Stupid Church Tricks (Part 2)
Often, well-intentioned churches add more programs believing it will lead to more growth. In reality, competing priorities ultimately lead to more complexity and a lack of alignment.
This week, we’re continuing on in our series on Stupid Church Tricks—what we can learn from them and how to avoid them.
I hope every time we engage conversations like this, our listeners walk away feeling encouraged and appropriately challenged to take next steps. Because at the end of the day, I want the church to be healthy. I want the church to have much, much greater kingdom impact. And that’s why we’re shedding light on stupid tricks that churches use that they think will lead to more health and growth… but they never do.
MORE STUPID CHURCH TRICKS
Last week, we focused on stupid church tricks related to leadership and staffing.
In this episode, we’re discussing tricks related to complexity and a lack of alignment/strategy, including:
- Competing services and ministry silos
- Keeping people busy with “church things”
- Avoiding vision and focused strategy
- Making changes without defining the “why”
This Episode is Sponsored by PlainJoe Studios:
PlainJoe: A Storyland Studio partners with churches, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and educational environments to create unforgettable strategic, digital, and spatial stories that lift the Spirit.
Through architecture, branding, interior design, website development, themed environments, and more, PlainJoe champions churches as Sacred Storytellers and collaborates with a wide range of world-changing people and organizations.
To learn more about working with PlainJoe’s team of down-to-earth specialists, architects, strategists, artists, and problem solvers, visit plainjoestudios.com/getunstuck.
Other Episodes in this Series
- Stupid Church Tricks: Leadership & Staffing – Episode 330
- Stupid Church Tricks: Making Anything Louder than the Gospel – Episode 332
- Stupid Church Tricks: Multisite & More – Episode 333
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Often, well-intentioned churches add more programs, believing it will lead to more growth. What we found, though, is that too many times, it ultimately leads to more complexity and a lack of alignment. On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy continue our series on Stupid Church Tricks, what we can learn from them and how to avoid them. Before we get there, though, if you’re brand new to the podcast, head to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe to get the episode show notes in your email. When you do, you’re gonna get resources to go along with each week’s episode, including our Leader Conversation Guide, some bonus resources and access to our podcast resource archive. Again, that’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now, before we get into this week’s conversation, here’s Tony.
PlainJoe: A Storyland Studio partners with churches, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and educational environments to create unforgettable strategic, digital and spatial stories that lift the spirit. Through architecture, branding, interior design, website development, themed environments and more, PlainJoe champions churches as sacred storytellers and collaborates with a wide range of world-changing people and organizations. To learn more about working with PlainJoe’s team of down-to-earth specialists, architects, strategists, artists and problem solvers, visit plainjoestudios.com/getunstuck.
Well, this week, we’re in part two of our series on Stupid Church Tricks, and today, we’re gonna talk about more stupid tricks that churches use that they think will lead to more health and growth, but they never do. And last week, we focused on all things leadership and staffing. This week, we’re discussing tricks related to complexity and a lack of alignment and strategy. So, Tony, where do you wanna start this conversation?
Well, first of all, let me just tell you that I come by this naturally. I remember many years ago, we were driving down the interstate, and Emily said, “You, you definitely have a discernment gift. In fact, I think I’m gonna get billboards put up along the way that just have the phone number 1-800-ASK-TONY before someone makes a, a bad decision.” So, I come by this naturally. But, with that, I, I also find, I know I just, I, I have to do a better job of sharing the truth in love, Amy. So, I’m, I’m trying to get better at this, but I actually think churches appreciate hearing sometimes the tough, the tough love comments.
