth pursuing should advance the cause of Christ. Will this opportunity advance the Gospel better than the current plan and better than any of the other opportunities we could pursue?  (p77-78)

In the inception of a new church, people are more open than they will ever be. Seize the opportunities to establish culture, mission, vision and values. Focus on the unique low-key relational opportunities. It’s a time of firsts – make the most of them. It’s a busy period, but pause, catch your breath, and delight in what God is doing among you. Likewise, later stages and ministry seasons will offer you special opportunities to advance the cause of Christ. Look out for them, explore them, critique them, and weigh up the best way to move forward.

Anticipate what’s next

We need to live fully in the present stage or season, but looking forward fuels hope with anticipation. You can work hard for a season if you’re looking forward to the outcomes and you’ve planned for a time of rest afterwards. Change can be a difficult season in the life of a church, so it’s important to emphasise that it’s temporary, and for leaders to shepherd their people through the processes. Anticipating what’s ahead is a key to this.

It’s also important to consider all our stages and seasons in the light of the big picture. As Miller writes:

All stages and seasons will culminate in the final stage of all history: the new heavens and new earth. Our ultimate hope is the return of Christ who will make all things new. We do our work in anticipation of what God will do in the near future. We can persevere knowing these are temporary seasons. Our role in these seasons is to announce and demonstrate the Kingdom that has come and is coming.  (p94)

Some seasons can feel like they’re never going to finish, or that they will destroy our church. A building project can cause all kinds of stresses and grief. False teaching or moral failure by a leader can mark a terribly difficult time for the whole church. Anticipate that there will be better times ahead. And whatever our particular church may experience, it’s important to remember Jesus’ promise that nothing will destroy his church (even if our particular organisation struggles or dies).

Pace your church

Pacing is the technique of spreading out your strength over time so that you do not burn out before the end. (p111)

Athletes are acutely aware of the importance of pacing, but it doesn’t stop with them. It applies to many areas of life and work, and it’s important for organisations like churches. Church leaders need to pace themselves so that they run well for Christ, rather than burning out and quitting. Congregations need to pace themselves well, so that people don’t migrate from church to church, or drop out altogether.

It’s worth asking, what do we expect of people every day, every week, every month, every term, every year. There is a time for many things, but when everything happens at once we clearly haven’t paced things well. Miller suggests using the five chronos cycles as a foundational grid for identifying and assigning appropriate frequencies what what we do as a church. If we’re expecting people to come to church each week and to participate in a small group, then how much and how often can we expect more from them? Pacing our planning around terms and years assists people to grasp the bigger picture of where church is heading and what we’re trying to achieve. Giving people time out and time off on a regular basis helps them to remain in the game for the long haul.

Being aware of the natural rhythms of the community will help you to pace things more effectively also. Some coastal churches don’t run Sunday morning family services because many families are caught up with the surf programs running at that time. When we were preparing to plant a church in Darwin, we recognised the impact of the dry season, the build up and the wet season on community involvement and activities. There’s no point cutting across these natural flows if we intend on connecting with those around us.

Build mission-enhancing rituals

Mmmm! Coming from an independent church with very few of the trapping and rituals of traditional churches, I had to think hard on this one! But the key is ‘mission-enhancing’, not ritual for ritual sake. What patterns, practices and habits will help people to appreciate and engage in building Christ’s church? Some annual rituals or weekly practices can carry power explicitly by their repetition. Repetition can be mindless and meaningless, but it can also highlight what’s really matters.

Miller illustrates this with an example of how his church changed how they approached personal, small group and church-wide Bible study and preaching. The goal was to see people transformed and impacting others as they engaged with the Scriptures. They adopted a study → listen → discuss → share strategy. Everyone in the church was given a guide that helped them to study the passage of scripture during the week. Then on Sunday the sermon was preached from that passage. Small groups met in the following week and discussed the application of the passage, and people were encouraged to share and encourage one another with what they’d learned. This pattern increased alignment in the church and helped deepen people’s understanding and personal ministry to each other.

Oscillate intensity and renewal

Too many church leaders are not oscillating, and neither are their churches. We are neither working hard enough nor resting deeply enough.  (p140)

Life is not a marathon but rather a series of sprints and rests. If churches try to keep a constant pace, they build up higher and higher levels of stress.  (p141)

Miller argues that in each of the chronos cycles, we should experience an oscillation between intensity and renewal, work and rest. This is not the same as work-life balance, it’s about rhythm. God built this type of oscillation into his creation. Working six days, resting on the seventh. Sometimes we need to put our foot down on the accelerator, at other times we need to coast. There’s no place for workaholism and there’s no place for laziness. But there can be a time for climbing mountains and a time for lying on beaches, without feeling guilty for doing either!

