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Church Strategy

Tools and Trends for Strategic Planning

Monthly Archives: June 2010

If M.C. Hammer were a church strategy consultant, he would remind you that your church "got to pray just to make it today." (Image from

Last time, we talked about the importance of prayer, and some of the ways that prayer in our churches goes off the rails.  But how should we be thinking about the prayer lives of our church?

Prayer framework: a way to think about the various ways to encourage more prayer in your congregation.

A Framework for Church Prayer.  You agree that prayer matters.  You agree that it should be a bigger part of your church’s life.  So now what?  Let me propose that there are four ways that we can start incorporating more prayer into our communal lives.

1. The During-Service Prayer Team.  If our services are any good, the Enemy wants to mess with them.  Do you have prayer coverage before the service or during the service?  Charles Spurgeon once talked about his during-the-service prayer team in the basement as the engine of his church.

2. Prayer Cards to Support Communal Prayer.  When we pray together in church, some traditions have this great time where people shout out their prayers.  That’s cool if your church has that culture.  Where a church doesn’t have that culture, someone will try it once or twice and it leads to some awkward moments of silence and people wondering if anyone’s going to say anything and so we stop.  Why not go “National Press Club” style and have people write down their prayer requests at some point early in the service.  Pause for a moment so that people can write.  Collect the cards with the offering.  Someone praying publicly later on can work through the requests and offer them up to God.  Your service becomes more interactive and immediate.

3. Coordinated Prayer Requests. As a pastor, you tell a lot of people every week, “I’ll pray for that,” and then you pray for it once or twice because – let’s face it – you just can’t handle the volume of all the requests being thrown at you.  Meanwhile, there are people in the congregation who would love to help pray.  When you get those requests, ask, “Would you mind if I added that to our prayer requests this week.  I can pray, but things really start happening when we get our community praying about this.”  The pastor-congregant dynamic is important, but the congregant-community dynamic is critical. 

While you’re at it, why not pass along some suggestions on what else to pray about.  What points from your messages do you want the congregation to be absorbing?  Have people pray for that.  Are there prayers you like from prayer books or Scripture?  Include them!  It’s another chance to teach and transform your people.

4.       Prayer Emphasis in Small Groups.  If the small groups you’ve been in are like mine, we start with chatting and then dig into the lesson.  We look at our watch and try to wrap up the conversation ten minutes before the end to spend some time in prayer.  But then rather than doing that, we take eight minutes to hear everyone’s prayer requests, which are often personal updates in disguise, and then someone takes two minutes to pray for “all the things that people just said.”  If the big emphasis in Care Groups, or Community Groups, or Small Groups, is on connecting people to each other, coach your leaders on the primacy of

5.       Less Time Talking, More Time Praying.  It’s so easy to make appointments to meet.  Somehow, meetings end up on our calendars.  But why not hold a rule of thumb that, for every hour teams spend talking, they should also spend 15 minutes praying individually.  Perhaps it happens before or after the meeting.  Perhaps it happens outside the actual meeting.  Perhaps 15 minutes is too much, and we should just give a tithe – six minutes of prayer for every hour of meeting.  Or perhaps 15 minutes is too little!  In any event, let’s set the expectation that prayer is a key part of our operations.

International Justice Mission has baked prayer into all aspects of their operations. Is it coincidental that they have grown from nothing to having massive impact in just twelve years? (Image from

6. Including Prayer in Strategic Plans.  Inevitably, you’ve got some documents around in which people are proposing new ministries.  Require that your people include their prayer strategy in their planning.  A great ministry with a bad prayer strategy is a bad ministry.  I’ve been inspired by International Justice Mission’s commitment to prayer.  The day starts at 8:30, but for the first 30 minutes, the phones are off to ensure that everyone has time for personal devotions.  Awesome!  Then, at 11 AM, everyone drops what they’re doing and they congregate for prayer.  Everyone.  Every day.  No wonder God has blessed that group!  Prayer is a key part of their strategic plan!