I hope every time we engage conversations like this, they also walk away feeling encouraged and appropriately challenged to take next steps. Because at the end of the day, we want the church to be healthy. We want the church to have much, much greater kingdom impact. So, with that, though, let’s dive in. Today, the first trick that we wanted to talk about related to adding complexity is this: Adding competing services with completely different worship styles, teaching and leadership that meet in the same building at the same time. So if you’re considering this approach, let me just save you lots of time and headache. This is, this is how this story will eventually play out. Even though both services are located within the same building, different worship styles with different teaching and different leadership will eventually lead to two different churches. Eventually, the healthier service with more people and more growth is going to realize, “Hey, we could go become a separate church and reach more people faster for less money without, without having to deal with all the headaches of appeasing the other people who don’t like our worship anyways because they don’t like our worship style. They don’t like our teaching, and they don’t like our leadership.” And in the early days, the easy decision may have been to avoid the conflict that you knew you were going to have and just start something new and let the old continue to exist. That solution only works if the new thing fails to take off. If the new thing works, though, it will naturally create an us against them conflict.
You know, this was actually one of the first stupid church tricks I encountered when I started with Unstuck. We worked with a wonderful pastor in Florida who had just come through a traumatic season with his church. He, I believe, he had a gifted associate pastor who did just what you said. He wanted to start a new kind of service, one that would be better related to the younger people in their church. And at that time, the church still had a traditional and a contemporary service, and they were not experiencing enough pain, right, to move to one service style. Well, like you said, this experiment, this new thing, grew into a large gathering and, eventually, moved themselves a mile down the road and planted their own church.
And it gutted the other church. It took attenders. It took talented staff, all one mile down the road. And I’m delighted to say that out of those ashes, the, the original church rolled up its sleeves. They worked through three years of realigning and re-envisioning their church. They remodeled. They went to one service style and saw unprecedented growth and salvations in that year, in the years that followed. So, beauty from ashes for sure. But that experience and, and dozens since then have helped us counsel churches on using venues as an expansion strategy. Because if you play the movie forward, you’ll likely have a more divided church, not a church that’s all playing in the same direction. So, what’s the second mistake related to creating complexity?
Yeah. The second mistake I wanna address is allowing ministry silos to thrive. In bigger churches, the silos tend to even be bigger. So, this is something to pay attention to if you’re at a larger church. They begin to form in churches that aren’t aligned around vision and strategy. The foundation for silos is this lack of alignment, which we’ll dive into later, but silos are often fueled by a focus on programs and filling the calendar with activities. And then, the win, whether we care to admit it or not, is getting more people to show up at our ministry’s events.
Our ministries, yep.
We start competing with other ministries, and silos take on then a life of their own because we avoid asking the critical question, “Are the people at our church actually becoming more like Jesus?” If we were honest about responding to that question, we would have to work together as a team to help people move from where they are to where God wants ’em to be. And, Amy, there are a number of different areas where I see silos forming in churches. One church I worked with, as an example, and we’ve seen this ha happen for several times, but this was probably the most pronounced situation with ministry silos. And this was around “Age Silos,” specifically different age ranges of, of adults. And in fact, they had a different pastor for adults in their twenties, different pastor for adults in their thirties, a different pastor for adults in their forties and so on. And as you can imagine, not only were there different pastors, but there was different ministry programming for each of those age groups.
And so, it just, it created all kinds of complexity and chaos in the church because of that. And all kinds of competition between ministries because of that.
More commonly, where we see silos is around ministry areas—so think men’s ministry, women’s ministry, groups ministry, missions ministry, student ministry, kids’ ministry and on down the line. Usually, it’s not just five or six like that, but it’s usually dozens of ministries. Same thing: we want, we want our ministry to be successful. We want it to be healthy. We want more people engaged. And so we, we try to recruit in our ministry areas the best leaders, the best volunteers. We want our announcements to be promoted the most on Sunday morning because we want the most people to come to our ministry programs and events. And time and time again, what we’ve seen is that leads to silos in churches that creates unhealthy competition and actually doesn’t help people to become more like Jesus. And then the third area, and we, we have spent a lot of time and our previous content talking about this; it’s silos that develop around campuses or locations of multisite churches, especially when we allow different teachers at those different campuses. We’ve seen distinctive branding at those campuses, distinctive ministry approaches, ministry strategies at different campuses. And it doesn’t take very long, when you allow that level of autonomy, for silos to form. You start to feel like our, our campus is better in this area because of this. When you, when you start to sense that internally, that’s when you know you’ve created a ministry silo. And in this case, it’s a silo around locations or campuses.
