Why your church strategy is wrong… and that’s OK

Zig Zag Railway

The problem

Here’s a familiar problem: for the last few years you’ve had your church small groups based around congregations. You keep on hearing about the good this does, strengthening fellowship and encouraging shared evangelistic activities. Only recently, though, something disquieting has been going on. You’ve heard comments and complaints: ‘No one’s looking after me’, ‘This church is too segregated’ and ‘I wish I could get to know some older Christians.’

So, in November you bite the bullet and announce that, next year, small groups will be cross-congregational.

Initially, your decision is met with a burst of enthusiasm. Uni students love meeting in the homes of real grown-ups. There’s better food, more wisdom and a sense of family. The older members benefit, too. They tell you on Sunday how encouraging it is to experience the passion and energy of young Christians.

But, after a while, things start to slide a little. Your bible study leaders tell you how hard it is to pastor people when they don’t see them in church. Members talk about how they wish they knew members of their congregations better.

And so you go to Amazon.com and order every small group ministry book you can lay your hands on. As they arrive, one by one, you devour them, asking this question each time: ‘what is the right ministry strategy for my church?

Newsflash: pastor. There isn’t one. Every single strategy you will apply is wrong. And that’s OK.

The zig and the zag

No ministry strategy fell from heaven to resource your church.

This isn’t just a way of saying that there are lots of good strategies to choose from. It’s also a way of saying that every strategy is bad in its own way.

Cross-congregation small groups provide increased opportunities for older Christians to share wisdom with younger Christians, and the younger to share energy with the older; but they make it harder to build congregational connections. Congregational small groups provide great congregational connections, but concentrate the problems of a particular demographic.

Long sermons allow you to teach doctrine, provide examples, build cases, communicate strategy and shape culture. They also exclude the poorly educated and emphasise knowing over doing. Short sermons are accessible to all, and challenge preachers to be concise and clear. But short sermons can starve a congregation of the truth and model a consumer approach to church.

And so on.

As a result, there is no single strategy that will get you where you want to go.  What you need to do is tack. To zig-zag.


Ministry is all about zig-zagging. Anything else is idolatry. It’s just that very few people realise it.

I can’t mention how many times we’ve considered a change in strategy only to be told, ‘we tried that 20 years ago.’ Our innate insecurities mean that we are likely to respond in one of three equally stupid ways.

  1. ‘Did we? And it didn’t work? Oh, maybe it’s not such a good idea after all.’ = It’s time you bought yourself a spine.
  2. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll do it properly this time.’ = Congratulations, cowboy: you just alienated everyone who loved the old minister.
  3. ‘No, no, this sounds the same, but it’s really quite different.’ = You’re really selling them the same pig, but now you have to go and put lipstick on it.

The correct answer is this: ‘Yes, we did do it before. And now it’s the right time to do it again.’

What you need to know to tack well

To zig-zag well, you need to know three things.

Firstly, the direction in which you want to go. You need to be crystal clear on what outcomes you want to see in the long haul, because everything else is going to be messy.

Secondly, the strategies that, when alternated, will take you in that general direction. If I can bring maths into this, you’re looking for a vector sum where the negatives of your strategies cancel each other out, while their positives add up.

And, thirdly, your boundaries: how bad you are willing to let it get on a zig before you decide it is time to zag again. That’s because every time you change strategy, there is a cost. Congregation members like to know what is going on. They like to know what it is that we do. They like to know what to expect. Every time you make a change, you introduce uncertainty and doubt. The longer you can go without changing strategy, the more time there is for a particular model to do its happy work (and the more time for the costs to accumulate, too).

Outputs trail inputs

There is one thing you absolutely must remember, and that is: outputs trail inputs.

Every been water-skiing? A skilled speedboat skipper can make her boat turn on a dime. She can go racing right up close to the bank and flick the wheel at the very last moment, and still be out of danger.