Holidays, breaks, doing something different, changing things around. They can all help us to stay the course. Giving our leaders time out, refreshment, and encouragement will help them to want to do the work again. Encouraging our congregation to join together every week, but acknowledging there will be things that keep them away from time to time, can reduce guilt and increase enthusiasm for meeting together. Pastors taking a day off each week, protecting their annual holidays, having some study leave or taking a sabbatical, can decrease burn out and aid perseverance. Sleep matters, so does exercise, so does having other interests and so does working hard when we’re working! Oscillation is built into the rhythm of life – go with the flow!

Conclusion

Miller has written this book to be used. Each chapter contains a case study and a worksheet. There’s a ‘next step’ summary plan at the end of the book. I recommend we approach this as a workbook and take the time to apply it to our lives and gather with others to apply it to our churches. It’s about leveraging insights into the times and cycles we experience, so as to advance the cause of Christ. And it’s up to us what we make of it.

I appreciate the way this book recognises the ups and downs, seasons and stages, needs and opportunities in life. I’ve been persuaded that rhythm, rather than balance, is a better picture for describing the good life. Most of all, I’m warmed by the bigger picture that frames this book. As Miller writes:

It is the rhythm of eternity that empowers us to be steadfast and immoveable, giving ourselves whole-heartedly to the work of the Lord.

We can endure difficult days when we remember that ultimate rest is coming. A focus on the ultimate future sustains us today with vivid hope. Understanding the ultimate rhythm can help us release false expectations. In this case, we can – and should – release the erroneous expectation that this life will ever be paradise. Seize opportunities to do that which will last forever. Anticipate eternal joy to come. That is the source of true and rich hope. So in view of the eternal rhythm to come, we want to flow our ministries as well as possible in the earthly kairos and chronos rhythms.  (p157-158)

Why we need more churches

Late last year I was invited to speak at a conference on the topic Why we need more churches. It seemed a silly question really. Of course we need more churches. The population’s growing. We’re not keeping up. Denominations are dying. Church attendance is declining. Church buildings are being shut down or turned in restaurants, offices, trendy homes, and even funeral parlours.

But for me, it was and is a real issue. People confronted me with this question a number of times after hearing that we were moving to Darwin to plant a new church. Many were enthusiastic and supportive of our intentions, but others seemed to view it as invading their turf. Some denominational leaders said “We’ve already got churches up there.” One wrote to me and told me not to come because they had it covered. It was suggested we go somewhere else, where new churches were really needed. I met with one local pastor who warned me that the last thing they needed was people from ‘down south’ coming up and planting churches – despite the fact that he, and many other pastors I met, had done exactly this!

We faced the same issue in Canberra when deciding to plant a new church south of the lake. Some denominational leaders believed this would create a ‘competition’ with their churches. We were asked why people didn’t simply leave our church and join theirs, instead of starting another. It’s easy to get excited about new churches, until someone starts one in your neighbourhood.

Let me offer a number of practical reasons (with warnings) for why we need more churches, and then one theological reason.