Disclaimer.  I don’t want to give the impression that I’m great at this.  I’m not.  I’m one of the worst prayers around.  These are just some thoughts.  If you have other ideas on how churches can incorporate more talking to God in their lives together, drop me a note at


The Western Wall, at which an American rabbi was explaining his view of the mechanics of Jewish prayers this week. How does prayer work at your church? (Image from

JERUSALEM – “The prayers of all the Jews all over the world are directed to this spot!  You can feel them passing through you and around you!  From all over the world, they come here, to the Western Wall, and ascend to God.”  The rabbi was leading a group of American teenagers.  One nudged another and giggled about something unrelated to the rabbi’s theology of prayer.

But it set me to thinking about the role that prayer plays in our churches.

An Initial Matter: Is Prayer Strategic?  Some may recoil at the idea of a “prayer strategy.”  But, as we discuss periodically, strategy is simply having an objective, looking at the resources available, and aligning those resources to achieve that objective.  One of the resources that the Great God of the universe has put at your fingertips is His power.  Having a prayer strategy doesn’t mean that we can manipulate God, or have some formula.  But it does mean that He’s equipped us with an outrageously powerful tool, and He expects us to use it.  So I expect us to use it too.

The Spiritual Trump Card.  As a freshman in high school, Jim was my mentor and hero.  He was a college graduate, passionate about Jesus, massive, able to dunk in his Birkenstocks, a champion heavyweight wrestler in Alaska who could have a crowd laughing in seconds.  The perfect youth guy.  He’d make us engage the underlying theology of the pop songs we listened to.  “What does he mean, ‘Life is a highway / I’m gonna ride it all night long?’  What does that MEAN?”

Partially out of genuine concern for my then-non-believing brother, and partially to seem spiritual, I asked Jim one evening on a retreat, “What can I do to help bring my brother to know Jesus?”

“Well,” said Jim really dismissively, “you could pray.”

“Well, right,” I said, dismissing his dismissive answer, “definitely that…. But what ELSE?”

He looked at me like I had taken his Birkenstocks.  “What else?  Beyond asking the God of the universe who cares about Him infinitely more than you do?”

Yahtzee, Jim.

And Again!  I have been slow to grasp that being a man of action should coincide with being a man of prayer.  I was serving alongside my friend Judd at a camp in Alaska and we had lost one of the campers – Clinton, who was about 8 – in an area known to be filled with bears.

 “All right.  Any ideas on what we should do?” I asked, taking charge.

“We should pray,” said my friend Judd.  Man, that guy loves Jesus.

Yahtzee, Judd.

A God Who Chooses to Be Moved by the Prayers of His People.  I claim no theological expertise, but I like the way that John Piper talks about prayer.  Is God constrained by our prayers?  Do they compel him to action?  Or are they more for us, to focus our minds?  Piper cuts through the tension, explaining that God freely chooses to be moved by the prayers of His people.  How sweet is that?  So how are you coordinating your people to collectively move this amazing God, who promises to hear and respond?

This is one way to bring more prayer to your community. You may laugh, but what's YOUR approach to increasing your reliance on prayer? (Image from

Concerns About Our Corporate Prayer.

  Before getting into what your church’s prayer strategy could be, let’s talk briefly about what it probably shouldn’t be.

Concern 1: Prayer Should Be More Than a Segue.  Prayer is a discipline, but it’s also a conversation.  It should trouble us when we use quick prayers as segues.  They’re almost like “going to commercial” when a show gets tense.  “In other news, former major league pitcher Catfish Hunter died today.  He was 67.  We’ll be right back.”

In our personal lives, having prayer at particular times – meals, the beginning of meetings, before bed – helps us remember to connect with Jesus.  Great.  But the public quickie transition prayers, where the band is moving to the right places on stage, strikes me as superficial.  If you’re going to pray, then let’s get busy praying.  [Pastor prays.  Choir enters from stage right.]  They don’t need to be long, but they should be authentic. 

I’ve started praying in the middle of meetings when some issue seems overwhelming.  “Oh man, we are going to need to recruit a lot of staff.”  “Yep.”  “We should pray about that.”  And we did.  And God sent six resumes that day.

