I’ve always been skeptical of the church growth movement.
You know, those people that talk about breaking the barriers. “We need to break the 200 barrier!” “No, the 400 barrier!” “No, the 6,000 barrier!” Ok, maybe not that last one, but the phrase probably sounds familiar to some of you. It’s a movement that focuses on getting more people, increasing church finances, having multi-campus churches and more – all things that can seem superficial and even anti-gospel at times.
That’s why Chris Sonksen’s 2017 book When Your Church Feels Stuck: 7 Unavoidable Questions Every Leader Must Answer came out, I had a lot of doubts. I wondered if it was just another book like Carl F. George’s How to Break Growth Barriers or Ed Stetzer’s course on “Breaking the 200 Barrier”. The answer is “yes” and “no”.
Sonksen’s book has the traditional rhetoric of growth barrier leaders.
The first story is telling: it is about a conversation Chris has with a pastor named Jeremy. The book states, “He (Jeremy) looked troubled, and he said with a tone of frustration and discouragement, ‘Nothing I am doing seems to work. We average 200 to 250 every week but I can’t seem to get this church to grow. I feel so stuck…’” (12). Ok, stop right there. Did anybody else notice the fact that Jeremy’s church is already at 200? This is a big church by anybody’s standards. Most churches around the world and even traditional evangelical churches in the U.S., including almost every church plant, is far smaller. Yet, here is a pastor that is not content with 200! This is true of everyone in some form or fashion – the grass always seems greener on the other side. There is always something in our life that we feel could be “better” or “bigger”, and sadly this can translate to bigger congregations for pastors. Sonksen encourages Jeremy by outlining for him a “formula for success” (14) and his church begins to change dramatically thereafter.
Sadly, discussions of the gospel are missing in this book.
In fact, there are very few Bible references at all. The main focus instead is Sonksen’s “formula and it boils down to seven questions: 1) Mission (What do we do?), 2) Strategy (How do we get it done?), 3) Values (What are the guiding principles we live by?), 4) Metrics (How do we measure a win?), 5) Team Alignment (Do we have the right people in the right seats moving in the right direction?), 6) Culture (How do we change the culture of our church?), and 7) Services (How do we match what we say is important and what we really do?). Each chapter answers one of these questions and is full of exercises, check-lists and other practical ideas for how to “get it done”.
I will admit, though, that I did like some of the exercises that Sonksen suggests.
For example, in chapter one, he suggests having a leader’s meetings in which they perform an exercise called SWOT. For this activity, you need large sticky notes, small sticky notes, pens and markers, and you complete it as follows: “Take four large sticky notes and write one word at the top of each. The words are: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (hence, SWOT). First, have the team write down – on their small sticky notes – one to three words, each describing the strength in the church…” and so on (67). After each team has written their ideas, you put them all up on the big sticky notes and talk about them as a group. What a fantastic way to talk about these areas of the church and to hear straight from the leaders on how to grow, change or improve. These are vital conversations that a pastor should have with the leaders in his church, and I thought the activity was both useful and fun.
Now, ultimately, the issue of this book is balance.
You can’t have a church that does nothing, relying solely on God to work miracles, and expect spiritual growth to occur. On the other hand, you can’t have a church that busily focuses on structures like fundraising events and expect spiritual growth if there is no preaching of God’s word, fellowship of the saints or discipling taking place. Ultimately, you need both. Yes, care for the ministries of a church, but never at the expense of the church’s main priorities, which is building the kingdom of God.
You can find the book here: When Your Church Feels Stuck: 7 Unavoidable Questions Every Leader Must Answer