Practical reasons why we need new churches

  1. Current churches are not effectively connecting with the Australian population. Some surveys suggest that 65% of Aussies don’t have a personal relationship with a Christian.
    We need to be careful here because we could increase the number of churches, remain in a religious ghetto, and still not connect with 65% of our population.
  2. Existing churches are perceived as irrelevant, out of date, oppressive, self-righteous, and a bunch of other things that keep people disinterested.
    It’s not ultimately perceptions or image that matters, but the reality of what is believed and practiced. It’s just as important for established churches to make an impact on people’s lives as it is for new ones. And who’s to say that new churches will be different? New churches could end up reproducing the problems of their founders.
  3. Someone once said of the church, “It’s easier to give birth than to raise the dead!” It’s true that some established churches will be harder to turn around than the Titanic, so maybe it’s better to leave them to sink and get people out into other boats.
    While this is often true, we shouldn’t cop out on the importance of revitalising wayward churches. I think it’s Mark Dever who has spoken of the 2 for 1 benefit of resurrecting dying churches. He sees it as both removing a bad witness in the community and adding a good witness. And it utilises existing resources.
  4. Geographical reach is an important strategic reason for planting new churches. While committed Christians might travel long distances to come to church, their neighbours or interested friends most likely won’t. This might lead to a city church giving birth to another congregation in a different part of the city, or a country church beginning a satellite church in a neighbouring town.
  5. Cultural reach is another driver for starting new churches. Some churches will never reach certain subcultures in their community. The language, dress, customs, activities of the church just alienate outsiders. Hence, a church might be planted to reach uni students, or an ethnic or language group, or mining workers, or some other group.
    While a church might be created to reach a certain demographic, the church needs to be open to anyone. It could begin with one type of people in mind, and discover the need to keep changing as it comes into contact with different people.
  6. Urban growth continues in some parts of Australia at a rapid rate. The number of churches is not keeping up proportionally with the size of the population. We can’t depend on town planners to allocate land or facilities for churches. We can’t assume denominations will add another franchise in the new housing development. Christians should see urban growth as creating new mission fields and the need for more churches tailored to connect with people in these centres.
  7. Of the many churches that exist, many seem to have lost the plot. They’re not what I’d call evangelical, that is grounded in the Bible and focused upon Jesus Christ – his offer of relationship with God and his call on people’s lives. Many churches have competing agendas or no apparent agenda at all. Some appear to be little more than middle-class religious clubs. Others are preoccupied with rituals and out-dated forms that veil the truth of the gospel. We need more churches that are teaching the Bible and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.
    Mind you, the imperative is also to transform existing churches with God’s agenda.
  8. There’s a need to plant ‘church-planting-churches’. Very few churches in our country have planted daughter churches. Institutional thinking has left this to the denominations and it doesn’t always happen. If churches are planted with the DNA of planting more churches, then we create a multiplying (rather than simply adding) effect.
  9. Planting new churches re-energises people to serve. In large churches it’s easy for people to sit in the congregation and watch others do the work of ministry. The new group, or the core team for the new church, will easily see the needs and opportunities for ministry. There tends to be more urgency and importance placed on reaching out to others in new churches. Children’s workers, musicians, teachers, preachers, welcomers, carers, you name it – the new church needs them!
    The danger is that burnout often occurs. Many jobs are being filled by a few. The newly planted church needs to establish clear priorities and monitor people’s involvement carefully. Having lots of busy people doesn’t necessarily equal a healthy growing church.
  10. Planting new churches sharpens the vision for ministry. It requires people to ask the big questions of what are we doing, why, when, where and how? It forces people to get off the treadmill and set a deliberate course for the future.
    Once again, it’s important for existing churches to take stock and set a clear vision for their ministry. Planting a new church shouldn’t be seen as the easy alternative to making important changes in the existing one.
  11. It’s a good thing for the sending church. Planting a new church is always costly, so it helps the sending church to practice generosity. There’s a loss of people and relationships, money and resources, gifts and talents, vibe and comfort. If you’re the ones left behind it’s easy to feel like you’re the ones left behind! So we should see this as a fresh opportunity to grow and change, to step up and get involved, to refocus our vision, and to look toward planting again.

Theological reason why we need new churches

We could brainstorm and come up with dozens more practical reasons why it is important to keep planting new churches. And people already have! But the need for more churches isn’t essentially about pragmatics, strategy, analysis, or the latest trends. It’s not fundamentally needs driven.

There’s a deeper, broader, more profound, theological reason for why we need more churches. It’s at the core of the plans and purposes of God.

The church is at the heart of God’s design for humanity. We were created to belong to the church. It’s key to what it means to be truly human! Now all that might sound a bit weird, and you won’t find it taught in anthropology, psychology, sociology, or biology. You probably won’t even hear it taught in many churches. But it’s in the Bible and it needs to be taken seriously.

Take Ephesians 5, for example, a passage that gets preached at many weddings. It seems to be a passage about marriage, that gives instructions to husbands and wives. The Apostle Paul appeals to Genesis 2, man and woman in union together, as the foundation for marriage. But a careful reading shows something deeper going on…

31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

The profound mystery isn’t the union of man and woman, it’s the union between Christ and his bride, the church. This is the core reality, the primary marriage. Humanity was created for union with Christ. That is, we were made to belong to Christ’s church and we experience this as we place our trust in Jesus Christ and respect his headship.

These ideas, introduced at the beginning of the Bible, find their climax and fulfilment at the end in Revelation 19…

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

“Hallelujah!
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)

Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”

The ultimate event to participate in is the wedding between the Lamb, Jesus Christ, and his bride, the church. God is calling people to be ‘at one’ with his Son, our Lord and Saviour. This imagery highlights the extraordinary importance of being united to Jesus. This is what truly matters. This is the relationship we were made for. This is why the church is so important.

Of course, the church on view here is not St Blogs down the street, nor is it the denomination or institution. The church on view is the gathering of all who truly belong to Jesus Christ. This gathering finds its earthly expression as people give their lives to Jesus and meet together with others who have done the same.

