Main Theme: Church Growth
For People Who: Are in church leadership and need help seeing what needs to change for growth to happen.
I first heard of Carey Nieuwhof through his podcast, the Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast. My wife is a podcast junky, so we’ve listened to several episodes together. When she told me she had preordered Carey’s book, I knew it was a gift for me, and it has been just that. Church leaders everywhere struggle with growth, no matter the size of the church they’ve been entrusted to lead. Sadly, many leaders even struggle with self worth because they subconsciously find their identity in how many people show up on any given Sunday. And before a cynic rights this off as “just another church growth book“, I have one simple question for you: Do you want the church you lead to grow? If you even have to think about the answer, you need to quit and go get a job selling insurance. The truth is, of course you want it to grow! Not for selfish reasons. Not because you want fame and glory. But because each number represents a person. And each person is important to God. I grow tired of false comparisons that say, “If you’re interested in growing big, then all you want is a big church to make a name for yourself,” or “if you’re interested in excellence, then you’re all about the show and not about substance.” As leaders, God has laid upon us the difficult task of figuring out how to lead people who should be leading others themselves. And yet He does not leave the task to us alone. What I love about Lasting Impact, is that it’s not about specific methods that work somewhere but may not work everywhere. It is philosophical in nature in that it raises questions that your leadership team needs to discuss, answer, and walk through together in accordance with the vision God has given you. Lasting Impactraises the questions, provides some possible answers, but ultimately leaves it up to you and your team to discover how your church can grow. So buckle up!
Note: There is so much practical information in each of these chapters it’s unreal! I can’t cover it all, so if this peaks your interest at all, be sure to order it today!
Conversation #1: Why Are We Not Growing Faster?
Talking about growth in general can be a very sensitive issue for many leaders and often it can be dangerous whether we are growing or not. Carey says, “When our church is growing, it’s easy to think we can do nothing wrong. And when we’re not growing, it’s easy to feel as if we do nothing right. Neither is healthy.” (pg. 2) While this question may be difficult, even down right painful to discuss, it is absolutely essential to have. Why? Because it’s all about mission. It’s all about reaching more people with the gospel. And while many appeal to church growth as a “mystery”, that “God gives the increase”, there is truth to that idea. But Nieuwhof says, “You might ask why you keep getting speeding tickets: Why me, God!? Why!? Yet the simple truth is, you usually speed.” (pg. 4) Without a doubt there are traceable patterns in churches that are declining and churches that are growing. Reasons you’re not growing fall into a pattern of dysfunction. Characteristics like conflict, you’re in love with the past, focused on yourself, think culture is your enemy, focused on growth and not God, and more. But here’s a big takeaway of why many churches don’t grow:
It’s because they organize, behave, lead, and structure themselves like small organizations. And any leader of a larger church knows that…If you want to grow bigger, you need to structure bigger. –Lasting Impact, pg. 11-12
So Nieuwhof says that pastors need to rethink their role. When a church is small the pastor can make all the hospital calls, phone calls to first timers, and fix the leak in the bathroom. But when you grow above 200 you need to start scaling your load or you’ll burn out! Let high capacity leaders lead in the church. Empower them to make decisions and stop micromanaging them. You can do this when you’ve developed a vision and strategy for moving forward. When you can inform people how you plan on accomplishing the mission, it lets them know that you’ve actually put time and effort into this thing and you’re not just shooting silver arrows at the sun. Church leaders may feel they are exempt from self evaluation, but even Moses needed a Jethro and David needed a Nathan. I think one of the base reasons that churches do not grow is that church leaders don’t know what a healthy church organization really looks like. Be honest, open, flexible, and simple.
I think it’s only because we sat down and solved our underlying problems as an organization first. As we got healthier inwardly, we grew outwardly. We tackled the issues of substance before and as often as possible even as we tackled the issues of form. -Lasting Impact, pg. 20
Conversation #2: How Do We Respond As People Attend Church Less Often?
