You can have a growing church!

Strategic planning is one of the keys to developing a growing church, maintains Bruce Johnston. Vision alone is not enough; methods by themselves are insufficient. But strategy connects the vision with the methods to make the dream come true.

Bruce Johnston is director of Church Growth for the North Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.


No, you don't have to be a genius. Neither do you have to abandon everything you currently are doing and adopt a revolutionary new method, so relax. What I am talking about can be done with methods already available. In fact, if methods alone would finish God's work on earth, we could go home tomorrow. We have plenty of methods, so let's just forget about them for now and concentrate on the really great opportunities for spiritual growth.

It all starts with writing history in advance. Let me explain. We are talking about doubling our results. So we have to begin with results, not methods. Don't start by thinking about what program to push this year. Start by thinking about results. Think about what you want to accomplish. Use some creative imagination, and visualize results as if they were accomplished events. See your dreams as if they had already happened—the happy people who have found Christ, the fellowship that members are enjoying together in the church, the building bursting at the seams to accommodate a rap idly increasing membership, a second service each Sabbath, the new Sabbath school wing, and the new satellite churches planted in growing areas of the city or region. This is what I mean by writing history in advance.

It is going to take a lot of people to make the dream come true. They are going to have to catch the vision from you. But if you are thoroughly infected with it yourself and are re ally excited about it, you can spread the contagion.

The starting point, then, is the vision of what you can accomplish under God for the advancement of His kingdom and the joy of His people. Some might call this process setting goals. The terms don't matter all that much; the main thing is to decide what you want to accomplish and by what time. (You may want to work on a five-year plan for long-range goal setting, and two years for short-range plans.) Aim high. Let God enlarge your vision. Dream dreams that will make you stretch to accomplish them. But be realistic, too!

As soon as you and the people around you begin to visualize what you want to do, you will find your self planning the things that must be done in order for the dream to come true. Some call this process ordering the priorities, and it is very important. A lot of serious, hard thinking is necessary at this point to single out the priorities that will make hap pen what you want to happen. Some things that haven't been done before will have to be done, and some things that are now being done will have to be abandoned. Of course, everything abandoned will be some body's priority, so this does take courage!

You can see now that starting with methods might short-circuit the whole process by overlooking necessary preparation. Until the vision is clear and priorities established, methods are premature. Obviously sooner or later the whole thing boils down to work, and then you must roll up your sleeves and go to work using those methods that will make your dream come true. But first you must know where you are going.

What we are talking about is strategy. Vision alone is not enough. Methods alone will fail us. But strategy puts legs on ideas and connects the vision with the methods to make the dream come true. Strategy includes right thinking, right planning, and doing the right things.

Can strategy planning really make a difference? Can it double your soul-winning effectiveness in only a few years?

Through strategic planning, the pastors and laymen of the Sarawak Mission baptized more new church members in the first six months of 1975 than they had baptized in all of 1974, and by year's end had added 1,031 new members—more than three times the number gained in the previous year! Across the entire Far Eastern Division annual baptisms increased from an average plateau of 16,000 to nearly 30,000 in four years.

What can we learn from this? What were the factors behind this growth?

When I say that church growth is a result of the work of God, I'm not just tipping my hat to Him out of a sense of editorial humility. God wants growth, yearningly longs for growth, waits (is it irreverent to say impatiently?) for growth, and will give growth when human instrumentalities willingly cooperate. His power alone can bring spiritual growth.

But although the work and the power belong to God, let us not deceive ourselves. It takes human sacrifice as well to make churches grow. It takes hard work and lots of it. One must count the cost and be willing to pay the price.

One could wish for miracles to avoid the effort and sacrifice, but the trouble with miracles is not that they are nonexistent, but that we have not learned to manage them. I suspect that God did not intend for us to depend on miracles as a general plan of operation. The real miracle is the Holy Spirit and the gifts that He imparts to make the church's work for God effective. It is this miracle that makes it possible to obey the Lord's commission to make disciples of the nations.

