“Growth by Accident – Death by Planning: Why Growing Churches Plateau” by Bob Whitesel, Oct 22, 2004.
This is a copy of the original article I wrote for Strategies For Today’s Leader Magazine. To my surprise Rick Warren emailed me and told me this was the most helpful article in the issue. This led to Abingdon Press later publishing it as the book: Growth by Accident – Death by Planning.
——— “I don’t know why we are growing. I’m at a loss to explain it.” ———
As Yogi Berra famously intoned, “its like deja vu all over again.” Have you ever experienced a word, phrase or idiom spoken with such familiar expression that suddenly you were swept away to a time long ago? As a church consultant, a recent statement by the young pastor of a rapidly growing congregation triggered such a recollection.
“I don’t know why we are growing. I’m at a loss to explain it,” he declared. The congregation he shepherded had grown from 100 to 1,500 attendees in five years. Now, on the cusp of purchasing land and building their own facility, the pastor mused about how his lack of knowledge about church planning had not hampered the church’s growth to any perceivable degree.
As the pastor stood ruminating over his predicament, I daydreamed, if but briefly, back to a similar scenario almost exactly 20 years earlier and 3,000 miles away. On that occasion I had sat in another pastor’s office and witnessed the same bewilderment. He was the shepherd of a fast growing Southern California congregation, and I had been sent by my doctoral facilitator to interview him as part of a research project. “I don’t understand why this church is growing,” he confided. “People come from all over the world and ask us what we are doing, and I don’t know what to tell them. I can’t explain it.” His words were so similar to my present encounter that on this nearly two decade anniversary I felt if I had been swept back to my former experience.
Yet, the disturbing thing is that the need to know how young and rapidly churches grow was just as elusive and bewildering two decades ago as it is today.
——— Young and Growing Churches Plateau Too Soon ———
While interviewing pastors of young and growing churches I have found that the pastoral vision for the eventual size of the church usually never materializes. In fact, young growing churches seem on average to attain only about half the size of their intentions. Often, this lack of goal attainment begins with a marked slowing of growth and ensuing plateau. Then, due perhaps to a disappointment in the attainment of the stated growth goals, schisms and conflicts often arise to divide the shepherds and sheep into competing offspring.
If these pastoral growth goals are imparted by God, as I believe in most circumstances they are, then these churches plateau too soon. With this in mind, I decided to craft a list of actions that in my mind distinguish the growing periods of young churches from the customary growth plateau that follows.
——— Unplanned Strategic Decisions ———
The accompanying list is based on the thesis that unplanned or “accidental” strategic decisions are often made by young and growing churches, and that theses decisions lead to growth. Their leaders employ many of these strategies not because of familiarity with their potential, but because of necessity brought on my the church’s circumstances. Thus these decisions are not planned strategies, but strategies that often occur by accident, owing their genesis to circumstances. These unplanned strategic decisions are driven, not by knowledge, but by the church’s environment.
As the church grows the leaders often become perplexed over the causes of this extraordinary growth, and seek to uncover causal factors. Because the factors are so elusive and since many church leaders are not trained in the literature and axioms of church growth, they often become bewildered. Soon this bewilderment surfaces in sermons and casual conversations; belying an inner conundrum over the forces involved.
Eventually and typically, the leaders of the young and growing church begin to read church growth books, periodicals and case studies. Often the leaders begin to make strategic planning decisions that are similar to other churches they perceive to be in their situation. Because the majority of larger churches have adopted strategic plans that have plateaued their congregations, the young church follows suit. And herein rise the factors that inhibit growth.
——— Our Future May Lie in Our Past ———
It is my thesis that it is not planning that is wrong, but rather planning that does not fully understand the factors that contributed to growth in the first place.
Thus, I have graphed three types of factors:
1.) Factors that I see contributing to growth in young and growing congregations,
2.) The strategic actions that are typically and erroneously taken (which plateau a church),
3.) Followed by solutions that I believe are more in keeping with the factors that contributed to growth in the first place.
——— Let’s Not Forget the Holy Spirit’s Participation ———
Before we undertake our list, let me acknowledge in the strongest terms, the role of the Holy Spirit in all church growth. Because church growth is first and foremost a work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-9), no real and enduring growth can occur without His participation. Granted some churches briefly grow by purely secular powers and processes, but the churches I am referring to are those that have God’s unseen hand of blessing clearly upon them. As a result, I believe this unseen hand has led them to employ certain fundamental and God-derived principles that have resulted in growth. I cannot stress too highly the indispensable nature of the Holy Spirit’s participation in growth.
However in this article, I am addressing the fashionable strategies that often replace the God-derived tactics that contributed to growth in the first place.