The same isn’t true of the water-skier. He’s attached to the boat by a long rope. It takes time for the speedboat’s change in direction to communicate itself to him, and in that time he’s just kept on going and going. Splat.

Outputs always trail inputs.

Your leadership team can analyse the situation, recognise the growing disconnectedness in community and decide to change all your small groups to a congregational basis in a single 30 minute conversation in October.

But then the groups have to finish over Christmas. And new groups have start up again. And trust needs to be built as members get to know each other.

It’s not until the middle of July that the change to congregationally-based groups has begun to contribute positively to the sense of connectedness in your congregation. All the while, disconnectedness has been growing – plus, you’ve lost the advantage of the benefits of mixed ages.

So don’t leave the call to the last minute.

Your church strategy is wrong…and that’s OK

What does all this add up to? It means that your church strategy is wrong, and that’s OK.

Any set of tactics you choose will help and hinder all at once. Your job, therefore, is not to find the perfect strategy. Your job is to recognise when the negative consequences of the current model are approaching unacceptable levels.

And then go back to what you were doing last time.

Big city church (6): You can’t build community by trying to


This is the last post in my ‘big city church’ series. And today I want to show you that you can’t build community by trying to.

Some time in the last two decades, churches started planting 5pm congregations out of their 7pm services. I hope you’ll allow me to use these times symbolically, in a let-the-reader-understand kind of way, and not begrudge me 15min either way.

They all failed.

Barneys was one of these churches. Out of our 7:15pm service we planted not one, but two 5pm congregations. Neither exists today. And while it wouldn’t be fair to generalise out of our mistakes, have a look around and tell me what you see. Every 5pm congregation planted out of 7pm has a finite lifespan. It looks something like this:

  1. 7pm congregation planted to reach young adults (especially youth and uni).
  2. Parts of 7pm congregation start to grow up and become professionals, postgrads and tradies.
  3. These young workers don’t have a clear social identity – no longer youth, not yet in social circles that include families, everything about their self-definition is negative: ‘I’m not uni’; ‘I don’t want to be around noisy children’; ‘I’m not a morning church person’.
  4. But negative identities can’t sustain. They lead to instability and sense of imminent (and immanent?) crisis.
  5. So the young workers/postgrads cocoon. ‘We want community,’ they say.
  6. Pastor, fearful of them leaving the church (especially, nowadays, to the hipster church down the road), allows formation of 5pm congregation for ‘community’.
  7. Some of the members of this new congregation fall in love. It can’t be helped.
  8. Some of those in love get married. Some even have babies.
  9. When these new 5pm families leverage their new family-based networks to invite their non-Christian friends to church, perhaps for a baptism, the conversation goes something like this: ‘So, you want me to bring my 2 year old child and newborn…’ ‘Yes…’ ‘…to a strange church environment…’ ‘..Yes…’ ‘…at the witching hour…’ ‘…’umm, yes…’ ‘…on a Sunday night before work…’ ‘…well…’ Cue hysterical laughter. You can finish it off.
  10. So, one-by-one, the 5pm families drip out. And because they ‘drip’, rather than move as a cohort, the wind of reality blows them away, one by one, to another church, and the morning congregation of their original church dwindles and dies.
  11. And those who stay at 5pm? Well, they watch it shrink and die, too. Because it was founded in the pursuit of community, which makes it really hard to break into.
  12. One day, the pastor gets a gun. And the 5pm service is no more.

This is because the pursuit of community is, ultimately, death to any real and lasting experience of it.

Community – in a sense much more profound and much less naff than describing a uni as a ‘learning community’ or a suburb as a ‘local community’ – is a social context in which people are loved and accepted. We experience community by experiencing being known, treasured, invested in. We can presume that the early church believed in community, because they expected Christians to welcome one another, because Jesus stands between us, and welcoming one another is the same as welcoming our king:

Matt 10:40   Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me,  and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

This is particularly important when it may be difficult to welcome someone:

Rom 14:1   Accept the one whose faith is weak,  without quarreling over disputable matters.

