How to Break Growth Barriers (Updated edition), Carl F. George and Warren Bird. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.
Summary: A work on church growth that focuses on the vision of church leaders, how they conceive their role, and key issues in breaking through specific numerical barriers.
This is an updated version of a classic work on church growth. Ultimately, this book boils down to one simple idea–we are the greatest barrier to the growth of the church and our thinking about our vision of what we are doing, and how we conceive our role often is the most significant factor hampering the growth of a church or ministry.
First of all, the authors focus on vision. They consider the ways we limit vision to fixing what breaks, keeping pace with other churches, making budget, wagons, and other limiters to a harvest vision that cannot be outgrown. Vision is birthed out of prayer and motivates by giving clear direction, a “party line” of what we are and are not about, and “hero making. Systems thinking that understands how an outsider sees one’s church and the factors that have contributed to its growth and life is vital. Finally, it is critical to assess how strong our growth bias is, and in particular, our “holy imagination of what God can lead a person to become,” both for ourselves, and those apprentices we coach into leadership.
This leads into the second part of the book. One of the greatest barriers pastors face is conceiving of their role as primary caregiver rather than caregiving coach. We are helped to see the characteristics of one who is a primary caregiver and how differently ministry coaches behave. These include emphasizing the big picture, setting expectations that develop ministry competence in others including expectations that people in the church will minister to each other in a context of groups and teams, giving flexible supervision and fostering nondependency. They also focus on the multiple leadership styles needed to be a caregiving coach with different groups within a church. The concluding chapter in this section is perhaps the most challenging because it faces the vital underlying question, “is our addiction to workaholism or other addictive behaviors preventing us from embracing a ministry that grows by releasing the leadership of others?”
Part Three focuses on breaking through specific numerical barriers. In separate chapters, the authors look at the shifts of thinking and structures that need to take place in breaking the 200, 400, and 800 barriers. Then they look at breaking the barriers beyond 800, which comes down to breaking the “Care Barrier” and focuses around developing cell-based ministry, including ministry around the specific demographics of one’s church.
There was much I found with which I resonated. I’ve been involved in some growth coaching work and found that the insight that our own vision for growth and our own patterns of ministry are the most significant barriers we face to growth. We may say we want growth and yet we engage in patterns of ministry that undermine growth. As the authors observe, in many cases these are wonderful things like a deep and genuine care for people. Yet we limit how many people can experience that kind of care by controlling it rather than coaching others to engage in that work. I also appreciate how the authors diagnose this as a key factor in the workaholism that characterizes the pastorate, that may lead to moral failures, undermined health, and family breakdowns.
I would be curious how much the authors have consulted in non-Western contexts. At points, they describe buildings and finances and paid church staffs in ways that I suspect might not be applicable in some situations. Yet the focus on multiplying leadership, including lay leadership, centering ministering in effective cell groups led by this leadership, and coaching caregivers seemed to have high cross-cultural applicability.
This can be a useful resource for pastors and church leadership teams ready to take a hard look at themselves, and the ways of seeing and doing things that erect barriers to growth. It doesn’t answer all the questions of how one develops caregivers, beyond the importance of taking apprentices along in all the things you do, or how you build networks of effective cell groups. But it helps identify the ways in which we need to change to foster a culture of growth as well as giving some very specific structural help around key numerical barriers.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.