——— Why Growing Churches Plateau: And What You Can Do About It ———
|Factors that Cause Initial Growth (in young churches)||Erroneous Strategic Decisions that Lead to Plateauing||Corrective Steps to Regain Initial Growth|
|Focus is on meeting the needs of the congregants.||Focus is increasingly on the needs of the staff.||Make planning decisions based upon congregational needs (via surveys, focus groups, etc.) … not on the conveniences of the staff (which are usually expressed more vocally and assertively than congregational needs).|
|Celebration Convenience: multiple church celebrations are held at varying times.||Waning Celebration Convenience: celebrations are combined together in larger facilities. As a result fewer options are offered for congregants (but convenience increases for the staff).||Maintain as many multiple celebrations as feasible in order to offer as many convenient worship times as possible.|
|Prayer focus in on the unchurched and dechurched, (Dechurched is defined as those who have terminated their attendance elsewhere due to some real or perceived hurt, conflict, etc.)||Prayer focus in on church attendees. Most of the prayer is centered on the personal needs of a burgeoning congregation.||Employ 50/50 prayer (see “A House Divided: Bridging the Generation Gaps in Your Church”). 50% of the prayer focus addresses congregational needs while the other 50% is faithfully reserved to address the needs of the unchurched and dechurched.|
|Urgency in prayer due to potential for failure.||Institutionalization of prayer takes place. Prayer forms are standardized and systematized, especially in the church celebration. Security in circumstances robs prayer of its urgency.||Don’t wait for a crisis to reinvigorate the prayer life of a church. Consider the enormity and significance of the task you are undertaking: the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19)|
|Low overhead due to rented facilities.||Dramatic increase in overhead due to purchased or constructed facilities.||Rent longer than you think you need to. This will place hardship upon your staff, but increase your financial viability and future flexibility. Read “When Not To Build” by Ray Bowman.|
|Rented facilities are usually multi-functional.||Owned facilities are often segregated into activity specific spaces; i.e. immovable pews in an auditorium, small Sunday School rooms that cannot open up into larger facilities, etc.||Retain flexibility in your facilities. When it is time to build, employ architects who build malls, college classrooms and theatres; not those who primarily build churches.|
|Budget is based on money in hand (i.e. past performance).||Budget is based upon projections of continued growth. If growth slows, fiscal flexibility will tighten quickly and dramatically, often leading to conflict and friction.||Budget more conservatively than you feel you should. Church leaders are often optimists, but basing budgets on anticipated performance can be reckless. In addition, lower numbers can be deceptive; e.g. a church that was able in the past to increase a $100,000 budget by 10% will find it exponentially more difficult to increase a $500,000 budget by 10%.|
|Experimentation is encouraged. Almost all theologically non-compromising ideas are considered.||The church begins to stay with “what has worked in the past,” even if that is the immediate past. This often leads to incipient traditionalism.||Foster an environment of experimentation and exploration. Rapid changes in cultural predilections and preferences require this.|
|Housecleaning. Ideas that don’t work are quickly abandoned. Limited resources and the precariousness of the church’s survival creates this situation.||Programs and ideas that may not be productive are given extra time “to develop.” Jesus’ parable on repentance (Luke 13:1-9) is often misdirected to rationalize extending the life of unproductive programs.||Be prepared to use vigorous analysis and empirical evidence to confirm productive programming. Often supporting evidence of a program’s viability is anecdotal. Look for clear evidence of productivity (James 3:17).|
|Dysfunctional people become functional. All people, regardless of physical, social or economic dysfunction are actively recruited. Prior leadership experience in another church is not required.||Functionally adept people are actively recruited. Prior leadership experience in another church is highly valued. Unproductive programming is often unintentionally cross-pollinated.||Inaugurate a lay-training system to mentor dysfunctional people into functional and productive lives in both church and society.|
|Staff has low educational experience in their ministry field. Thus, they do what they “feel” is right.||Staff becomes trained in the “classical” fields of theology, Christian Education, church music, and ministry. These newly acquired skills are probably those that are practiced in influential, but plateaued, churches.||Embrace 50/50 Learning. Learning engendered in the “classical” milieu of seminaries, workshops and Bible Colleges, must be tempered by 50% of the learning coming from alternative sources such as non-accredited institutes (e.g. the Wagner Institute), workshops and secular experience.|
|Small groups are not needed. The church is driven by the “event status” of the celebration.||Small groups, though needed, are not developed, because the “event status” of the worship celebration drives the church’s emphasis and reputation. Because intimacy is missing due to the lack of an expansive network of small groups, people feel the church is “too cold” or “not personal enough” and they go elsewhere.||A celebration event can sustain a church only initially, and soon must be accompanied by a network of small groups that encourage intimacy and commitment. All types of small groups should be developed, including adult Sunday School classes, leadership teams, home groups, ministry groups, interest groups, etc..|
|Christ is exalted as the instigator and sustainer of growth. The miraculous nature of growth inspires awe and a sense of the supernatural.||Leadership principles are credited as the cause of growth.||Fully understand the factors that contributed to growth in the first place and adapt these God-derived strategies to current needs.|
The strategic approach I have outlined may not be for everyone. Some churches will chafe under the thought of being so flexible, creative, and adaptable. But for those young and growing churches that were birthed in a milieu of cultural adaptability, an understanding of the God-given factors that initially caused their growth, along with an adaptation of them to the modern context, may be necessary to grow into the congregation God desires it to be.
(If you enjoyed this article, consider buying the book: Growth by Accident – Death by Planning