By Krista Petty
In the early 1970s, McDonald’s had 13 menu items. Today, there are about 50. Thirty years ago, the city of Houston had five television channels. Today, there are more than 185. America is home to more than 1 million SKUs (standard stocking units, aka bar codes); according to marketing guru Jack Trout, an average supermarket has 40,000 SKUs but the average family gets what it needs from only 150. “That means there’s a good chance we’ll ignore 39,850 items in that store,” writes Trout.1
All this illustrates the explosion of options available to the average person. From what to have for dinner to which doctor to see, there are virtually limitless choices. Is all this ability to choose good for us?
Some have suggested having too many choices isn’t necessarily in our best interest. Consumer psychologist Carol Moog says, “Too many choices, all of which can be fulfilled instantly, indulged immediately, keeps children—and adults—infantile. . . . They withdraw and protect against the overstimulation; they get ‘bored.’”2
The Explosion of Choice at Church
Has this explosion of “choice” affected the church? Your church? “Six years ago, we had 78 ministries listed in a brochure,” admits senior minister Greg Johnson of Generations Christian Church. “We even had a sailing ministry listed that hadn’t really operated for a couple of years.” As a former missionary who had just taken a position at the Tarpon Springs, Florida, church, Johnson was overwhelmed and puzzled by this amount of programming.
To sort through his thoughts, Johnson began reading, listening, and networking. Several leaders seemed to collectively say, “It’s time to change the way we do church!” That change was not the addition of more choices, but the return to a clear and focused way for making disciples.
The Simple Revolution
With the 2006 release of Simple Church, authors Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger added fuel to the fire for simplicity and focus in the church. Says Johnson, “God had already been speaking to me about these things through the Senior Pastors Network I’m involved with, through Gene Appel’s book How to Change the Church Without Killing It, and from listening to leaders like Mike Breaux and Cal Jernigan. When the book Simple Church came out, it helped our leaders with the language and clarity we still needed to make it happen.”
Though Simple Church didn’t give the Generations leadership “the whole tamale” on how to become simple, it did give them a platform for serious assessment and discussion on clarifying and focusing their mission to connect people to God and each other. “We now align everything by mission, and Simple Church helped us clarify what we ask of our people,” says Johnson.
Todd Hudson, lead pastor of Southeast Christian Church, Parker, Colorado, also found Simple Church helpful in aligning leadership on a more focused vision. He says, “Our staff did a study a few years ago on Simple Church and Andy Stanley’s book Seven Habits of Effective Ministry. Those two together helped shape us to being more focused on doing certain things effectively than simply doing a lot of different things.”
Making Room for Discipleship
Over time, Johnson says Generations cut down the list of 78 ministry programs to eight defined categories. This made a clearer path to discipleship, especially for new people visiting the church. The Generations Web site (www.generationscc.com) clearly explains the need for steps to involvement and their mission: “Let’s face it . . . for most people, connecting in a larger church like GCC can be a bit overwhelming. Whether you have been attending for two weeks or two years, our goal is to provide steps to help you get connected to Christ and to others.”
Those steps are the monthly Discover GCC Luncheon followed by a clear invitation to join The Walk. “We adapted The Walk curriculum from Mountain Christian Church (Joppa, Maryland),” says Johnson. “It’s a six-week class and is taught by a pastor or motivational-type gifted teacher. It is for new people, seekers, and people just coming back to church. It gives them some foundations to Christianity. That’s important to us,” he said, “because we are pulling a lot of people with Catholic background as well as those dropped out of church or not churched at all. Even if they are coming from other churches, we want them to know who we are.”
From The Walk, participants are invited to move along the process by joining Starting Point, which is adapted from Northpoint Community Church, Atlanta, Georgia. Johnson says the value of Starting Point is to show the action of God across the span of human time from creation, to Jesus, to you and your role in God’s story. “It’s a six-week study that also introduces people to the concept of our core groups. We are finding that the people in Starting Point often form into a core group and go on to another six-week study together.”
Like Generations, Southeast clarified its process for making disciples by offering clear invitations to specific groups and classes. “We have Pathway, a midsize group for new believers; Connecting Point, a place for people to get into small groups; and Workshops, where people train for service or specific skills,” Hudson says.
