I’m pretty sure that I’ve never met anyone who became a pastor so that they could spend their time worrying about strategy.
Those of us who are pastors and church leaders generally invest in ministry because we love people, not because we love spreadsheets and flowcharts. We love ministry because we want to see people move from where they are to where God wants them to be. There are very few things in life more powerful.
Seeing broken people become whole in and through Jesus really is amazing. However, church leaders do themselves and the churches they lead a huge disservice when they neglect strategy because they are not naturally inclined to it. Many pastors and church leaders are not necessarily strategically inclined, and because of that they ignore it, or intentionally neglect it.
In our research on the largest and fastest growing churches in America, however, we have found that strategy really matters. Churches who are rapidly growing, and who maintain that growth, place a premium on intentional and strategic leadership.
A Strategic Approach
Every year, at LifeWay Research, we pull together data from churches across the country. We collate the data in two ways; the fastest growing churches in the country and the largest churches in the country. This research is usually among the more talked about research we do each year.
Some think we publish this research because we are trying to exalt the large church as the “best” model for doing church. This simply isn’t true. Remember, God used the megachurch to reach Korea and the house church to reach China. Models should be held loosely, and Jesus should be held tightly. We are not convinced the bigger the church is, the better that church is.
We believe that any church that God uses is a great church. With that said, we also believe that facts are our friends. We want to regularly evaluate what God is doing in churches across the country, and one of the ways we do that is through this research.
As we comb through the research each year, we look to see if there are trends that stand out, or similar experiences that are shared by many of the churches who are seeing exciting growth.
Each year we find one or two areas that are unique and, we think, potentially helpful to other pastors and church leaders. This year is no exception. As we looked through the surveys, and interviewed a number of the churches, we saw a common theme of intentional strategy begin to emerge. This is more than just strategy, however, this is strategy in a couple of very specific areas - areas which might have received a bit less emphasis in the past.
We noticed that churches were intentionally investing strategic energies in groups ministry and sermon prep this year in a way that seems to be growing in popularity over the past few years. This matters because strategy is sorely lacking from many American churches. In a recent LifeWay Research study, among the pastors we surveyed, only 42% believed that their groups have a well-defined approach. Even worse than that, over half of all pastors we surveyed have no intentional plan for discipling all ages in their church.
This lack of consistent strategy in our churches is killing our disciple-making.
Christ Church of the Valley - Phoenix, AZ
One church that is seeing God move in powerful ways is Christ Church of the Valley in the greater Phoenix area. They come in at #8 in the Largest Churches list and #91 in the Fastest Growing list. Started in 1982, they have grown to over 21,000 each weekend and meet across the Phoenix metro on 5 different campuses.
As a church, they would appear to be the definition of success, at least according to many. In spite of that, however, they recently underwent a pretty significant change in their group strategy. Formerly they used a fairly typical groups strategy with people grouped together by affinity. Additionally they would have a variety of ministries meeting throughout the week on their campus. While these ministry avenues generated a lot of people and activity, they were not sure they were helping the church actually accomplish its mission of, “win, train and send.”
Ashley Wooldridge, who is the Executive Pastor at Christ Church described their group gatherings as one “holy huddle” after another. He went on to say, “We would find groups of people that we liked and we would drive out of our neighborhoods, past all the neighbors that we knew did not know Jesus, and did not go to church” on their way to meet with their affinity-based small group. This lack of missional intentionality led the church leadership to reconsider their strategy. They arrived at a place where they were frustrated by their lack of missional effectiveness. “We are tired of saying that we want to reach our neighborhoods and change our culture yet really not strategically doing something about it.”
They completely shut down their affinity-based small group strategy. Instead, they launched a new groups ministry that is based on neighborhood. Every person in the church is encouraged to engage in a group that meets in their basic geographic area.
They are so committed to this strategy that Wooldridge tells us they don’t have any groups that exist today that would not be meeting in the neighborhood that the people live in. What is more, they eliminated all other larger groups that used to meet on their campus. Groups like women’s ministry, men’s ministry, single’s ministry no longer happen in lieu of everyone meeting in their neighborhood.
This combination of simplification and strategic discipleship strategy has served to promote relational discipleship as people now live in proximity with those they are growing in Christ with. It helps promote mission, as they can easily invite non-believers in their community to meet with their group, which is also in their community.
Wooldridge goes on to highlight that this has changed their approach to mission. “We found that it is a lot easier for a Christian to go overseas for Africa for a week, beat their chest, come back, feeling really good that they did something great, and then drive into their neighborhoods, while all the people around us that we know are not going to heaven with us.”
This change in strategy has unleashed the people in their church to grow as disciples, and to serve their community on mission. Wooldridge noted that they still send people around the world on mission, but this strategic change has exponentially increased their influence in their immediate area.
Though Wooldridge did not mention this, but my observation would be that they also enabled their large church to become smaller, and approachable, by multiplying through this neighborhood approach. Their intentional strategy has freed them up to serve people more effectively, allowing the Great Commission to go out and disciples to be made.
Real Life Church - Valencia, CA
Another church that is strategically positioning themselves to better disciple the people entrusted to them is the Real Life Church of Valencia, CA. Real Life Church is #93 on the Largest Churches list and #41 on the fastest growing list.
Real Life Church is working to strategically position themselves to see people’s lives transformed. While Christ Church of the Valley uses a streamlined, neighborhood strategy, Real Life Church is using a different strategy, focused on a variety of discipleship options, to help their people grow to be like Jesus.
Brennan Conklin, their Executive Director of Ministry explains their discipleship group strategy is divided into four segments. They offer Life Groups, Celebrate Recovery, Care Communities and affinity groups as a means for people to be discipled. Life Groups are companions to their weekend worship experiences, and meet in homes, with most people attending one in their basic geographic area.
Celebrate Recovery has become a major part of their groups strategy. Inviting people in who have any number of “hurts, habits and hang-ups,” they are seeing large numbers of people gather, on their campus, each week.
Care Communities are based off various topics and provide discipleship opportunities for people who have had their life turned upside down and are struggling with issues such as cancer, divorce, financial struggle, etc.
Finally, affinity groups gather around specific affinities such as men’s ministry or women’s ministry. This multi-faceted ministry allows them to offer opportunities to people wherever they are, and whatever stage they are in. Conlkin says that, while they offer many opportunities on their campus, they have a strategic push to offer many of these discipleship opportunities off campus for missional reasons. “We don’t want to see these kinds of discipleship paths be taken away from the neighborhood because of all of the people [there].”
While their four discipleship pathways are intentional, they are also highly relational and exist to serve people. In fact, Conklin describes their pathways as a means to help people assume more responsibility for their own discipleship. “Through these options, you are helping people take ownership of their following of Jesus.”
This effort to strategically enable their congregation to own their discipleship progress is an encouraging sign.