Thom S. Rainer
is the newly-elected President of Lifeway Christian Resources, one of the world’s
largest providers of Christian products and services. Prior to his move to LifeWay
in October, Rainer was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions,
Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
Before his election to this new position, however, Rainer visited with Preaching
editor Michael Duduit about his most recent book, Breakout Churches (Zondervan),
and what his research means to those who preach.
Talk to me a little bit about the idea behind Breakout Churches. Where
did the idea come from?
I wish I could say the idea was my own. I think it’s the first book I’ve done
that has not been my own idea. I read the book Good to Great (by Jim
Collins) for the first time just picking it up off the shelf. Got it at Barnes
and Noble, read it, was mesmerized by it. Then the executive cabinet at seminary
was required to read it ; I again read it and was just totally fascinated by
the concept of companies that had struggled and broken out. Finally I got a
call from Paul Engle – who was my editor at Zondervan – and Paul had just attended
a conference with Jim Collins; he came away from that conference and he said
this is a perfect project for Rainer to do on churches. So I had already read
it twice, I had it in my mind, and he called me up and I said, “Well, that’s
a done deal as far as I’m concerned.”
So the first thing
I did was to get the research team together, tell them the concept even before
we had specific parameters. One of our research team was successful in making
contact with Jim Collins. He granted us a nice interview, gave us some good
ideas for research constructs and parameters, and I make it very clear in the
book and the interview that he was not responsible for the project but he was
gracious. Then when it was all said and done, Collins read my entire manuscript
and made some good changes, suggestions and corrections.
Explain what a “breakout church” is.
A breakout church, in simplest terms, is a church that has struggled in terms
of ministry impact in the community, statistical growth trends and their own
self-evaluation of their health. That struggle has typically taken place for
5 or more years, and then there has been a point where all of those things I’ve
just said have been reversed. Growth has gone from stagnant or declining to
positive. Ministry impact has gone from nothing to significant and the self-assessment
of health has gone up considerably.
The one thing that
I put in this that I originally did not plan was that the senior pastor did
not change during this process. I can thank George Barna for that – and I mean
positively. Barna wrote a book seven or eight years ago called Turn Around
Churches and he rightly came to a conclusion that the most common element
of a turn-around church was bringing on a new pastor. That is a reality. I wanted
to find the churches that turned around without changing the senior pastor.
So I put that into the parameters and that really narrowed the project significantly.
What was the ultimate pool of churches from which you drew? Can you describe
your study churches and your comparison churches?
We ended up with a little over 52,000 churches – 52,333. When I say we ended
up, I mean we had introductory basic data on those churches. We were able to
get data on where churches were ten years ago and where they were today on about
52,000 of them. We could not get more refined data from all 52,000 of those
but we began with those. 50,000 out of 400,000 is a pretty good start.
The first screen
that we used on these 52,000 churches – it eliminated the most churches – was
an evangelistic screen where we set certain parameters for a church being evangelistic;
that actually eliminated a significant portion of 9 out of 10 churches.
Describe some of the characteristics that you found characterize those breakout
The number one characteristic that just jumps out is that a Breakout Church
had a breakout leader. Prior to the church going through the process of breaking
out there was some type of significant change in the heart, in the attitude,
in the approach of the leadership. That leadership was typically a senior pastor
but it wasn’t limited to senior pastor. It could have been others on staff and
it also could have been key laypersons in the church. There was a heart desire
that eventually said, “I am not going to be satisfied with mediocrity as a leader,
I am not going to be satisfied with mediocrity in my church, and with these
few brief years that God has given us I want to make a difference.” And so that
heart change was common in all 13 of the church’s leaders. So we didn’t find
a breakout church unless we also had a breakout leader.
The next thing
that took place prior to the breakout, in the short term, would be called a
“wake-up call” and the other that I put in the book was the “ABC moment,” meaning
Awareness, Belief and Crisis. Once there was a leadership heart change, they
began to look at the reality of their situation. The Rainer Group has done research
on a pretty large sampling of churches and what we’ve found is that nearly 90
percent of churches – not the anecdotal 8 out of 10 but nearly 9 out of 10 churches
– are either declining or growing so slow they’re not keeping up with their
community. So there are a lot of churches that need a wakeup call.