The means by which we are enabled to welcome the other who is different and difficult is by learning to love them as God does.

Eph 4:2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another  in love.

Which means that community is a by-product of love.

But here is the crucial point: we cannot directly pursue community and love at the same time. It must be one or the other. If we are in pursuit of community for its own sake, we will be driven to marginalise those who make community different. We will create circles of community, and hierarchies, and in-and-out, and even those who are in will start wondering what is required to stay in, and honesty and vulnerability will fly out the door, and we will keep asking ourselves ‘do I belong?’ and, well, the whole thing will remain bright and brassy on the outside but corrupt and rotten on the inside till it collapses under its own weight.

If, on the other hand, we pursue love, community comes along for the ride. How do we love one another? By seeking one another’s good. By conforming one another to the likeness of our master. By serving, encouraging, teaching and rebuking. In short: through discipleship. Brad House, in his book Community, is good on this:

No one really debates the need for people to exist within community. It is not merely a Christian understanding; it is a human understanding. But belonging in and of itself will never be enough. Hanging the need for community on belonging is like hanging the need for water on thirst. The need for both is deeper….We do not have community groups to close the back door of the church. We do not have groups because people need to belong or we need to care for one another. These are good but secondary effects of authentic community. These effects are not the foundation. We have community groups because we have seen the glory of God and we have been given the grace to live our lives to exalt the Christ. We have community groups because we have been reconciled to God and one another…. Unfortunately, though, I am not sure the church at large knows what to do with community groups. Most have some conviction that they are necessary but relegate them to a form of social day care. We have been content with having community groups rather than employing them to advance the kingdom of God. It is no wonder that many in the church today find community groups obligatory and a waste of energy…. With this in mind, I would like to suggest that there are three primary functions of the church for which community groups can and should be the vehicle. They are discipleship, pastoral care, and mission…. There is a reason that the New Testament is littered with commands to love, teach, admonish, and rebuke one another. By discipling one another we are not only learning, but also we are teaching the gospel.

How, then, do we build community? By not building it. Don’t try to trick yourself, in a left-hand, right-hand kind of way. Don’t call it discipleship in the hope no one will see through the veneer and realise you are really trying to make community. Let it go. Free Willy, and all that. Fly away!

Instead, love. Build small groups and clusters and one-to-ones and triplets that are seeking to disciple one another, and in God’s good time, community will come. How can it not, when people (freed from how this will affect their place in the ‘community’) are opening their lives honestly to God, to one another and to the power of his Holy Spirit applied through the word?

You might want to reconsider calling your groups ‘community groups’, though our option (‘growth groups’) is even worse (I chose it). You might want to watch your language of community if you want your congregation to grow. You might even want to watch your heart: am I in this because I want community? Or because the Lord Jesus Christ has called me to love?

There are lots of things you can do by trying to do them. Run a marathon. Bake chocolate tarts. Build a shed. But there are some that you can’t. You can’t be filled by the Spirit by trying to – you need to discipline your heart and pursue godly character, and the Spirit joins in the fun. You can’t make friends by trying to – no one is less attractive than the person seeking friendship. You need to befriend – to serve others.

And you can’t build community by trying to. So stop trying. And pastor, breathe.

Big city church (5): Friendship and belonging

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As I’ve noted earlier in this series, the city is a place of not just deep community, but also profound alienation.

The sheer volume of people, as introverts have always known, doesn’t make for authentic relationship on it’s own. In fact, often it is a barrier to being truly human. As one philosopher has observed, we have an excess of loneliness but a dearth of solitude. Community – the experience of networks of overlapping and common friendships – is something truly sought after in any city.

Because of this, every church needs some spaces which have joyful permission to grow as big as they can (see my previous posts), and other spaces which have permission to stay as small as they like.

There are a number of factors at play here.

