By Thom Rainer
I have been a student of American churches for thirty years. That statement really means two things: I’m old, and I’m a slow learner.
In those thirty years, one of my most fascinating learning ventures has been the discovery of breakout churches. Simply defined, a breakout church is a congregation that has experienced at least five years of decline followed by at least five years of growth. While numerical growth is not the inerrant barometer for church health, we researchers must use numerical gauges for much of our objective data.
The Common Factor
As my research team began sorting and analyzing the data of some 50,000 churches, we found a common factor in many of the breakout churches: the breakout took place when the church got a new pastor. While that finding is helpful from a research perspective, it’s not very helpful to many churches. And it’s certainly not helpful to the pastors of struggling churches.
So our research took a new twist. We only looked at churches that experienced breakouts without changing pastors. I was encouraged by our findings.
The Seven Traits
The breakout churches, almost without exception had seven common characteristics. Though I list them numerically here, for sequential purposes, I am not assigning priority by the rankings.
- The pastor had a “wake-up” call. He stopped denying that his church had a challenge. He became determined, in God’s power, to lead the church to growth and greater health. He would no longer be satisfied with mediocrity in God’s church.
- The church, under the pastor’s new leadership, developed clarity in its purpose. Most of the churches were previously activity focused. They were busy with the “what” without addressing the “why.”
- The pastor began assembling the right team for a new era of leadership. That team would include either paid staff or unpaid laypersons.
- The pastor developed a spirit of tenacity. He knew that the turnaround would not take place overnight. He followed a prayerful plan for the long haul.
- One of the early moves in these churches was to focus more ministries outwardly. The wake-up call noted above included an awareness that most of the ministries of the church were for the comfort and desires of the members. The leaders began to change that reality.
- The pastor and other leaders in the breakout churches had deep biblical faithfulness. They saw their mission emanating from God and written in His Word. That faithfulness was the push that moved them forward even in the midst of challenging times and potential discouragement.
- The pastor invested more time in the preaching ministry. He realized the centrality of the preached Word, and gave it more time and emphasis than any point previously.
The Hope Present in These Churches
Our quest to discover breakout churches that did not change pastors became an exercise in hope for our research team. We first saw how many leaders transitioned from a lackadaisical attitude to one of enthusiasm and possibility. Some of the leaders told us that their change was more dramatic. They described it as moving from hopelessness to great hope.
Of course, the other great encouragement in this project was discovering the story of entire congregations moving from a inwardly-focused lethargy to an outwardly-focused Great Commission mindset. By the time our research team saw these churches in the “after” mode, we found it hard to fathom they were once lifeless and discouraged.
If I found a single message in the scope of this research, it is simple but profound lesson for churches and their leaders: Don’t ever assume that your congregation has little or no hope. We found that many of these churches were once in despair, and many members confessed they had no hope. Then the breakout came. Then God showed He was wasn’t done with their church.
That story could very well be the story yet to be told of your church.