It’s always been God’s plan to gather people to himself. His Son, the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, came to build his church. We see this in the climactic announcement about Jesus’ identity in Matthew 16…

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyonethat he was the Christ.  (emphasis added)

Jesus is the promised Christ or Messiah (these words mean the same thing). He came to take on the Messiah’s job description, that is to build his church. Not an institution, not a building of bricks and mortar, not a local spiritual club – but a gathering of people, belonging to God for all eternity. The church is not a social construct. It comes from the heart of a merciful loving God.

Why do we need more churches? Fundamentally, because God is calling people to belong to the church of Jesus Christ. We’re not talking about structures, organisations, denominations, buildings or campuses. We’re talking about the church of God, union with Christ, people coming to grips with what it means to be truly human.

Humanly speaking, this will come about in many ways – denominational and non-denominational strategies, revitalising existing churches, transplanting congregations to reach new areas, pioneering mission to connect with new people groups, people speaking with their friends and family, church planting organisations equipping people to lead new churches, and more.

From God’s own perspective, this is a seriously costly project. Jesus went to the cross and died so as to bring people into his church. Growing the church required the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself. The church is deeply precious to God. It’s his treasured possession and therefore needs to be handled with great care. We see Paul encouraging the leaders of the church in Ephesus to take this seriously…

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.  (Acts 20:28, emphasis added)

Planting churches will also mean leading churches. It’ll mean teaching and warning people, loving and caring for people, equipping and mobilising people, serving and encouraging people, praying for and giving to people. Planting new churches should never be seen as the ‘easy option’, nor should it be adopted as the latest fad strategy. It’s hard work. It’s a costly project. It can take a lifetime. It should be embraced with humility, relying on God’s strength, and going about it God’s way, because it comes from the heart of God himself.


Sticky Church

Last year, I purchased the ‘wrong book’, and read it by accident – and I’m so glad I did. Sticky Teams had been recommended to me as a helpful book to consider our organisation and direction as a church, but I mistakenly ordered Sticky Church by Larry Osborne instead! It took me a while to appreciate that this was a different title by the same author. And it proved to be even more important in thinking about how we were doing church.

As a senior pastor/team leader/preacher I’ve applied myself to the crafts of leadership and communication over many years. There may be 100 or more books on my shelves touching on these areas. But I’d probably only read 3 or 4 books on the topic of small group ministry, and none that had really explored the strategic importance of a well integrated small group ministry in a growing church. Sticky Church has begun to fill this void and pushed me to explore other material in this vital, and yet overlooked, area of our ministry.

The book begins by tackling the matter of how we grow our churches. While many churches work hard to get people in through the front door, they leave the back door wide open and people don’t stick around. By contrast, Osborne’s church does no marketing, gets plenty of visitors and inquirers, and focuses on building genuine connections with those who come. In short, small groups are seen as the key to closing the back door, by building real relationships in a context of ministry, Bible, prayer, and life experience.

For the statisticians among you, think about this one:

Imagine two churches that each grew in attendance from 250 people to 500 people over a 10 year period.

Church A is a revolving door. It loses 7 people for every 10 it adds. To reach 500, it will have to add 834 new members of attenders.

Church B is a sticky church. It loses only 3 people for every 10 it adds. To reach 500, it has to add 357 new members or attenders.

On the surface, both churches appear to have doubled. But the revolving door church had to reach reach 834 new people to get there, while the sticky church only needed to reach 357.

Obviously, doubling attendance is a lot easier for the sticky church than for the revolving door church. No surprise there. But here’s the kicker: After ten years, the church with the big back door will have 500 attenders and 584 former attenders! And every year after that the spread between the number of ex-attenders and the number of current attenders will grow larger.

No matter what that church does to expand the size of the front door, it’s going to be hard to keep reaching people when the predominant word on the street is, “I used to go there.”  (p17-18)

Osborne is committed to having 80% or more of church attenders actively involved in small groups. He sees the groups as the hub of the ministry. And he sees this model as fully scalable. The same principles that make a church sticky with a hundred or so in attendance, continue to work as the church grows into the thousands. Osborne’s church, North Coast Church, is a mega church in Aussie terms and may lead some of us to tune out as to the relevance to our contexts. However, it took them five years to reach 180 attenders and another five to reach 750, and they worked hard at the small stuff along the way.

Sticky Church presents a model of sermon based small groups, where the preaching on the Sunday is followed up in people’s homes throughout the week. We can argue about the ups and downs of groups being sermon based, but let’s not miss the primary observation. Osborne writes:

It doesn’t matter if the groups are sermon based or not. Ours weren’t initially. All that matters is that a significant percentage of the congregation begins to meet in small gatherings outside the church building to share life and study the Bible together.  (p49)

I read over this book a couple of times, gave copies to all our pastoral staff, and used it as the basis for evaluation and planning at our staff week away last year. Here are some comments, relevant to our situation, that I pencilled into the inside cover of my book for our discussions:

How do we convey the value and importance of groups to the life of our church and the spiritual vitality of our members?