Simple Is Not Easy
Before getting serious about simplicity, churches should be warned: simplicity is not for the weak. “The chairman of our elders said this process is like changing the tire with the car moving!” Johnson laughs.
Generations added The Walk and Starting Point while making the tough call to cut out their Wednesday night programming and meal. The process for Generations included asking leaders in all ministry areas how they aligned with the church’s values, stated as “Worship, grow, and serve.” Johnson advises, “You can’t do this in one swoop!”
Rainer and Geiger admit Simple Church principles are not simple to implement: “We are not claiming that a simple church design is easy. There is a big difference between simple and easy. Simple is basic, uncomplicated, and fundamental. Easy is effortless. Ministry will never be easy.”3
Southeast didn’t have an “easy” button to push either. The church also went through the painful assessment process of asking each ministry, “Does this help fulfill our mission?” If not, Hudson says they decided to cancel the program.
One outcome of the church’s assessment was to cut adult Sunday school. Why? Hudson says, “We eliminated some ‘good things’ that were not the most effective in moving the ball down field to accomplish our mission. This, of course, created some heartburn, but we are confident it was what God wanted us to do.”
By removing adult Sunday school from their programming schedule, Southeast was able to eliminate a parking problem on the weekends, and more importantly, raise the quality of education and the learning experience.
Hudson admits it was hard. “Leaders realized they really didn’t have the space to educate 3,000 adults effectively each week. So we have moved to a small group model and offer workshops at times other than weekends,” he says.
In Simple Church, Rainer and Geiger compare the ministry simplification and alignment process to the refinement that takes place in 2 Kings 18:3, 4. Hezekiah honors God by clearing out clutter in order to focus, even to the point of smashing sacred stones and breaking the bronze snake used by Moses.
If you visited Southeast some weekend, how would you see their “focus” represented? “Through the kinds of programs we do promote and announce,” says Hudson. “We try to limit major promotions and stage announcements to next steps that people need to take in their walk to accomplish our mission statement. We only have so much bandwidth for what people are going to receive and remember, so we are intentional on which things we promote. When we do announcements we try to tie the announcements back into our vision so we are not simply announcing an event but showing how participation in this event will help you in fulfilling the mission we have been called to.”
Making room to promote what is most important is also valuable to Generations. “On the days we promote Welcome to GCC and New Member Classes, we push it a lot,” Johnson says. “I stress the same thing about both classes: this is who we are, what we do, and why we do it.”
Room to Move into the Community
When churches clarify, align, and simplify the process for making disciples, does it free people for something new? “One of our targets at Southeast was more community outreach. We have several hundred now serving in ministries outside of the church walls,” says Hudson.
Generations has gained a new sense of credibility in the community by stressing local mission engagement and creating quarterly service opportunities called Serve on Saturdays. These “show up and serve” events are designed for the entire family and accomplish a variety of projects from helping to build a house to visiting the elderly in the nursing home. “We’ve also started a 501(c)(3) organization called One Community Now (www.onecommunitynow.org). It is a team of churches facilitating community service opportunities for West Pascoe County, Florida,” says Johnson.
Less Really Is More
“Five years ago, Southeast-Parker had lots of programs that were not really effective,” Hudson says. “The results (of simplifying) have been that our calendar is less full, but the things we are doing seem to be more focused and effective.”
Leaders at Generations found that offering less has allowed them to key in on their values. “We want to create lifelong worshipers. We want people to get into God’s Word and become self-feeders where they tap into God and he speaks to them. We are moving people from the crowd to community into serving,” says Johnson.
Could fewer programs mean more focus and quality? Could fewer programs mean more attention to the programs that are offered? Rainer and Geiger suggest, “Fewer programs means more impact.”4
1Jack Trout, Differentiate or Die (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000), 2.
3Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church (Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2006), 16.
Krista Petty serves as senior adviser for Backyard Impact (www.backyardimpact.com), a leader in community involvement strategies and equipping principles for the church. She resides in North Carolina and is an active member of Concord Christian Church—also striving for simplicity!