Once these church’s
leaders begin to have a desire to be someone different and to make a difference
for the glory of God, they had a wakeup call. That wakeup call could have been
something as simple as, “I’m going to review how our church has done numerically
for the last 10 years” and some would say that’s an “oh, no!” moment. Some of
them would walk out into the community and go to a convenience store – I can
remember one story of a pastor doing that. He simply asked for directions to
his church. He wanted to find out what they would say and two blocks away he
found out that the convenience store owners didn’t even know where the church
was located, much less that the church was making a difference in the community.
I could go down the list of different kinds of wakeup calls but every one of
them had a wakeup call that said, “I’m not making a difference and my church
is not making a difference.”
Once they had that wakeup call, what kinds of things did they do that helped
them to breakout.
Going back to Collins book, here’s what I was expecting – and then I’m going
tell you what I found. I was expecting that I would find his concept of “first
who, then what.” That concept means if you get the right people on the bus in
the right seat, then you can worry about organizational and structural changes.
I was looking for that and had a bias towards that because that was in Collins
research as well. But we found that it was not “first who then what” – it was
what I call the “who-what simultrack.” Once this wake up call took place, the
leadership began to make who decisions – who should be on board, who
should be on what seat – and structural or what decisions simultaneously.
And I began to question the why behind that.
Collins said Fortune
500 companies do “first who then what.” Why do churches have to be burdened
with who changes and what changes at the same time? It came down
to a very simple reality: a Fortune 500 company has a very strong infrastructure,
even if it’s not the right infrastructure. A Fortune 500 company did not get
to be where they are without some type of firm, strong, clean infrastructure.
Churches don’t have that infrastructure. We don’t have the physical facilities
that the Fortune 500 Company would have. We don’t have the organizational schematic
that a Fortune 500 company would have, and even more than any of those we don’t
have an idea of process. Some churches do but the vast majority do not have
an idea of process – of what we’re trying to do to take someone from becoming
a believer in Christ to becoming someone who is a more mature follower of Christ.
So all of those are infrastructure issues: process, facilities, and organization.
The churches did not have that. It wasn’t just a given.
In Fortune 500
companies they could work on the who and then start refining the process.
For the most part churches do not have that infrastructure that is necessary
to take first steps, though they begin to work on the people situation. Do we
have the right people on staff? Do we have the right people in the right place
on staff? Are the key lay leaders using their gifts and their sense of calling
to the fullest? Do we not only have the right people but do we have them in
the right places – or, to use Collins words, do we have them in the right seat?
that they started looking at basic structural questions. If we reach people,
do we have a facility that can accommodate them and that is friendly toward
them? Do we have an organization? Do we have a process that can take these people
from becoming a new follower of Christ to a more mature follower of Christ?
Do we have these systems in place? In many of thses churches it almost became
– as one described it – a helter-skelter process. It seemed like we were doing
20 things at one time because they had to in order to take the next step. And
here’s the kicker in all this: the churches have these three elements to take
place: leadership transformation, a wake up call, and then a restructuring of
the who and what before the breakout even took place. So all this
was taking place and they not even seeing a numerical result right away.
In much church growth teaching there’s an emphasis on the need to develop your
vision statement and clearly articulate that. Your research shows that in these
breakout churches that’s not as significant an issue.
It’s not in the sense that some of the church growth literature would say. First
of all, let me be clear in my definition of vision: a God specific plan for
a specific church at a specific time. That differs from my definition of mission.
Mission is God’s purpose for all churches. A mission statement from one church
to another should look very similar. Whether it has Warren’s Purposes or whether
it has something from the great commission or the great commandment, there should
be similarity from mission statement to mission statement. But if you look at
a vision statement as a specificity of what a church should be doing at a particular
time, that’s obviously going to be different.
Most of these breakout
churches did not have a vision statement per se, and the primary reason they
didn’t have a vision statement was because the situation was so dynamic. By
the time you captured it as an emphasis for a church and the people bought into
it, there was a good chance two to three years later that the vision was shifting.
So the very dynamic nature of vision would indicate that a vision statement
may not be the best approach. That is not to suggest that these churches did
not have vision. These churches had clarity of vision better than any churches
I’ve ever been around. It was the scarcity of vision statements, not the lack
One of the other things that was interesting in the book was your comment that
the plateaued church is a myth.
can’t find any church in America that has the same exact attendance five years
ago as they do today. It’s just as simple as that. And then there’s another
part to this: if we really want to look at a true numerical assessment, you
ought to look at your worship attendance, which has been the standard barometer
for about a decade now. Look at worship attendance five years ago, ten years
ago and today, then look comparatively to see how your defined community has
grown. If your community has grown 10 percent in 5 years and you’ve grown 3
percent, I would say that from an impact point of view that’s a declining church.
