I’ve heard folks in my denomination talk about “high impact churches.” It's a phrase that's been out there for a few years, in particular an eponymous book by Linus Morris. His primary shift is thinking about church not so much as being situated in a geographic location but within large scale social network. This move was important a quarter of a century ago when Morris published with the rise of the internet and globalization. I think we've seen a cultural migration away from dislocation as a norm toward place-centered living. Anecdotally, people just are not transient as they used to be. People tend to grow where they are planted. The trend is playing out during the last year. If people are moving, it is close to where they already are:
"This local movement means that even for residents who did move further from an urban center, many remained part of the same regional economy. And most of those who moved further afield tended to stay within a radius of 100 to 150 miles."- "More Americans Are Leaving Cities But Don't Call It an Urban Exodus" - Bloomberg News, April 26, 2021 The "same regional economy" is the same as a megaregion, which I written about elsewhere on this blog. People are moving but staying within a place called home. So, one's social network is the same as sharing a place: familiarity in particularity.
My denomination leans toward defining high impact churches as those that start with a large core of attenders, around 200 (multiplynaz.org). These kinds of churches are also actively working toward getting people involved in the life of the church, usually through a system of discipleship groups. Much of the focus is building internal capacity for nourishing the faithful and reaching the like-minded. It's a consumer-driven approach to building the church. I was never really satisfied with these notions of what church should look. The cynical side of me thinks that the emphasis is on HYPE -- just trying to get people in the door and find ways to keep them around. The non-cynical side of me wonders if evangelism of attraction will actually lead toward discipleship: the true calling of the church is to make disciples.
In 2020, I read an article on 11 Traits of Churches That Will Impact the Future by Carey Nieuwhof that fleshed out what I think I mean by “high impact churches.” Nieuwhof wrote this article in 2013. It could easily have been written yesterday. It has given structure to what a high impact church might look like.
Nieuwhof’s thoughts on what these kinds of things that could be considered high impact churches bear repeating:
“When you learn to say no to the preferences of some current members, you learn to say yes to a community that is ready to be reached.”
“If you can’t make a decision within 24 hours, your process is too slow.”
“In fact, more and more larger churches will start embracing smaller venues, locations and partnerships to keep growing. A great number of smaller venues might be a hallmark of future churches making an impact.”
“Get innovative and start looking at portable and non-traditional ways of growing your ministry.”
“Churches that understand that embracing questions is as important as providing immediate answers will make an impact.”
“Churches in decline often think in terms of what they can get from people - money, time, growth, etc.”
“Churches that decide they will hold the message sacred but tailor the experience to an ever shifting culture will be more effective.”
From Nieuwhof’s article, I narrowed my emphasis on eight aspects of high impact churches. When I see these concepts at work in a church, there’s a good chance they are making an impact on their community. These practices are not based on church size or financial capacity. I believe all of these descriptors need to be present for a local church to be considered a high impact church. If they are not all present, then these aspects become aspirations for what a church seeks to become in its community.
Overview: Understands local context, knows the map, makes strangers into friends
Questions toward becoming outsider focused:
--Who lives in your neighborhood?
--What contribution does your church make to this neighborhood?
--Do they know your name? Do you know theirs?
--Do they invite you to participate in their lives?
Overview: Realizes they cannot go it alone, becomes connectional, seeks district oversight and guidance, leans on a prayer network, looks for local sources of funding, enters into a larger global family
Questions toward building a partnership plan:
--What organizations are doing what you think the church can/should be doing?
--How are you helping them do this work?
--What gifts does your church have to offer these organizations?
--If there is not an organization doing this work, how can your church start doing it?
Overview: Rule of Four in team leadership, each position is a function, response-ability, self-perpetuating
Questions toward pulling together a leadership team:
--Who are the four people that are always there that dream big and make things happen?
--Who needs to be involved in the decision-making
--What are examples of tangible and memorable evidence of the trust that has been built between these leaders and the rest of the church?
Overview: No canoes (Tod Bolsinger), learns to say no to insiders to include outsiders, cultural shifts, does what is necessary, focused on a few ministries, inter-culturally sensitive
Questions toward implementing adaptable ministry:
--How quickly can a ministry be started in church for the community?
--What is the ratio of active volunteers to regular church attenders?
--Where can be found written expectations for volunteers?
--How often is training held for new volunteers?
--What kind of gratitude is shown to volunteers?
--What are active ways the church reaches out to the marginalized - not like the majority of those already in the church?
--How are different languages and cultures from your community represented in your church?
Overview: Little overhead, just in time planning, ready to move, costs in people. “Get innovative and start looking at portable and non-traditional ways of growing your ministry.”
Questions toward having a flexible footprint:
--Who decides when a new ministry might begin? Or when it might end?
--How many “circles” or smaller groups of church folks meet outside of regular worship gatherings?
--Where are there places to meet for church folks to meet together beyond gatherings at church?
Overview: Multiple avenues, everyone involved, participatory, movement toward everyone discipling someone else
Questions toward a discipling culture:
--What is the next step for a new believer in your church?
--How are these next steps communicated to new believers?
--How many members have actively taken part in making new disciples in the past year?
--What is considered essential knowledge and practice for disciples in your church?
--Who or what criteria in your local church determine what is essential for making disciples?
--What does this pathway of disciple look like in your church?
Overview: Social presence, connectivity: “Sure, face to face is deeper, but people will tell you things online they can’t muster the courage to tell you face-to-face.”
Questions toward creating an online presence:
--Does your church have a website or Facebook page that is updated on a weekly basis?
--What are ways for someone to participate in a worship service or discipleship group even though they are online?
--What are ways people can be engaged via message or comment boards in an online environment?
--Who tracks online involvement in your church?
--What online resources available for discipleship opportunities, financial giving, registering for events or ministry sign-ups?
--In what ways will someone be able to find out what is happening at your church this month by going to the website?
Overview: Planted to grow here not there, able to engage a transient society, has social awareness, recognizes their place in society, stones in a stream
Questions toward engaging the whole city:
--In what ways does your church provide avenues to connect to the larger community around the church?
--How does the church find ways to meet with or partner with other churches even if it is just with other church pastors?
--How does the church offer its voice to concerns within the larger church community?
--What markers in the church’s building, signage, website, and events that show evidence of its community’s presence?
--Where do people live that regularly attend, participate or have a connection to the church?
“give not get” mentality
Overview: Asks what the church can do for you not to what it can get from you : “Church that will make an impact on the future will be passionate about what they want for people - financial balance, generosity, the joy of serving, better families, and of course, Christ at the center of everyone’s life.”
--What is the church doing for its community without any strings attached or return on investment?