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How Breakout Churches Unleash The Laity

By Thom S. Rainer

The church I served as pastor several years ago was experiencing excellent growth. We received a few rewards for our pace of growth and, from my perspective, most everything was fine. However, my smug satisfaction would soon come to an end.

At the end of my third year in the church, I looked at the number of persons who had joined the church. Some were Christians; others had been reached from the world of the lost and unchurched.

I added the 3-year total of additions. I followed that brief exercise by looking at the increase in attendance over the same period. Suddenly the picture was not nearly as pretty as I had first painted. Our attendance had increased by only one-third the number of new members added over the past 3 years. Somehow nearly two of the three new members were absent every worship service. What was wrong?

This wake-up call led me to review the name of every new member for 3 years. It did not take me long to solve the enigma. Those new members who had become involved in ministry were still active 3 years later. Those who attended the services with little other involvement were quickly falling into the cracks of apathy and attrition.

In just a few moments the cognitive acceptance to unleash the laity became an emotional reality. I had preached, taught, and, at times, pleaded with members to get involved in the ministries of the church. But those times of exhortation were sporadic, with little planning or foresight. Now that I had a crisis on my hands, I became much more intentional about leading my church to unleash the laity.

From Belief To Action In Unleashing The Laity

Most Christians will quickly affirm the biblical mandate to unleash the laity to do the work of ministry. And most pastors have preached with passion Paul’s mandate to “prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12). But sometimes we can accept something cognitively, but fail to take concrete action upon that which we say we believe.

In my church we began to be highly intentional about unleashing the laity. We started new members’ classes to get people involved early. We began to have ministry banquets to celebrate and express gratitude to those who were involved in God’s church. We were more intentional about getting people involved in Sunday School and small groups where even more ministry takes place.

As I fast forward several years today, I realize that the situation in my local church was not unique. Indeed as a researcher of churches in North America, I discovered that my church of a previous decade had much in common with churches today.

Breakout Churches Provide Hope By Unleashing The Laity

A few years ago my research team began a quest to find breakout churches in the United States. These churches had to meet several statistical criteria, but basically, we were looking for churches that had gone from decline and stagnation to growth.

Of the research projects I have led, this one was the most frustrating and, paradoxically, the most rewarding. Finding churches that had moved from mediocrity to breakout growth was frustrating. Frankly, not many of those churches exist. But the reward was hearing the incredible stories of churches that had experienced breakout growth.

The project’s purpose was to discern the issues present in breakout churches. My book Breakout Churches (Zondervan) discusses these factors in their entirety. This article identifies the issues related to unleashing the laity. Unleashing the laity is the mobilization of laypersons in the church to do the work of ministry.

For the first time since we commissioned the breakout church project, I reviewed the research to identify specific issues related to the work of laity in ministry. Frankly, I was surprised at how many breakout factors were closely related to this issue. Four key factors stood out prominently.

The Laity And Breakout Churches

Facing painful realities

Our research included breakout churches and churches that did not break out of their stagnation. The comparison helped us understand the unique features of breakout churches.

One comparison (nonbreakout) church was located in the Western United States. I will call it Mountain Community Church. The church was started in 1990 with great hope and a positive beginning. By 1993, average worship attendance was 550. This is remarkable growth in a short time. The last data we received showed worship attendance had dropped to 410 in 2003. The church’s attendance had gradually declined every year since the peak of 550 in 1993. Additionally, our study of the church during the 10-year period from 1993 to 2003 indicates that four key community ministries have been discontinued. Conversions, measured by baptisms, declined from 88 in 1993 to 21 in 2003.

We interviewed seven laypersons at Mountain Community Church. Without informing them of the issues noted above, we asked: How do you think the church is doing today? Here are their responses:

I do not doubt the respondents’ integrity or the perceived truthfulness of their answers. But in reality, the church had declined more than 20 percent in 10 years, and the major ministries to the community had been discontinued. The number of people reached for Christ each year had also declined precipitously.

Laypeople in breakout churches do not hesitate to look at the statistics of their churches, even if what they learn is painful. They insist on having a clear awareness of the state of the church. They do not want any punches pulled. They insist that ministries to the community be evaluated regularly. They attempt to discern the spiritual growth of their members and the evangelistic successes and failures toward the lost and the unchurched. They evaluate their teaching ministries and the doctrinal awareness of their congregants.

Such awareness can be uncomfortable when the picture painted by the facts is not pretty. That is why most laypeople are unwilling to take the first step to break out — facing painful reality. Most members prefer to stay in the pseudo-comfort of denial. But breakout churches have lay leaders who are willing to face the facts, no matter how painful they may be.

