Monday, September 12, 2011

Retrosynthetic Analysis

One of the areas where churches are known for wasting time is in strategic planning.  Churches often develop a "five-year plan", only to have it gather dust on a shelf and be supplanted within three years by a new five-year plan.

I believe that strategic planning is incredibly important.  However, my approach to strategic planning was shaped by the two areas of my secular expertise: synthetic organic chemistry and software development.

What each of those two areas have in common is that you begin with a vision of the finished product and then work backwards, step-by-step, until you have the basic building blocks you need to create the finished product.  In organic chemistry, this was called "retrosynthetic analysis."  You start with a target molecule that you're trying to make.  You draw it on a blackboard and ask: what would I need to make it?  You analyze it and think: "If I had compound B and compound C, I could make A."  But then you need to make B and C.  So you analyze them and say: "if I had D & E, I could make B, and if I had F & G, I could make C."  You then keep working backwards, sometimes for a couple of dozen steps or more, until you get to basic compounds whose synthesis is already known or (better yet) can be purchased from a supplier.

This is how I think strategically about my church.  One advantage of this method is that it forces you to have a specific vision about where your church could be.  And I encourage you to make this be a BIG vision.  So big that you can't (at first) imagine how you'd get there - the point of the process is to create a pathway you hadn't imagined before.

In churches, there isn't a single vision for your church - the vision is an amalgam of visions for different program areas.  You may have a vision for worship, a vision for children and youth, a vision for mission, etc.  Together they form a vision for the church.  Working backwards from a large vision is the best way to foresee the route to get there, the resources you'll need, and the intermediate phases you'll pass through.

Let's look at how this could work for church school.  Let's say you're in a very small church but your vision for church school is a weekly average of 80 children.

The first question is: what would you need for a church school of 80 kids per week?  The answer might be: 6 classrooms, 18 volunteer staff, and a 1/2-time Christian Education director.  Does your church have 6 classrooms?  Maybe you do, but 2 of them are rented out or being used for something else.  Know that someday you'll need them back.

Then you ask: what would you need to get to 80?  Now the point of this exercise is that you don't know.  So the question really is: at what point would you be confident that you'll get to 80?  The answer might be: "40 - if we get to 40, there'll be no way to stop us from getting to 80."

So then you run the same questions: what does 40 look like?  The answer might be 4 classrooms and a volunteer Sunday School superintendent. 

When would you know for sure you could get to 40?  Maybe the answer is 20.  What does 20 look like?  Maybe it's 3 classes run by the Christian Education Committee.  When would you know you could get to 20?  Maybe it's when you have 6.  What does 6 look like?  One class with a dynamic teacher.

How do you get to 6?  Start with one family.  How do you get one family to stay?  Perhaps by convincing them that you have a vision.  And know that one family isn't just one family, it's the foundation for your future.

What do you gain by working this way?  Now that you've worked backwards from where you want to be to where you are, you can look forward one step at a time.  At the size of having only one family with kids, you have a vision to encourage them to stay and help build something significant.  And you know you need to be looking for that one great teacher.

At 6 kids, you know you need to be thinking about laying the groundwork for a multi-class structure and looking for a person who might be a volunteer superintendent.  And when you finally recruit that superintendent, you can do so with a limited mission: to grow the church school from 40 to 80.  Knowing that it is a closed-end assignment can make it easier to find the right person - and easier to avoid the problem of having a position outgrow the person. Quite often I've found myself looking for a transitional person, not a permanent solution. 

When you get to 40 kids you know you need to get those rented classrooms back.  No long-term rental agreements on your space!  

Now do these steps work infallibly?  Of course not!  There will be many mid-course corrections along the way.  And notice that there are no timelines on this plan.  Each phase happens as it happens.  But it keeps you thinking big, it keeps you aware of the intermediate progress you're making, and it keeps you looking out for what you're going to need next.

This method helped me clarify the first steps I needed to take in jump-starting our Adult Education program, our Stewardship program, and our Mission work.  Some of the steps have seemed small, but I know they're actually more significant than my people realize.

