Breakout ChurchesBreakout Churches
Thom S. Rainer
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Thom Rainer believes that it is sinful for churches to settle for being good when God has called them to be great. In Breakout Churches Thom will show you how thirteen congregations were able to move from a place of internal conflict and spiritual stagnation to a place of spiritual health and overwhelming evangelistic effectiveness. Take this opportunity to learn how you can help lead your church towards a God glorifying breakout!

Discussion Questions

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Back to the Top Why do churches and church leaders settle for being good when God has called them to be great?

Dr. Rainer: I think primarily because we donít fully understand what we have been called to do. There is a sense of particular evangelistic complacency in the church today. Today it takes 86 church members in America to reach one person for Christ. Therefore if we have a church where we are seeing one person reached for Christ for every fifty members or forty members we think we are doing well. So, on a relative basis many churches have gotten comfortable. But the reality of it is that most churches are evangelistically complacent.

I think another reason is that many churches today have become inwardly focused. Their primary ministry resources are allocated for those who are in the church. While those who are in the church certainly need to receive ministry and be the recipients of a portion of the resources, a significant portion of resources in ministry needs to be utilized beyond the walls of the church. As you note early on, there are a number of great churches such as Willow Creek Community Church, Southeast Christian Church and Saddleback Community Church that are not discussed in the book. Can you briefly describe the difference between these great churches and the thirteen Breakout Churches that you found?

Dr. Rainer: The thirteen Breakout Churches met some very strict criteria. Some of it was evangelistic criteria and some of it was growth criteria. But the primary reason Willow Creek, Saddleback and Southeast Christian or any other well known mega-churches were not included within this study is that the Breakout Churches had to have a prolonged period of five years or more during which they struggled through numerical decline and stagnation before breaking out into growth. To my knowledge none of the well known churches have had that lengthy period of decline. They may have struggled for a year or two, but they would not have qualified for the study since they have not gone through a downward period that would require a breakout. You and your research team examined thousands of churches for this project, but in the end only found 13 that met your criteria. Can you take a moment to define the criteria of your research?

Dr. Rainer: Sure. Our first was that it had to be a breakout church that met the criteria I described above. Namely, they had to have a period of decline and then breakout. But we were not merely seeking churches that became breakout churches through transfer growth or other Christians joining the church. We were looking for churches that became breakout churches in true evangelistic fashion by reaching the unchurched. So we applied an evangelistic screen that required the church to have a conversion ratio of less than 20 to 1, now thatís a boring way of saying that it takes no more than 20 people in your congregation to reach one person for Christ. That screen alone took our entire number of 52,000 churches down to less than 2,000 churches. From that we had to receive more historical data from the churches that that cut the 2,000 in half. From that we had to find the churches that had the decline and breakout. That got us down to 200 churches. Then, we decided to leave a criterion that said that the senior pastor was the same person during the decline, breakout and growth. That got us down to 17 churches. Then we had to verify data and we eliminated 4 churches because we could not verify the data.

Now the reality is that we started with 52,000 churches and there are 400,000 churches in America, so we will readily admit that there are more Breakout Churches than 13, but thatís the base from which we started. As you make clear throughout this work, Jim Collinsí business book From Good to Great heavily influenced the methodology of your research as well as the way you interpreted the results. Why did Collinsí book have such a significant influence on your understanding of, and passion for, the American church?

Dr. Rainer: In his book, Good to Great Collins began with the Fortune 500 companies and he ended up with 11 churches that met his criteria for becoming a Good to Great company. The first time I read Collinsí book, and I believe it was back in 2001, I thought it was a great idea for local churches. I thought if we could find those factors which were common in congregations that have struggled and broken out, as Collins did, then we will be able to share information with churches in North America, if not around the world, that some of the principles may be applied to their churches. So thatís one of the reasons, just the thesis of the research was incredible.

