Church Growth Strategies

I don’t just post articles from someone else, but I read *Bill Wilson’s “Confessions of a Church Consultant”  today and had a flashback to the “Great Commission Consultation” that our church experienced in February 2010. Our church had a negative reaction, today I believe I know the reason why. Here are the highlights from the article and my comments:

Here is a secret: Congregational strategic planning is frequently a waste of time and can be counterproductive. Many congregations engage in strategic planning; some opt to conduct the process internally, while others hire an outsider to help.

Our local association provided what was billed as a church growth guru who was effective in many other areas of the country. Our church had been on a plateau for several years and sometimes it takes a fresh look at one’s situation, from the outside, to see what we often fail to see on our own. So we opted for the outsider to inspire, challenge and motive us toward being all that we can be for the kingdom in this place.

Consulting with congregations is all the rage. Most take some form of corporate planning and apply a thin veneer of spirituality to a secular model. Behind these plans is a paint-by-number approach to your future that, if followed, promises to produce a set of core values, a mission statement, SWOT analyses, strategic initiatives, SMART goals and the like.

This was the main focus of the consultation, there really was a “paint-by-number” approach. Other churches in whom I knew staff members had the same prescriptions for the same unhealthy diagnosis. If you don’t have retention of people who visit your church, you need an assimilation process. The same prescription included the Nelson Searcy assimilation model (from the Journey Church in NYC). It is a fine model, especially for churches who have no real strategy at all, but is not every church different? We have different styles, different communities, and different reactions to gathering information… the point is that if there is an assimilation hole, the consultation guy filled it with this assimilation product.

Some vary the theme and design a process that produces the same thing in every church that uses the plan. This sort of prescriptive planning is used by those who know what your future should be and have a not-so-subtle agenda of turning your church in a direction that they have predetermined. If you get hooked into one of those plans, expect unnecessary conflict and unhealthy upheaval.

The idea of a “predetermined direction” stands out for me. The guy came with an idea of what a healthy and growing church looks like, with stories and illustrations where he has turned other churches around using this same strategy. I think we have a tendency to be covetous of other churches when we see God moving over there more than over here. So we took the plan and presented it to the church and got all sorts of unanticipated “conflict and upheaval.” We talked as a body, shared the same feeling of being scolded; the founders of the church (who grew this congregation to what it is today) must of somehow failed because we have not kept the main thing the main thing (the Great Commission – If he only knew how mission-minded this church is). It is almost like this guy knew we could be a mega-church if we would only follow his plan, when all along our people simply chose to be faithful to God, follow his leadership and allow the Lord to cause the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).

The truth is, far too many of these generic plans are a waste of time and energy because they give only lip service to the question of divine guidance. Oh, there is the obligatory prayer emphasis, but what is lacking is genuine spiritual discernment. Without this, the planning becomes an exercise in stating the obvious/inevitable, and wastes a valuable opportunity to deeply consider the future God has in mind for you.

I felt there was a lot of activity during this time, and we developed a few ideas for a new direction, but our people did not embrace the consultation, or respect the consultant since he came across as a know-it-all with a condescending attitude of who we are. We have a solidly strong church and he spoke to us as if we where dying and one day the doors would close if we did not make changes. Real and earnest spiritual discernment and seeking God’s guidance appeared to be lacking.

A spiritual discernment process is very different from a corporate strategic planning model or a biased approach to your future. Spiritual discernment begins by admitting we do not have the solutions. Spiritual discernment invites thinking, praying and reflecting at a level that most of us studiously avoid. Spiritual discernment is messy, often slow and extremely complicated. Most churches want neat, quick and simple. Sorry, but neat, quick and simple work in this area (like most of congregational life) will lead to shallow, predictable and counter-productive.

The article includes a time-tested pattern of spiritual discernment for individuals and organizations:

Spiritual discernment begins with disorientation: Something happens to knock us off our feet. Some event or series of events conspire to turn our world upside down. It may be an unpleasant experience such as a death, or a beloved pastor’s departure, or some crisis. Whatever it is, our life and world is shaken and we experience high anxiety. Throughout Scripture, disorientation is the portal God uses to break into ordinary lives and do extraordinary things. (remember Joseph, Moses, Esther, Mary, Paul, Peter, etc.) God’s people are constantly finding themselves thrown off balance and unable to manage things using old frames of reference.

The next phase of spiritual discernment is a time of reorientation: On the heels of our crisis, we look around for something or someone to hold on to that will help us make sense of our shaken world. We find that the promises made by culture, leaders, politics, money, possessions and an array of false gods are empty. We turn once again to the One who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. All of our self-made structures, programs and hollow leadership models collapse under the weight of the issue before us. In their place we rediscover our reason for being as a congregation. Our pride gives way to brokenness and humility as we reconnect to our mission and purpose. We lean into our future with a willingness to lay aside those things that have distracted us from our true calling.

Finally, a spiritual discernment process leads us to a new orientation to life and ministry: We reorder and re-prioritize our life as God’s people so that we are on his mission, not ours. We find a depth of meaning and fulfillment that has been missing. We sense passion and engagement rather than lethargy and apathy. Because we have taken seriously the voice and movement of the Holy Spirit, we no longer rely on others to prescribe our future, but we create that future as collaborators with God in an ongoing process of regeneration and renewal. Our time spent in re-visioning our future has produced a new spirit of openness to God’s leadership. We begin the hard work of aligning every part of our life with our new vision.

Bill Wilson* reminds us that we need to be a congregation who resists the temptation to cut corners and go for easy solutions to complex issues. Instead, let’s journey along the narrow and challenging way of spiritual discernment. That sort of spiritual journey leads us to become the people God intended us to be.

*Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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