And I think I heard you say, I mean, ’cause as you went through those ministry silos, the second example you gave, most churches have all those areas, right? Groups.
We’ve got kids’ ministry. So it’s not that you’ve got the wrong ministries, but you said the foundation for silos is a lack of alignment. And we’re gonna get into that. And silos are fueled because they focus on programs and filling the calendars with activities. So, I think that feels like it leads into the next mistake, right?
That’s right, Amy. It sure does. The next mistake is simply keeping people busy at church. And if you’ve been around our podcast and our content long enough, you’ve probably heard me say this in as many words. The goal of ministry isn’t to keep people busy in church activities. The goal is to equip people to become more like Jesus and to live out their purpose as part of the body of Christ. But our natural tendency is to think we need to offer more ministries, more programs, more events, more conferences to encourage more people to take steps of spiritual formation. But that, that type of strategy, if you will, for spiritual formation and discipleship, there’s just a lot of faulty thinking on that.
Well, yeah. When we’re working with churches around this topic, we love to talk about the reveal survey. It’s, it’s many years old now, but over 500,000 church attenders from more than 2,000 churches participated in the reveal survey, which gives us a clear picture of how people take steps towards Christ. And the data specifically found that increased church activity does not lead to spiritual growth. Greg Hawkins and Kelly Parkinson wrote about the learnings from their research in their book stating, quoting now, “Unfortunately, churches often make things harder by obscuring the goal to become more like Christ with a complicated assortment of activities. When the church incessantly promotes all the things people should do, it’s very easy for them to lose sight of the real goal, which is who they should become.”
Boy, I can, can’t say that any better than that, Amy. And while churches should be in the disciple-making business, they often have no intentional discipleship strategy. It’s, it’s actually one of the primary reasons why we see churches getting stuck. Instead, churches tend to opt for a program, program-driven model that simply ends up keeping their people busy in church activities. So when churches have this program-driven approach, it really does create several challenges. As examples, ministries within a church, church start competing with each other for people’s time and attention. It feeds more of a consumer mindset where the church promotes programs and events for people to attend, rather than equipping people to do God’s work. Another mistake, churches continue to add programs as the church grows, which just adds to the level of complexity. You end up with competing messages about a growing menu of ministry programs, which makes it challenging for people to know what their next step should be.
And you end up building teams around competing programs, making it difficult to find volunteers for all the core growth engines of your church, those growth engines that are helping you reach more people and the growth engine engines that are helping people take their next steps towards Christ.
Yeah, we’ll give our listeners a free tip on this topic. The solution to this challenge is to move from programs to a path, but defining a clear discipleship path is really only half the battle, because that path will never gain traction unless you also begin to eliminate some of those competing programs. Alright, well, let’s shift a little bit and talk about mistakes related to a lack of strategy or a lack of strategic alignment. So what mistakes do you see here, Tony?
Well, one of the big ones would be avoiding any focus around a clear and specific vision for the future. And I get it. Clarifying a big, bold vision for the future sounds like a very kind of “business-y” thing to do, if you will. We just want people to love God and love others. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be in ministry. I mean, that’s what we signed up for. But I know it, vision casting wasn’t on your job description, and it wasn’t in any of your seminary classes. And I can assure you, though, where there’s a vision vacuum, the loudest people in the room are going to fill it. And the problem, of course, is the loudest people may not have the vision that’s best for your church. And when the loudest people have a platform, they will naturally pull people in different directions. Instead, we need to create a vision for the future that both rallies people’s prayer, time and financial resources but also repels people. A strong vision will do both. And you can find lots more on this topic in our Bold Move series that we did back in November.
And Tony, it’s true that some churches avoid focusing on a specific vision overall. But what I think is an even more popular mistake is establishing a vision but avoiding a focus strategy for how it will actually be accomplished. Right?
