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Church Strategy

Tools and Trends for Strategic Planning

Monthly Archives: March 2010

Complete this sentence: “People in our community know us as the church that ______.”

If you’re struggling with that exercise, you are not alone.  What differentiates your church from all the others?  While Paul talked about — as an individual — “becoming all things to all people,” any church who’s tried that has the scars to show it.  Churches struggle to be disciplined in explaining who they are and who they are not.

A few good examples that come to mind: “the church that hosts the Turkey Trot to raise money for the hungry in Arlington,” “the church that offers English as a second language,” “the church that meets on Sunday nights.”

And a few bad examples: “the church that causes all the traffic problems,” “the church that had that pastor leave so suddenly,” “the church that plays its music too loud.”

What is it that separates your church from every other church?  There are so many out there.  Check out the Yellow Pages listings of churches in St. Louis, MO.  To you and I, it’s a bunch of names and phone numbers.  But what are they to the people who live and work near them?

In business, we talk about “differentiation.”  Differentiation at church involves creating a church experience or brand that is unique.  Perhaps it’s your music, or your preaching, or your approach to serving, or the people you target.

Here are the four steps to differentiating yourself and carving out unique space.  These can be done alone, but really should be done prayerfully with a variety of people – congregants, elders, staff – over a few weeks.

1.       List all your church’s characteristics.  Some possible answers here are: location, denomination, pastor, physical presence, ethnicity, ministries, age demographics, the interests of people in your church. 

2.       Cross off the ones that apply to many other churches in your area.  What we’re looking for are things that are peculiar or quirky about your church.  The more distinctive, the better.  “Our church has lots of people who are outdoorsy” or “Our church is extremely educated” or “Our church has beautiful physical space” or “Our church values language” or “Our church is completely casual.”

3.       Circle one or two characteristics for which you would like to be known.  (If there are two, they should reinforce one another.)  Your message and the things for which you are known are largely up to you.   Perhaps you are the most wheelchair-accessible church around; perhaps you have lots of congregants who work in health care.  Don’t try to “branch out” from it; lean into it.

4.       Build programs and branding that reinforce that message.  I once attended a rural church that was heavy on men who liked to fish and hunt.  The leadership recognized it and built men’s ministries and retreats around those themes.  The décor subtly reinforced the message – with stone walls and portraits of the outdoors.  The sermon illustrations often focused on hiking or rafting.  This probably isn’t the differentiator at your church and that’s the whole point: every church is different.

A differentiator in action:

Lon Solomon, the pastor at McLean Bible Church in McLean, VA, has a daughter with severe special needs.  In the mid-90s, the church surrounded the Solomons with support and childcare, but the church’s mind turned quickly to, “What do parents of special needs kids do for support if they aren’t the pastor of a huge church that wants to help?  What do they do?”

McLean Bible realized that there was a whole community of children and parents who desperately needed support, and a break.  Having a pastor with a special-needs daughter was something different, and McLean Bible decided to lean into it.

And so, in 1996, McLean Bible formed Access Ministries.   They trained volunteers to care for special needs kids, and created space that would accommodate them.  McLean Bible became a place where parents – whether part of the church or not – could drop off their kids, knowing that they were in loving, capable hands.  What a ministry!

Now McLean Bible blessed hundreds of kids – and their families, all because they saw something that was different about themselves, and decided to lean into it.

What is different about your church, and how does God want you to use that to further his Kingdom?


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Decision tree about whether to purchase Trinity Baptist, March, 2010.

What would you do in our situation?  At Restoration Anglican, we have grown from 75 at the beginning of 2009 to more than 250 now.  We lease – for an amazing price – a little church in a wonderful neighborhood.  The congregation generally likes the place, though it is small and hasn’t been updated much since the 1940s, but it’s got stained glass and a vaulted ceiling and feels “churchy.”  We can’t make changes since we don’t own the building.