So I encourage churches not only to look at their absolute statistics but to
compare it to their community. Then I also encourage churches to find out how
much of their growth is transfer growth and how much of it has been conversion
or true kingdom impact.
But the original
question was: is there a myth of a plateaued church. I think we just need to
say declining or growing, whichever one of the two may fit.
What do you see as the role in preaching in breakout churches?
In my previous projects I have found that the role of preaching is the number
one correlated factor related to the evangelistic growth of the church, the
conversion growth of the church. In Breakout Churches, when you’re dealing
with 13 churches you cannot make as broad a statement, that this does lead to
this. But I did a previous study with 576 churches so I do have that same type
of information, and preaching was critical in these churches. The time that
pastors spent in sermon preparation, the over-all assessment by his weekly congregants
on the impact of the preaching, the priority that was given to the preaching
role by the laity and pastors alike; in other words, laity understood that if
their pastor was going to have the time to do the type of preaching that he
needed to do then they need to take up the role of ministry as they’re supposed
to do. It is hard to overstate how important the centrality of preaching was
in these breakout churches. It is just so powerful that it stares you right
in the face.
I’ll give you a
parenthetical on this that’s not related to this interview at all. One of my
great concerns about some of the emerging churches is that the centrality of
preaching and the role of preaching has become minimized. I have other concerns
for some of the emergent churches but not all of them. There are some good emerging
churches that have made preaching the major emphasis that it should be. But
none of these “breakout churches” were emergent so I’m getting off track a little
As you think about the research you’ve done over the years, are there some characteristics
relating to preaching that tend to be found in churches where there is strong
Yes, with the strong conversionary growth there is a correlation with expositional
preaching – I’ve go to be careful with that in the sense that I have yet to
find any one pastor who does nothing but expository sermons. I can listen to
the tapes of john Macarthur and find doctrinal sermons and thematic sermons
in addition to expositional sermons. There is a relationship in that in what
I call the effective evangelical churches, the dominant preaching style is
expository preaching but these pastors also do other types of sermons. I’m careful
with seminary students who think that they may be committing a mortal sin if
they do a narrative, doctrinal, or thematic sermon. But the dominant type of
preaching was expository.
Another issue that’s
closely related in the overall preaching question was the amount of time that
pastors of these churches spend in sermon preparation, and I lumped it together
with prayer. I kind of used an Acts 6:4 paradigm. But if you add up the amount
of time that pastors spend in prayer and what I call the ministry of the Word
– which primarily would include sermon preparation – it’s five times the same
amount of time of pastors of comparison churches – evangelistic churches versus
the comparative churches.
So those are two
of the big issues that have come forth: the dominance of the expositional model
and the time spent in sermon preparation.
What are some things that have really surprised you in the breakout churches
One is how few breakout churches we’re able to find. I know that I didn’t find
all the breakout churches in America. I know that 13 is not the total because
obviously I didn’t look at 350,000 churches, and even of the 52,000 I looked
at I was not able to get good data on all of those. But when it was all said
and done, I was surprised at how relatively few breakout churches we were able
The second surprise
– that I have to say was a disappointment with my own prejudices and bias going
in – was that every breakout church went through some type of significant crisis.
That’s part of the ABC moment – Awareness, Belief, Crisis. And my preference
is to be an encourager and tell a leader of a declining church that if they
are going to go through a breakout that there’s a high likelihood it will precipitate
some level of crisis in the church is not what I wanted. Yet every one of these
churches had some type of crisis take place. One of them lost 2000 in attendance
within a few months and one of them lost 400 key families within a few months.
Conflict and crisis was common in these churches. They were moving and some
of the lay people got out of their comfort zone and some of them fought back
and there was conflict.
We saw that two
big words out there that are often embraced by churches, rightly so, are excellence
and innovation. And we found that excellence and innovation are important but
they’re usually the caboose and they’re not the engine. Sometimes unhealthy
churches embrace innovative ideas and try to become churches of excellence;
all they are doing is trying to innovate that which needs to be totally discarded
or trying to make that which is excellent which they don’t want there anyway.