Too many pastors have the attitude that all they need to do is help the church take a step forward and then see where it takes them.  My contention is that motion without vision is how you walk into walls.  There is no such thing as leadership without vision.

And notice that this method doesn't work with vague, amorphous visions.  If your vision for your church only goes as far as words like "warm and fuzzy", this won't help you get there (since "there" isn't defined).  But this is a way to realize big, hairy, specific visions for your congregation.  My vision (and I hold it very close to the vest) actually starts with my retirement.  I'm 50.  By Social Security standards, I expect to retire at 67.  I have a vision for what I'll be leaving in the hands of my successor.  I've had that vision since about a year after I started here six years ago.  It took a year to get the vision.  Will I be here until retirement?  Maybe, maybe not.  When the congregation cannot or will not advance toward that vision any more - that will be my signal to leave.  So I can't guarantee that I'll get there, but I know what "there" looks like.

If you start with a vision - even a big vision - and plan backwards from your vision to where you are, you can see that what you thought was impossible is actually doable.  And isn't that what faith is about?

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Brief Rant...

As Hurricane Irene approached, I checked the websites of four decent-sized Presbyterian churches in our area to see what decision they had reached regarding worship services on that Sunday.  To my surprise, two of the churches had no mention of Irene through the entire weekend - despite learning through other means that they, like most every church in our area, had cancelled services for the safety of our congregants and at the request of local authorities who did not want non-essential cars on the road.

In this day and age, there is no excuse for a stagnant, out of date website.  Almost everyone who visits our church looked us up online before visiting.  Your site should look as if it gets an update of some kind every single week.  Period.  I don't know what you think is more important than updating your site, but it isn't. /rant off

Saturday, August 13, 2011

QR codes and social media

Churches all over the country are trying to figure how to use social media effectively.  I've been thinking about this for years, and I'm still in the process of refining my thoughts on it (and as soon as my thoughts coalesce, the world of social media changes anyway).

Anyway, we made one change starting last week: we added QR codes to the bulletin.  These ubiquitous blotchy squares are in our bulletin to do two things: one (pictured) takes people to our church's Facebook page so they can "like" the page.  This has a very direct purpose: to provide an avenue to maintain contact with people who are visiting the church but haven't given us their full contact information (they haven't filled out a visitor card).  It occurred to me that a Facebook "like" is a way for us to push information to someone without violating their core privacy.  If you like us on Facebook, we have your name - but we don't have your address or your phone number (unless you have no Facebook privacy settings enabled, in which case you shouldn't be worried about privacy anyway).

We used to create the QR code.  The nice thing about Likify is that is presents the user with a nice intermediate page that also maintains stats (and it's free).  I can tell you that last week, two people scanned this QR code during worship.  Not a huge number, but we'll see in the future if we begin capturing "likes" from people we might otherwise have lost contact with.

The other QR code we're using sends people to our Podcast page ( where they can subscribe to my sermon audio feed.  Again, we're trying to attract people into a situation where we have continuing contact with them.  For straight QR codes, use the free QR code generator at - simply enter a URL and it produces a QR code image for download.

I can imagine a day when we won't print paper bulletins anymore.  Instead, the sanctuary will be adorned with posters displaying a QR code that takes you to an online location for the order of worship, and you'll follow along using your smartphone.  Someday we'll be asking people to turn their phones on for worship.

It seems to me that we're still stuck in the mode of trying to make social media correspond to what we do already.  I see churches using Facebook as nothing more than an email replacement.  We're not being very effective yet at seeing what social media does on its own merits.  If you want pure "push" contacts with your members, use email.  If you want pure "pull" contact, that's through your Web site.