Concern 2: Prayer Should Sound Like Actual Language.  Let me also propose that our prayers sound like the way we talk to other people.  Like everyone in my generation, I say, “Like” and “You know” a lot when I’m comfortable with people.  But when I pray, it’s missing.  Weird, but I’m working to fix it.  And I end up repeating God’s name a lot.  A Catholic friend asked me why Protestants say “just” so often when they’re praying.  True.

Moses talked to God as a man talks to his friend.  We talk to God like we’re making a legal motion (“and furthermore, Your Honor, we ask that you consider…”) or reading a list of people wounded in action.  What other conversation do you have where you list a bunch of people you know who are sick?

On the fipside, don’t you love to hear new Christians pray?  It’s so awkward, and so awesome.  I know one baby believer who sounds like she’s trying to convince God about stuff: “You know, it’s really important that this happen, because if it doesn’t, that will mean a lot more work for all of us, so if you could work it out, that would be great.”

Next time, I’ll lay out a framework for church prayer. 

Disclaimer.  I don’t want to give the impression that I’m great at this.  I’m not.  I’m one of the worst prayers around.  These are just some thoughts.  If you have other ideas on how churches can incorporate more talking to God in their lives together, drop me a note at

They don't look like much at the beginning. Where is God places seeds of growth in your church? (Image from

Our Desires.  JERUSALEM – We desire for our churches what we desire for ourselves.  “How can I grow our church?” is the question I get most often.  Another e-mail like that came from North Carolina today.  

We desire for our churches what we desire for ourselves.  We want churches that are growing, and vibrant, and touching lives, and being transformed, and healthy, and full of love, and flowing with acts of mercy.  We want our churches to simultaneously safe and solid, but also places in which we reach out in faith and take big risks, knowing that we are in the hands of our Big God. 

We desire for our churches what we desire for ourselves.

The tension between rest and risk, between harbor and hazard, defines our own walks, and it defines our walk as a community.  At every decision point, there is the broad path, and there is the narrow path.

How God Responds.  And God answers our churches the way He answers ourselves.  It usually starts with “Do not fear,” and then continues to “Be still and know that I am God.”  In that posture, we are ready to follow His next instructions: “Wait and listen.”  And it is what we hear after we wait and listen that is unique to you.  From your personal relationship with Jesus flows personal instruction from Jesus.

We hear for our churches the way that we hear for ourselves.  We hear over time.  We hear through input from a community.  We hear through coincidences.  We hear through opened and closed doors.  We hear through God blessing our areas of strength.  We hear through His Spirit calling particular passages to mind at opportune times.   We hear through the Creator taking the smallest of seeds and calling forth life.

Yossi Samuels. God has used Yossi's deafness and blindness to bring mercy to thousands of families. (Image from Yossi's Facebook page)

God’s Mustard Seed at Shalva.  Today I am in Jerusalem and met a man precisely my age.  He cannot hear and he cannot see, but his impact dwarfs mine – and perhaps yours.  Yossi Samuels got a bad vaccine as a baby, losing his hearing and his sight.  His parents covenanted with God, “If you will let us communicate with our child again, we will dedicate our lives to helping families like ours.”  (The author does not necessarily endorse bartering with God!)

At age 8, Yossi had his “Helen Keller” moment.  Someone signed “Table” into his hand in Hebrew and it made sense.  The rest of his words followed.  True to its end of the bargain, the Samuels family decided to reach out to families with special needs children – families experiencing the same darkness that they had experienced.

Mrs Samuels drove around Jerusalem in her minivan, picking up children, and bringing them to her home for After-School Care, giving a much-needed break to families, allowing the siblings of disabled children to get some face time from their parents.  By 1990, Mrs Samuels’ minivan and after-school care was formally known as Shalva (Hebrew for “peace of mind”).

