Simple Church: The Importance of Designing a Straightforward Disciple-Making Process

In the Great Commission, Jesus instructs his followers: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19). This is the job description of every Christian and every church, to make more and better disciples of Jesus. This is the church’s raison d’etre.

The most important thing a church does is design a process for making more and better disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything we have and everything we do in the church is intended to be a tool for accomplishing this mission.

In the book, Simple Church, by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, we learn that leaders in the church are called to be designers, not programmers. If church leaders take this call seriously, then they are charged with a very important responsibility: To design a simple, step-by step process that moves people through various stages of spiritual growth. This sequential process is implemented in every area of the church, including all age-level ministries, and the staff, leaders, and members are taught to fully understand the process and work together as a unified body to move people through the steps. Anything that does not directly support the disciple-making process is abandoned.

Such a process has some distinctive characteristics. It is:

  • Intentionally designed, not carelessly thrown together.
  • Straightforward and simple. (And the simplicity is fiercely protected; we don’t lengthen it, add to it, or otherwise complicate it.)
  • Strategic insofar as (1) it is tied to the mission and vision of the church, and (2) it is structured by clearly defined, sequential steps.
  • Aimed at transforming people into the image of Christ.

 

Steps in Creating a Simple Church: Process

Clarity → Movement → Alignment → Focus[1]  

 

Clarity: The ability of the process to be communicated and understood by people. Clarity eliminates confusion. Remember, understanding always precedes commitment, so if we want people to commit to our church by investing their time, talent, treasure, and witness, they need clarity about who we are, what we are trying to do, and how we intend to do it. Without clarity it’s difficult to get buy-in, and without buy-in people usually don’t give, especially if it requires sacrifice. So, the staff and leaders not only need to fully understand the process, but they must also teach it to everyone they serve.  

 

Movement: The sequential steps in the process that cause people to move to greater areas of commitment. Movement is what causes someone to go to the next step. It’s what happens in between programs.

This means that we do not evaluate the success of our ministries as isolated units but according to how people are moving through our discipleship process. For example, we don’t say, “Worship is going great because we had a 10% increase and nobody is complaining about the music or sermon.” Rather, we say, “Worship is going great because we had a 10% increase in people moving from worship into a Bible study where they are growing more deeply in their faith.” We don’t focus on the number of people who attend a program, but the number of people moving from step one, to step-two, to step-three in the process that leads them to greater maturity and commitment to Christ. Hence, “hand-offs” from one step to the next are very important. Unfortunately, the church often fails to execute (or even pay attention to) hand-offs because leaders often focus on isolated programs and work in silos. Pastors need to train their leaders to pay as much attention to handoffs as the programs themselves, because programs are only valuable insofar as they move people through a discipleship process that transforms them into the image of Christ. Therefore, every program/event/ministry must fit somewhere in the sequential process, which brings us to alignment.

 

Alignment: the way that all ministry departments embrace, submit, and attach themselves to the same overarching process. “Alignment ensures the entire church body is moving in the same direction, and in the same manner” to accomplish the same mission. Everyone is operating from the same ministry blueprint, and replicates the process in their respective areas. Without alignment, the church is not a unified body but a tangled bunch of various sub-ministries that work in silos and compete for space, money, volunteers, and time on the calendar. Leaders not only fail to work cooperatively to accomplish a single mission, but they often (even if inadvertently) work at cross purposes. Achieving and maintaining alignment is painful, but failing to address misalignment is more painful and costly in the long run. (Think about your car being out of alignment. It is cheaper to get an alignment than buy new tires. It is safer to get an alignment than to risk a blow-out and possibly suffer a car accident.)

 

Focus: the commitment to abandon everything that falls outside of the simple ministry process. We only say “yes” to the best things that help us accomplish our mission by working our process. We say “no” to things that do not directly move the process forward or that are “good” but not “the best,” knowing that extra programs will compete with and pull people away from our primary strategy for making disciples.

Focus is the most difficult element to implement. It takes deep convictions and guts. “Focus does not make church leaders popular.” As you say “no” to things that the church has always done, or “no” to new ideas that don’t directly move the process forward, people will get mad at you. Despite our best efforts to explain the importance of the simple church model and how it will lead to more fruitful ministry, staff will quit, leaders will resign, and members will leave the church as we execute focus. Leaders survive this turbulent time by focusing on being faithful to Christ, being totally committed to his mission, and having faith that God will reward our obedience by sending us the people we need, regardless of who leaves. If we can’t muster the commitment and resolve needed to execute focus, then all the work described above (clarity, movement, and alignment) will be for nothing. The process will quickly get buried in clutter and soon be forgotten.