But second were the results. Although Good to Great is not written from a Christian perspective there are so many conclusions drawn by Collinsí research team that have Christian implications. For example, his idea of a "Level 5 Leader," which we paralleled as an "Acts 6/7 Leader," is to me a great model of servant leadership or Christ-like leadership. Though I donít think it was his design to come up with biblical principles and results in a book that was written for a secular audience with secular data, I still think that many of his results have biblical application. In the second chapter you provide a compelling model of leadership that you call the "Acts 6/7 Leadership." Can you briefly explain this helpful model?

Dr. Rainer: We interviewed a few thousand senior pastors as well as additional pastoral staff from many churches, much more than the 13 breakout churches, when we began to describe an Acts 6/7 Leader. We took the characteristics of these leaders and paralleled them with the first seven chapters of Acts. Itís not a perfect fit, but it seemed to have some obvious patterns. We called the result the "Acts 6/7 Leadership Pyramid," and we called it a pyramid because a pyramid requires that you start with the foundation before you go further and the higher up on the pyramid the smaller it is. That is what we discovered with the Acts 6/7 Leader is that there are a lot of leaders that feel called by God, thatís Acts 1, there are far fewer leaders that are making significant contributions in regard to the primary ministries that theyíre to be about in the church (ministry of the Word, prayer and equipping), thatís Acts 2, there are even fewer leaders that are leading their churches to lead beyond the wall, thatís Acts 3, there are even fewer leaders that have such a passion for what they do that people follow willingly and boldly, thatís Acts 4, and then there are even fewer leaders who attempt to do something that is so great that is so great it cannot succeed unless God is in it, thatís Acts 5, then there are Acts 6/7 Leaders, largely based on the story of Stephen in the second half of Acts 6 and all of chapter 7, who have made such an impact with their ministry and lives that the impact will be felt not only for years to come but for generations to come. Why does the tenure of a Senior Pastor often influence a churchís evangelistic effectiveness?

Dr. Rainer: First thing that I have to be very clear about is that there is not an obvious, direct causation between pastoral tenure and evangelistic effectiveness. In the midst of my speaking on this book around the nation I have had people say, "well if I just stay at my church long enough Iíll become an effective evangelistic leader or breakout leader." My response is, wrong. There is a lot more to it than tenure.

But having said that, pastoral tenure is really important. Frankly, most churches today are in an institutional rut and itís going to take a significant amount of time and patient leadership, leadership that is often described as eating an elephant one bite at a time, to see the church get out of stagnation and into true breakout growth and health. That cannot happen overnight. With the average tenure of a senior pastor being four years it is not going to happen. But pastors that stay in a church for the long haul, many of them, if they patiently and lovingly lead their people in incremental steps towards breakout it can happen. But it takes a long time. As you mention and the breakout leaders attest, the 13 Breakout Churches were not free from the major conflicts which many churches experience. How did the leaderís response to these conflicts help the churches move towards breakout growth?

Dr. Rainer: One thing I did not want to report in this research project was that Breakout Churches went through crises and conflict. I wish I could have said that this is an easy, formulaic approach that could be enacted stress-free. But that is just not the reality of it.

These leaders found out very quickly when they started leading their churches from comfort and complacency to a place of challenge and out-of-the-box ministry that there was some resistance and push-back. This resistance was extreme in some cases, where there were attempts to fire pastors, in fact one pastor was fired and later reinstated, to the point where there was just consistent criticism taking place. Every one of these leaders told us that they responded well sometimes and they did not respond well sometimes. But if there was one key that was common to most of these leadersí response to the push-back and crisis that took place is that they decided they were going to love their members unconditionally. Even when their members were less than loving and their congregants were anything but Christ-like in their attitude. That perspective of unconditional love for their members carried them through the crisis to the other side. There were other factors, but that Christ-like love for unChrist-like people was key. After the churches experienced their crisis or "ABC Moment" they began to operate on the "Who/What Simultrack." Can you provide a brief definition of the "simultrack" and explain why it was so important to the churchís eventual breakout? The "Who/What Simultrack" is a weird name. I just donít think itís going to get into the common church lexicon. The word simultrack means two things happening virtually simultaneously. "Who" means getting the right people in the right positions in the church, both lay and staff, and "What" means getting the structures that will help move the church to greater breakout growth.