The Results.  No major leaps.  No huge campaigns.  Just steadily serving needs and seeing blessings unfold.  Today, Shalva serves hundreds of children each day, blessing thousands of parents and siblings.  Many are babies coming for “Me and My Mommy” classes in which mothers of infants learn how to help their children develop.  Many are pre-schoolers, and most are in the same after-school program that Mrs Samuels started years ago.  As the program grew, Shalva built more rooms and dug deeper into the mountain on which it sits.  Along the way, parents told Shalva what they needed, and Shalva responded.

In 25 years, Shalva has grown from a mom and a minivan into a $28 million facility serving thousands around Israel. (Image from

Along the way, no parent or student has ever paid a single shekel to participate in Shalva.  It’s all been free.  In two years, Lord willing, Shalva will expand from serving hundreds to serving thousands each year, as it moves into its new $28 million, 150,000 square-foot facility in Jerusalem.  Shalva is the leading program of its kind in the world, which is why I’m here to learn from Shalva and bring some of its magic home to Jill’s House.

When You Ask Leaders Who Oversee Rapid Growth.  As you look around at most of the major ministries and megachurches, you’ll almost never hear the story of, “We set out to deliver Bibles on a major scale,” or “We set out to translate the Bible into every language in the world,” or “We wanted to start the biggest church in Dallas,” or “We set out to be the biggest microloan group on the planet.” 

Instead, you’ll hear, “Well, there was just this need that we saw, and we just thought God wanted us to fill that hole.” 

“We just knew there were a lot of shut-in elderly people in our community and we just thought we’d help.”  “There were just all these kids in the neighborhood, so we started a basketball program and it grew.”  “I was just in this Upper Room with some of my friends and something happened.”

The stories are the same in the marketplace.  “We just wanted a fun place for people to hang out” (Starbucks), “We just thought runners needed a better shoe” (Nike), “We just thought people would want to buy books over the Internet” (Amazon).

I’m no New Testament scholar, but I don’t think Paul had a Jim Collins BHAG.  He just saw a gap – “There were just all these Gentiles who didn’t know Jesus” – and got a call to act.

What Are the Mustard Seeds in Your Church?  It took you time to find your call.  It took deep prayer and discernment.  It took listening to a small voice and seeing where your deep joy meets the world’s deep needs, to paraphrase Andy Crouch.

We desire for our churches what we desire for ourselves.  And we discern for our churches the way we discern for ourselves.  In the stillness, where has God uniquely gifted your congregation, or created a unique need that you can fill?  That’s likely where your growth lies.

If this isn't your church, you may wonder if you're doing something wrong. (Image from

What’s a Successful Pastor? 

One of the worst tricks the Enemy plays on pastors is getting them to envy pastors who are “more successful.”  Ask any pastor in America what the success metric he uses is and you’ll get some version of this: “Success is doing what God wants me to do.” 

If you ask, “What’s the best way to measure success?  Is it book sales, or congregation size, or financial health?” your pastor will seek to excommunicate you.

If you’re particularly unlucky, you’ll get a mini-sermon about how Jesus had only twelve disciples, and the only thing he ever wrote was in the dirt when the woman was caught in adultery, and how doing God’s will doesn’t always win you friends.

When Pastors Lie Awake at Night.  Then he’ll go home and keep thinking about the big church across town.  In his better moments, he’s envious of their “success” and flagellates himself about how, if he were more holy or better at x, his church too would be really big.  In his worse moments, he mentally flagellates that church, thinking that if that big church were more biblical, it too would be a smaller church.

We know that we’re not supposed to envy the wicked.  (Proverbs 23:17)  That’s fairly easy.  But what’s hard is to keep from envying the righteous, particularly when the righteous are “successful” by whatever standards we dream up.

Those marketing Christian conferences and books play right into it: “Pastor Masses is the teaching pastor at the 5,000-person church in Atlanta” or “Best-selling author.”  Why do these marketers advertise like this?  Because we respond!  Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Tim Keller, Rob Bell, Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, John Ortberg.  The names get you to show up. 

And so you’re left thinking that, if you were really doing a great job, you’d be on that list too.  When you see a new young pastor emerging, you wonder, “How old is he?” and feel consoled when he’s older than you are, and feel bad when he’s younger.

