GROWTH BY ACCIDENT – DEATH BY PLANNING & The original article (before the book) that @RickWarren encouraged me to make into my book.

“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 PlateauingCorrective 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

FACILITIES & Churches that base their decision solely on price get exactly what they are after #TonyMorgan

“5 Mistakes Churches Make with Building Projects” by Tony Morgan, 4/12/10.

Tony Morgan says “Churches that base their decision solely on price get exactly what they are after.”

(Thanks to Sarah for finding this.) Read more at … https://tonymorganlive.com/2010/04/12/5-mistakes-with-building-projects

FACILITIES & A Video Introduction to Avoiding Missteps w/ Ministry Facilities

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 11/17/17.

In this video introduction I explain how missteps with facility expansion, renovation or even just reallocation can severely hinder church health.  If you are a colleague, student, client or friend who would like to undertake an exercise designed to help you analyze past missteps and how to avoid them, start with this video intro.  Then read a chapter on this I have penned available HERE: BOOK ©Whitesel EXCERPT – GROWTH BY ACCIDENT Missteps with New Facilities 2. (If you like the insights please support publisher and author by buying a copy here. The download is excerpted from my book: Growth by Accident – Death by Planning: How Not to Kill a Growing Church, Abingdon Press, 2004, pp. 76-80.)

©️Bob Whitesel 2017, used by permission only.

 

UPDATE & Point of Grace Church Case-study from book: Growth by Accident, Death by Planning

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel:  I use case-study illustrations in my books. But sometimes what is a good example for a chapter, can later decline.  Forecasting who will be a good example over the long term is challenging.

But, when possible I like to give update.  Here is an email from a student (Jeremy G.) with an update on a church case-study from Growth by Accident, Death by Planning: How NOT to Kill a Growing Congregation (Abingdon Press).


Dr. Whitesel,

In reading the chapter about missteps in church facilities, I could not help but notice that you hailed Point of Grace Church in West Des Moines as an example of what to do when planning a facility… You may find it interesting that, in 2015, Point of Grace sold that facility to Lutheran Church of Hope, the fastest growing church in the state, because PoG couldn’t afford the upkeep. According to reports, the congregation began contracting shortly after construction of the facility was finished …

Here is an article in the Des Moines Register about the two churches. It contains a little of the history leading up to the selling/purchase of the property and shares the insights of Lutheran Church of Hope, which continues to grow at the Waukee location and several others across the Des Moines metro area.

http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/2015/08/28/hope-buy-point-grace-building/71298200/

… Lutheran Church of Hope cited many of the same rationales in the chapter for why they wanted to buy the property.


 

PLANNING & Growth by Accident, Death by Planning (The Book’s Premise Stated)

“Most of the time young, growing churches make a series of decisions based not upon careful planning and analysis, but rather upon necessity and intuition. Thus these decisions are not planned strategies, but strategies that often occur by accident, owing their genesis to circumstance. These unplanned strategic decisions are driven not by knowledge, but often simply by the church’s environment. When that growth slows, these same churches begin to engage in more careful planning. The problem is that this planning so often ignores the considerations and decisions that led to the church’s growth to begin with. The result is stagnation and eventual decline.”

Premise of the book Growth by Accident – Death by Planning: How NOT to Kill a Growing Congregation by Bob Whitesel.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004.

Retrieved from http://www.abingdonpress.com/product/9780687083251#.V795L7Ws3Y8

EVALUATION & A List of Church Growth/Health Measurements (metrics) from My Books

AN OVERVIEW of MEASUREMENT METRICS: In four of my books I have updated and modified a church measurement tool.  You will find a chapter on measurement in each of these books:

Cure for the Common Church, (Wesleyan Publishing House), chapter “Chapter 6: How Does a Church Grow Learners,” pp. 101-123.
> ORGANIX: Signs of Leadership in a Changing Church (Abingdon Press), “Chapter 8: Measure 4 Types of Church Growth,” pp. 139-159.
> Growth By Accident, Death By Planning (Abingdon Press), “Chapter 7: Missteps with Evaluation,” pp. 97-108/
> A House Divided: Bridging the Generation Gaps In Your Church (Abingdon Press), “Chapter 10: Evaluate Your Success,” pp. 202-221.

I explain that church growth involves four types of congregational growth.  It is a seriously incorrect assumption to assume church growth is all about numbers.  It is only 1/4 about numbers and 3/4 about the other types of growth mentioned in Acts 2:42-47.  In the New Testament we find…

> Maturation Growth, i.e. growth in maturity,Acts 2:42-43.
> Growth in Unity: Acts 2:44-46.
> Growth in Favor, i.e. among non-Christians, Acts 2:47a.
> Growth in number of salvations, i.e. which God does according to this verse, Acts 2:47b.