Maybe you’re structured for growth, you have a healthy internal organization, but you’re not seeing the mission carried out; maybe it’s even more difficult than it used to be. The truth is that whether you are a small church or a megachurch, people are attending church less. People have greater affluence, more options, travel opportunities and kids events than ever before! Combine all that with online options, a desire to have “spirituality” without community, and, what I think is the biggest reason of all, the fact that people just don’t see a direct benefit of attending church anymore. Nieuwhof says, “That could be because there isn’t much value (gut check). Or it could be because there is value that they simply don’t see.” (pg 37) We all know this is happening, the question is: How do we respond and interact with them?
If you start judging people for not seeing it your way, you will almost certainly turn them off. People – especially teens and young adults – can smell judgment a mile away. Judgement always creates barriers. -Lasting Impact, pg. 43)
I would agree with Carey here, though I would replace “judging” with “condemnation” – which is what I think he means here. When you as the leader are able to separate your mission from your method, it frees you to be open about new ways of carrying out that mission. And one of the greatest ways you can interact with people who attend less is to celebrate wins! If someone read their Bible once this week, or dropped $5 in the offering and have never done so before, or attended twice this past month rather than their usually one-time appearance – celebrate it! “What you celebrate gets repeated.” (pg. 45) If you don’t celebrate wins, not only for the organization but for individual people, then don’t expect it to happen again. All this stems from a deep love for people and elevates those personal relationships. You’ll never develop a culture of love, trust, and celebration if you don’t prioritize people.
Conversation #3: Are Our Leaders Healthy…Really?
“Healthy leaders create healthy churches. If a church’s leadership is healthy at the top, that health will most often spread throughout the church. But the same is also true for unhealthy leaders and teams; eventually the entire body gets infected.” (pg. 57) So if being healthy is so important, how do you know when you’re unhealthy? Nieuwhof offers five symptoms:
- Your motivation is fading
- Your main emotion is numbness
- People drain you
- Little things make you disproportionately angry – so you become cynical and unproductive
- You don’t laugh anymore
Unfortunately, being a workaholic is a badge of honor in our culture today. Recovering healthy patterns should be a top priority of any unhealthy leader. Nieuwhof offers ten healthy options to recover that pattern beginning with daily communion with God, exercise, a healthy diet, proper sleeping habits, scheduling in empty space in your calendar, etc. One of the biggest perspectives you can grasp when you’re unhealthy is to realize you’re not alone. If you want a healthy, growing church, it has to start with you.
Conversation #4: What Keeps High-Capacity Leaders From Engaging Our Mission?
Too often, churches settle for a mediocre volunteer culture. Realizing that the faithful will always serve, leaders fail to be intentional about the experience they create for volunteers. A suboptimal culture is inevitably the result. Ask most volunteers how well supported, encouraged, and nourished they feel, and they’ll tell you they feel overworked, undervalued, and under supported, even if they love their church and the leaders under whom they serve. -Lasting Impact, pg. 73
Nieuwhof slaps you in the face with that right at the start of the chapter! But it’s a good slap…like the slap Liam Nesson gives Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven – the pain ensures you remember it. If high-capacity leaders are not engaging the mission of the church, that falls squarely on the head of the leadership. In fact, Nieuwhof offers five questions that volunteers always ask…just not always vocally:
- Are the relationships around here healthy?
- Will serving help me grow spiritually?
- Am I just a means to an end?
- Will you help me develop the skills I need? (Why should Wal-Mart be better run than any church in your city when the mission of the church has such higher stakes? Equipping the saints for works of service is the purpose of church leadership. Train, equip, coach, and release people to fulfill their calling!)
- So, am I signing up for life? Provide end dates for roles and create a healthy culture and see what happens to your volunteer retention rate.
When it comes down to it, what keeps high-capacity leaders from engaging your mission is pretty straight forward: your vision, mission, and strategy are fuzzy, you’re disorganized, you’re not giving them enough personal attention (even Jesus had 12 apostles that were distinct from the crowd, and an inner circle of 3 that were even more distinct), or you haven’t put enough high-capacity leaders around them. In the end, treat your volunteers the way you want to be treated.