Sidebar: The Importance of Quality.  A common response to big churches and best-selling books is, “Well, their faith must be pretty shallow.  I mean, how can you really disciple all those people?”

It’s a really fair objection.  Quantity is easy to measure and easy to talk about.  Quality is not.  But how do you actually know that your smaller church IS providing quality?  What would that look like?  How would you know if lives were really being transformed?  That inward transformation nearly always has an outward expression. 

Perhaps it’s time for a survey to check on your assumption: Would people in your congregation say that they love Jesus more today than they did last year?  Are they identifying and actively rooting out sin in their lives?  Are they spending more time with Jesus?  Have they been able to forgive people who have hurt them?  Are they more patient with their kids?

These may not be the right questions, but I want to make sure that you’re not letting yourself off the hook by ASSUMING that you’re trading quantity for quality.  You may actually have neither.

Don't let your little church turn green with envy. (Image from Trinity Lutheran. You knew I had to use "green with envy" at some point. Sorry.)

Managing Envy. 

In “Envy at Work’’ in April’s Harvard Business Review, Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson explain that “Envy is difficult to manage, in part because it’s hard to admit that we harbor such a socially unacceptable emotion.  Our discomfort causes us to conceal and deny our feelings, and that makes things worse.”  If envy is “socially unacceptable” amongst the executives reading HBR, how much more unacceptable is it for pastors?

Menon and Thompson have three tips:

  1. Pinpoint what makes you envious.  Name it.  Is it the job security?  The notoriety?  The “influence” that you perceive another pastor having?
  2. Don’t focus on other people; focus on yourself.  OK, obvious, but think in terms of progress.  “In what ways am I better preacher this year than I was last year?  How am I handling situations now that are more mature and godly than last year?  Who are some people whom our congregation has touched?”
  3. Affirm yourself.  Menon and Thompson conducted a cool experiment.  Subjects were asked to think of a rival at work, and to imagine that the rival was bringing them an idea for review.  In that situation, “How much time would you allocate to evaluating that idea?”  Before introducing this idea, Menon and Thompson had half of the subjects think about their own strengths; half of the subjects did not.  The result?  Subjects who had taken a moment to remember their own strengths were willing to allocate sixty percent more time to evaluating the rival’s idea.  Just remembering the strengths and gifting that God has given us can grow our generosity of spirit toward others!

Scripture calls us to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn.  How much more should we be rejoicing when others in our community grow and flourish?

McCall's Flooring in Cincinnati, Ohio (Image from

Fatalist Christians looking for hand-wringing opportunities love to talk about buildings that used to be churches and are now something else.  Below are a few examples.  The tired narrative is that, if the church were more vibrant, it would have been able to pay its rent and wouldn’t have had to sell the property to a carpet store, tattoo parlor, restaurant, or mosque.  The narrative is wrong, but before we talk about why it’s wrong, check out these examples….

The Dublin Mosque in Dublin, Ireland. (Image from

The False Narrative: “Churches Becoming Something Else Is a Sign that the Church Is in Trouble.”  In my neighborhood, a dry cleaner has gone out of business.  Chipotle is slated to open in its place on June 25.  But no one is proclaiming the post-dry-cleaner era.  It was just a poorly run dry cleaner, or there were too many dry cleaners in the area.  The Alpine Restaurant, Bergmann’s Cleaners, an Italian Restaurant, and a Rite-Aid drug store are all listed as for sale or lease.  But no one is writing editorials about “the end of food” or “life after pharmacies.”

Where Churches Are Really Going.  The more young, vibrant churches I talk to, the clearer it becomes that where the church is growing, many just can’t afford beautiful buildings, or — more often — they choose to spend money on other priorities.  Lots of church plants seem to start in the church planter’s living room, and then the next step is where it gets interesting.

Lots of churches end up in schools, hotels, or community centers.  But check out some of the other ways churches are approaching their real estate decisions:

Meet Where You Shop.  As developers build more strip malls, that’s becoming a common location for churches, like the Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas.  Church at the Mall in Annapolis, Maryland, uses the tagline, “Change the way you think about church.”