Firstly, most city-dwellers are uprooted from their ‘origin networks’. Cities are places where young adults come to work, study and play, away from their extended biological and surrogate families, away from the context-giving neighbourhoods of their upbringings and stable, if occasionally stifling, relationships of their childhood.

Secondly, many new city dwellers are in the middle of one of the most profound transitions of their lives. Throughout school and early uni, friendships came easy. You made friends, more or less, by simply turning up. That’s partly because in our youth we are relatively undemanding about friendships, to the point that any old warm body that is present, available and fun will do. (I exaggerate – but not by much.) As we grow a little older, though, two things change. On the one hand, we become more demanding with respect to the quality of our relationships. Suddenly, a friend needs to be someone with whom you can do real life. Depth matters for the first time (real depth, not the show-and-faux depth of self-absorbed undergraduate conversations.)  On the other hand, for the first time in our lives, making friends becomes hard. And it will be hard for the rest of our lives, too. Friendships are no longer simply discovered – they must be forged, which takes constancy and intentional stepping-up of commitment. There’s a great (free) talk on friendship here.

The work of friendship-building is particularly felt among singles.

When Jesus said that ‘to everyone who has, more will be given’, he might as well have been speaking of that thing called ‘community’. Families – with their pre-existing mini-communities – naturally multiply connections through school, social and other programmes. This isn’t to say that families don’t experience alienation – I know many mums and dads who feel profoundly isolated in their situation. However, the structures are in place.

Singles, however, have to work much more deliberately at creating the contexts in which friendships can be discovered and forged.

Now, a couple of quick comments here. Firstly, there is a problem with me using the word ‘singles’. Singleness does not define a person. None of the Christian singles I know are truly single – they are part of beautiful communities to which they belong and, even more, have been adopted together with me into a family by regeneration that is much more significant than any family by procreation. But ‘single’ is a better word than ‘unmarried’, which offers a definition by way of a negative – and there is nothing negative about singleness. The church has usually struggled to communicate this, even though the bible does so with very little difficulty (cf 1 Cor 7).

Among the singles at Barneys are some of the most profoundly exciting people I know – architects, nurses, teachers, landscapers – and many of them are the most spiritually mature Christians I know. They haven’t made an idol of marriage and pursued it as their central task in life; they haven’t lowered their standards to marry any old interested party; they know that a bad marriage, or a marriage to a foolish person, is worse than no marriage at all.  They are not to be pitied. They are not bitter Miss Havishams. There is a great article on this here.

But they do face some particular challenges, and among them is the issue of community. They and their contemporaries are highly mobile, often globally. Their housing arrangements are often very fluid, with different collections of housemates each year. Families – which could provide an additional anchor – do a poor job of including them, often (mistakenly) assuming that singles have no time in their lives for kids, or – worse yet – assuming that families have no time in their lives for singles (there’s so little time for our kids to play with other kids, etc etc).

But one person households, currently 22% of all households, are growing faster than any other type of household in Australia. By 2031, there are likely to be an additional 300,000 single person households in Sydney, representing 30% of all households. The number of older women living alone is growing faster than for men. In 2006, there were 1.9 million people living alone in Australia; by 2031, there are projected to be between 3.0 and 3.6 million, an increase of between 63% and 91%, with the trend strongest among women.

And so, I repeat, every church needs some spaces which have joyful permission to grow as big as they can, and other spaces which have permission to stay as small as they like.  We need to allow the church to grow. To have big spaces uninhibited by misplaced expectations of intimacy.

But we also need small spaces, intimate spaces, social spaces. Not spaces that are somehow stapled on to Sunday church to provide a veneer of community, but valid communities in their own right. Spaces where friendships are discovered; smaller spaces where they are forged; and still yet smaller spaces where they are lived and breathed. The bigger the church is, the smaller it must be, too.

But there is a danger to this pursuit of intimacy and community. More on that next week.