The owners – Trinity Baptist Church – are interested in selling the property to us at a good price.  At our growth rate, we won’t be able to stay in the building – as it is – very long.  But in order to do a big expansion, we would need to tear out the parking lot.  If we tear out the parking lot, then Arlington County gets concerned that we don’t have enough parking to support the building.  (You’re not allowed to, for example, drop a Safeway into a neighborhood and impose hundreds of new “street parkers” onto the surrounding streets.)

So this means that we need a “parking agreement.”  The idea is that we need someone nearby to say, “Sure, you guys can park here on Sunday mornings for the next five years for $x” and then we’ll shuttle people from there.

At the same time, we value the ability to jump to a new facility if we suddenly see God providing something great.  And – if we buy the property – our monthly outlay jumps from about $1000 to more than $6000.  The clock is ticking: Other congregations have made offers on the property, and we run the risk of having Trinity sell it out from under us.

Trinity may want us to assure them that we’ll keep the property as a church forever, which would dramatically reduce the price for which we could sell it should we ever choose to.  Some members of the elder board are getting really concerned about the parking agreement.  But is that really the area on which we should focus?

With all these pieces flying around, how can we get our elders (vestry) to the right decision?

This is where I find decision trees helpful.  (MindTools has a nice explanation that goes into more detail.)

My simple decision tree on this is above.  By outlining the end state for each “node” of the tree, it starts to become clear that – generally – good things happen if we buy TBC, whether or not we get the parking agreement. 

Using this analysis, it becomes clear that the things we really need to focus on are:

1.       Determining how much money we can borrow.

2.       Determining how much TBC wants to ask for the property.

3.       Determining whether TBC will want to restrict our future use.

If we can borrow money, get a good price from TBC, and not have it encumbered, only then should we start to focus our efforts on the parking agreement.  Without the parking agreement, the worst that happens is that we turn around after a couple years and sell the property.

There are all kinds of ways to make decision maps more rigorous (and complex): chance nodes vs choice nodes, attaching expected values to nodes, inserting percentage likelihoods on nodes.  If you want to learn more or want a soft copy of my decision tree that you can work with, let me know at ca.

The Point: When you’re encountering tough decisions with a lot of dimensions and trying to bring people along, try mapping the decisions out.  Often you’ll find that the visual is really powerful and helps you clarify your thinking.

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The biggest growth segment for your church is not atheists or Muslims.  To reach more Millennials, aim for those who think religion is important, but who don’t participate in any particular denomination.  The Pew Forum’s new report, Religion Among the Millennials, surveyed more than 1600 millennials – defined as those now between 18 and 29 years old – on their attitudes toward faith and religion.  The entire report is a great read, but here are some highlights and their implications for your church:

Millennials don’t like organized religion.  Millennials are less likely to be Protestant (43%, relative to 53% of those 30 and above).   Mainline churches have absorbed the bulk of the withdrawal from Protestantism (12% of Millennials are mainline, relative to 19% of those 30 and over), but evangelical churches are also receding (22% of Millennials, relative to 27% of those 30 and over). 

Where are they going?  This is point at which someone is going to look at Protestantism’s struggle with the rising generation and point at racial shifts – a growing Latino Catholic surge or Arab-American Muslims populations.  Not so.  Millennials are less likely to be Catholic (22%) than those over 30 (24%).  Islam is at 1% of the population.

So, seriously, where are they going?  Fully 25% of Millennials consider themselves “Unaffiliated.”  Compare this to just 14% of those over 30.  Within this “unaffiliated” group, there are four categories – “Religious Unaffiliated” (those saying religion is very important in their lives), “Secular Unaffiliated” (those who say their faith is “nothing in particular”), “Atheist” and “Agnostic.”

The largest groups are the religious unaffiliated and secular unaffiliated (9% each).  Atheists and Agnostics comprise 3% and 4% of the Millennial population respectively.