When in doubt, wait

Breakout churches often learn the hard way. Their past experiences were filled with the horror caused when a church fills vacant positions too quickly. Not only did they fail to discern if the position was beneficial for the church, but they also failed to patiently determine the person best suited to fill the position. They learned an important lesson: it is better to have an unfilled position than to fill it with the wrong person.

Our research has uncovered dozens of stories of churches that quickly filled a position only to have a horrible ministry mismatch. Rather than tell you one of their stories, I will tell my own. Confession, I hope, will be good for my soul.

Before I became dean of Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, I served as senior pastor of four churches in four different states. In one church I led the congregation to understand the critical importance of unleashing the laity. I pushed hard to help members grasp the need to put people in places of ministry according their spiritual gifts, desires, and passions. Most everybody seemed to be following my exhortations … except me.

The hardest-to-fill ministry position was the fifth grade boys Sunday School class. Four teachers had resigned from the class in 3 months. It seems the young rascals were too demanding for most people to handle. The ministry team nicknamed the class legion, but we were kidding, of course.

One day a lady who was in her sixties came to my office under Spirit conviction to get to work in the church. She had, she told us, been sitting on the sidelines far too long.

The reasonable response would have been to look at her ministry profile, which was readily available. Had I done so, I would have quickly discovered her gifts definitely did not include teaching, and she strongly preferred working with adults, not children or youth. Had I looked deeper, I would have seen that the gift of mercy was her lowest score.

To ask the lady to teach the fifth grade boys Sunday School class would be a disaster waiting to happen. Exercising my own spiritual gift of idiocy, I pleaded with her to take the class, suggesting that her love of God would be measured by her response.

She accepted the assignment with figurative kicking and screaming. Disaster soon followed.

Three families who had sons in the class left the church within the first two weeks. I spent the next two months in conflict and crisis management. The teacher quit the class in anger.

What ecclesiological crime did I commit? I attempted to put a square peg in a round hole. I was so eager to fill the position that I acted in haste.

Simply put, I should have waited for the right person. Instead, I created a major crisis in the church. Breakout churches unleash the laity to do the work of ministry, but they make certain the right person is in the right place. An unfilled position is better than a position filled with the wrong person.

Act quickly and compassionately

Most ministry positions do not demand drastic action, even if the person in the position is not doing the job well. Frankly, if all issues of inadequacy were addressed, most church leaders would have little time to do anything else.

Gifted, competent, and consistent people must fill key positions of leadership. But many church leaders are unwilling to address situations where the wrong person is in a position of key importance.

In breakout churches, the leadership did not deal with every situation in which a layperson was in a mismatched ministry situation. They did, however, deal with situations in which the layperson was in a key or influential position. The cost was often high, but the cost of doing nothing was greater.

After hearing from various leaders in the breakout churches, our research team noticed a similar pattern in dealing with people who were in mismatched positions. We called the approach the three Cs: closure, compassion, and communication.

First, breakout churches refused to let troublesome-people issues continue. Despite the difficulties in making such decisions, they did so and brought closure. They dealt with the individuals involved with compassion. Unlike some of the corporate world decisionmakers (and those in many churches for that matter), leaders in breakout churches attempted to discern how Christ would handle the situation.

Perhaps the most unique characteristic displayed by breakout church leaders was their insistence that any major decision affecting people in key positions would entail clear communication. The rumor mill could not start if the reasons behind the change were stated clearly and quickly. Of course, confidential matters were not revealed, but the congregation had sufficient information to understand why a decision was made.

Compatibility is as important as competency

Breakout churches do not just look for the most qualified people to form the ministry team. They seek laypeople who fit with the personalities and philosophies of the ministry. The team concept is vital in these churches.

In the athletic world, a team of extraordinary athletes may perform poorly in competition because they do not work well together. This principle is true in the church. Breakout churches know it is critical to have highly competent people on their ministry teams who work well together. Lay leaders in these churches used the word chemistry more than a dozen times to describe the teamwork of their ministries. Here are their comments:

Breaking Out With The Laity

Our research team began with 52,333 churches in our database. When it was all said and done, the number of breakout churches was only a baker’s dozen. Though many characteristics could describe breakout churches, the unleashing of the laity was pivotal. Of the many characteristics shared by those who unleashed laity, I have described four of the key factors in this vital process.

Can you imagine going through life without making a difference? Can you imagine attending a church that did not make a difference? Our study uncovered churches and laypersons that were moved to greatness. But above all, it declared the greatness of God. He is our strength. He is our source of power and hope. He can move you and your church from being good to being great.

It is a sin to be good when God has called us to be great.

In Christ’s strength, may the rest of your days in life and ministry be great for His glory alone.

Gary Smalley

THOM S. RAINER, Ph.D., is dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and president of The Rainer Group, an international church and denominational consulting company. He is the author of 14 books on the church and reaching the unchurched. One of his most recent books is Breakout Churches (Zondervan). You can reach Dr. Rainer at

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