Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Importance of Assimilation & Discipleship Flow

Just about every time I work with a local church, there are always two subjects that come up; assimilation and discipleship pathway. I have heard some say they are one in the same, while others believe there is no need for assimilation if the discipleship process is right. The reality is, it takes both assimilation and a discipleship pathway for a church to function properly. While they are both different, they work together; and one cannot happen without the other, especially in the church world. 

Assimilation obviously isn't a sacred church word; it exists in nearly every organization that develops people. By definition, the word assimilate means: to cause (a person or group) to become part of a different society, country, etc. In the church world, we want people who are far from God to become part of a different country too; we want people to become part of God's Kingdom and the community of His church. We want a process that will cause people to move from where they are to where God wants them to be. It starts with assimilation, but it can't end there...at least not in the church world. 

Here's how most assimilation processes are flavored

  • First time guests are sent to the welcome center for a gift where their information is retained for follow-up. 
  • If they return, they are asked to mark "Returning Guest" on their card and/or prompted to a second location, that is sometimes baited with a second gift.
  • If they take the bait, the returning guest is usually asked to attend a class, in which the church hopes, will help the returning guest become a disciple. 

This isn't a bad process if Baptist Billy or Methodist Martha are your returning guests. They love Bible classes and can't wait to receive their membership certificate. But what if the returning guest was an unchurched person? What if the lost, Pabst Blue Ribbon drinking guy, who just went through a life crisis, wandered into your church looking for hope? A membership class or Bible study probably isn't going to help him. If membership classes and Bible studies made disciples, our churches would be full. There are no shortage of either in most churches. This is why assimilation MUST eventually MERGE with a discipleship pathway. What does that look like?

Imagine walking down a stream on a warm sunny day. In the beginning, the water is shallow. It's easy to walk and navigate. However, as you continue to walk you notice the water becomes a little deeper. Eventually you come to a bend where another stream merges with the one you’re in. Now the current is a little swifter and there’s more depth.  This is how assimilation should flow. It begins with people taking simple, shallow steps; steps they can navigate in there own time. Eventually, however, their steps must lead to relational opportunities where there is depth and current to help guide them to follow Jesus more deeply.  

If your assimilation ends with a membership class, chances are you'll make a lot of members, but few disciples. And the Pabst Blue Ribbon guy who needs hope probably won't make it to your class. You must determine a place where simple next steps begin to merge with another stream that has deeper relationships, more depth and intentional movement. 

Thoughts to Ponder:

  • How effective is your assimilation process? How many new guests actually fill out a card or go to a designated place?
  • Are first time guest steps simple and clear? Are you using the right language?
  • When and where does your assimilation begin merging with a discipleship pathway? 
  • How are you measuring progress? What is the win in the end?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Growth Engine Principles

   At The Unstuck Group, we use the word growth engine to describe a ministry component that drives the vision and growth of the church. While working with churches, often different engines emerge, but there are a few that seem to always show up. Typically engines such as assimilation, small groups, leadership development or outreach always make it to the whiteboard. Growth engines help churches break through growth barriers. 

 Growth engines are vital for church growth. Imagine a brand new car, decked out with leather and all the extras, but with an old clunky engine under the hood. While the car may look good at first glance, cosmetics will not take us very far.

Here are a few things we know to be true about engines:

  • Engines consist of many working parts, but should make one harmonious sound. When you hear something knocking, it's a sign that something needs repaired, retooled or replaced.

  • Engines need both oil and water in order to operate efficiently. One is not more important than the other. 

  • Engines have a tachometer to measure pressure and load; this keeps the engine operating in a healthy zone without blowing anything up.

  • Engines cannot operate without friction, which means they require scheduled maintenance. 

 Now, let's translate this into the church world. What are the top four or five growth engines in your church that drives both growth and vision? As you answer those questions, here's some things to remember about those engines.

  • Growth engines typically have many working parts (e.g. children's ministry has a children's pastor, teachers, volunteer coordinator, etc); the objective is for all the different parts to make one sound of unity. If you hear a lot of knocking and pinging, the engine needs immediate attention. 

  • While chemistry is one of the most important elements of teamwork, it doesn't always exists among everyone on the team. Different personalities and gifting are often necessary to move a ministry further along. Much like oil and water, though there's some resistance between the two, both are needed to for optimal engine performance. 

  • Growth engines need a tachometer. As pastors and leaders, we have to understand what healthy pressure looks like. Overloading an engine will eventually blow something up and not enough pressure will result in little progress.