  • teaching ‘one another’ the word of God
  • developing authentic relationships and Christian community
  • encouraging people to share their lives and faith with others (in the groups and beyond)
  • helping more people take up opportunities to serve in the life of the church and our outreach
  • decentralising leadership and care of one another
  • experiencing more personal prayer in relationship with others

Growth in churches is often crippled by what Osborne describes as the ‘holy man myth’. This is the idea that pastors have a more direct line to God. They are seen as the ones who must teach, visit, pray, counsel, and do pretty much everything. Especially if we’re paying them to do it! Aside from the poor theology driving this myth, the harsh reality is that one man simply can’t do all these things. My observation is that if a church or its ‘holy man’ thinks he must do everything, then we are not likely to see the church grow beyond 100 to 150 people. Healthy small groups are a valuable means for decentralising the ministry, and empowering people within the church to use their gifts in service of one another.

This book promotes sermon based Bible study in small groups. Our church had only done this occasionally, usually for a specific purpose such as focusing the whole church on a theme. People expressed appreciation for the guidance and resources, but we’d never managed to keep it going. From my perspective it was hard enough getting the sermon done well, let alone adding the preparation of small group material. I’d seen others committing to it over the years, week in week out, and in some cases preparing their whole series of Bible study notes before the preaching even began. I would just sit back and marvel at how they could pull it off. I’d leave it for the Phil Campbells, Steve Crees, Craig Dobbies… it wasn’t for me!

But, Sticky Church has pushed us out of our comfort zone to develop a sermon linked small group Bible study strategy. We haven’t managed to write a series in advance yet. Mostly the studies are produced and distributed week to week, ‘just in time’ for leaders to work over material and prepare for their groups. They are sermon linked, rather than based, because we don’t want people just rehashing what the preacher said on Sunday. We want people getting back into the text, doing some work themselves, and applying it in their lives. Some groups like to follow the sermon with the emphasis on further exploration and application. Others have opted to precede the sermon with the study, aiming to get people more engaged in the observation and investigative processes, raising their questions, and whetting their appetite for a sermon to follow. Horses for courses, but I think that in our context we will benefit from a greater commitment to applying the Word in the context of relationship with one other after the sermon. So I’d tip the scales towards sermon first – small group studies afterwards.

There are a few things that have moved us in this direction. Feedback from some of our leaders has shown that they have worked hard on preparing Bible studies from scratch and devoted little or no time beyond this to leading and caring and promoting the ministries of others in their groups. Some haven’t even seen this as their role. (This probably says more about our poor communication of expectations and encouragement of leaders in their roles). Just focusing on preparing and leading studies is commendable at one level, but if we are seeking these groups to become ‘little church’, where people are being fed, encouraged, caring for one another, and encouraging each member to be connecting with people who don’t follow Jesus… then the leaders need to be helped to embrace a larger job description. Not simply preparing and leading studies, but leading people, and this takes time. If we can resource the leaders with material, this will give them a leg up. Some leaders follow our material pretty much as provided, while others use it as an aid for their own specific preparation.

We’ve also seen the positive benefits of having the entire church learning together the same or similar material. In fact, on the occasions we have been able to integrate youth and children’s material with the adult preaching and small groups, we’ve had great feedback from families. By linking to the sermons, people have had the benefit of the preacher’s hard work combining with the group working through understanding and application of the Bible together. As we put our sermons on line, people who miss church are able to download the talk before attending (or even leading) their small groups. This seems to be increasing people’s engagement with the Bible and with working through its implications for life.

Osborne’s church has worked to keep their groups aligned with the mission of the church. They are not seen as optional accessories, but integral to the church fulfilling its purpose. They desire to 1) enlist new followers into God’s kingdom; 2) train them how to live the Christian life; and 3) equip them and deploy them into service. Small groups are vital to this process.

There are some interesting particulars how about how North Coast Church groups function. People sign up for a term at a time, and are then asked to provide feedback at the end of each term, which includes indicating whether they will be remaining with the group the following term. Osborne says that providing a clear way out of groups has led to more people staying in. Groups are not divided into two as numbers increase. In fact, he has a whole chapter on Why dividing groups is a dumb idea. He notices that some people take forever to click with a group that works for them, and then we cruelly split their group and they’re lost again. Their answer lies in two strategies: starting new groups for new members, and hiving off leaders rather than dividing whole groups. We’ve basically adopted this approach and begun to see the advantages of moving newcomers through an introductory ‘connect’ course into a small group with the people they’re already getting to know.

