An Overview of “Simple Church” by David Ray
’Tis the gift to be simple,
’tis the gift to be free,
’tis the gift to come down
where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.1
If today’s church leaders were to tell the truth, many would admit they arenot “in the place just right,” because most churches have become anything but “simple,” and the stress in leading them is nothing like finding yourself in any “valley of love and delight.”
Why? Because churches have grown increasingly complicated—so complicated, in fact, that Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger make a compelling plea for Simple Church in their book by this title.2
A LONGING FOR SIMPLE
It opens with a fictitious “Pastor Rush” flying home from yet another great church conference. His notebook is filled with all the new things he’s just learned and yearns to do. But when he thinks about everything waiting for him back home, he begins to panic!
Those among us who lead can identify. Our lives, calendars, and church programs are often full of clutter, complication, and stress. There has to be a better way.
But the church is not alone in this longing. The whole world has grown increasingly complicated. People everywhere yearn for less complexity, and the “pioneers of simple” know it. Hence, we see a “simple revolution” all around us.
Apple creates an iPod controlled by a single round button.
Google’s home page screams simplicity.
Marketing gurus, interior designers, and graphic designers understand simple.
Simple is in.
Rainer and Geiger argue that “growing and vibrant churches” know simple, too. They come to this conclusion not just through observation, but also through a two-phase study they conducted of more than 400 evangelical churches. When they compared vibrant growing churches3 with those not thriving4 they found that the vibrant ones were significantly more simple.
Despite the fact that churches “with a simple process for reaching and maturing people are expanding the Kingdom,” and those “without a process or with a complicated process . . . are foundering,” the authors note that busy and overprogrammed churches are still the norm. Sadly, “great amounts of activity” often “do not produce life change,” but only give “the impression that things are happening.”
Rainer and Geiger conclude that complex churches embrace a myriad of disconnected and unfocused programs. Every new thing that comes along just gets blended in with all the old things that have been accumulating for years, resulting in what they describe as “ministry schizophrenia.” As a consequence, multiple ministry philosophies “bump heads,” and programs move in varied, unproductive directions. The church, “unsure who she is,” has no cohesive sense of purpose or process
The authors contend you must design a simple discipleship process to have a simple church. But rather than managing a process toward making disciples, many church leaders just become frantic managers of abundant programs.
Further, Rainer and Geiger contend that too many churches measure each program separately, giving little thought to any overarching process. Programs are independent “silos”—disconnected, lacking synergy, even in direct competition with each other—and never evaluated as a part of a comprehensive whole.5
JUST FOUR ELEMENTS
Rainer and Geiger argue that four elements are critical to designing a simple ministry process—clarity, movement, alignment, and focus—and set these elements within a guiding definition:
A simple church is designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. The leadership and the church are clear about the process (clarity) and are committed to executing it. The process flows logically (movement) and is implemented in each area of the church (alignment). The church abandons everything that is not in the process (focus).6
Clarity, the authors say, is “the ability of the process to be communicated and understood by the people.”
Movement is “the sequential steps in the process that cause people to move to greater areas of commitment.” This natural, intentional, progressive movement toward maturing discipleship must give careful attention to the logical and purposeful “handoffs” between each program element.
Alignment is “the arrangement of all ministries and staff around the same simple process,” a difficult quality to maintain. Much of the complexity of the unsimple church is due to the unbridled proliferation of disconnected, competing, and vitality-strangling programs.
Finally—and most challenging—focus is the “commitment to abandon everything that falls outside of the simple ministry process.” This means “saying ‘yes’ to the best and ‘no’ to everything else.” It is this wise ability to say no that keeps the simple church simple.
But it can mean saying no to good things that have strong personal defenders. Some entrenched programs that few would ever dare change—much less eliminate—must end because they consume inordinate amounts of leader and congregational energies while not effectively serving an overarching discipleship purpose. Sacred cows sometimes need to be sacrificed—and respectfully buried.
Through a brief telling of three real church stories, Rainer and Geiger demonstrate how “simple church” is possible. Each church is different, but all three have a simple discipling process, accomplished through only three to four overarching programs—most commonly Sunday worship, small groups, and ministry teams (in that order). Every ministry serves that process, and programs are intentionally and strategically few.
The last half of Rainer and Geiger’s book further reiterates and expands each key element—clarity, movement, alignment, and focus. Though this final part of the book tends to be less engaging (partly because of repetition and a sometimes cumbersome reporting of survey data), it offers memorable teaching points such as:
• “People cannot embrace the ambiguous.”
• “View everything through the lens of your simple process.”
• “Simple church leaders attempt to meet the [new] need through an existing program while complex church leaders add another program.”
• “People assume that the more that can be squeezed into the menu, the better. So the brochure, the week, the calendar, the schedule, and the process get expanded. Cluttered. And we keep getting more and more unhealthy.”
• “Complexity is often synonymous with mediocrity.”
SIMPLE, STRONGER, DIFFICULT
Simple Church is a provocative read, offering much-needed correction for unfocused and overcomplicated churches. Though it seems counterintuitive, churches that get simple, get stronger.
While the philosophy of simple church may be simple, its execution is not. Simple does not equal easy (or safe). Those who buy into the simple church philosophy will be wise to make sure that the “cure” for a complicated church does not end up killing the “patient” (and/or the “doctor”).
It is also important to avoid the risk of process idolatry. While the power for life-changing discipleship can be enhanced by a simple strategic process, it is not the process that ultimately does the transformative work. The book’s strong appeal to process should not be more trusted than divine power. Otherwise, simple church becomes just another pop fix for a church’s core shortcomings.
Rainer and Geiger’s definition of a “vital church” is highly equated with growth. While growth is one indicator, a church can still be vital and small—not experiencing significant growth for various reasons. Big is not always better. Also, some churches of notable complexity are still vital. Again, what a church is at its core is more determining than merely a simple or complex form.
Finally, bringing simplification to long-entrenched, highly complex churches may take more of an act of God than any strategic process of man. But for the church leader who is building a local church on a “new lot,” tapping into the wise counsel of Simple Church is helpful.
The many new churches we’re planting today have the means to create a “simple” DNA that can be healthily replicated again and again. In fact, the authors—after admitting the difficulties in transitioning a church from complex to simple—add: “Attention church planters: this information is good news for you. While you have little money, own no land or buildings, you are able to design from scratch.”
1From “Simple Gifts,” a Quaker folk song by Joseph Bracket Jr.
2Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church (Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2006).
3By the authors’ definition: “Churches that had grown 5 percent a year for three consecutive years.”
4Churches that “had not grown or had declined over the same three-year period.”
5The authors give examples of churches that do effectively measure the bigger picture of how many are moving through the various steps of a holistic discipleship process. We add: Naperville, Illinois’ Community Christian Church (along with their sponsored NewThing Network) has developed a creative “Dashboard” that regularly measures their “horizontal” progress in discipling. See lead pastor Dave Ferguson’s article, “Golf Scores & Dashboards: Keeping Track of How the Church Is Doing,” in the September 7, 2008, Christian Standard, and recent blog postings, “Focus on Growth Not Discipleship” (March 20, 2009) and “Dashboards: Keeping Track of How the Church Is Doing” (March 30, 2009) at http://daveferguson.typepad.com/.
6Simple Church, 67, 68.
David Ray is executive minister with Christ’s Church at Mason (Ohio).