But one thing I've come to realize is that Facebook sits at the intersection of our public and private lives.  As such, it is a relatively "safe" place for marketing - when someone "likes" your organization, they aren't revealing too much about themselves, and they control when they want to "disconnect" from your page.  We should be able to take advantage of that in connecting with people on matters of faith at a stage when they may not yet feel comfortable disclosing themselves fully to the church but want to stay connected.  When I send you an email I'm invading your space.  A Facebook page update pushes to your fans' newsfeeds, yet somehow I don't think it feels intrusive.  So we'll see how the QR code experiment goes.  If it goes well, we'll have found a way to entice people to connect who might otherwise have come and gone unnoticed.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Booming Summer

Well, maybe not booming, but I see far too many churches simply call it a year and pack it in for the summer.  My church used to do it as well.  From the second Sunday of June until the second Sunday of September, everything went into hibernation.  The theory was that "nobody comes" in the summer.  Of course they didn't.  There was hardly anything worth coming to.

When I looked around at what the fastest-growing churches do, I didn't see them packing it in.  Sure there might be some accommodations to a season when some families are on vacation, but they didn't just throw in the towel.  After all, what percentage of your families are actually on vacation at any given point in time?  I'll bet it's no more than 10% - not every family goes on vacation, most go for a week (not two or three), and they don't go at the same time.

A few years ago we adjusted our approach to summer - by treating it less like the "off-season".  We're a church, not a ski resort.  The result has been that we have cut our attendance dropoff in half.

The main change we made was NOT changing the time of morning worship.  We used to move our normal 11:00 worship to 10:00.  This created confusion among congregants, some of whom would come at the wrong time at the start and end of summer season.  It created confusion in our advertising, which now can just say "11:00" instead of having a summer season disclaimer.  The old-timers believed that in the summer, the earlier time allowed people to come to church before heading out to picnics or the beach.  Reality check: these days, if someone is heading to the beach, they aren't coming to church first, even if it's at 7:00 a.m.

The biggest mistake I see is churches that either eliminate or curtail their fellowship time after worship.  We don't cut it back in the least.  We have, on average, as many or more visiting families per Sunday in the summer as we do during the program year.  If that seems counter-intuitive, it's because you're used to the old traditional rhythms of the church year.  But think of it from the perspective of the visitor: when is the easiest time of year to add something to your family's schedule?  Summer.  The kids don't have homework.  Working parents aren't traveling as much for business.  The lesson here is that you always have to thinking of things from the perspective of the visitor.

This doesn't mean we haven't made concessions to summer.  We have soloists singing instead of a full choir - but we always have good music.  I'm not planning to take any Sundays off in the summer (though this is unusual; I usually take one).  But our coffee hour after worship is full-blown.  We have a lot of mission activities - and in the summer, people have more time to serve.

People will lower themselves to the level of negative expectations every time.  When we stopped assuming the summer would be dead time, it stopped being dead time.  So next year, as you plan for the summer, take steps to make your summer schedule look a little more like the rest of your year - and your attendance will as well.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Four Things You Can Do

Often pastors will complain that their lay leaders block various initiatives they have tried in order to spur growth.  However, the pastor of a church has a number of things that are generally under his or her direct control.  As summer approaches, here are four things to work on:

1.    Improve your bio on your Web site
Did you know that site statistics usually show that the single most visited page on a church’s web site is the pastor’s bio?  People are looking for a point of connection to the face of the organization – and that’s you.  Craft your bio with the idea that someone wants to decide whether you are worth listening to.  Do you have something in common with him/her?  Will you relate to them?  You need to be asking yourself: “when someone reads my bio, what kind of person will they imagine me to be?”  (And it better be the truth.  You need to be the person they expect to encounter.)

2.    Optimize your answering machine/voice mail

Even before a complete sentence is heard, your recorded message has already communicated more than you think about your church.  What image is conveyed by the voice you choose?  Is it an elderly voice?  If so, your church sounds old.  Is it the pastor’s voice?  If so, your church sounds small.  A younger voice on your outgoing message will give your church a better image.

3.    Critique your bulletin
How does your bulletin stack up as a publication?  Does it hold to professional standards of appearance and content?  Are there typos or uneven spaces?  Is there anything that an unchurched person would find confusing?  We include the words to such liturgical staples as the Lord’s Prayer and the Gloria Patri; we don’t presume that everyone in attendance knows these words.  Raise the standard for the appearance of your bulletin.  Find someone with experience in graphic arts to critique your use of fonts and images.  Don't be text-only: use clip art libraries to illustrate announcements, use sidebars, use callouts.  Make it interesting! 