There is some good stuff on finding and developing leaders. Look for spiritual and relational warmth in prospective leaders. Avoid hyperspiritual God-talkers and single-issue crusaders. Look to apprenticing leaders within existing small groups, or else find people with few preconceived ideas or baggage about how groups should be run and prepare them to play on the team. Grabbing a leader who did things differently in their previous church, without engaging them with the vision of your church, can spell disaster! And it’s better to ask for recommendations, rather than asking for volunteers.

I also appreciated the creative rethink on how we go about training leaders. The emphasis is on preparing leaders on the job, for the job. Keeping the information flow with resources, encouragement, tips, suggestions, and ensuring that groups are well connected with the wider ministries and mission of the church is vital in equipping our leaders. This hasn’t been our strength to date, and we’re seeking to improve. Osborne also addresses the different needs of rookie and veteran leaders. This is something we should probably consider more.

Finally, the last section of the book includes tips for preparing sermon based studies. For mine, this is not the high point of the book, but it’s worth reading as we review our approach and strategies. And there are a number of appendices that show how North Coast Church puts their model into practice.

I’m very glad that I stumbled onto this book. Not simply because of it’s great ideas and practical common sense, but especially because it reminds me that if we’re expecting our small groups to be the hub of our ministry, and a primary pastoral care context, and the leaders to run with this vision, then we must invest more in helping them to work well.

Deliberate Simplicity

deliberate_simplicityThey say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I confess to buying and reading this book because of its cover! Deliberate Simplicity – How the Church Does More by Doing Less is a catchy title and the image of the paperclip on the cover captures the essence of functional simplicity. This book aims at getting the church and its leaders to be intentionally aiming to fulfil our mission in the simplest ways possible.

Last year I focused on reading books and resources aimed at clarifying and refocusing our ministry. We seemed to be doing a lot, but it wasn’t always clear why we were doing what we were doing, or how some of the things we did related to other things we did. Life and ministry were feeling cluttered and busy, and I was keen to stocktake, prune, reorganise and rebuild for the future. I’m sorry that I didn’t know about this book then.

Deliberate Simplicity identifies six factors that describe the successfully Deliberately Simple church. These are:

Minimality – keep it simple.
Intentionality – keep it missional.
Reality – keep it real.
Multility – keep it cellular.
Velocity – keep it moving.
Scalability – keep it expanding.

Browning identifies these six things as his new equation for the deliberately simple church. He contrasts his approach with that of ‘traditional’ churches, mega churches, and other sorts of churches. At times there seems a measure of arrogance or smugness with his approach, like he has discovered the key to doing church properly, or that his ways reconnect with the church of New Testament times. However, despite the ‘we’ve got it right’ feel about the book, it does contain many helpful perspectives on church, and it offers a helpful diagnostic tool for refreshing our ministries. Let me share a few ideas that I found helpful from the different sections of this book.

Minimality

Deliberate Simplicity aims at restricting the activities of the church instead of expanding them. The goal is to prioritise what’s important and get rid of extraneous junk. Browning’s church values small groups as the centre of church life, so they deliberately remove things that get in the way of small groups functioning well.

The book rejects the way that many large churches have moved toward a professionalism that only allows for the most gifted and talented to be actively involved in ministry. In contrast to the ‘Search for Excellence’, they proclaim that ‘good enough is good enough’. The desire to have everything well resourced, carefully measured and planned can make churches too complicated. In contrast…

We keep asking, “What is the simplest thing that could possibly work?” We try to have just enough to facilitate our mission. Just enough money. Just enough time. Just enough leaders. Just enough space. Just enough advertising. We don’t want to stockpile assets.

They also aim for doctrinal simplicity, majoring on the majors, and not being dominated by peripheral teaching. While it’s true that there are doctrines central to Christian faith, and others are less so, we need to be careful here. I don’t know the teaching agenda of Browning’s church, but being too selective can easily lead to neglecting scripture that is difficult or awkward, and to merely preaching our hobbyhorses.

Intentionality

By making an up-front investment in unusual clarity, a Deliberately Simple church reaps the benefit of spending less time and energy trying to figure out what it’s trying to do and more time doing it.

This quote resonated with me. I look back over many years of ministry and think about how many things we’ve done that have been a waste of time, or a tangent to the main game, and how much has been absolutely central. I think some of our busyness and distractedness came about because we hadn’t adequately clarified or communicated our mission.

Peter Drucker says that every organisation needs to be able to answer two questions: What business are we in? and How’s business? We can’t answer the second unless we are clear on the first. Some of the books I’ve read on ‘church’ suggest that the answer to the first question is subjective, particular to each and every church. I disagree. The church belongs to God, and we’re called to be on about his business, not ours. The answer must come from the Bible. We’re called to discern God’s plans and purposes for his church, and then to put that into effect in our own context. The power of the vision lies in its divine origin. The role of the leaders is to align and engage the church with God’s vision.

