Interview with Bob Harrington

By Brad Dupray

Bob Harrington has had a front-row seat in the “simple church” arena—as described and advocated in the book Simple Church (Broadman & Holman Publishers). The church where he ministers (Harpeth Community Church, Franklin, Tennessee) has embraced the simple church concept. As director of Church Planting Networks with Stadia East and lead trainer with Church Coaching Solution’s church planter bootcamp, he has trained many church leaders in implementing simple church strategies. And as a student, Bob studied under Thom S. Rainer, coauthor of Simple Church with Eric Geiger. Bob completed his DMin at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2005, with Rainer as his mentor throughout the doctoral program.

Photo caption: Bob Harrington and his wife, Cindy, will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary this year.

How does a church pragmatically become “simple”?
Behind every program and every meeting, leaders of a simple church ask, “How does this align with our discipleship process?” As Rainer says, “Simple church resists programs and busyness while embracing steps and environments.”

Is “simple church” another way of coming up with a system that can become complicated?

The only way to keep a simple church a simple church is to learn to say no to great ideas, good practices, and wonderful traditions. It is a mental toughness that says no to everything that does not lead to the mission of making disciples in a simple process and structure.

Is “simple church” primarily about growing the number of people in the church?

It’s really focused on the quality of people in the church and what is happening to the people in the church.

Would you call it a discipleship program?
Simple church is a way of making a whole church a discipleship program. Because we can only ask for a limited amount of time that people will give to the local church, as leaders we must make sure we are giving people value for their time. The most important question about value is related to discipleship. How do our activities help people trust Christ and follow him? Everything a church does needs to be subservient to that question.

When you get simple how do you go deep?

What you want to do is cut away all the clutter of activities, meetings, programs, and traditions that do not directly relate to discipleship. In everything we do we ask the question, “How does this lead us to make biblical disciples in relational environments?” Simple church defines the process that will lead to that end result.

How do you define discipleship?

At Harpeth Community Church, we base our definition of discipleship around Matthew 28:19 and 20. So for us, a biblical disciple is a person who is committed to Christ, a person who is seeking to obey all the teachings of Christ, a person who is relying on the spiritual presences of Christ, a person who is helping/leading others to follow the same journey. We ask, in everything we do, how it relates to our mission, which is to develop this kind of person.

Is simple church especially suited to a certain size church?

The bigger the church gets without being built around the concept of simple church, the harder it is to change it. Churches all around the country, of all kinds and sizes, are making the commitment to a simple church model.

When is it easiest for a church to implement simple church concepts?

The best way to implement a simple church approach is if you are planting a new church. This is why I have used the book Simple Church (among others) when training church planters for the last three years. One of the best examples of a church planter who started with the simple church structure in mind is Dan Smith with Momentum Christian Church in Cleveland, Ohio. Momentum’s mission statement is synonymous with their structure: “Momentum moves people forward to love God, love people, and serve the world.” So on Sunday mornings they focus on loving God, their small groups (“Mo Groups”) focus on loving people, and the “Mo Ministry Teams” focus on serving the world (you can check them out at www.MomentumChurch.com).

Can an established church make the transition to simple church?

Harpeth would represent a middle-sized church moving to a larger church. We’re currently running between 700 and 800 and we’re aligned behind a simple church structure. We have four phases: the accept phase is focused on Sunday morning when we encourage people to live out the fullness of accepting both the grace and the truth found in Jesus Christ. Next is the connect phase, where people connect with each other and with God in a small group. The third phase is the serve phase, where people serve in the church and in the community in the name of Jesus. And the fourth phase is the lead phase, where people move to the point where they are leading others in the ways of Jesus. Our entire church is built around that process.

How does a church step back and get simple?

First you must define what a disciple is and then ask yourself what process and structure will lead you to build disciples like that. In our definition of a disciple, leadership is embedded. Our fundamental belief, based upon Matthew 28:19, 20, is that we’re not fully devoted disciples until we are making disciples of others.

It sounds like you probably have to “get rid of stuff” to get simple. How do you cope when people don’t want to lose things they cherish?

You must lead the congregation through the steps of change and help people to understand why it is vitally important to be focused on discipleship in a simple way. If people do not understand the value, it will be exceptionally painful to try to get them to get rid of programs. I do not recommend trying to get rid of any programs before fully persuading people of the values found in a simple church model.

Did you get a lot of resistance at Harpeth?

When you change the DNA of a church you’re going to face major resistance. But we worked through the issues and completed the change. John Kotter’s book, Leading Change, was very helpful to us in the process.

Is that a Christian book? What were some of its key principles?

No, it’s a business book from the Harvard Business School. It emphasized the importance of creating a sense of urgency—that we must make the changes—and secondly was the importance of creating a guiding coalition.

How did you establish that coalition?

I recruited the elders and other key leaders in the church to work through the process with us.

Was there a model you looked at when you determined to go the simple church route?

Two years ago we realigned ourselves around two principles: the relational discipleship model we learned from Real Life Ministries (in Post Falls, Idaho) and the simple church model.

What was unique about Real Life Ministries?

It is impossible to adequately describe how effective, biblical, and in conformity with the principles of simple church a church can be, but that is Real Life Ministries. They have added something to simple church that I teach churches to add. I have talked to Thom Rainer about this, and he agrees, that in addition to the components of loving God, loving people, and serving the world, one of the key steps in a discipleship process is developing leaders who can disciple others.

Real Life Ministries is simply the best example (of that). Community Christian Church in Naperville, Illinois, also deserves mention in that regard. Their process of discipleship includes, and focuses on, leadership development. Leadership development is the key factor to exponential multiplication in a disciple-making church.

Editor’s Note: For more discussion about the “simple church” concept, see “Finding Your Focus” by Glen Elliott (p. 14) and three articles in the May 31 issue of Christian Standard.

Brad Dupray is senior vice president, ministry development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.

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