I periodically ask my congregants (esp. as summer approaches) to leave bulletins in my box from other churches they visit when they are on vacation.  It serves as a reminder that they ought to seek the fellowship of the church even when on vacation, and the bulletins often give me ideas for things to do and ways to promote them.

4.    Critique your preaching
Let’s face it: nothing is more important than your preaching.  The most important standard to set for yourself is to almost never have a bad week.  The reason is simple: one of the “riskiest” things your congregants will ever do is invite a friend to church.  They will be very reluctant to do so unless they are very confident that the sermon and the music will be something they can brag about.  On a scale of 1-10, it is better to be a 7 or 8 every single week than to be a 5 sometimes and a 10 sometimes.

I listen to my own sermon every week.  If your church doesn’t record your sermons, buy a small recorder (I recommend the Zoom H2, about $120 on eBay) and put it in the pulpit.   I listen (via podcast) to 3-4 sermons every week from other preachers I admire.  Delivery determines whether your content will be heard.  No preacher is good enough that he/she can stop working on getting better.  My goal is to never be lower than a ‘7’ (rating myself from 1-10) and to average an ‘8’.  A great resource is Andy Stanley's Communicating for a Change: Seven Keys to Irresistible Communication.  It will help you stay focused on crafting messages that stick.

When you fix up your house and yard, it often spurs your neighbors to follow suit.  As you rigorously demand quality from yourself and the things you control, the other ministries in your church will follow. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

If "Love Wins" ... Theology Loses

I finally broke down and bought Rob Bell's controversial book, "Love Wins".  Although I expected to vehemently disagree with him based on reviews of the book (and indeed this is the case), I was also expecting at least some measure of theological depth.  In this, I was sorely disappointed.

There was no discussion of Weiss or Schweitzer, of Bultmann or Moltmann, or even of Barth - instead, his book is a simplistic polemic that dishonors the eternal importance of the topic.  His primary mode of argument is to put forth a series of seemingly contradictory Scripture verses, cited without context, and then saying "which is it?" - I can imagine him sticking his tongue out and saying, "nyah, nyah, nyah" as he does so.

It's actually difficult to critique the book in depth, because there doesn't appear to be anything remotely resembling a systematic theology or consistent hermeneutic undergirding it.  He uses the seeming contradictions in accounts of the afterlife to his advantage, yet he does not apply the same methodology to his advocacy for social action in the here and now.  If I were to argue using his methodology, I could take a verse such as Jesus saying "the poor you will always have with you" and use it to debunk calls to social justice (and this certainly has been done time and again - but does he really want to be using the same, lame rhetorical method?)  Bell is employing "situational hermeneutics" (analogous to situational ethics).

His analysis of the Greek language in the NT is hopelessly flawed because he ignores one basic consistency of the Gospel: that in the various places where salvation is set against damnation, the language used is symmetric.  So if he wants to argue whether "aion" is eternal or for a period of time, or whether "eternal" should be thought of in linear time or as standing outside of time, he discards the symmetry of the word choices and manages to take symmetric words and arrive at an asymmetric outcome.  If heaven is forever, so is hell.  If hell is for a limited time, so is heaven.  He falsely sets forth uses of the word "all" as if it always refers to "all" of humanity, when it is fairly clear that "all" can also mean "all" of the elect.  He plays weak language games

He also bears the conceit of presenting ancient concepts as if he has either invented them or rediscovered them, such as his emphasis on the notion of heaven as coming to earth.  The Westminster Confession of Faith holds that our souls will be reunited with our bodies on the day of resurrection.  He's not the first person to notice that in Revelation 21, the new Jerusalem is coming down.  But his conceit is palpable in his desire to force God to conform to his own standards of love and mercy.