Browning’s church is intentionally mission-focused. He sees the church existing for the sake of those who aren’t in it, and he prioritises outreach (care for those on the outside) over nurture (care for those on the inside). A big part of the pastor’s job is to keep the church focused on the outsider, because it is more natural and comfortable to look after our own needs first.

Reality

Many look at the church and see something that seems artificial, hypocritical or contrived. Why is that? If God is real, if the gospel is real, then why don’t Christians get real in how we go about church? Deliberate Simplicity is aiming for WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). Our personal and public presentation should be sincere.

People need to understand that it’s not about religion. It’s about a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It’s about loving God and loving people. Church should be come as you are. It should be an environment of grace. Posing and artificiality need to be rooted out. Church should be less like the formal living room, and more like the lived-in family room.

The reality of Christian faith and experience should come across in what we do and how we do it. Church shouldn’t be cluttered with fluff. At Browning’s church, straightforward messages are given in a normal tone of voice and in conversational style. I like that! Our sermons aren’t lectures. We’re not presenting papers to a symposium. We’re not reading someone else’s work. So let’s get real about how we communicate God’s word. My belief, is that we need to let God’s word work on us first, and thenwe are much more likely to communicate in a real way to others.

Multility

I didn’t recognise this word, and neither did my spell-checker. Browning defines it as…

mul•til•i•ty  n:  a commitment to multiples of something, instead of a larger version of that thing

He believes that more is better than bigger. This is a methodological commitment that differs from the megachurch approach. He illustrates this strategy by reference to the McDonalds restaurant franchise that keeps reproducing more of the same-size outlets in new locations, rather than up-sizing the outlets. He advocates a multi-location church, with multiple smaller centres, and multiple teachers and leaders, as the pathway for growing the church. His church has many such parts throughout the US and many other countries. He calls it a church, but I think I’d call it a denomination!

The rhetoric of this approach says more instead of bigger, ministries instead of programs, empower instead of control, prosumers instead of consumers, decentralised instead of centralised, and yes instead of no. Who can argue with that?! I’d be an idiot not to follow this model, wouldn’t I?!

There is much worth digesting in this section. It’s important to ask questions about our churches and our culture, about our ability and what we’re attempting to do, and about what is working and not working as we look at our church and others. As our churches get bigger, so they also need to get smaller. We need to keep people connected and engaged, to make it harder to be a passenger, and easier to be a participant.

Velocity

Many traditional churches don’t seem to change at all, and they take forever to do anything. By contrast, there’s a real energy in the Deliberately Simple church. They’re committed to growing, and growing quickly. They are always aiming for more – more people, more groups, more congregations, more people serving more people.

And they plan for this to happen. They keep asking questions like What will be need to do to double this congregation? This means they’re preparing for the future rather than simply catching up with the present. They see the need to let leaders lead, to streamline the organisation for action, to step out in faith, to be ready to respond to opportunities, and to keep the church from institutionalisation. These are risky ideals. But risks are needed.

I believe we need a greater sense of urgency in our churches. We move so slowly sometimes that it doesn’t seem like we’re moving at all. We act like we have all the time in the world. But, the truth is we don’t! We need to number our days, to seize our opportunities, to live as though each day is our last.

Scalability

Can the church think forward and outward instead of inward and backward? Can we start thinking about those we are to serve instead of how they can serve us?

The deliberately simple church is called to look beyond itself, to increase its reach and influence, to multiply and grow.

Browning uses the image of a network of ‘terror cells’ and flips it to describe the church. He calls us to create a ‘global unterror network’. His mandate for leaders is to create organisational structures that support consistent, small-scale, organic, growth in our churches. This contrasted with church structures where small congregations and groups exist to support hierarchy and bureaucracy at the top.

Perhaps controversially, he argues for rapid leader deployment. His model is IDTS (identify, deploy, train, support) rather than the traditional ITDS (identify, train, deploy, support). There’s a momentum in this approach that gets people engaged in ministry quickly. The one deployed is the one who understands the need to be trained. In my experience, we sometimes run training courses, qualify and equip people for ministry, but then fail to deploy them. Or else people get bored by the training and fail to take the next step into service. There’s much to be said for training on the job.

And so?

So what do we make of this book? It’s a stimulating read, littered with good ideas, helpful critiques and pithy quotes. But, I found it annoying too! I came away feeling like Browning thought he’d rediscovered the ‘right’ way to do church, especially when he described his church as being similar to the early church in the Book of Acts. I’m left with many questions about how things really work in practice, and whether there are substantial differences between what they are doing and many other churches.

