Church Leadership Strategies, Overview of Approaches

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STRATEGIES for Church Leadership, Church Health and Renewal – Overview

Part of the ministry resources on Church Leadership, Church Health and Renewal.


All church leaders recognize the need for periodic renewal. The question is which approach to follow. It can be confusing to sort through the scores of books lining the shelves of Christian bookstores and the convincing advertisements of publishing companies. Volumes range from the autobiographical accounts of a renowned church, to diagnostic methods based on research among many churches, to process-oriented approaches that supposedly work in all churches.

How does one choose? Church leaders are notorious for simply adopting the models that are most popular, regardless of how the method fits their gift sets, ministry contexts, or congregational cultures.

This section of ministry resources on is intended to help church leaders make more informed choices on approaches to renewal. It categorizes the most widely used methods, provides adequate summary of the content of the best resources in each collection, and suggests best places to start for one’s reading.

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Philosophies of Church Leadership – Conventional or Missional?

Relative to church renewal, many materials are still based on the assumptions of the church-growth perspective, usually suggesting a redoubling of efforts to “attract” outsiders to the gospel through the church’s offerings. Others are more attuned to the changing religious landscape of North America, recognizing the marginalized status of Christianity in general and churches in particular. Church growth adherents acknowledge the same, but are more hopeful of the prospect of attracting the unchurched. Missionals, however, believe that in the current setting, it is less likely that the church can attract eroded support through a renewal of current efforts. Instead, the church must go “to” the surrounding culture as missionaries, thus “missional.” They insist the church must see itself as being “sent” in a functionally apostolic sense, engaging the world in much the same manner as Jesus did in his incarnation when he came and “made his dwelling” among us. (John 1:14)

There is another group of resources, however, that do not choose between the attractional and missional. They may not intentionally blend these two philosophies, but still address how established churches may approach all they do, even their more attractional activities, more missionally. They affirm the minority status of the church and the need to be missional, but also see some hope in churches redefining strategies to appeal to those who may be attracted to the gospel through their efforts. When combined with the missional perspective, it both goes out to the surrounding culture and seeks more effective ways to bring others “to” the church.

Many in the missional conversation also distinguish between missional and conventional churches. Conventional, or established churches are those that have existed for some time and have a “brick-and-mortar” location with all of its attendant concerns of preserving itself as well as engaging their ministry contexts. Many of them reflect the vestiges of the previous churched-culture era, and have difficulty repositioning themselves in the current missionary environment. To the extent that they cannot or will not make these adjustments in the theological, philosophical, or practical dimensions, they are not “missional” according to the common usage.

The question arises as to whether the resources below are designed for attractional, conventional, or missional churches. The answer is that many of them would be useful regardless of one’s orientation. Some certainly reflect the church-growth (attractional) mindset, while others are more integrated missional/attractional. People of all stripes may benefit from the approaches described in this list. I suspect, however, that those who derive the most value will be leaders of established churches who are trying to be more intentional. For those who prefer a strongly missional bias, an entire set of Resource Guides is devoted to understanding the missional mindset.

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The Approaches to Church Leadership and Renewal

There are at least sixteen formal approaches to intentional congregational renewal of established churches. Each is described and linked below. They reflect my categories, and are not necessarily how the authors would choose to be grouped; though I have tried to be fair, respectful, and appreciative of everyone.

Apart from these approaches is an important section on Research and Case Studies of Effective Churches which are not tied to a specific method, but highlight the characteristics which studies have shown to be in effective churches overall, at least in terms of the criteria measured by the researchers. These may help church leaders choose which tools best fit their situation, and to be better informed and more selective as to where to place their energies. (See suggested resources)

I also suggest looking at the section on Understanding Church Dynamics, which includes resources that explain how churches work, including volumes such as Wisdom from Lyle E. Schaller: The Elder Statesman of Church Leadership, an excellent collection of the best insights from Lyle Schaller’s writings, and anecdotes from leading contemporary church leaders who have been influenced by him. Schaller is indisputably the most influential thinker on the church in 20th and early 21st centuries. This book distills his wisdom on how churches work.

Many, though not all, of the approaches listed below are based on extensive research as well. If so, it is noted in the summaries. In these cases, the method describes the standardized list of characteristics the studies found in effective churches, and suggest ways other congregations may plan to as to develop the same qualities. The resources are listed in a somewhat logical not preferential order.