A basic philosophy of evangelism

The worker for God must have a clear understanding that he or she is under orders from the King of kings to make disciples of the nations. Evangelism is not everything—it is the only thing. Every other task derives its life from its relationship to winning souls. The successful soul winner exhibits an optimism for growth. He knows that growth is possible, he wants to grow, and he works to grow. Growth is the sure result of such an attitude.

As part of your basic philosophy of evangelism, concentrate on the responsive homogeneous units in your territory. In the Sarawak Mission two basic groups in the towns were especially responsive—tribal people in the process of urbanization and Chinese youth. Among the rural populations the Land Dyak and Iban tribes were most receptive. As a result of concentrating on these receptive segments of the population, 69 percent of those baptized were Iban, 24 percent Land Dyak, and 6 percent Chinese.

Society is made up of homogeneous segments that share a sense of belonging and that are usually bound together by common interests, culture, and language. Try to define such units in your territory and concentrate on those that are most receptive, trying to win entire segments such as whole family units, neighborhoods, or classes of people.

Also make it a primary focus of your evangelism strategy to seek conversion growth. Every church will almost automatically experience some biological growth as children of church members become baptismal age, as well as a certain amount of transfer growth from members moving in from other churches. This growth is desirable and important, but the church that does not make conversion growth its prime objective is doomed to stagnation.

A management-by-objectives approach to administration

Management by objectives is simply another way of saying, Plan to accomplish what you want to get done. The science of effective planning includes six fundamental steps.

1. Formulate a clear statement of purpose. Until your church asks and clearly answers the question "What is our business?" it cannot know what direction it should go or what it should do. Of course the overall business of the church is Jesus' commission to make disciples of the nations (see Matt. 28:19, 20). How ever, formulate your own concept of your fundamental purpose.

2. Set challenging objectives. Objectives give you direction and destination. You cannot know whether you have succeeded in a particular task unless clear objectives are set at the beginning. The power of imaginative, clearly defined, and inspiring goals will evoke extraordinary performance from people.

3. List priorities. After you have decided what you want to accomplish, you must come to grips with the things that must be done in order to reach your objectives. This re quires taking a hard look at your activities. What are you presently doing? Why? What few things that you can do well will really help reach your objectives? List them. What activities are you doing now that will hinder you from reaching your objectives? Take a razor to them. This takes courage as well as wisdom!

4. Allocate resources according to priorities. Strategy and priorities are only a fiction unless the necessary money and people are allocated to them. The budget must be commit ted to the strategy if church growth is to occur. Failing to allocate high-quality resources is one of the greatest obstacles to achieving extraordinary results.

5. Concentrate efforts on the few things that bring results. Concentration is the key. In order to reach the objectives that really count, the energies and resources of your church must be concentrated on opportunities for growth and advance, rather than on problems or on maintaining programs that do not produce the desired results.

6. Review and evaluate. Periodically take a serious look at things to see whether you are on target. Your activities must be evaluated against your objectives. To do so requires facts and honesty. Only constant vigilance will keep high-quality re sources from drifting into low-productive activities. Modification or adjustment may be necessary be cause of changing circumstances, but keep your eye on the goal and do not allow yourself to be derailed by every "mosquito wing" that falls on the tracks.

A candid appeal

Our churches are not growing and multiplying as they ought. Our denominational growth rate is far below what it could be. We are spending much time, thought, and money on things that do not really matter, even though they may be church-sponsored activities. We are maintaining at great expense many things that are of marginal value at best. We lack a clear-cut statement of purpose. We do not have a denomination-wide strategy for growth and advance. There is no master plan for multiplying congregations. Our priorities are not clearly defined. It is a rare church—indeed, an exceptional church—that has a well-thought-out plan for growth. This ought not to be. It does not need to be.

Many are waiting for revival to come so that souls will be won spontaneously. Some shrug off responsibility for hard thinking and planning by saying, "God will finish His work." True, but He will do so through the church. Millions of people are still waiting only to be gathered in. You can double your evangelistic results and have a growing church!

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Bruce Johnston is director of Church Growth for the North Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

August 1978

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