Conversation #5: Why Are Young Adults Walking Away from Church?
This conversation, says Nieuwhof, is not about people the church hasn’t attracted, it’s about people who have been a part of it and left. “We’ll look at some research on the issue of why teens and young adults are leaving, and then we’ll explore why a model of church (attraction church) that has been very effective for several decades may indeed be reaching the end of its exponential growth curve.” (pg. 87) Nieuwhof sites five attitudes that the unchurched and churched millennials have about the church:
- The church is irrelevant, the leaders are hypocritical, and leaders have experienced too much moral failure.
- God is missing in the church. Are people coming to church and actually finding Him?
- Legitimate doubt is prohibited. Too often legitimate questions are dismissed or left unanswered, buried under ambiguity. Personally, this is what drives my passion and employment with Reasonable Faith with Dr William Lane Craig. To give a reasonable and intellectual defense of the Christian faith in the public arena. Christians need not be afraid on the battlefield of ideas – we are well positioned.
- People aren’t learning about God. Too often people can’t even understand or relate to what the pastor is talking about on the stage. So, teachers and pastors, seek for clarity. “Speak in everyday language, not in churchspeak or in a meandering way.” (pg. 96) Too often preachers are answering questions that no one is asking and therefore are written off.
- They’re not finding community.
There was a day when all you had to do was improve the church you led in order to gain traction…Add some lights, some sound, some haze. Get some great teaching in the room. And voila…We’re quickly moving into a season where having a cool church is like having the best choir in town: it’s wonderful for the handful of people who still listen to choral music. And irrelevant to everyone else. Something’s changing. –Lasting Impact, pg. 98
Here’s the deal, says Nieuwhof, imitation killed innovation. We rarely borrow someone else’s best practices – we just borrow the ones we want. But a great leader doesn’t let imitation kill innovation at their church. Remember, the heart of the gospel is relationship. God is in the people business. So it will always be helpful to use the culture in order to reach the culture.
Conversation #6: What Cultural Trends Are We Missing?
“Church leaders who study the trends happening around us and stay current with shifts in thinking and ideologies will always have an easier time connecting with emerging generations than those who don’t.” (pg. 112) It’s the old “change the method but not the message” approach, the “becoming all things to all people” idea of the Apostle Paul. Our shifting cultural trends cannot be ignored; in fact, they can greatly aid the mission. Wifi, smartphones, open dialogue, declining trust in institutions, personalization (one size doesn’t fit all spirituality), a desire for a greater purpose. These are all microtrends that can be leveraged for the mission.
Nieuwhof then goes on to describe what the church can learn about the trends of our culture from Netflix. All in all, when we ponder what the future church will look like – we recognize that we walk with God and trust the future to Him.
Conversation #7: What Are We Actually Willing to Change?
Typically, people change when the pain associated with the status quo becomes greater than the pain associated with change. -Lasting Impact, pg. 135
In this final conversation, Nieuwhof shares two stories. One of a pastor trying to change a traditional church and the other of a pastor trying to change a church in decline. The two main questions in this conversation are:
- What to do when people want a church to grow…but not change
- How to get alignment around the change you want to make
When it comes down to it, there are three important questions that every leader needs to answer: What are we going to do? How are we going to do it? Why are we doing it? What and How may divide, but the Why question is what unites people. “Leaders who relentlessly refocus on the why are always the most effective leaders.” (pg. 149)
In the end, I found Lasting Impactto be a book that a leadership team will want to read together so they can work through each conversation. The questions raised in each conversation are uncomfortable. And they are so because they require the leader(s) to look inwardly at themselves and look outwardly at the culture. We all want our churches to grow not so we can pat ourselves on the back, but because we want to see peoples’ lives changed. I think Lasting Impactwill help get your team started on that path.
- Title: Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow
- Author: Carey Nieuwhof
- Published: 2015
- Pages: 169
Personal Ratings (1-10)
- Applicability: 10
- Readability: 10
- Originality: 9
- Recommendation: Yes! And I recommend leadership teams read it together.