So leaders must be careful to “count the cost” before they decide to embrace the simple church model and start designing a discipleship process. Jesus says in Luke 14:

28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ 31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

While moving toward a simple church model will lead to growth (both deep and wide), it requires leaders to make difficult decisions that will upset people. We have to be aware of this from the beginning so that we don’t do all the work and then fail because we don’t have the resolve to see it through.

[1] This blog post is a summary of Simple Church, chapter 3.

Follow the Leader: Learning to Be Led

Have you ever tried to navigate a busy airport with two little kids?

Last Saturday, my middle son, Jackson, was flying into Tampa International Airport to visit for spring break. My two youngest children, Evie (4) and Isaac (6), were so excited to see him, so I invited them to come along to pick him up. Their eyes lit-up over the breakfast table as the chorus rang out, “Yaaaaaay!”

After getting everyone dressed and kissing mom goodbye, we piled into the car and set- out for the airport. I listened to a podcast of one of my favorite preachers, and the kids watched Teen Titians Go on the small screens mounted to the seatbacks in front of them. After about an hour (or “Three Teen Titians episodes” in kid talk) we arrived at the airport. The elevators from the parking garage to the ticketing counter opened to a zoo!

The kids’ eyes grew as wide as baseballs. With all the people and decorations, Evie and Isaac thought they had just entered an amusement park. There were so many novel sights and sounds competing for their attention, so many new places to explore and things to experience. In order to keep us all together, I instructed the kids to hold hands, forming a three-person chain, with Evie in the middle. Then I said, “Stay close together and follow me.”

I should have known better! Isaac was so enthralled by everything swirling around him that he kept stepping out in front in attempts to pull the chain toward things he wanted to investigate.

I tried to turn us to the left, but Isaac pulled straight ahead . . .

“Isaac, you can’t lead, you have to follow me.”

“But I want to ride that” (pointing to the escalator).

“We can ride that later, but we have to get a ticket first.”

“Awwwww!”

As huge spaces with bright decorations opened in front of us, masses of people were moving in sync toward the ticketing counter. After one glimpse, I thought, “We will never make it through that line and get to the gate in time.” I learned a long time ago that you can skip the inside line and get an unaccompanied mirror pass at the curbside check-in. As I started walking toward the sliding glass doors that led outside, Isaac started pulling us in the direction of the crowd where the long line was forming.

“Isaac, you can’t lead, you have to follow me.”

As we stepped outside, the hustle and bustle became more chaotic as everyone crowded together on a narrow sidewalk. Once again, Isaac began to step out front in attempts to lead the way.

After saying repeatedly, “Isaac, you can’t lead right now, you have to follow me,” I finally pulled him aside, got down on one knee, and explained.

“Isaac, you have never been to this airport before and you don’t know where you are going. I have done this many times. I know where we are going and all the steps we have to take to get there. So if you want to see Jackson when he walks off the plane, I need you to follow me. Ok?”

“Ok.”

Once Isaac stopped trying to lead, we were able to get a pass, ride the escalator (a first for the kids), speed airside on the monorail, clear security, and walk to the gate before Jackson arrived. When he disembarked, the kids ran over to hug him and were filled with joy. Big brother is here! Mission accomplished.

Kids at Airport

Imagine how things would have been different if I had allowed Isaac to lead? There is no telling where we would have ended-up! All of this got me thinking about how often we step out in front of God and insist on leading our own lives. Shiny, exciting, and enticing things swirl around us, and we compulsively move in the direction of whatever happens to capture our attention. Often, we have no idea where we are going or what moving in that direction might do to us. Crowds of people surge in a particular direction and we get caught-up in the stream.

How often does God say, “You can’t lead right now, you have to follow me.” How often do we ignore this voice? How many of us have become deaf to this voice? The truth is, God knows where he’s going and what steps have to be taken to get there, and if we want to go where God is going then we have to follow. We have to resist the compulsion to step-out in front, to take charge, and to blaze our own trail. If we fail to do this, then there is no telling where we will end-up. In my own personal experience, it is usually not a very good place. We have to resist the compulsion to pursue everything that elicits our desire. We have to learn to stop, listen, discern, reflect, and follow.

One day Isaac will be a great leader. It’s in his DNA. But for now he has to listen, watch, and follow until he learns the ropes and knows where he is going. This applies to all of us. God intends to make us leaders, but before we can lead others we have to learn to be led.

If you like this post, then you might also like: “Meditating in the Presence of a Three Year Old.”