In the end, he simply fails to discuss the following topics:

1.  In our sinfulness, do we deserve salvation or damnation?
2.  Is our obedience to God even possible without either prevenient or efficacious grace?
3.  What is the role of divine justice, not just love, in shaping the eternal future of humanity?

It's a good thing that this is his 4th (or is it 5th?) book and that he has a following.  Otherwise this book probably never gets published.  In our society, fame gets your ideas aired (see Sheen, Charlie).

But it's not easy for me to be as angry about this book as I was when I first heard about it, because it really just poses the same questions that I hear from the 8th graders in my confirmation class, and at the same level of discourse (maybe lower).  They don't make me angry by asking; their questions are well-meaning, just naive.  The only difference between my 8th graders and Rob Bell, I suppose, is that the 8th graders are teachable.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Straws, Sitcoms, and Sermons

Last night I was eating out and ordered my usual Diet Coke.  The waitress gave me a straw, but when I tried to unwrap it I realized it was defective.  The machine that crimps the ends of the wrapper crimped the end of the straw, so one end was closed off, rendering it unusable.

Later I was watching a video of Andy Stanley delivering the closing teaching at Catalyst Atlanta in October, and he made a joke about preaching – at the expense of Presbyterians, of course.  He said: “if your [preaching style is] all about theology and no application … then you’re Presbyterian.”

Sadly, too often he’s right.  And then I thought about my defective straw.  In a sense, 95% of the straw was perfect – but the crimp at the end made the whole straw useless.  Perhaps the straw is a symbol of the function of worship.  People come to worship with parched souls, thirsty for God – and good worship with good preaching can serve as a straw, enabling them to connect their thirst with God's living water.

But I suppose that too many preachers are providing a defective straw.  If the message is dry, inaccessible, or irrelevant to everyday life, the straw is crimped at one end … and if the message is all pop psychology/pseudo-theology, it’s crimped at the other end.  Either way, a good working connection between the congregant and Christ doesn’t happen.

When we think about how to connect to the parishioner, too often we pay too much attention to our content and not enough attention to the method of delivering that content.  The most effective way to deliver content is to be in sync with how people are used to receiving content in today’s world, and that is constantly changing.

I remember attending a lecture over a decade ago by Rodger Nishioka, a Presbyterian seminary professor who is known for work in the area of multiple intelligences.  At the time, persons using the Web was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today, yet he said that it was already impacting how sermons could be constructed.  He said that while sermons used to need to be designed with a smooth flow and seamless transitions, the Internet made people accustomed to “context switching” – clicking a link and jumping to an entirely new page.  Thus he said that you could now “hyperlink” in a sermon – make an abrupt jump from one context to another, as long as the listener could grasp the connection behind the jump.

That lecture caused me to continually be aware of how people receive information and design my sermons with that in mind.  For example, consider a sitcom.  It is actually 21 minutes long without commercials, presented in 3-4 blocks, the longest of which will be no more than 8-9 minutes.  After 8-9 minutes, people need a brief timeout (a mental commercial break) before proceeding. 

I’m very mindful of the 8-9 minute rule.  I try not to go more than 8-9 minutes without giving the people a brief mental break – repeat a point, make a quip – anything to allow the brain to relax for a minute and restart.

Another technique I borrow from television is what they call the “establishing shot.”  Ever notice how scenes often begin with a shot of an exterior – so you know where the next scene takes place?  Toward the end of a sermon, I often refer back to something I said earlier.  But if it was more than 8 minutes before, I preface it by saying, “Remember earlier when I talked about…” – that’s my “establishing shot.”  It gives them time to recall and refocus on what had been said before, preparing them to understand how that ties into what is coming next.

Speaking of tying things together, modern sitcom construction usually has at least 2 parallel stories that converge on a single point.  This is key to the modern sermon.  We read multiple Scripture lessons, but I don’t preach multiple lessons, I preach one lesson (usually the Gospel lesson).  And I preach one point from that lesson.

