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  • December 2009
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Which church is the more likely to be a growing church: A church with a broad-range of programs that have appeal to all ages or a church with few programs but with a simple process for making and maturing disciples?

Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger give a counter-intuitive answer in their book, Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, © 2006, 256pp).

This book grew out of research involving hundreds of churches that come from all parts of the USA and of many different denominational groups. The research compares vibrant churches (those that have grown in worship attendance at least 5% for the past three years) with stagnant or declining churches (those that have worship attendance with no more than a cumulative 1% over those same three years). They did not distinguish between conversion growth as compared to biological and transfer growth. They did, however, indicate that the vibrant churches were experiencing all of these.

The vibrant churches, as defined, are only about 2% of all congregations in the USA. They wanted to set the bar at a 10% growth rate per year but settled on 5% because of how few congregations have grown 10% per year over a three-year period.

The authors found a very high correlation between what they describe as “a simple process for making disciples” and church growth. The process differs in design and presentation in each congregation, but there is a significant relationship between simplicity and vibrancy.

On the other hand, the control group of churches that were stagnant or declining had a significantly different profile. These churches were more program-oriented than process-oriented. Theologically, the control group was no different from the vibrant churches. The differences were in how they “do church.” The stagnant churches tend to multiply programs, with each program standing alone as an end within itself. The vibrant churches tend to focus their energy into a process with strategically designed programs that move people from lower to higher levels of involvement and discipleship.

The four key words, according to the research, are Clarity, Movement, Alignment, and Focus.


How easy is the process to understand and communicate? Do the leaders of the church know and understand their own program? How do they communicate it to the congregation? Does the congregation understand it?

To illustrate this, they describe two different churches of similar size and demographics. Each church has highly qualified leadership with similar time in service at the church. One has many programs, many “statements” (vision statement, mission statement) for the church and each department or ministry within the church. The other has a single statement that defines their vision and mission.

The church with many programs had much activity with programs competing with each other for the attention of the members. The church with fewer programs had less activity but more focus. This was the simple church, and it was growing.

They found that “less is more.”

Their purpose was all about “loving God, loving people, and serving the world.” When the researchers asked the leaders of this church, “How do you make your purpose happen? What is your process?”

There was no hesitation. “Love God, love others, and serve the world.”

The interviewer responded, “I thought you said that is your purpose.”

It is. Our purpose is a process. We love God, love others, and serve the world.” [pp. 37-38]


They designed each “program” of that church to move people to the next stage of the process.

The simple process is experienced weekly through the programs the church offers. The weekly programs are tools to help people love God, love others, and serve the world. If the programs were not used to move people through the process, then the vision/process statement would be meaningless.

The first step in the process is to love God, and the weekend worship services are used to help people do so. The worship service is where guests, new people, and nonbelievers enter the church. It is also the weekly event where believers draw close to God through inspiring worship and dynamic biblical teaching.

The second step in the process is to love others, so the next program in the process is designed to help people connect relationally. The weekend services do not connect people to others very well. Like most churches, people sit facing forward and have little interaction with one another.

The staff concluded that small groups were the best environment for people to love one another in biblical community. Some small groups are on campus on Sundays or Wednesdays. Some groups meet off campus in homes or restaurants. People are encouraged to plug into one group.

The third step in the process is to serve the world, and ministry teams engage people in ministry. People enjoy camaraderie in a team environment while experiencing the joy of serving others. Some of the teams focus on the church while others focus on the community. New members are told at the new member’s class that they should not join the church if they do not plan on serving.

At the simple church, there are three main programs. One for each phase in their process. They are placed strategically and sequentially along their process. The goal is to move people from program to program so people naturally progress through the process of spiritual transformation. People who attend worship services are encouraged to move to a small group. People in small groups are challenged to serve on a team.