Amy, you’re 100% right here. When back when I first started talking about the idea of having a ministry strategy, strategy was almost a bad word in church world, and we’ve made lots of progress since then. But we absolutely still see this mistake made in churches. For a second, let’s just forget the words mission, vision and strategy. They’re just words. And people sometimes get confused about all three of those. Instead, consider these specific questions. Why does our church exist? I mean, what, what’s our primary purpose as a church? Secondly, where are we going in the future? What will our church look like in the next three to five years? Thirdly, how are we going to get there?
What’s important right now? Yeah. The emphasis is on that word how. It’s that third bullet that ends up dividing a lot of churches. They go through the hard work of confirming mission and vision, but they never unify around that how part.
Absolutely. Tony, you know, follow-through may very well be the greatest missing key within churches. It’s probably the number one complaint we get from church leaders about their teams. You might’ve felt some of these things, right? Change is talked about more than it’s made. Random opportunities are chase, taking the, the focus away from a potentially successful ministry. The church continues to decline as leaders are unsure of next steps. Your team loses faith in the future of your church. When the strategy isn’t defined, people drift back to doing what they’ve always done and doing it the way they’ve always done it. People pull in different directions then and then that leads to that division. I think one of the ways that we’ve been trying to combat this because we do surveys after we serve a church and we do them right away when we’re done just to make sure we delivered what we said we would. But we also inspect like six months later, and we wanna know, what are your greatest challenges? What were your greatest takeaways? And for years, we still had a lot of feedback. It’s not, it’s not you; it’s us. We’ve struggled to actually put things into action. And so we kept revamping, how do we serve a church once we’re done with their engagement? And I actually feel like this iteration, we are getting less and less and less of that through our implementation phase because we’re helping churches stay focused on the how. Go through your structure changes so that we can actually move these strategies we’ve defined forward. But churches left on their own, I think it’s just a hard, a hard thing to do when it’s always Sunday every week. I don’t know. What do you think, Tony?
Yeah. Well, I was just with another big church just in recent days, and Amy, that was actually what the senior pastor acknowledged with me. He said, you know, we can do all of this on our own, but there’s something about knowing I’m gonna have a conversation with Tony on such-and-such date that in a good way, keeps us focused on what we have told you are the priorities for our ministry that we want to move forward.
And I think just that ongoing almost accountability but the coaching that we’re offering to churches that we’re, we don’t just wanna plan for how we’re going to do it. We actually are going to follow through on that plan.
That’s right. Alright, Tony, well, you and I could probably harp on that one for a while, but what’s the next church trick we see in this area?
Yeah. It’s making a significant change in strategy without connecting the change to your mission. And, and here’s how I know that this is true, Amy. I’ve seen churches that are clear and focused on their vision and have the ability to successfully change service times. They’ve been able to change worship styles, build new buildings, relocate to new locations, change the name of the church even or shift from Sunday school classes to home groups. I’ve seen churches stop ministries or events that have been around for years and on and on and on. I mean, some pretty big changes.
On the other hand, I’ve also seen churches try to mimic healthy churches by adopting their methods without explaining why they’re making those changes. And in those cases, those changes routinely divide the church. So here the, here’s, here’s the point: An imperfect idea with a somewhat flawed implementation at the wrong time can still find success if the leadership rallies and explains why it matters to the overall mission and vision of the church. A perfect idea, on the other hand, with a flawless implementation at the right time, can still fail miserably if the leadership isn’t mobilized and no one makes the case for why it matters to the overall mission and vision of the church. So the most important part of casting vision, especially around change, is helping people see why, why does it, why is this change critical to the mission of our church?
You know, as you’re sharing that, I was thinking back to the webinar we did when we had the pastor from the Hills Church, which you spent a lot of time with. They have navigated a lot of change successfully.
Yes, they have.
Because of the way he connects it. Can you just share a little bit about how they connect that to the why?
Yeah. I mean, their church, through the years, has completely changed their style of worship. They have gone from one location to now four locations. They’ve grown from a relatively small church to a church that’s reaching thousands of people. And because of that, their ministry strategies have had to shift time and time and time again. But Pastor Rick at the Hills, he is so committed to the mission of the church that every time they’ve made a change, even significant changes like this, he reminds his church, this is why we’re doing this.