Implication: The Millennials walking into your church are less likely to be familiar with Christianity and its norms.  Periodically take the time to explain all the things that lifelong churchgoers take for granted.  Why we have an offering, why the singing usually goes before the talk, why the singing is called “worship” and why the talk is called a “message.”  The Christian phrases that sound trite to you may be brand new to much of your Millennial audience.

The group to watch is the “Religious Unaffiliated.”  These are Millennials who believe faith is important and are even fans of religion (saying that it’s “somewhat” or “very” important in their lives).  They comprise nearly one out of ten Millennials, but don’t have a church home.  They’re likely to be filtering through your church, checking things out, and looking for a reason to plug in.

What’s your value proposition to that Religious Unaffiliated Millennial?  Why should they hang around your church?

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Oded Shankar, from Ohio State University, argues in April’s Harvard Business Review that “imitation is more valuable than innovation.”  He finds that – in business – the original innovator usually gets just 2% of the benefit of their innovation.  The other 98% goes to companies who copycat the original idea.  Diners Club started the credit card; Visa, Mastercard, and American Express followed suit.

If imitation has a bad name in the culture generally, the stigma is even greater in Christian circles and amongst pastors.  Consider press reports over the past few years about pastors who swiped sermons from others and delivered them as their own.  A friend of mine once confronted a prominent evangelical speaker who retold another pastor’s story as though it had happened to him.  The speaker’s response, “How can you know that it didn’t happen to me too?”  Not a satisfying response.

But stepping beyond sermon imitation, why does every program your church runs need to be home grown?  Other people have figured out how to run small groups, how to triage counseling requests, how to evaluate requests for missions funding, and on and on.

Takeaway: The next time you need to do “something new,” consider starting with “something old.”  Call around to other churches to see how they’ve handled the situation.  You’ll be amazed how excited others are about sharing their successes and lessons learned with you.  Sometimes you’ll need to innovate, but usually you just need to imitate.


Peter Drucker’s “five most important questions” are famous, but not famous enough, in my view.  Whether advising for-profit companies, churches, non-profits, or counseling my friends (!), this framework is immensely helpful in providing a purposeful, deliberate way to approach challenges.

First, what is our mission?  For your church, this might be the Great Commission, or serving the poor.  You don’t need a carefully wrought mission statement.  Just write down, “What’s the big thing we’re trying to accomplish.”  For companies, it’s almost always “To deliver value to shareholders” or “To keep people employed.”

Second, who is our customer?  This is where things get challenging.  This week, I spoke with an executive at Ashoka, a non-profit that finds great social entrepreneurs and gives them funding.  The executive is trying to set up a program in which professionals would spend a month with these social entrepreneurs around the world.  The social entrepreneur gets help in finance, legal, marketing, or whatever.  The professional gets a great, meaningful experience.

I posed this question to the executive: “If you had to choose between getting resources in the hands of your social entrepreneurs and building relationships with the companies that these professionals come from, which would you choose?”  Essentially, I was trying to cut to the chase: “Who is our customer?”

When there are multiple constituencies and stakeholders, it’s easy to lose focus.  Churches often lose focus when they try to do too many things well. 

The “spiritual trump card” answer here is that “God is our customer.”  That is joyously and wonderfully true.  But it begs the next question, Who does God, as our Customer Segment of One, want us to be reaching?  You’ll need, early on, to decide whether your “customer” is believers (growing existing disciples) or non-believers.  Within that, you need to identify a particular segment.

My youth pastor, Steve Keels, used to say, “I direct our efforts to designing a program that’s a draw to a boy who’s a senior and an athlete.  If I can get that guy, everyone else will follow.”  Who is this in your ministry?  At our church, I think it’s a father of two with a graduate degree earning six figures.  If we can reach that guy, we will transform North Arlington.

Third, what does the customer value?  Having identified this customer, what is it that that person wants?  What do they want from your church?  Plain language?  Easy parking?  What are the “big deals” for that person?

