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.
- ‘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.
- ‘Don’t worry, we’ll do it properly this time.’ = Congratulations, cowboy: you just alienated everyone who loved the old minister.
- ‘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.