It’s going to help people meet and follow Jesus. And because of that, I mean they, again, like you acknowledge they’ve made some significant changes through the years, but the church is healthy and united like never before.
Yeah. That webinar, his presence on our webinar on Bold Moves was so catalytic to so many listeners ’cause it’s quite simple.
But it’s not easy doing what you’re saying. All right. Well, it looks like we have one more trick on our list to get through today.
Yeah. This one it’s a bit different than the others, but I just had to address it. And that’s inviting people to more meetings to solve communications challenges, and so I, I will tell you almost I would say 90, 95% of the time that we work with churches, part of what we do is help them look at the staff dynamics, staff health and other factors around staff culture and systems and so on.
And it’s not unusual,90, 95% of the time for this topic of internal communications to come up and usually how churches, and I actually believe this is how marketplace teams solve this, is they assume if there’s a communications challenge, we just need to invite more people to more meetings so that we can get everybody on the same page with the same information. That, though, does not work. The reason why is I have been through that many times in the past. And what ends up happening is the more people you invite to more meetings, the more that people tune out in those meetings.
And they’re hearing the information, but it’s just noise in the background. It’s not locking in because that information isn’t important to, to people in the moment. And so, usually, what I find is communications challenges can’t be solved with more meetings. Instead, it’s a combination of several things. We need to have clarity of roles and responsibilities. In other words, we need to have clear lanes in our structure to know who’s responsible for what. We have to have good systems to manage projects and tasks so the right people can be aware of who’s working on what. And we know when the what needs to be completed by whom.
It involves having some solutions where we can leverage communications online through messaging app and team communications app for good collaboration that can happen online through great tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams. So that, that those right engagements around topics can happen while people are still doing different things at different times throughout the day. And by using all of these avenues, what I have found is it really has nothing to do with people coming together to talk to each other. But communications improve so much more when we have clarity of roles and responsibilities.
We’re using the right systems to manage projects and tasks, and we have the right tools in place to encourage collaboration on the team so the right people are hearing the right messages at the right time.
And you’re not saying that we don’t need meetings. Of course we do. We just don’t need more meetings. Once you figure out what are our strategic intersections we need to create organizationally, don’t keep adding on top of that. Right?
Yeah. So what was, what was your leadership learning that you shared today?
Oh, on the three stages of career development?
Yeah. So the stages of career development are number one, I want to be in that meeting. The second one is I want to run the meeting, and the third one is I want to avoid meetings.
There you go.
I think you’re the third stage.
So, all that, all that, all that to say, meetings aren’t the solution to communication challenges.
Well, Tony, this was fun. Any final thoughts you have today before we wrap up the conversation?
Yeah, I just wanna reiterate that although we’ve been a little bit more blunt in this series or a little bit more cheeky, can I use the word cheeky in the U.S., Amy? Or is that more of an England thing?
I think it’s funny. Use the word cheeky.
Yeah, you like that? So, being a little bit more cheeky than normal in this series, our hope is that you’ll really take this to heart. I mean, we’ve been in ministry long enough and we’ve been serving churches long enough now that we just know that these tricks that we’ve talked about today, they just, they don’t work. And we, we’ve worked with enough churches along the way to have confidence in that. And again, we want your church to thrive. And we know that complexity and lack of alignment around strategy, they’re gonna get you stuck every time. And that’s why a large part of our consulting process with churches is focused on making sure that all of the church’s systems, strategies, structures and programs are aligned with their overall mission and vision. Because when a church is committed to removing the distractions and being a truly unified ministry, when they’re aligned around a mission together, God can do amazing things. And that’s certainly our hope and our prayer for all the churches and leaders who are listening to today.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. At The Unstuck Group, our goal is to help pastors grow healthy churches by guiding them to align their vision, strategy, team and action. In everything that we do, our priority is to help churches help people meet and follow Jesus. If there’s any way we can serve you and your church, reach out to us today at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.