  • Because growth engines are geared with people and movement, friction will always occur. Anytime there is friction, there will always be wear and tear. Regular health checks on your leaders, teams and processes can help your growth engine run longer and further.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The M's of Discipleship

   There are churches across the country who tweet every Sunday about new people who trusted Jesus for the first time. Some of these churches also see a great number of baptisms. While it's great to see and hear about new people trusting Jesus as Savior, there seems to be a common struggle in the church. The struggle is getting those newly saved people to begin following Jesus. Unfortunately, it is possible to see a lot of conversions, but little discipleship. What's the answer? Is it small groups? A good Bible study? The right assimilation? Or what about a healthy discipleship pathway? 

  Actually, there isn't one stand alone disciple-making engine; each of the mentioned pieces (and they're not the only pieces) can and does play an important role in making disciples. Yet I have discovered that strong small groups, good assimilation and even a healthy discipleship pathway need three things to be truly effective. I call these the M's of discipleship. Movement, Metrics and Model

Movement: Discipleship only happens when intentional movement occurs. This is why Jesus often used a F word (Follow Me). It denotes movement. Too often we equate spiritual maturity to church attendance, when in reality, avid attenders who don't move towards following Jesus are nothing more than benchwarmers. While Sunday attendance is important, we know we can't make disciples from the Sunday stage (because Jesus didn't). If we could, our churches would be filled with people who were fully devoted to Jesus. However, the weekend service can be a place where people start a journey towards discipleship. A church full of benchwarmers is a sure sign that something is missing to help people move from the pew to following Jesus. 

Metrics: If something moves, you can measure it; and if you can measure it, you can grow it. Regardless of whether it's small groups, assimilation or a great Sunday school program, we have to be able to measure it in order to grow it. The trick is to measure the right things. Numbers aren't the most important thing, but if you ever stop looking at them, you'll think they are. When we build good metrics, it gives us permission to ask the right questions and make tweaks and changes which results in growth. 

Model: Most all churches use some sort of relational model when it comes to making disciples. While I wish a high-relational environment was the easy answer for discipleship, we know that it isn't. It is totally possible to have 90% of the church meeting in groups every week and still fail to make disciples. In terms of discipleship, whether it be small groups, Bible study or some sort of class, we have to make sure we have the right model.  

Questions to ponder...

  • Does your church have a clear strategy to help people move from the chair or pew towards a disciple-making environment? Is the movement totally linear? Can it be linear since we know different people are in different stages and seasons of life?
  • In addition to attendance and baptism, what other areas are you currently measuring? Are you measuring life change, number of new people serving or disciples making disciples? How often do you look at the numbers? 
  • What model or models are you using now to make disciples? Does the model have disciple-making intentionality? Are people being challenged with the gospel in a relational environment? Is your model simple enough for people to brings their friends down the same path? 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Is Strategy a Dirty Word in your Church?

Over the years, I have worked with many churches around the country, most of them being in rural America and usually seven hundred people or less. Because I lead a church in rural America, I can identify (and often empathize) with the struggles that small town pastors deal with on a consistent basis. Everything from A (dysfunctional Autonomy) to Z (unhealthy religious Zeal). However, many of the common struggles are symptoms of deeper core issues. 

While core issues differ in each church, there is a common bone of contention I see frequently; it is the lack of permission to use strategy. Some churches believe the word "strategy" belongs in the business world and has no place in church. Others fear systems or strategies would bring too much complexity and confusion to the church and endanger the principle, "The gospel is enough." 

I do believe the gospel is enough. The gospel is the change agent; it is God's powder keg of salvation (Romans 1:16). However, we can't deny the fact that God used strategies in the Old and New Testament. 

  • God systematically created the heavens and earth (Genesis 1-2)
  • God used Joseph's strategic thinking to preserve Egypt from famine, which ended up saving Israel too. (Genesis 27-50)
  • God used Jethro to help Moses set up a strategic plan to share his leadership burdens (Exodus 18)
  • God gave Joshua war strategies to overcome the enemy (Joshua 6)
  • Jesus used the strategy of sending out His disciples two by two with specific instructions (Luke 10)
  • God used the strategy of the cross and resurrection to save us from our sins (The Gospels)

The reality is, whether you believe in church strategy or not, you're using one. Whatever your process is for reaching people with the gospel is in fact, your strategy. Some churches use outreach; others rely on small group ministry; and for many the Sunday sermon is their only strategy. Regardless of the strategy, we must ask ourselves, "Is it working? Are we seeing life change? Is our church making a difference in our city or community? Is our church growing? Are we making disciples?" 

I encourage you, regardless of the size of your church, to consider implementing a healthy, gospel-centered strategy that is unique to your church. At the Unstuck Group, we believe God has a strategy for every church...it's just a matter of discovering it. We have tools for both larger and smaller churches to help. Check out The Unstuck Group website to learn more.  

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Leading Change in Rural Churches

Nothing is as exciting as watching a church grow. Seeing people come to Christ and experience life change is something that never gets old. While we all pursue spiritual multiplication in our churches, we should also remember that growth and change are synonymous; you can't have one without the other; and with growth and change comes pain.