Meet in a Warehouse.  Rolling Hills Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, bought an old warehouse, rents out the front to a utility company, and built a great sanctuary in the back.  Plenty of space, great parking, and – critical in the South – it doesn’t really feel like church.  Along the same lines, the aptly named “Warehouse Church” is here.

Drive-In Church in Daytona Beach, Florida (Image from

Meet Someplace Entertaining. National Community Church is a great church in the Washington, DC.  They started in Union Station downtown and now meet in several movie theaters around town.  Check out Mark Batterson and his posse at  Take this concept to car-crazed Daytona Beach and you get – you guessed it —

Sojourners Church in Huntsville, AL, meets in a brewery. (Image from Olde Towne Brewery.)

Meet Someplace Social.  I’ve discussed one of my favorite churches – Sojourners in Huntsville, Alabama – which can be found in a brewery.  Similarly, check out Church in the Pub.  Kim Linton talks about doing a church plant in a building that they later discovered had housed an escort service.

Inflatable church in Rome, Italy. (Image from

Meet Someplace Temporary.  The Times of London drew attention to a Roman Catholic inflatable church.  I’m hearing about more California churches putting up big tents outside and having edgier services for twentysomethings in them.

Meet Someplace Agricultural.  The West Texas Church at the Barn is doing a great job with its facility in Lubbock, Texas.

Incorporate Your Building Into Your Strategy.  Churches that don’t have their own buildings, or that meet in buildings that don’t look like medieval cathedrals can sometimes be a little insecure about it.  Don’t be.  The fact that so many churches are incorporating their quirky real estate into their domain names tells me that they’re on the right track.

I talk a lot about identifying what God has given your church that’s different.  One big differentiator can be the place your people gather to worship Him.  Lean into it.  Own it!

For example, Rolling Hills proclaims that they meet at “The WareHouse” and have signage that reinforces the building’s pre-ecclesiastical use.

The Barn in Lubbock, Texas (Image from

West Texas Church at the Barn sticks with the branding.  Their ministries include “Spur Youth” and “Kidz Korral.”  The tag line is – wait for it – “A good place to hang your hat.”

Sojourners Church has sessions at the local college about brewing, and then Pastor David Thew gets up to talk about the history of the relationship between alcohol and the church, explaining that God can redeem anything, even you!

Whatever real estate hand you’ve been dealt, use it to your advantage in your branding.  If you have a quirky location and try to pretend that you don’t, your message will be muddled.  Lean into it.  Own it.

“Loneliness is increasing – and it can harm your health” wrote the USA Today last year.  Psychology Today explains that “loneliness is a major precipitant of depression and alcoholism.”

No longer is the cheese alone in standing alone. How can your church help bring community out of loneliness? (Image from

Dancing with Myself. 

A study from Duke entitled “Social Isolation in America” reports that “the number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has more than doubled.”   

The Lengths to Which People Go for Connection.  One of the newer – and odder – Internet sensations is a website at which lonely people with webcams have a conversation.  As explained in a well-done article by the New Yorker, if the two chatters look at each other and don’t want to converse, either can hit “Play” to jump to chatting with someone else.  Users may meet people from around the world, but the transitory relationships don’t seem like the kind of community that they really want.

  In New York, the Wall Street Journal reports that boarding houses are on the rise.  The tenants live in separate rooms, but eat together in a common area, forming relationship and community with their fellow tenants.  In the country’s most anonymous city, people are finding that they like community and like to be known.

Against all odds, people are returning to the boarding house model, building community with strangers. (Image of boarding housein Bingham, Utah, from

Toward Community.

Something Every Church Can Offer.  The people in your community need people.  And – not coincidentally – your church has people.  In other words, there’s massive demand and hunger for community and connection.  And your church has a wonderful supply of that.  Even within your church, how often do you hear people wondering, “How do I connect here?” or “How do I plug in?”

The litmus test is this: People feel “connected” in a church when – at most points during their Sunday morning – they could look around and see someone whose name they know.

