What Makes Great Congregations?


If you are a long time reader of “Israel’s Restoration” you know that I often comment on a variety of themes. They include the salvation of Israel, the condition of the Church, Islam and the relativistic West, and the last days.

You may not realize, however, that I oversee a network of nearly 20 congregations in the U.S. and have input to our related networks in Israel. In that capacity I am pressed into reading and reflecting on the issue of successful congregations. Some of the most helpful books are business books by believers. Thom Rainer has recently written an important book on the subject entitled Breakout Churches. I was amazed at how the book captured the story of my leadership years at Beth Messiah Congregation in Maryland from 1978-2000 and to a lesser degree in Chicago from 1972-1978. The success we experienced can only be attributed to the grace of God.

“Breakout” congregations are not synonymous with mega congregations. One of the congregations identified as a “breakout” church grew to three hundred. Rainer and his team have chosen to study congregations that declined and then had a turn around. Some of these congregations were more than 80 years old, while others were only 25-40 years old. Some were independent and some within denominations. The fact that older churches have experienced a breakout sort of renewal should greatly encourage leaders of old historic congregations.

The Standards for Success

Rainer identified three underlying measures for success. The first is significant congregational growth through bringing people into faith in Yeshua (rather than through transfer growth). The second is effective discipleship. The third is impact on the surrounding community. Congregations that were in decline but then turned around and attained breakout growth had to have certain prerequisites but then went through several stages towards breakout success.

The Prerequisite – Acts 6/7 Leadership

The first key is the leader or a core leadership team of leaders that Rainer calls Acts 6/7 leadership. There is no substitute for capable leadership. Acts 6/7 leadership is called legacy leadership; that is, a leadership that builds for the future or for the next generation. Acts 6/7 leaders have often been through great difficulty. They have been humbled by failure. They are sometimes tempted to transfer to another congregation or leave the ministry altogether. However, in pressing through to God they gain confidence that they are called to stay and see a turn around. They gain a deep humility in God along with this confidence. There is often a core of people, some with leadership ability, who join in loyalty with the senior leader to go forward. The leader genuinely shares authority and decision making with this team, though maintaining visionary leadership.

The ABC Moment: Awareness, Belief, and Crisis

Rainer speaks about an ABC moment. There is a critical moment, whether brought on by attending a conference, reading an article or book or listening to a wise consultant that moves the leadership into recognizing the true condition of the congregation. The letter A or awareness represents facing the brutal facts, such as decline in numbers, lack of impact in the community and poorly discipled people. Yet, facing the facts somehow does not lead to hopelessness, rather an honest appraisal allows the Spirit of God to impart belief (or faith), that things can be turned around. Taking the necessary steps to turn the situation around then leads to a crisis. Some congregants will not face reality. They often like things just the way they are in spite of decline. However, the leaders press through, sometimes with large membership losses at this stage.

The Who/What Simultrack

Next is a Who/What Simultrack. This is making sure the right leaders are on board to see the congregation come through to the change needed, but at the same time defining vision and the program to follow for vision implementation. Some congregations in the study reached out and served poor communities, others emphasized counseling ministries as their outreach. There are many examples of getting out of the religious ghetto and serving the surrounding community. A significant core of people must follow the leaders in their service.

Two other factors are very important at this point. One is that passion for evangelism dominates the leaders and eventually the people. Effective evangelistic programs are characteristic. Secondly, every really successful congregation in this study was strong in small groups that connect people to deep fellowship and personal discipleship. Effective prayer mobilization was also a major factor in every successful congregation in this book.

The VIP Factor – Vision Intersection Profile

The next section of Rainer’s study overlaps the last. It is what he calls the VIP factor or vision-passion intersection. The vision and passion of the leaders intersect with the vision and passion of the people. Both of these intersect with a significant need in the surrounding community. This provides a central thrust for the community.

A Culture of Excellence

The leaders are also able to call for and implement a culture of excellence. Excellence draws more people of high commitment and quality.

Finally, a conservative implementation of innovation (not following the latest fad) leads to further acceleration. Some attain rapid growth at this stage. A congregation then has a momentum.

It was quite amazing to me that Rainer seemed to describe just what we went through in Beth Messiah Congregation in the 1980s and then onward into the next decade. I would not have known how to put it into such clear and revealing terms.

Rainer is writing for leaders so that they might also become “breakout” congregations. They should not try to duplicate mega congregations and negatively compare themselves. The key is the leading of the Spirit to face reality and find God’s way forward, a way forward that will likely follow the basic pattern in this book if it can be attained and if the leaders have good capability. It depends on God coming through more than on mere human ability.

This is an excellent book for Christian churches and Messianic congregations that are in plateau or decline. Plateaus usually lead to decline. I am thankful to have lived much of what is described in this book, even if we did not attain the fullness of Rainer’s ideas. May our congregations in Israel and the United States have breakout effectiveness!