For more see … https://churchhealthwiki.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/measurement-a-reliable-valid-tool-to-measure-church-growthhealth-organixbook/

EVALUATION & How to Thwart the Tendency to Over Evaluate the Needs of Congregants & Under Evaluate the Needs of Non-churchgoers

By Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 5/13/16.

“Churches usually spend way too much time polling their congregation’s opinions, and thus their programming is shaped by their congregational perception, and not community needs.”

Someone once said organizations can have a “paralysis of analysis.” And I believe this is created because we over analyze churchgoers instead of reaching out to analyze non-churchgoers needs.

This is exemplified when students share measurement tools they have found online, in hopes that these tools will help them evaluate programming.

But, often such tools are not focused on meeting the needs of non-churchgoers residents, but rather in assessing if the ministry is meeting the needs of the church.   Here is an example one student found:

1.    Our greatest challenges are … (check all that apply)

ο    We don’t know how to connect with people who need help or with community partners.
ο    We sense our efforts to help people are often abused.
ο    We can only provide short-term solutions, not real transformation.
ο    We struggle to mobilize church support for helping people who are not members.
ο    The people we help don’t seem interested in the gospel or in our church.
ο    Community needs are overwhelming; we don’t know where to start.
ο    We aren’t equipped to plan or manage community-oriented programs.
ο    We don’t have enough resources to engage in substantial ministry.
ο    We are uncomfortable dealing with people from a different ethnicity, culture or economic class.

Adapted with permission from Ministry Inventory Guide: Assess Your Church’s Ministry Capacity and Identity by Heidi Unruh (2007), http://www.fastennetwork.org. Original source: Jay Van Groningen, Communities First: Through God’s Eyes, With God’s Heart (Center on Faith in Communities, 2005), p. 4-5

Now, don’t get me wrong – this is a good assessment, but not of program effectiveness in meeting community needs. Rather, this is an assessment of how the church feels about its programming.

While this is important, it is really more important how the “community” feels about the programs and their ability to meet their needs.

Thus, effective evaluators will want to poll community satisfaction and consider this as more important than church satisfaction.  (The reason I am so adamant about this is that churches usually spend way too much time polling their congregation’s opinions, and thus their programming is shaped by their congregational perception, and not community needs.)

Understanding community satisfaction can only be ascertained by assessing the community (and the example above primarily measures church satisfaction with ministry, i.e. it is focusing on the church, in lieu of the white harvest).

The best approach usually is to create avenues for community feedback, such as focus groups, etc..  In fact, I have written how a church can do this (2004, pp. 100-104) in Growth By Accident, Death By Planning, in a chapter titled “Missteps with Evaluation.”  The “8 Corrective Steps” for evaluation are church and community focused.  Some of you may want to peruse these steps, they are field-tested and should help 🙂

Whitesel, B. (2004). Growth by accident, Death by planning: How not to kill a growing congregation. Nashville: TN. Chapter, “Missteps With Evaluation.” Section, “8 Corrective Steps to Regain Growth (with Evaluation).” Pp. 100-104.

SMALL GROUPS & Should You Close Small Groups? Not unless absolutely necessary.

by Bob Whitesel Ph.D., 7/9/15.

A student after studying my chapter and chart on “Missteps With Small Groups” in Growth by Accident, Death by Planning (Abingdon Press) said, “I believe we should re-assess all of our small groups and find out if they are truly needed and if not then we should transition people into different groups.”

This statement was a red flag for me.  Let me explain why.

People in small groups like to stay in their small groups.  It is their accountability and small community group.  You must be careful before you “transition people” into other groups unless they really, really need this.

ClustersBookIt has been my observation that when groups have change thrust upon them in the name of innovation, most of the time the innovation doesn’t occur and people are only hurt because they’ve lost the small group community that meant so much to them.  And, over the years I’ve not seen small groups as the place where we innovate.  Instead, they are where we commune. Thus, if at all possible don’t eliminate small groupings.

Instead, you can combine 2-3 small groups together once a month for outreach. This is called “clustering” small groups (see Bob Hopkins and Mike Breen, Clusters: Creative Mid-sized Missional Communities (3dm Publications).  Clustering lets the groups remain together, but when they join with a few other groups once a month they then have enough person-power to do effective social action ministry in the community.