It seems to be all they do. Three weekly programs. It is a simple design. [pp. 43-44, emphasis in original]

Notice that the process does not provide for moving out of any phase of the process. People begin by loving God, move to Christian love for others, and through that to serving the world. It is a growth process to move people closer to real discipleship.


The programs fall in a logical progression. Furthermore, the leadership and congregation line up in support of this simple process. There is cohesion. Everyone understands (or has come to understand) the process.

This means they understand what leadership expects of them. They understand why they do certain things. There is less feeling of activity for the sake of activity. Programs are not ends within themselves. The members do not feel they are just doing “busy work.”

Things are much different in the other church in this comparative example.

There, the leaders seldom view the church as a whole; they focus on their own area of responsibility. They do not see their own programs in relation to what others are doing – or how the church as a whole is growing. Each looks at the numbers to see how his own program is faring.

There is much competition for time on the calendar and for the attention of the members of the church. Leaders try to “sell” their own particular programs to the members. They almost view the members of the church as consumers of the leaders’ programs. Sometimes scheduling conflicts put programs that should naturally appeal to the same set of members on at the same time. Thus, members must choose between two different programs – for example, do I go to parenting class or to the marriage enrichment seminar?

The leaders – and the members – are constantly tired because of their frenetic activity, which is not generating church growth. Yet, they do not understand why the yoke of Jesus has become a burden, instead of being easy as He promised (Matthew 11:28-30).


The design of the process at the simple church focuses on a single objective: develop disciples of Jesus. Leadership meetings focus on how each program can better develop Christ-likeness. Specific content in each program will change, but the purpose remains constant. This clarity of purpose helps the members know what to expect and what comes next. Learn to love God as you worship him. Build relationship with others in small groups (where you continue to learn to love God and find motivation to serve the world). Then join friends who also show love to God in serving the world.

There is not a lot of extra “fluff.” They eliminate some good programs.

The early childhood ministry at Christ Fellowship plays a huge role in the weekend service. Preschoolers are taught and parents are freed up to attend the services without distraction. To execute the weekends with excellence, the early childhood ministry had to narrow its focus. Elimination was necessary.

The early childhood ministry had formerly offered a Mothers Morning Out program twice a week. While this program was highly appreciated by mothers in the church, it was not an essential program in the ministry process. It took a tremendous amount of time for the early childhood staff to run the program. Instead of overseeing and recruiting volunteers for only the weekends and midweek program, staff also had to oversee this additional program.

Energy was divided, and the essential programs in the process were suffering. Several times families were turned away during the weekend services because there were not enough volunteers. Unintentionally, Mothers Morning Out competed with the weekend and midweek programs.

It had to be eliminated. This decision was both historically and interpersonally challenging. Paid child-care workers who made additional income from Mothers Morning Out were frustrated with the decision, as were parents who love the service. It was not easy. Some people still don’t like Eric. Who can blame them?

However, the decision has made the early childhood ministry more effective. They are equipped to handle more kids on the weekend because their attention is less divided. The staff’s time is more focused; therefore, the excellence factor is higher. Ultimately, parents appreciate the increased quality of the weekend early childhood ministry.

It may be time to say no to some of your nonessential programs.

This is in keeping with Paul’s declaration, “one thing I do” (Philippians 3:13). That, of course, is in keeping with Jesus’ admonition to Martha, “only one thing is needed” (Luke 10:42).

By paring non-essential programs, we can become more effective as servants of God by being better stewards of time and money.


We will be more successful when we have a plan to move people along a path leading to greater discipleship. A plan by itself will not work. We must also work the plan by staying focused and committed.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in escaping the treadmill of “busy-work” that has lots of activity, but makes little to no progress. The authors do not offer a panacea. Planning a “simple process for making true disciples” is not easy, nor is such a program easy to put into practice. The congregation’s “culture” has to change – which is not an easy matter. Months of prayer, study, and discussion must go into forming the process. Putting it into practice will demand much wisdom and commitment.

If the thesis of the book is correct, the rewards can be well worth the effort.

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