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4 ways great churches keep it simple

| by Brian Thorstad

“Out of complexity, find simplicity.” —Albert Einstein

Not everything in life is simple, of course. There’s doing your taxes. Or getting your new computer up and running. Sigh.  

The longer I live, the more I value the genius and the hard work which it takes to arrive at the elegant simplicity that is on “the other side of complexity.”  

Great churches can’t make everything simple. There’s always going to be eschatology (Bible prophecy), as well as keeping the church’s financial books and scheduling nursery workers.  

However, some important matters can be simplified, and the results are worth all the trouble it takes to get there. That’s because simplicity brings with it focus, energy, clarity, understanding and power.  Here are four ways that great churches keep it simple.

Simple expectations.Simple churches have figured out what they want from their members and attendees and their members, and attendees love it. Right there, up front, on their church bulletins (programs) week after week, it says something like: “We want you to attend a worship service every week, be part of a small group, serve the church in a way that works for you and share your faith with non-Christians.”  

Simple sermons. I’m not suggesting there’s anything simple about preparing simple sermons. The simpler we try to make them, the more effort it takes to get there. One-point sermons are a great concept. I’m not very good at creating these, but I’m a great admirer of those who can.  

While I love to “go down deep” and I’m sure I sometimes “come up dry,” the truth is that the sermons I remember most are those which are simple. 

Simple programing. This one is especially challenging. Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger in their groundbreaking book, Simple Church,made a strong case for creating a process for making disciples, just as a training institution—like a medical school—creates a clear, graded, intentional pathway for producing the human “product” which they hope to graduate. 

I’ve seen church leaders sweat bullets trying to make this happen, but maybe we’re making this too complicated. Perhaps all we need is a good and, simple (of course) Christian discipleship curriculum which is flexible enough to be used one-on-one, in small groups or in classes. Beyond going through that curriculum, entire churches can pursue their own understanding of Christian maturity by way of a strategic preaching plan on the part of the pastors, combined with sermon-based small groups or classes. 

Simple structure. This is probably the most difficult area in which to arrive at simplicity, at least for long-established churches. However, I will not stop campaigning for simple structure as long as I’m convinced of its great value. There is, fortunately, a growing consensus about structural best practices:

  • A clear chain of command, from God, through the Bible, through the congregation (in congregational churches), through one board, through one senior pastor to pastoral associates or volunteer ministry leaders. 
  • Short, simple, flexible by-laws, that give the church board the authority to adapt the church’s ministries to best carry out the mission and achieve the vision, in accordance with the church’s values. 
  • Leadership friendly by-laws and ministry descriptions that are written with the expectation that leaders will lead and followers will follow. 
  • A board that has the senior pastor as its one “report.” Since groups don’t manage employees well, let’s have the board manage only one and expect him to supervise the church’s other employees and volunteers.  
  • The senior pastor reports to the board, but is also expected to lead the board, which in turn leads the church. 

Is it easy to get to this level of simplicity? Definitely not. It is excruciatingly difficult and totally worthwhile.

Photo source: istock

Brian Thorstad

Brian Thorstad is a Redevelopment Transitional Pastor. He is the author of Heaven Help Our Church! (A Survival Guide for Christians in Troubled Churches) and Redevelopment: Transitional Pastoring That Transforms Churches.

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