So …

  • Add small groups (so more people can be in small groups)
  • Cluster small groups (so more social action can take place via a cluster of small groups)
  • But don’t split or close a small group (for this is their spiritual community) unless, absolutely necessary.

I hope these reflections help you pause before you close a small group.

Speaking hashtags: #StLizTX #StMarksTX

MEASUREMENT & A Reliable, Valid Tool to Measure Church Growth/Health #HouseDividedBook

by Bob Whitesel Ph.D., 6/12/15.

Church leaders usually want to apply quantitative evaluation of growth … that means using verifiable numbers and not anecdotal observations.  But most don’t know where to start.

In four of my books I have updated and modified a church measurement tool.  You will find a chapter on measurement in each of these books:

Cure for the Common Church, (Wesleyan Publishing House), chapter “Chapter 6: How Does a Church Grow Learners,” pp. 101-123.
> ORGANIX: Signs of Leadership in a Changing Church (Abingdon Press), “Chapter 8: Measure 4 Types of Church Growth,” pp. 139-159.
> Growth By Accident, Death By Planning (Abingdon Press), “Chapter 7: Missteps with Evaluation,” pp. 97-108/
> A House Divided: Bridging the Generation Gaps In Your Church (Abingdon Press), “Chaper 10: Evaluate Your Success,” pp. 202-221.

I explain that church growth involves four types of congregational growth.  It is a seriously incorrect assumption to assume church growth is all about numbers.  It is only 1/4 about numbers and 3/4 about the other types of growth mentioned in Acts 2:42-47.  In the New Testament we find…

> Maturation Growth, i.e. growth in maturity, Acts 2:42-43.
> Growth in Unity: Acts 2:44-46.
> Growth in Favor, i.e. among non-Christians, Acts 2:47a.
> Growth in number of salvations, i.e. which God does according to this verse, Acts 2:47b.

To become more acquainted with these “church metrics” start by focusing on the first “Maturation Growth.”

In my first book, A House Divided: Bridging the Generation Gaps In Your Church (Abingdon Press) I created a chart for computing a “Composite Maturation Number (CMN).

CLICK HERE >> BOOK ©Whitesel EXCERPT – HOUSE DIVIDED Chpt.10 Evaluation << to download the chapter from that book (not for public distribution). Then apply Figure 10.1 titled “How to Compute Your Composite Maturation Number (CMN)” to your organization.

You will be surprised how easy and helpful it is to start tracking your church’s progress in Christ-like maturity.  And, this exercise will give you another tool to measure growth and maturation in your congregation.

Remember, if you are only measuring growth in numbers, you may be missing growth (or lack thereof) in the other three (3) critical areas of growth that God desires for His church.

HD_Sm_PixGBA_Med1Organix_final.aiCureForCommonChurch

Speaking Hashtags: #BreakForth16 MDIV500

DYSFUNCTIONAL PEOPLE & Would Your Church Use These People? A leadership exercise.

You probably know from my book “Growth By Accident, Death by Planning” (2004, Abingdon Press, pp. 109-120) that because of God’s regenerating power, He can use anyone.  Thus, we must not let appearances deter us.  For example, answer the following three questions about the attached picture:

1.  Can you take guess who the people are in the attached photograph (below)?

2.  And, then tell me what you think your people would do if this group showed up on your ministry doorstep one day.  Now, don’t just give a pat answer that “We would welcome them.”  But rather be honest and tell how these people might really feel to your ministry leaders. Would they be looked at as experts?  Or maybe your ministry leaders would feel then need some time to adjust and fit in before you utilized them.  Then tell us why you think they would be treated this way, either accepted or ostracized.  Then, share some steps you might undertake to build a team from them and from your existing ministry volunteers.

3. Finally, what might we potentially miss by failing to welcome in and build a ministry team from such unconventional and quirky folk?

I will give you some of the usual answers to chose from (in case you are stumped):

1.)  The Doobie Brothers
2.)  Lynard Skynard
3.)  Parents of the Backstreet Boys
4.)  Park Place Church of God Handbell Choir.
5.)  Dr. Whitesel’s Eagle Scout Troop
6.)  or  ??

MysteryPicture

Now, one of my witty (and technologically talented) students sent me this attachment (below) which purports to show hidden meanings in the picture I attached above.  I hope you enjoy his humor (I know I did 🙂

Mystery_People_Revealed

So, ask yourself.  Will these people fit into your ministry culture?  In many ministries they won’t. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have something to contribute.  They do.  And, while IBM dismissed these young people and thus missed catching the wave of the next revolution, you don’t want differences in culture to blind your ministry to building a team with people who are just culturally different.

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