I was left unsatisfied that the ‘equation’ of six factors really defines a Deliberately Simple church. It was hard to clearly distinguish between ‘multility’ and ‘scalability’. And I think six things isn’t simple enough. Our church once had a five point vision. We reduced it to four points, to make it more memorable and functional. Our last change was to get it down to three points, and I think people are starting to get it! But I do commend this book to church leaders. We could all do with little more deliberate simplicity.

Who’s holding the umbrella?

As a ministry apprentice in the mid 80s, I was introduced to the idea of ‘holding the umbrella’ for others to do ministry. My pastor modelled this idea in his own leadership. His desire was not only to see people trained, but also to create opportunities for them to exercise their gifts and talents in serving God. This he did over many years with literally hundreds of people. I have sought to emulate this in my ministry.

Around this time I was given a copy of a book by Bill Yaeger called Who’s holding the umbrella? My friend, who gave me this book, had visited Yaeger’s church, seen his ministry in action, and described the man as “a cross between General Patton and Bill Cosby”. The book shows him to be a no-nonsense, hard-core leader, who has a deep commitment to people. It remains one of the most helpful and influential books that I’ve read on the topic of leadership. Written in 1984, it’s now been out of print for sometime. However, you can still find used copies of Yaeger’s book online, and its well worth your time and money to get hold of one. Most of the language throughout the book is masculine, but so much of his wisdom is equally applicable for men and women serving God in ministry roles.

Yaeger’s thesis for leadership is that it is doesn’t require a particular personality type to be done well. But rather it is born of conviction – quiet qualities that burn like a ‘fire in the soul’. He introduces the idea of the umbrella man as:

… a term I use for the leader who gives himself to the ministry of Christ in such a way that he equips believers and provides abundant opportunities for them to serve. His ministry is spread out like a canopy or protective umbrella, under which others can grow and flourish – and eventually become leaders themselves. (pages 20-21)

The outline for leadership in this book is anchored in the teaching of the Bible, and the leader is called to make the Bible central to all he does. He is to be a servant who puts others before themselves. He is to be a shepherd who oversees and protects. He is to be an equipper who provides for and makes room for the ministry of others. As he does this, Yaeger doesn’t believe that he will ever work himself out of a job. Rather, his umbrella will just keep getting bigger and his opportunities for service will keep increasing.

Unlike a lot of newer books on leadership in the church, Yaeger does not assume the content of ministry. He emphasises the importance of Word ministry, leading through preaching and teaching. He establishes priorities, beginning with equipping every member of the church to be able to witness to the saving work of Jesus. He focuses on discipleship, that means teaching, equipping and training people to be able to use their gifts in service. He determines how they should use their staff, program and facilities to achieve their vision and goals. He also works out how to deal with decay, removing the things that are crippling the church.

Yaeger is not afraid to ask hard questions of leaders. Are they accountable and to whom?   Is he responsible and does he act responsibly? Can he handle authority without becoming authoritarian? He talks about the strength of humility and the importance of principled rather than expedient leadership. Leadership should be inspirational, leading by example:

When you have to get men into a tough situation, you can’t send them there, but you can take them there.

Selecting suitable leaders is an important task for the umbrella man. Seek out motivated people, with proven godliness and spiritual maturity. Prospective leaders should be emotionally stable, servants not prima donnas, and not have critical spirits. They should have the gifts and abilities required to lead others in their area of ministry. He spotlights the following list of requirements for Christian leader effectiveness, and each of them are worth exploring further:

  1. faithfulness
  2. availability
  3. teachability
  4. self-motivation
  5. industry
  6. innovation
  7. productivity
  8. like-mindedness
  9. interaction
  10. seasoning
  11. stewardship
  12. devotion
  13. camaraderie

Yaeger is a strong advocate of standing by and supporting your leaders. The good umbrella man will be prepared to back up his leaders. He stresses that workers need to know that their tasks are worth doing. They should be respected so that they are encouraged to serve with dignity and joy. A word of appreciation and recognition is a breath of life. Communication is an absolute necessity for staff  and leadership relationships, and this needs to start with the leader. Regular meetings are essential for people to stay connected, and he identifies the value of teams getting away together regularly for what he calls staff attacks (he doesn’t like the idea of retreats)!

These days many books have a very short shelf life. Some of them are such rubbish that they don’t deserve to stick around. This book is different. It combines the wisdom of the Bible with the practical experience of a leader seeking to lead others faithfully. Whether you are a Christian leader starting out, or a seasoned senior pastor, its well worth a read. See if you can track yourself down a copy.