To create community, we need to start by creating connection. How can your church create opportunities for connections -- and thus community -- to form?

How Can We Create Connection?  Everyone wants community.  To be known and loved anyway.  Community is a smaller “concentric circle” than connection.  According to LinkedIn, I’m “connected” to more than 500 people, but I’m in community with just a handful.  We cannot force our way toward community, but we can help create connection.

Here’s an idea to get you started:

Speed Meeting.  You may be familiar with the speed dating phenomenon.  Since we all know within five minutes of meeting someone whether we like them or dislike them, why not just spend five minutes together on a date?  Or so the logic goes.  So people rotate from table to table under the guidance of a timer.  If they meet someone they like, both parties can agree to meet up later.  There’s no pressure.  (Incidentally, according to the Wall Street Journal, airports and airlines are using this “speed dating” approach to quickly determine good fits.)

Could “speed meeting” help you create more connections within your church?  In the church context, a lot of the sketchiness of “speed dating” goes away.  After all, who doesn’t want to meet other people in the church?  Rather than groups of two – as in speed dating – I’d go with groups of three.  Develop a list of topics about which people should ask each other.  Perhaps travel plans, what their name means and why their parents chose it, birth order, the last book they read, favorite movie, where they were born, whatever.  The point is just to stimulate some conversation.

Connection Is the Condition Precedent to Community.  Will “speed meeting” or other church social events create community?  No.  But they can create connection.  As you preach and remind people about the importance of small groups, hospitality, serving together, and other community-forming mechanisms, the relationships that start superficially will become substantive.

Some of your efforts to facilitate community will be clunky and awkward.  Just keep striving to create an environment in which connection and community can happen.  Your church is your neighborhood’s best chance to turn back the tide of loneliness.

If you want to brainstorm ideas, drop me an e-mail at

How does God want your church to be growing? (Image from

Leading a Session on Church Growth.  A woman at a Methodist church in Tennessee wrote me this week.  She’s been asked to lead a session about how the church can grow.  She loves Jesus, loves her church, and has been trying to help in any way she can.  Like so many churches, its story is one of shrinking and aging.  How should she lead a group of people who want to grow the church, but aren’t sure how to do it.

Step 1: Get Clear on the Why.  Why does your church want to grow?  There are some wonderful, godly people at wonderful, godly churches that are not growing.  Sometimes it’s because the parking lot is full; sometimes it’s because there are other great churches in town (Praise God!).  Churches run into problems when they don’t question the assumption that “A good church will quickly become a big church.”  Not true.  Many churches are called to grow individuals – to transform a handful of lives.

Tongue in cheek: Jesus started with twelve disciples and – three years later – ended with eleven.  Annualized, he lost 3% per year!  But what an investment he made in those twelve.

Step 1 is also the time to be extremely clear on the fact that the group is meeting because what we have been doing isn’t working.  Of course, the handful of people left in the church like it, but we feel God calling us to something different.  If people like “same” and we’re doing “different,” then people will not like it.  You need to be OK with that at the beginning.  Otherwise, you’ll go through a process and develop some ideas, and someone will chicken out because they don’t want to offend people who like “same.”

Step 2: Pray a Lot.  Setting out on a growth journey is a moment to do a lot of listening and praying.  It probably goes without saying.  But it’s also not an accident that the disciples were all together praying in Acts 2 just before the Spirit came and started expanding the church.  Have the congregation praying with you.  Start the meeting with prayer that is much more than the cursory kinds of “kickoff prayers” we Christians do so often.

Step 2a: Think About the Attendees.  The point of the session isn’t to have the most vocal, most persuasive, most respected people in the church air their opinions.  Pastors – no matter how humble – inherently carry some spiritual power.  In most situations, that’s great.  But when you’re trying to get ideas flowing, the most innovative ideas often come from the people you least expect.  I suggest pulling aside anyone who’s particularly influential and asking them to work with you to draw out the opinions of less-vocal people in the group.