The issues of excellence and innovation were important but they tended to be
more accelerators to what was going on than the drivers of what took place.
Were there any pleasant surprises?
were a lot. If I could just sum it up into a single thesis it is that through
God’s power it is possible for most churches to be breakout churches. If we
looked at these churches before and not just after the breakout, very few of
us would have said that they are going to do what they did. I got great hope
from the fact that these churches made it through the breakout, made it through
the crisis, and now have a tremendous community and kingdom impact. The most
pleasant of surprises is the possibility that what happened in these 13 is,
in God’s power, a transferable concept.
If you were a pastor today and you’d just read this book where would you go
Knowing how I pastored, I probably would fire me right away! But that’s not
the question. I realize that my dominant spiritual gift in my previous four
pastorates was stupidity and so I would tell them to get another pastor. I’m
glad I got demoted to academia. It worked out well.
The first thing
that I would do is ask the leader if they are willing to take the painful step
of looking in the mirror. Looking in the mirror spiritually, looking in the
mirror as a leader, looking in the mirror in terms of what my priorities might
be. As I stated earlier in our conversation, all of these churches have breakout
leaders and so the first thing I say is look in the mirror – are you satisfied
with the way God is choosing you as a leader and with the way God is using your
church? If the answer to that is “no” – and it is going to be “no” in most churches
– then are you willing to have a wakeup call?
Now we can create
our own wakeup call. I’ve worked with quite a few churches where I have sent
in an un-churched person, usually a never-churched person. They’ve attended
their small group or their Sunday School, they’ve gone to their worship services,
they’ve walked around their facilities, and then that un-churched person meets
with the pastor’s staff and says, “Let me tell you what I saw.” That is a really
wake up call – just to let someone experience one day at your church; someone
who doesn’t have a church background so they come with a pretty clean slate
and they can tell you what they see from the perspective of an un-churched person.
I did that at Green
Valley (Baptist Church), one of the few things I did right before I went to
Southern. I did that at Green Valley probably the last six months of my ministry
there. I got some of the greatest insights that I had ever seen – to get that
outsider to look in. That’s not the only way. That’s just one of many but it’s
an easy way to at least get your eyes opened from the perspective of an outsider.
If you look at some of the major churches like Saddleback and other influential
contemporary churches, how do they fit into the statistical mixes? Are they
exceptions to the rule?
Yes, there are once-in-a-generation type leaders such as Warren, Stanley. They’re
always exceptions to the rule. And remember they can’t be a breakout church
because they haven’t had a significant period of decline so they wouldn’t even
fit into that mix. But those types of leaders are so tremendously rare. I would
never be that type of leader. Most pastors would never be that type of leader.
The concern that I have with emulation is that we can emulate almost everything
they do except for leadership and then that becomes everything. Sometimes we
just have to accept the fact that there was a Charles Spurgeon, there is a Rick
Warren, there’s an Andy Stanley – go down the list of a few – and yes, we can
learn from their processes, their methodologies and their approaches but they’ve
got one thing that no other church has. They have Rick Warren, Andy Stanley.
I think that there are a lot of young pastors out there that are looking at
these guys and saying, “I’ve got to be like that.” That’s an awfully big burden
for them to carry.
Yes. And that becomes the model that not only they see but some of their staff
and key leaders see, so the pressure’s on.
It’s tough to be a breakout church. It’s tough to turn things around. Is that
one of the reasons why many younger pastors are starting new churches instead
of trying to turn around other churches?
Absolutely. And I would make a couple comments about that. Number one I am an
avid proponent of new church work so I want to make that very clear. Number
two our research is finding that within ten years of starting, roughly 60-70
percent are failing. So the failure rate of a new church is actually greater
than an established church.
What contributes to that?
The simple answer is: I don’t know. I do know the reality of it. I have not
done the research to make an informed statement of why. I can speculate that
some of these leaders do not have the entrepreneurial skills that are necessary
for something new. Some of these leaders quite frankly go into new church work
to get away from something. OK, if you’re frustrated with your established church
that may be the path to go but you can’t do it just for a negative reason. You
couple that with a lack of entrepreneurial skills and you’re doomed for failure
from the start. You’re starting a new business and you know the failure rate
of those. That’s my speculation.