Review: Taking Your Church to the Next Level

McIntosh, Gary L. Taking Your Church to the Next Level: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009. Kindle ed. 2011.

I distinctly remember the seminary classroom debate: large church or small church? Elmer Towns argued for large, and I honestly can’t remember who supported the small model. In any case, I definitely voted for the small, local church design. Growing a church to another “level” had been a tongue-in-cheek joke when I was on staff as a youth pastor. “It’s all about money and numbers” was more of a chuckle than a serious notion. After all, there were nearly 500 morning worshipers and workers. When we moved to Hermon, Maine, the church “grew” from 135 to 100 (maybe); yet, four years after we left for smaller town Sangerville, Maine, the Hermon Baptist Church broke 200. Size matters. But I thought Jesus builds his church, and my ambition has never been to focus on numbers but on people and to be found faithful. Gary McIntosh never rebuts this ambition but expands my awareness of size differences in “applying church-size strategies to impact our churches” (193). Different sizes require different approaches and giftedness and organizational structure. As McIntosh notes early on, “Other than its basic beliefs and values, the two major forces that impact a church’s growth are its age and its size” (10). Maybe ministry is not about money and numbers, but ministry must utilize finances and involve people. The functionality of “doing church” needs to not only take into account the numbers but also to value growth.

I wouldn’t turn to this book for a biblical foundation for church growth. In the early pages, Ecclesiastes 3 isn’t compelling evidence for church life cycles, as though God has somehow established “natural” progress and decline (10). However, in the concluding section, McIntosh emphasizes doing three things to maintain a spiritual direction: focus on prayer (Acts 6:1-6), the big picture (2Kings 6:8-17), and God (1Cor. 3:6; Matt. 16:18) (198). One of the first areas I’m convicted of is to gather men together to pray for each other and our ministry on a regular—weekly—basis. Our church prays faithfully before and after every committee and large group gathering; I simply wonder how much is routine and what is a passion to seek the Lord’s face in order for him to direct and impact ministry.

“Spiritual focus” is paired with “managing the process.” Keeping, sharing and winning people to the church’s vision (198) compel this reader to return to the deacons’ drawing board and revisit our vision statement. When I first introduced values and vision to our board, they all remembered something about a vision statement, though nobody knew exactly what it was or where it was. I was honestly baffled by the blank stares since our vision was somewhat obvious: do church. The author clearly emphasizes the essential function of both a clear and relevant vision for any size church, and small churches are not exempt, including well established flocks.

“The core values of smaller churches cause them to look for a highly relational pastor who serve church members by listening to their concerns, ministering to their personal needs, and lead” (136). My transition from a mid-size suburban church of about 500 to a small town church of 135 could have improved if I had better understood the relational aspect of ministry. I had been called to preach and teach in this well-established body, and so I spent hours preparing messages. The local boys gathered at Dysarts Truck Stop for breakfast before work began, and I couldn’t rationalize leaving my young children at home with my wife while I small-talked over eggs and toast. In time, I did learn the value of having lunch with someone each week (like Bud Goodell at the RV center); with playing Uno with a cancer-ridden 13 year old; with throwing horseshoes with a retiree disillusioned with his spirituality. Now the “liars’ club” at McDonald’s knows it’s “hump day” when Dave shows up for coffee Wednesday mornings. My present challenge is to convince our leaders of the value of their involvement in building bridges and making disciples in their own spheres of influence.

I enjoyed pouring over the different organizational flow charts of the various sized churches. I was surprised at the absence of this visual for the small and managerial levels as though churches with 400+ need this structure and smaller ones don’t… or perhaps the structure with boxes, circles, and lines would be too obvious. Pastors become the hub of a Ferris wheel in the smaller organizational church size (154). I remember making an overhead presentation of our Baptist church structure where the pastor held a fistful of balloons involving every committee since he was a pro tem member in everything that transpired: education, music, missions, Christian day school, finance, trustee, and deacon. Our deacon board agreed that each deacon would serve on a different committee or board, and they could advise which ones I needed to attend, though I was still welcome wherever the saints were found. As I look back, we didn’t have an outreach or assimilation committee.

Reaching the next level needs to begin with knowing where we are and understanding how to best serve the current community. This book helps assess where we stand on the curve since size growth stages are relatively easy to observe. Implementing a clear vision and well defined values, and emphasizing our spiritual direction will help us gain perspective and regenerate hope that God can move the saints toward renewal and reorganization.

David Kelly is the pastor at First Baptist Church in Wellston, Ohio. He is a graduate of Lock Haven State in Pennsylvania (BS) and Dallas Theological Seminary (ThM).

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