An interview with Thom Rainer
Thom Rainer is the President and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources. Prior to being at Lifeway, he was pastor of several churches, then became the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Thom has recently announced his plans to step away from Lifeway to develop a ministry focused on church revitalization. He’s written more than two dozen books, and his newest is titled Scrappy Church, published by B&H Books. He was interviewed by Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: What is a scrappy church?
Rainer: There’s a lot of discouragement in the North American church. I have often been one of those people that puts out information about the dire state of many churches in North America. It’s a reality. We have to define reality before we can provide hope. Yet in the research that we have done, quantitative, anecdotal, all of the consulting and coaching we’ve done, we will hear stories of churches that have defied all the expectations of demise.
Many of these churches were in decline. Many of these churches were expected to die, and yet they turned around, and as I begin to look at what are some of the common characteristics of these churches, basically I came up with a single adjective. They’re scrappy. They refuse to accept that they were no longer needed as a part of the community. They refused to say that we’re not going to make a difference in this area. They refused to say that our legacy means nothing for our future. That’s why I came back in again and said these are scrappy churches.
With all of the negative information that is going out there, that is legitimate, I am hoping that Scrappy Church could provide a message of hope. It’s a church, very simply, that was not expected to make a difference and is now making a difference.
Preaching: What does a church need to do to qualify as scrappy?
Rainer: We do not have numerical qualifications. I actually had precise numerical qualifications in a book I wrote called Breakout Churches; there we had precise data where you had to meet certain statistical markers. A scrappy church is a church going in a negative direction that is now going in a positive one. Some of it could be numerical for sure, but we didn’t overplay the numerical. Some of it could be community impact, where we’re learning that the community is excited about the church being there. Some of it could be simply the fact that more and more people in the community are turning to the church; it is becoming a truly guest-friendly church. We did not limit ourselves to a statistical criteria.
This is truly a case of a church that has gone from irrelevance to impactful. All of the churches that we looked at, that became a scrappy church as part of our study, were in that category.
Preaching: Do you have a suggestion or two about things a church can do to become one of those scrappy churches in their own community?
Rainer: When we began to look at why a church is on a decline, why a church is discouraged, why a church is going in a negative direction, typically we have seen that it has not been an overnight process. There has been a gradual movement inwardly and a lack of focus outwardly. There has been this whole sense of the church more becoming about “me myself and I” than being a Great Commission, Great Commandment church. That does not happen overnight. That’s one of the dangers, because most declines in churches are more incremental if not imperceptible.
In order for a church to really have that turn around, it needs a jolt to the system. It’s been going in a direction of inward focus for some time and thus needs a true outward focus jolt. In the book Scrappy Church we refer to that as an outward deluge, a flood of outwardly focused things. It’s not so much that these things are the best, are the best reviewed, but that they’re just doing a number of things outwardly.
I know of one church that had a special high attendance day called “Invite Your One.” In addition to that, they went out in the community and started praying for churches. They started praying for homes, home by home. Another church began to use its facilities for birthday rooms, for kids in the community to celebrate their birthdays. They take a jolt to the system, and they say “If we’ve been sending a typical 60 hour week in a church doing things for ourselves, we’re going to transform that, where we’re doing 30 hours for the community and 30 hours ministry to ourselves.” The outward deluge was the key issue – that jolt to the system that got them moving in another direction.
Preaching: In your role at Lifeway, you’ve had sort of a bird’s eye view of thousands of churches across America. What do you see as some of the key trends that are impacting churches today?
Rainer: Lifeway has been one of the places that I’ve been blessed to have that view. Also, in my blog and my podcast I’ve got another 15 million; they may be just downloads and views, but a lot of them are giving us feedback. There’s another organization that’s called Church Answers that’s giving us constant feedback. By looking at all of those different sources, blog, podcast, Church Answers and Lifeway, we are definitely seeing some monumental trends.
If there’s one thing that I point to again and again it is what I would call declining attendance frequency. Fifteen years ago, an active church member in many congregations was considered a person that attended about three times a week. Now the commonly accepted definition of an active church member is someone who attends three times a month. If you look at that in terms of number of contact points with the church, it is dramatic.
I’m telling you, a lot of church leaders, one of the issues in your church certainly may be that you’re not reaching people with the gospel and seeing more people come in from the outside, but the main reason they think that we’re seeing is that the members themselves are less committed, coming less frequently. A lot of that is cultural reality, but it doesn’t have to be accepted that way.
I hear complaints about Sunday sports and the competition there. I hear complaints about affluent families and how they have all these choices of things that they can do on Sunday. I hear about busy schedules and how it’s hard to work in making church a priority, but the reality of it is, we have 168 hours a week, and we’re going to choose where we put that time. We have chosen collectively in the North American congregations not to give that time to churches and to me that’s one of the endemic issues that’s presented to us and I think one of the major trends.
Preaching: You’re getting ready to move into a whole ministry area of church revitalization. Tell me what draws you to focus your attention on that area of revitalization.
Rainer: The first thing that draws me to the area is just the sheer magnitude of churches in need of church revitalization. However you describe it, anywhere from a low of 65% to a high of 90% of congregations in North America need revitalization.
