They 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.