1. Missional

This is a highly developed understanding based on the strong belief that the current cultural climate requires a complete reframing of the church’s existence. It contrasts “missional,” i.e. functioning as missionaries who go “to” the culture, over against traditional and attractional (church growth) approaches. The resources in this section are numerous, representing a robust and widespread conversation among church leaders. The differences between missional and other approaches move adherents to be very selective about which tools from other philosophies are appropriate for their use. (Click here for a perusal of missional strategies)

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2. Leader-Directed Vision Casting

This is a “top-down” approach to renewal where a visionary leader with high credibility among those s/he leads works in concert with God to discern a vision for the congregation in collaboration with the spiritual community, communicates the vision so as to engender enthusiastic support, and then activates the strategies and structures to carry the vision to fulfillment. (Read more and see suggested resources)

3. People-Directed Vision Emergence

This is a “serve up” approach to renewal that addresses the reality in many established churches that are highly suspect of strong visionary leadership from one person. Established churches have unique features that require the vision process to progress indirectly as the people become outwardly focused in gift-based ministry and service, out of which a vision “emerges,” as people serve, thus “serve up.” (Read more and see suggested resources)

4. Strategic Planning, Leader/Participatory

This is a “guide through” approach to planning where leaders who have a general idea of congregational direction still wish to walk the congregation through a standard strategic planning process to insure widespread participation and support. (Read more and see suggested resources)

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5. Strategic Planning, Congregational Discernment

This is a “bubble up” approach to strategic planning that is less leader-influenced than the leader/participatory model. Here leaders use the standard strategic planning process to equip the congregation to discern and shape its own vision and strategy. (Read more and see suggested resources)

6. Church Health, Congregational Life Cycle

Most growth strategies make use of the church health cycle (e.g. Rendle and Mann’s Holy Conversations), but a few resources focus exclusively on this model to unpack its significance for congregation renewal. Exposure to this cycle is an indispensable tool for leading churches out of decline and into a new period of effectiveness. (Read more and see suggested resources)

7. Traditional Church Renewal

This approach emphasizes the intentional effort to faithfully engage mission while preserving the unique strengths of traditional, established churches. (Read more and see suggested resources)

8. Church Revival

This is a “pray down” model of church renewal that begins with the fervent prayers of those who ache over the eclipse of God from the consciousness of his people as evidenced by sin and luke-warmness. In answer to the prayers, God brings spiritual revival characterized by a return to his word, repentance, and transformation. All good models of church renewal stress the spiritual, but these resources convey a unique kind of emphasis based on a biblical “pattern” of revival. (Read more and see suggested resources)

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9. Integrated Spiritual/Strategic

This is a “pray and plan” model for renewal that integrates spiritual revival and strategic initiatives into a holistic approach. These resources do not necessarily carry the revival motif in the same patterned way as those listed under spiritual revival above, but are no less serious in addressing the importance of spirituality and discipleship as preconditions for lasting renewal. (Read more and see suggested resources)

10. Diagnostic/Prescriptive

This is a “measure up” method of renewal that uses research from various authors to prescribe benchmarks church effectiveness. These models often use diagnostic tools to help churches measure themselves against the benchmarks and move toward improvement. These resources comprise a large block of literature on congregational renewal. (Read more and see suggested resources)

11. Diagnostic/Prescriptive — Disciple-Making

This is another “measure-up” method where the benchmarks assess whether church members are becoming more committed disciples. (Read more and see suggested resources)

12. Simple, Minimalist

This is a “simplify and guide-through” method that seeks to avoid the complexity of many church development approaches and suggests ways of defining simple, straightforward and strategic processes that move people through the stages of spiritual growth. (Read more and see suggested resources)

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13. Seasonal, Rhythmic

This is a “rhythm and flow” approach that helps leaders discern the emphases of renewal that are appropriate for their “season” or “stage” of congregational life. The idea is to escape the constant pressure to do everything all the time, but to flow ministry in life’s rhythms and pace oneself in natural cycles that oscillate between intensity and renewal. This allows them to select from among all the growth emphases and planning methods depending on the right season. (Read more and see suggested resources)

14. Large Group/Whole Systems Design

These are “convene, collaborate, and co-create” approaches based on the belief that through high involvement of affected participants, whole systems, or entire congregations, can experience significant, desirable change. These are non-directive methods where leaders function as conveners who create the environments for productive discussions among the entire congregation. (Read more and see suggested resources)

15. Organic Church

This is a “sow and grow” approach that stresses churches, as living organisms, have natural ways of thriving. They have their own “seed” that grows naturally from the inside out. If leaders attune themselves to what God wishes to do with each living congregation, they can help churches grow from the inside out in ways that are natural to their identity. (Read more and see suggested resources)

16. Mergers

This approach brings two or more congregations together into one, and is growing in popularity as an option for missional effectiveness. (Read more and see suggested resources)

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