Bob Whitesel’s book of a few years ago has one of the more intriguing titles I’ve come across: “Growth by Accident, Death by Planning.” Whitesel—a nationally known speaker, writer and leader regarding authentic church growth (the adjective “authentic” is important because there are other approaches to church growth that rely more on sociological methods than on biblical principles of Spirit-driven relationships)—says that churches often become their own worst enemies when it comes to leadership.
The book’s subtitle is more descriptive: “How NOT to Kill a Growing Congregation.” Whitesel says that young, growing churches make decisions by responding to their circumstances and opportunities. They rely on prayer, intuition and on the willingness to take risks.
But when those same churches reach the point where their growth slows down or stops, they often change their approach altogether. Instead of the free-wheeling approach that led them in their early years, they look more to secular models of business management that rely on data analysis and strategic planning. The spirit of faith and pushing the boundaries is replaced by a corporate mentality.
The result is usually not what they were hoping for and those churches usually fail to recapture the growth their ministries saw at the first. Whitesel’s point is that church growth doesn’t happen when we intentionally plan for it. It happens as a kind of glorious accident, when divine providence intersects with a congregation’s willingness to step out in faith and receive what God wants to give to them.
This has a been a hard lesson for me to learn. In fact, I’m still learning it. I guess you could call me a recovering strategy-holic. I spent a lot of years buying into the myth that church ministry as a whole could be rationally understood, planned for and executed. But I’m seeing more and more that the Holy Spirit works in the church in ways that I can’t always understand much less manage.
The latest lesson the Lord has taught me is an on-going situation, where my pretensions of strategic planning were over-ridden by God’s intervention in the life of my congregation.
A couple of years ago our church was contacted out of the blue by the estate of a deceased missionary regarding a large tract of land in the southern portion of our county, including two dilapidated buildings. His will stipulated that the land was to be donated to a church for use in Kingdom ministry. At the time I couldn’t imagine what use we had for the property. But free land is free land—so we agreed to take it.
Nothing happened for a long while. Then we connected with the pastor of a church plant in the area and things started moving. His fledgling congregation met each Sunday in the cafeteria of the local high school, but he was looking for a place where he could lead small groups during the week. We talked on numerous occasions with him, believing the Lord had led us together but unsure exactly what needed to happen next.
So we waited, prayed and shared our hearts with each other. At the same time, in an unrelated sequence of events—unrelated to our human eyes but divinely orchestrated, I believe—another ministry was organically developing in the same area. Several of our women’s and men’s groups had begun a Bible study in a mobile home park with an extended family. No one anticipated how that group and the young congregation would soon come together.
The next step took place when one of our young married Sunday School classes was led to join the conversation. They had a heart for reaching out to the area where the property was located. They also had several skilled builders in the group. They felt the Lord was leading them to take on the ministry there (even though at the time, no one knew exactly what the ministry looked like) as their class missions project.
Where was the money to come from? The buildings needed renovation. Our Missions people stepped up and said they could provide some funds. But not enough to cover everything necessary. The Lord already had worked that out, too. Call Him Jehovah Jireh, “The Lord Will Provide”—Abraham’s name for God on a similar occasion of divine provision in Genesis 22.
A couple in our church called me and said the Lord had impressed on them that they were to give toward this project. When I called them back to let them know the amount, they told me that was the exact figure the Lord had already told them to give.
Today, the ministry there is moving forward with the sense of divine favor. We don’t know where it’s going or what it will look like when it arrives. Only that everyone involved is simply taking one step after another as we try to follow where God is leading.
Through the long evolution of this process, I was continually amazed and humbled with how it all fit together. People, places, finances, logistics. And all without the first hint of strategic planning or data analysis.
Is there a place in church leadership for strategic planning? Of course there is. But only as a supplement to God’s leadership of His church. Never as a replacement for it.