I don’t know where the old saw about “three points and a poem” came from, but that just doesn’t work.  What is effective these days is multiple illustrations of a single point.  There needs to be one “takeaway”, one central point.

Brandon Tartikoff, legendary programming executive with NBC in its heyday, used to require people pitching a TV show to sum it up in one sentence.  I vividly recall him talking about the pitch for The A-Team.  It went like this: “The Magnificent Seven, the Dirty Dozen, Mr. T drives the truck.”  Before we write a sermon, we need to be able to “pitch it” with a single, memorable sentence.  Your congregation can't get the point of your sermon if you write it without a clear and unequivocal understanding of the point you're trying to make.

So here’s my pitch for sermon writing: A good sermon is one point, multiple illustrations, familiar delivery.

I think that’s what I’ve discovered is the common link between the best preachers of today.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Why Landon Whitsitt Is Completely Wrong

Okay, I have to admit that until this morning, I didn't know who Landon Whitsitt is.  Then I found out that he's the vice-moderator of the General Assembly of the PCUSA (which explains why I had never paid attention) and he chimed in recently on the topic of church growth.

This is a link to his video.   All I can say is this: he's almost completely wrong.

His basic mistake is simple and egregious.  He sets up a so-called "straw man" argument by making presumptions about peoples' motives.  He asserts that church growth is basically about being concerned with "butts in the seats and cash in our offering plate."  Really?  Is that what church growth is about?  He doesn't seem to allow for the idea that some of us still believe that the gospel has real, concrete, eternal, salvific value to people and "every butt" is a person following Christ.  Period.  One of my pastoral role models, Andy Stanley, had this mission statement at North Point Community Church (one of the largest in the nation): to create a church that unchurched people love to attend.  For the money?  No.  Because he knows, as I know, as all Christians should know, that unchurched people need to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  Does Rev. Whitsitt not believe that?  Does Rev. Whitsitt know something about Pastor Stanley that we don't know?  Does he have some particular insight into his heart?  If not, he should stop casting aspersions.

Because if we want to throw unfounded accusations around, here's one I might lob in his direction: any pastor who isn't interested in church growth is lazy.  They aren't interested in growth because they don't want the extra work.  They don't want to run the extra programs, they don't want the extra meetings - they just want the status quo they can coast on until they retire.  My insulting aspersions may apply to some pastors, but they are no more generally valid than his.

The most pernicious allegation is that it's all about the cash.  It would be nice if he'd think two seconds before insulting his fellow ministers of the gospel.  Here are a couple of simple things that I think are "facts":

1.  The largest churches have grown significantly beyond the size at which their "profit" would be maximized.  Why?  Because they want to bring people to Christ, not maximize cash.

2.  Most of the pastors who have the leadership skill to run these organizations could be making far more personal cash doing something else.  A great communicator who can inspire people can be very successful in any industry.  On the other hand (another rash, insulting generalization here) a lot of pastors of smaller churches are probably making more money than they could doing something else.  And I am certain of this: a pastor who couldn't be making far more money doing something else probably doesn't have the skills to be a good pastor.  (I say the same for teachers.)

The bottom line is simple: when I see pastors who are interested in church growth, this is what I see - pastors who want to bring people to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I see pastors who want to fulfill the Great Commission.  I see pastors who could be coasting in their churches, instead working as hard as they can for the sake of others.

Finally, there is his elitist rant that when we have a thriving church, we probably reduced the gospel to the "lowest common denominator."  Lowest?  Really?  The funny thing is that, being a person with a science/math background, I know that the "lowest common denominator" is not even the proper term.  In math, we don't look for the lowest common denominator, we look for the greatest common denominator (also called the greatest common factor).  And the greatest common denominator of humankind is Jesus Christ.  Preach the gospel, leave the other stuff out of it, and your church just might grow.

So Mr. Vice-Moderator, if all you see when someone speaks of church growth is someone obsessed with butts in the seats and cash in the offering plate, the heart I question is yours, not theirs.  Stop assuming the worst about your sisters and brothers in Christ.  Oh, and by the way, tell Louisville to help us grow our churches.