If you’re looking at 350,000 North American congregations, that means at least 300,000 of those congregations need some type of revitalization. The first thing that draws me to it is just the sheer magnitude of the task before us. I love all of the church planting emphases that have taken place the last two decades. I am so thankful that we have these new churches among us. I also, in addition to that, want to pay close attention to the massive number of churches in need of some level of revitalization.
The second reason is, when I was a pastor, all four churches needed revitalization. It became a part of my experiential past as well as the magnitude that is taking place. A third reason is, I just have a heart for pastors and church leaders. I hear their cries. I hear their desires. I hear their hopes and their dreams, and revitalization is a part of who they are. If God allows me to come alongside the even more in the future, I would just feel like he is allowing me to do His will in a way that is really, really significant in the scope of the Kingdom of God.
Preaching: What do you see as some of the greatest obstacles to revitalization in churches today?
Rainer: The first obstacle is simply awareness of the need. In our churches – like any area of life or any area of our leadership or any area of our family – often we don’t confront reality. When the classic book was written by Jim Collins, Good to Great, one of the things he said was that in businesses that went from good to great, one of the things that they were willing to do was to confront brutal reality. They were willing to say that we need to change.
One of the biggest obstacles in churches today is we don’t see a need to change, which begs the question: why? One of the reasons is because the decline has been imperceptible for those who are there day by day, week by week. One of the illustrations that I use is when my mom died in 1997, it was like ten years before I went back to my hometown where she died. The deterioration of the town was startling. Storefronts were closed. Houses were boarded up. It was just a very deteriorating community in that ten-year period.
I went to an auto parts place, where I had a friend that owned the company, and I said, “What is going on in this town? What is happening?” His response was, “What do you mean? It’s still the same old place.” Well, that’s because he saw it day by day. I saw it with a 10 year gap between one visit to the next. If you’re in that day by day, you don’t often see the need and the reality of what is taking place.
Another reason is we’re just uncomfortable with change. We know that in any situation revitalization is going to bring change, but the reality is we’re going to change one way or the other. We’re either going to be a part of proactive change or we’re going to be a part of a bad change and it will become our choice.
Preaching: What do you think is the role of preaching in the process of church revitalization?
Rainer: Paramount. Back in 1996, I wrote a book called Effective Evangelistic Churches. The highest correlative factor is how these churches excelled at preaching. I think one of the key parts of revitalization is going to be preaching revitalization.
In other words, what can pastors do to become more effective, powerful, Spirit-led preachers in the future? My study was in 1996, but I’m convinced it would be no different in 2019. It’s hard to have a revitalization without powerful preaching. Preaching is paramount. Just putting it there, preaching of the Word is just right at the top. That may be part of the need toward revitalization, is to bring in those who can help the pastor become a more effective preacher.
Preaching: Tell us just a little bit about what you’re going to be doing in terms of revitalization?
Rainer: Well, it’s a reality now. Church Answers is part one to that. It’s about two-and-a-half years old. Church Answers is a community of about 1500 pastors, a digital community where they can come and get a question answered 24/7. It’s pretty incredible to come there, plus I do a virtual staff meeting for everybody at Church Answers once a month.
That community at churchanswers.com will continue to be a part of what I do. We have a nice little team that’s there answering questions. The community answers questions. When I was a pastor, if I knew that I could go online in the safety of peers, ask a question and get answers within just a few hours, sometimes even within a few minutes, I would have absolutely loved that. That’s something that will continue.
What I started that is new is the non-profit side of it called Revitalize Network. I have a passion for revitalizing churches, yes, but a lot of the churches in need for revitalization are the churches that have the least amount of resources of money and time and people. My dream is to never say no to a church for lack of resources.
So we’ve created this nonprofit, where churches that have are bringing their resources for the use of churches that really could use the help of revitalization. The Revitalize Network is relatively new. The site for your listeners and readers are at churchanswers.com and revitalizenetwork.org. They can find out a lot about them at each place.
Preaching: If you could offer a word of counsel to a young pastor, what would it be?
Rainer: Be a great listener. The opportunities to listen today are better than ever. I was talking to a pastor who was making an incredible impact in revitalization. One thing that he did in his first year there is he didn’t fail to do outward focus, but he spent time with those members and said, “Tell me your dream. Tell me some of the most significant things in this church that have excited you at the past.” He played off the past to move them forward into the future. And by play I don’t mean manipulate. I simply say to use that as a foundation. He did a lot of listening in his first year, even as he was moving the church forward.
I would wish that every pastor would seek someone to come alongside of them, in a mentor or coaching relationship, whether they’re young or old. I’ve had a coach almost all of my life; I’m 63 years old, and I still have someone coaching and speaking into my life. That’s part of the listening function. Listen because there are great opportunities to learn. And don’t move so rapidly that your congregation mistakes you for the enemy – you’re so far out in front of them, they shoot you in the rear. But don’t move so slowly that they don’t see a leader as well. There’s a tension therein but boy, if these young pastors coming into these churches could do a lot of listening, they will have a lot of credibility to move the church forward in years to come.
A final piece of counsel is: stick with it. It’s easy to get frustrated, to get mad at the critic, to wonder if these contentious business meetings are the realities of churches, and just to go the green grass syndrome. While God may be saying move to another church, many times he’s saying: “You lead this church through this.” So be willing to stick it out, unless he clearly says otherwise.