Fourth, what are our results?  The question here is, “How will be know if we’re making progress?  What’s our key metric?”  Some churches track baptisms; other churches track Sunday morning attendance; others look at their church’s budget; still others talk about the amount of outreach they do.  Our church, where I am honored to serve on the vestry, has decided that “small group registration” is our big metric this year.

Fifth, what is our plan?  How are you going to move the metric in Question 4 to reach the “customer” from Question 2?

When you next come to a crossroads and are prayerfully considering where to go, take these questions to your inner circle.  Your vision will emerge clearer and more focused.

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Here’s my confession: I’m not sure how the work of the Holy Spirit and strategy are supposed to fit together.  I hear critics of the church growth movement talk about how using “modern business tactics” leaves no room for the Spirit.  And I get that.  Some people will look at our blog here and at my consulting practice and think that it’s cynical and that it’s trying to do, through human effort, what only God should be doing.  And I get that.

Here’s my view: God gives us opportunities and gifts and – in an shocking move – wants us to be His hands and feet here.  As we do that, we should do it with a lot of prayer.  And we should use the best of the faculties He’s given us.  Serving him with our hearts and our minds and our strength.

My favorite image of this comes from Acts 12.

People Stuff: Peter is in prison (v5).  The people of God gather not to attempt a jail break, but to pray (v5). 

God Stuff: The angel appears (v7).

People Stuff: The angel tells Peter to “Get up!” (v7).

God Stuff: The chains fall off (v7).

People Stuff: The angel tells Peter to “put on your clothes and sandals” and to “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me”  (v8-9).

God Stuff: Both sets of guards are asleep (v10).

People Stuff: Peter follows him past the guards to the gate (v10).

God Stuff: The gate opens for them (v10).

People Stuff: They go through it (v10).

God Stuff: The angel stays with Peter for a block until he’s in the clear (v10).

People Stuff: Peter walks to the house (v10-12).  Hilarity ensues.

The takeaway here is so clean and so beautiful: God does the “God stuff,” but graciously leaves the “people stuff” to us.  God could have teleported Peter – fully clothed – right into the room where people were praying.  But He didn’t.

Thinking clearly and well about strategy – about goals and objectives, resources and reaching people – is part of the “people stuff” that God leaves to us.  And I’m so thrilled that He did, because it’s a great joy to my soul.


Yesterday I made the argument for sticky messages.  Now let’s put some flesh on those bones.

Let me give some tangible steps here:

First, before you give another sermon, sit down and pray something like this: “Lord God, what are the things that you want the people in my congregation to remember twenty years from now?”

Second, write down categories that matter to you – prayer, evangelism, hospitality, concern for the poor, personal holiness, grace, and so on.  Narrow that list down to five categories.

Third, for each of your five items, brainstorm something pithy and sticky.  A couple examples: On evangelism, Joe Aldrich is my favorite: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  On thanksgiving, my former roommate Mark Grider loved to remind me to have “an attitude of gratitude.”  On God’s provision, how great is Joseph, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good”?

Fourth, gather a few of your key people and vet the list with them.  Ask things like, “Are these on the right topics?” and “Are these sticky and memorable?”

Fifth, find ways to integrate at least two of them into each of your sermons.  Will it feel excessive?  Yes.  Will your people start parroting those lines back to you at barbeques?  Yes.  That’s how you know it’s working.  This is what we called – in my days on Capitol Hill –  “staying on message.”  Your people are bombarded with thousands of messages.  The only way to cut through the noise is to say it over and over.

Sixth, for each sermon series you launch, pick one or two more points that you want to land and repeat them in each sermon in the series.  I can still hear Stu Weber saying that “Ephesians is about the high road, the big picture.”  And that was twenty years ago.

To paraphrase Tony again, “Pastors overestimate what they can communicate in one sermon.  But they grossly underestimate what they can communicate in ten years.”

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