November has been a rare month for me, in that I’ve just finished my fourth book in 3 weeks. This time around it’s Simple Church by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger. The premise is this, “After hundreds of consultations with local churches and a significant research project, we have concluded that church leaders need to simplify.” ((Rainer, Geiger; Simple Church, pg. 4)) They acknowledge the rise of simplicity in business from Apple to Southwest Airlines. Then they discuss how they came to their conclusion.
The book is based on a survey of “vibrant” and “comparison” churches. If you choose, you can read that as “growing” and “stagnant or dying”. The authors compared the survey data and it’s pretty striking. The results showed that the vibrant churches were much more simple than the others. “The difference was so big that the probability of the results occuring with one church by chance is less than one in 1000.” Statistically, the results are “highly significant.” ((pg. 14))
Before any charts or graphs make their appearance, we see profiles of two churches that Rainer and Geiger have consulted with. This, to me, was the part that convinced me most that they had found something significant; not because they’re great storytellers, but because I’ve seen a copy of their complex church in action.
Most churches have a lot of information to communicate, but First Church also has a lot of statements. There is a mission statement, a purpose statement, a vision statement, and a strategy statement. Each statement is different from the other. And long.
Looking more at the brochures, we notice that each ministry department also has different statements. Each statement is intended to describe the focus or direction of the church. There are more than ten different statements on the materials we are reviewing. ((pg. 34))
Essentially, there is so much going on at this church in the way of statements, that no one really knows what the mission of the church is, or how they fit into it. In fact, no one really knows any of the statements. The church is fragmented and moving in several different directions.
The simple church profiled had one statement: “loving God, loving people, and serving the world.” ((pg. 37)) It’s not only a purpose statement, it is their process for making disciples, which is what we’re supposed to be about, anyway. First they bring people in and teach them to love God, then they grow into loving others, then to serving the world. It’s simple and intuitive, and – most importantly – it seems to be working.
The two profiles are extensive, but they reinforce this point over and over: the church needs a simple purpose and process for making disciples.
The authors highlighted four keys to creating and maintaining simplicity, as they found in their research: Clarity, Movement, Alignment, and Focus. The purpose and process must be clear to everyone on staff and in the congregation. There must be a plan for moving people through from new believer to disciple and servant. All of the church’s ministries must be on board with the process. And the church must focus only on the process in order to maintain simplicity.
The research is clear and the conclusions drawn are convincing. The most important aspect of this book is that the authors aren’t trying to sell their readers on a church model. The three-step process above may not work for other churches, and that’s ok; as long as you make a plan and stick to it.
The final chapter quotes Malachi 1:6-14. In the passage God confronts the priests about their practice of sacrificing lame and diseased animals. The analogy is to the quality of ministry that results from complexity. When a church is moving in several different directions it’s difficult to achieve excellence, and why would we want anything less than excellence as we work for God?