Much like a growing child, growth brings change, which in turn causes things to leave the body. For example, we don't freak out when our children run to us with a loose baby tooth; of course the child may be upset because he has grown fond of his cute little tooth, but we understand that it's a normal part of growth. When the tooth is pulled, there is usually bleeding; it's not pleasant, but it's part of growth. 
We understand that in order for permanent, stronger teeth to come in, this has to happen. 

The same is true in a growing church; especially a church that's under five hundred people. There are processes and systems that worked well in the church when the church was smaller; but when growth occurs, the processes and systems, much like the baby tooth, becomes loose and unable to meet current needs; things soon begin bleeding. 

The real struggle is helping those who have grown fond of past processes understand the necessity of "pulling" out the old so the new can come in. Here's a few "baby teeth" I see many churches still hanging on to:

  • Church Polity & By-Laws: Is your current polity set up for future growth? Does changing a light bulb still require a church vote?
  • Church Boards: How many decision-making boards do you have? Two is one too many. 
  • Worship Styles: Are you putting energy into a failing traditional service just to keep certain people happy? People who aren't willing to have their baby teeth pulled?
  • Generosity: Are you securing God's money instead of stewarding God's Money? Too often rural churches have old money that's being hid under a napkin instead of investing in the Kingdom of God.

As you think about these things, ask this question: "What must be removed in order for something more permanent to come in and sustain future growth? 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Avoid the Summer Slump

 Momentum makes church exciting; it makes people excited. It's easy to see momentum building as churches approach big days. We saw this just a couple of months ago. Spring was in the air; Easter candy overtook the shelves at Wal-Mart; and people were inviting their friends and family to church in hopes of seeing their lives changed. New faces showed up and there was a buzz in the air! It was as if the church drank a case of Red Bull!  Nearly every church experiences this energy rush during big days like Easter, Christmas, Mother’s Day and the first Sunday after New Year’s Day. Pastors live for these days...and then summer shows up. 

   Unfortunately the weeks after Easter usually don’t carry the same excitement. Most of the people who showed up for Easter don’t come back. Church people aren’t inviting people anymore because, well, Easter is over and the eggs have all been found. Hot sunny days, vacations and the lake becomes our new competition.  It’s here that most pastors call a timeout and simply wait for Christmas. They spend the next several months surviving the summer and they really don’t get too excited again until Rudolf the Red-nosed reindeer starts playing on the television. As Christmas approaches, it’s a replay of the weeks before Easter. 

    While we want to make sure our teams have times of ample rest and restoration, we don't want to push the pause button on church either. In addition to leveraging natural growth platforms (Easter, Christmas, etc), we should consider building other platforms during the in-betweens to help keep some energy flowing. 

Here's three things to think about as we move into the summer:

  • Serve the Community: Big crowds aren't the only thing that creates momentum; and Sundays aren't the only days to experience it. What can your church do in the community over the summer that will create synergy within the church and the people in your city?
  • Create a Big Day: What can your church do in the summer that would be beneficial or attractive to the community? Baby Dedication Sundays, Sunday After-Church Barbecues or huge outdoor baptisms will create a lot of energy as well as give your members something to invite their friends to. 
  • Celebrate Volunteers: The summer time is a great time to celebrate your volunteers. Schedule a cookout, have a party or some other activity to both appreciate the people who make Sunday happen as well as cast vision for the fall. If you keep your volunteers excited, it'll spread among the church. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Healthy Team Enviornment

I am passionate about working with churches and leaders. I love watching light bulbs come on as pastors discover God's plan for their churches. Even though I typically go in as the teacher, I seldom ever leave a church without learning something that helps me as I lead my own church. 

Earlier this year, I had the privilege to go through a StratOp with New Song Fellowship Church in Valparaiso, Indiana. We spent the weekend together building a strategic plan to increase their gospel impact. During the process, one thing really stood out to me about their leadership team; they had a very healthy team environment. 

I sat and listened as each one was completely honest about what was working, what wasn't and what needed fixing. While some of the conversations had the potential to hit a nerve, they never did because each person on the team was nice, in terms of how they shared their heart. We ended the weekend with a unified vision and a well-built plan.

Here's three takeaways I discovered from our time together that can help create a healthy team environment (things that I am applying to my own team):

  • As a pastor/leader, encourage your team to be honest, but also encourage niceness. While the truth can sometime sting, being nice makes it easier to receive.
  • Create a safe place for the team to be honest; this means no one gets shut down when they share a comment that may be uncomfortable. 
  • Beware of fence riders. Indecisive people typically ride the fence to avoid confrontation or uncomfortableness. This behavior is very contagious to a team.