In Collinsí book he has a chapter called "First Who, Then What." I went in with such a bias towards Collinsí methodology that I expected to find the same thing was true concerning breakout churches, namely that we need to get the right people in the right places in ministry, then worry about structure. I looked for that pattern, but it simply didnít happen. So I tried to think "Why are churches that are breaking out having to do two things at one time when Fortune 500 companies could answer the who question and then allow the structure issues to follow?" The answer finally came to me, Fortune 500 companies already have well-built infrastructures even if the companies are not running well. They have this incredible organization even if the company is not running as it should be. Most churches, however, do not have such infrastructure of buildings, organizations, etc. So they did not have the luxury of working on the people issues before working on the structure issues. They had to do both/and. Thatís why it was simultaneous. In one of the most insightful chapters, you explain that true vision does not merely arise from the leader, but from the integration of the leaderís passion, the congregationís gifts and the needs of the community. How does a church discover its Vision Integration Profile or "V.I.P.?"

Dr. Rainer: Thatís a big question. Iíll try to answer it succinctly. When I was a pastor I was told that in order to be a "successful" pastor that I had to have a vision. For me that was one of the most frustrating aspects of my ministry. I would constantly ask myself "How do I get a vision? Does it come directly from God or in some other way?" When I was doing this research project some of the things we discovered were things we were looking for, in part because of Collinsí book, but when we started to interview the 14 pastors of the Breakout Churches churches (one has a co-pastor leadership team), and they told us why they do the specific ministries they do, for many on our research team it was like a light went on.

They told us there are three things that they have to know in order to get an idea of where the church should be going or vision. Those three, not in any particular order, are first the leadership passion. There will not be a vision for the church unless the leadership is passionately excited about it. To suggest otherwise is a fallacy. Second, you have to know your congregationís passion and where they are gifted. There are multiple ways to discover that and some of it is just intuitive. The third part is to ask yourself what the needs, hurts and hopes of the community in which your church is located. That might be the great omission in discovering vision, because many churches will come up with an idea of a vision that is totally neglectful of the community in which they are located. We found that all three of these factors entered into the vision discovery process, but that it was the intersection of these factors, or the Vision Intersection Profile (V.I.P.), that provided a powerful, compelling vision for the church. Some of the characteristics of the Breakout Churches are seemingly counter-intuitive. For example, in your chapter on innovation accelerators you note that many of the Breakout Churches were fairly slow to embrace innovation. Why is this so?

Dr. Rainer: One of the reasons they were fairly slow to embrace innovation is because their churches could not take the change. The second reason is that they were not sure that the particular change met the context of their particular church. Many churches today will embrace innovation without asking the question, "Is this right for who we are and where we are." The breakout leaders were open to innovation, but they were cautious. They did not want to adopt the latest innovations in the church world just because another church had been successful at it. They wanted to make sure it fit their context. So instead of innovation being the engine for many of these breakout churches, it became an accelerator of that which had already happened.

This is a very similar finding to what Collinsí reported in Good to Great, except his innovations focused on technology. Many of the companies in that study that technology was the answer, but technology was really an accelerator. Why is perseverance one of the primary characteristics of a breakout leader?

Dr. Rainer: Very simply stated, the American church is not healthy. I remain an obnoxious optimist about the church, but by any measure or any objective look at the church today we are not healthy. To move an individual congregation from lack of health to health is a process that takes a long time, a lot of prayer, a lot of patience and a lot of wisdom. All of that summed up together kind of equals that word persistence. Many leaders today want to change a church quickly. I wish it could be done, but the reality of it is that the resistance to change is something that is there for the long haul. Therefore, that persistence is needed and I think in many cases God honors that persistence. He honors the Breakout Churches and the leaders who wait for him. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us Dr. Rainer. Your passion for the church is as laudable as it is infectious. We hope this book both gets the wide reading that it deserves and makes a significant impact upon the church.

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This interview was conducted by Scott Johnson on August, 16 2005.