Step 3: What Has God Given Us?  Hand out paper and have people start listing the gifts that the church has.  First, make everyone do this exercise quietly.  Don’t let them discuss yet.  Just start listing categories of gifts and let people write down what they think of.  So I would say, “First, we’re going to think about the gifts we have on our staff and elder board.  Write down the first few of those that come to mind.”  Then leave 30 seconds for people to reflect and write.  “Now let’s think about the congregation.  What gifts do they have?”  “What about our facility and finances?”  “Now think about the connections to the community we have; the ministries we oversee.”  “Now what about the passions that our congregation has.”

You’ll think of more categories, but those are a few to get you going.  (By the way, don’t forget that last category.  It’s amazing how often the congregation will be full of a particular passion or vocation – say, construction workers, or IT professionals, or lawyers, but we – as church leaders – see right past it.)

Once everyone’s made their lists, walk through each category and have people list what they came up with.  No comments or discussion yet.  Let everyone marinade in the ideas that others had.

Then ask, “What themes do we see here?”  Let people discuss themes a bit.  Now it’s time for a little “straw poll.”  “I’m going to ask you to pick the three things that you see as our key attributes; the things that God has given us that He might use to help us grow.”

 Put tick marks next to the things that people say and look for areas of alignment.  “It looks like, as a group, the three or four things that we really think God has gifted us with are x, y, and z.”

It's critical to have your team identify the target group whom your church is uniquely equipped to reach. (Image from

Step 4: Who Is the “Customer”? 

With those assets in mind, ask what group the church should be targeting as it grows.  I recently talked to a church in the St Louis area that has 180 people attending, but has 200 children attending its Preschool!  That’s the kind of “gift” that they would have identified in Step 3.  And then, in Step 4, they would say, “Well, it sure seems like God might be equipping us to reach those young families.”

Here’s what will happen.  People will start saying age categories, which is weird.  The demographics that church people think about seem to begin and end with age.  “We want to reach high schoolers” or “We are all about young families.”  So when you ask, “What group should the church be targeting?” be prepared to list every age category.

Let the group settle on one age category – say “young adults.”  And then press in and say, “OK, what KIND of young adults might God be uniquely calling us to reach in our area?”  If you get puzzled looks, dig into more demographics – “Are they college graduates?  Are they professionals?  Are they military?  Are they believers who just aren’t connected to a church?”

Press the group to paint a really clear picture of that person.  Make it fun – “What TV shows do they watch?  Where are they at 4 PM on a Saturday?  What kind of car do they drive?  What clothes do they wear?”

The point isn’t that you end up with a bunch of people who all watch the same shows, do the same things, and so on.

Step 5: What Does that “Customer” Want from Church?  Once you’ve identified that person and have that vision, think about what that person’s ideal church is like.  Do they like being greeted in the lobby?  By whom?  Do they care about your child care options?  What would they want that to be like?  What are their musical preferences?  What kinds of ministries would they be glad to see that the church is engaged in?  What styles of sermons appeal to them?  What might get them to stay afterwards to meet some people?

This is going to be a bit prickly.  Inevitably, you’re going to have to identify some parts of your current church experience that this person wouldn’t like.  And you’re going to have to say them out loud.  Which will be uncomfortable.  It’s also a moment at which people will start opining about what this person wants.  I’ve heard some older pastors say, “You know, I hear that young people are standing in line for symphony tickets, so our old-style worship probably works really well.” 

If things get contentious, this could be a great moment to wrap up the meeting.  The way to do it is to say, “Who do we know currently – either in the church or outside the church – that fits into this target group?  How can we interview them or spend time with them to understand what they REALLY think?  Because right now, we’re just speculating.”

Step 6: What Stands Between Us and Becoming That Kind of Church?  But if Step 5 is going smoothly for you, then it’s time to get a bit more real.  Having developed a vision of the kind of church that would reach the group you’ve identified, you need to call out the areas that need to be changed, and start assigning “owners” to develop a proposal for changing that part of the church.

That’s enough steps to get you going. If you want to discuss any part of this, shoot me an e-mail at