If it were possible to answer this question, wouldn’t you like to find out, and jump aboard?
Well, thanks to Eric Rainer and Thom Geiger, it is possible. They launched a study of hundreds of churches to find the answer. Their book Simple Church: Returning to God's Process for Making Disciples documents their journey and their findings.
The authors studied 400 churches: small and large; urban and rural; rich and poor. Every time, the findings were the same.
Growing churches all have a defined process for spiritual growth and forming disciples. They are “simple” in that they are process driven. The process is clearly defined, communicated, and advanced.
Dying churches, on the other hand, are program-driven. Well-intentioned programs are launched, then seldom questioned again. They end up self-referential and self-perpetuating, competing for time and talent and resources with other programs. The over-programmed church is complicated and cluttered, lacking any simple, clear definition of what winning looks like.
In a hectic, busy, complex world, people like simple. The success of Apple or a glance at Google’s home page give evidence to this. Successful organizations have a clearly-defined win and a strategic process for attaining it. Unfortunately, too many churches are messes of mis-aligned complexity.
The program-driven tendency is to become so busy ‘doing’ church that there is little room for ‘being’ church. All the activity amounts to little impact or transformation. Churches end up, as author Greg McKeown says in Essentialism, making “a millimeter of progress in a thousand different directions.” The “ADD church” suffers from “ministry schizophrenia” where people end up content simply being busy. With no defined process for spiritual growth driving all the activity, the Kingdom is thwarted, and lives do not change.
When “program” trumps “process,” programs cease being tools moving people toward spiritual maturity. They instead become self-perpetuating and self-referential, and ultimately ineffective. It’s hard to be excellent when you are focused on too much; and unfortunately, that’s what happens in dying churches where once-helpful programs multiply and stagnate long after they have outlived their usefulness.
The leaders of the growing churches profiled in the study were all in some way “designers.” They designed growth environments where change was likely to occur. They designed opportunities for spiritual growth. They defined - then designed - a simple, strategic, straight-forward process to move people from one stage of spiritual growth to another. Then, they pruned. They eliminated any program that did not serve the process. By defining the mission, they then designed a model to serve it. Their model serves the mission, rather than vice-versa.
The authors give four steps common to the growing, “simple” church. These steps amount to an effective design blueprint for forming disciples and advancing people’s growth toward spiritual maturity.
1) Clarity. The authors call this “the ability of the process to be communicated and understood by the people.” This involves certainty and eliminating confusion. Simple church leaders clearly define the “win,” showing people what success will look like. The best “design” for a process of spiritual growth can be explained briefly and clearly, even to the point of being drawn on the back of a napkin. This first step is crucial, for “understanding always precedes commitment.”
Churches lacking clarity have no defined “win” and so cannot adequately communicate a compelling process for growth, let alone implement one.
2) Movement. This involves “the sequential steps in the process that cause people to move to greater areas of commitment.” The authors use the example of a relay race, where the smooth passing of the baton between runners is crucial. Movement is about “handoffs,” and simple churches all facilitate a process where the handoffs happen smoothly and effectively. A believer coming to Sunday worship is moved to a small group where she can grow as a disciple; the small group then equips her for mission and moves her out into a ministry.
Churches lacking movement may get people into programs; but there is no “next step.” The program become self-referential and static, and people stagnate.
3) Alignment. This involves the arrangement of all ministries and staff around the same simple process. All ministry departments submit and attach themselves to the same over-arching process. This ensures that the entire church body is on board, moving in the same direction, in the same manner. This step is “costly,” say the authors. It is where friction and push-back may occur. However, the costs of mis-alignment are far greater.
Churches lacking alignment have sub-ministries and programs with tunnel-vision, competing with each other for space, time, people, and money. The body suffers dis-unity and fracturing.
4) Focus. This involves the commitment to abandon everything that falls outside of the simple ministry process. It means “saying yes to the best, no to the rest.” Focus means eliminating programs that have outlived their usefulness and are no longer contributing to the agreed-upon simple process of spiritual growth. Focus requires asking the difficult questions. It needs leaders willing to be “iconoclastic” and shoot some sacred cows. As a result, this step is often the most difficult to implement. It take guts and conviction to execute focus.
Churches lacking focus seldom define their win and clarify their process. And even if they do, they can never pull the trigger to eliminate the clutter that has ceased working. They end up where they started, falling back into muddled ineffectiveness.
“Complexity dilutes your potential for impact.” In a world of unlimited options, people today are overwhelmed and confused. Perhaps that is why they are responding to simple - including in church. People want to grow and will do so when given a simple, defined process.
When church is a growth environment, we can see measurable progress in our life of faith as Jesus followers. We begin to grow as disciples and become better equipped to advance the Kingdom of God within our sphere of influence.
When church is not a growth environment, people cease to see measurable progress in their life of faith and discipleship. When this happens, ultimately they leave, seeking places where they CAN grow.
My suspicion is that this is too often the case in the Catholic church. When people leave because they stop loving or believing in God and can’t stomach the demanding truths of the faith, shame on them. But when they leave because their over-programmed local church offers no real process or proposal for spiritual growth, shame on us.
- Does your local church have a clearly-defined process for spiritual growth?
- If so, what steps have been most helpful?
- If not, what changes would you like to see? What can you do?
- Do you know someone who has left one church for another, because they were not growing?
- Do you know of a “simple church” that is leading people through stages of spiritual growth?
- Can you think of programs at your local church that seem to have outlived their usefulness?
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