Church strategy reductionism is where simplistic ministry strategies are formed based on a mechanical understanding of church systems.
System theorists love to use the imagery of organisational ‘bikes’ and ‘frogs’. A bike can easily be broken down into its individual parts and put back together again. But when you take an individual part away from the bike it stops working. A frog is a highly complex and comparatively robust system that cannot be taken apart and put back together again, but when you remove one of its limbs, the system is sophisticated such that it usually can adapt. Frogs can grow substitute limb stumps surrounded by skin, or in some cases a fully regenerated limb. Understanding and manipulating a complex frog like system requires a combination of smarts and informed intuition. Most complex organisations, like churches, where human interaction and psychology play a major role in the system, are mostly frog but also include some functions and processes that are bike.
The frog systems in a church include functions and operations such as mission, discipleship, community, pastoral care, and worship. Ministries, and the people that they include, interact and respond to each other in an organic way. When you factor in the mysterious work of the Spirit who “blows where it pleases” (John 3:8), then the systematic complexity multiplies. If church leaders don’t grasp this complexity, simplistic and ineffective strategies follow.
For the sake of clarity, it is worth mentioning that a ‘simplistic’ strategy is not the same as a ‘simple’ strategy. Simple strategies are ideal because they are easy to communicate and implement. However, one must be aware that while they are simple, they exist within a complex frog system. A simplistic strategy, on the other hand, is designed with the naive understanding that it is part of a mechanical bike system.
Strategy reductionism seems to be a particular danger for churches whose leaders are:
- …ideologically and myopically aligned to a particular model of church. These are models which are not necessarily based on reductionistic logic, but through mis-application and selective overemphasis, reductionism follows: leaders latch on to features of their favorite model, and push them too far.
- …non-consultative, domineering, alpha-male/female, or arrogant. These leaders, who are often proud and aggressive, push past any kind of process like a ‘bull in a china shop’ thinking that they’re being decisive. While they do make decisions, they leave a trail of destruction behind them not having considered consequences.
- …poorly self-differentiated / low emotional intelligence. These leaders might come up with ideas, but they are too insecure to open their strategic thinking up to consultation. Also, they can find it difficult to be empathetic and consider how a strategy might work for people not like them. Part of understanding the frog system is being able to calculate how different ages, genders and cultures will respond in a given situation.
- …quick decision makers who don’t take the time to think through consequence. While some leaders are brilliant intuitive strategic thinkers who can just envision the plan out of the ether, most cannot do this and need time to experiment and consult as they understand the church frog system.
- …inexperienced. Sometimes inexperienced leaders are savvy enough to see the frog, but usually this comes with time.
- …very experienced but assume church systems work the same way in every context. The risk with older and experienced leaders is that if they have had some success in ministry in their earlier years, they can be convinced that the strategies that gave them that success still apply 20 or 30 years later. While a bike might always be essentially a bike, frogs adapt over time to fit in with their changing ecosystem.
When you think about it, many churches have leaders who fall into one or more of these categories. The great thing is that by the grace of God, their simplistic strategies are still used and bear some fruit. However, if they were able to start to see their church as more of a frog, and develop some sophistication in their understanding then their ministry and church would run more efficiently, smoothly, and effectively.
Example – Evangelism
What does it look like when bike thinking is imposed on a frog system to create strategy? By way of example, you might have heard arguments such as: “Attractional programs are so 1980s mega-church. Attractional activities just pander to church shoppers. We should stop putting effort into programs to bring consumeristic Christians in and got out and be missional so that we can reach real non-Christians.” Notice the ‘bike’ logic of cause and effect,
attractional programs -> church shoppers ≠ new converts ∴ be exclusively missional
However, if you listen to people’s testimonies about coming to faith, you’ll discover that their stories are complex and unpredictable: rarely do their experiences conform to simple rules. One individual might have interactions with twenty different Christians, and three different churches, and then respond to an alter call at a rally. Another person living in a Muslim country might have a dream about Jesus, and then go seeking out a church. While another person might experience miraculous healing from prayer and come to faith that way. My point is, the ‘system’ whereby a person is evangelised, cannot be reduced to bike logic – it is far better to see the frog in the system that is evangelism.
Church strategy reductionism that dismisses all attractional evangelism fails to accept (what was the elephant in the room for the emerging church movement) that there are many attractional strategies that are effective. In children’s ministry, for example, playgroups, Mainly Music, and Messy Church are attractional strategies that – depending on their good implementation – have great success in bringing non-Christian people in contact with churches and on the journey towards faith in Christ. In addition, there are great benefits to attractional evangelism: it can visibly communicate to the congregation a value of excellence, the idea that serving God is important, and that this church expects the Holy Spirit to be guiding people towards us because we are a “light to the nations” (missional activities can achieve all of this too but not as easily).
It’s not that the critique about attractional strategies is completely unfounded. It is important for churches not to over-rely on being attractional lest they become a church that mainly “preaches to the choir.” The problem is the simplistic strategy that followed.
A more informed and nuanced strategic thinking about evangelistic strategies, might look like a mind map, where the complexity of the frog system is taken into account:
The following are some examples of reductionistic ministry logic leading to simplistic strategies. These are functions of the church which should be thought of as complex ‘frog’ systems, but are often given a mechanical ‘bike’ logic. Remember that each reductionistic logic statement will have some truth to it and that the simplistic strategy might also have some merit.
Reductionistic logic: It’s the ‘priesthood of all believers’ so we should resist putting leaders on a pedestal.
Simplistic strategy: Let’s have no one main leader, but share the leadership.
Reductionistic logic: The church has become feminised which is why men don’t really want to come to church anymore
Simplistic strategy: Cultivate a macho persona in the leaders
Reductionistic logic: ‘Sermonettes’ create ‘Christianettes’
Simplistic strategy: 70 minute sermons
Reductionistic logic: The Bible is all about Jesus
Simplistic strategy: Land every sermon at the cross
Reductionistic logic: I want to preach Spirit empowered sermons
Simplistic strategy: Improvise your sermons – let go and let God
Reductionistic logic: Australians don’t like group singing
Simplistic strategy: No group singing in church as a way to be incarnational and relevant to outsiders
Reductionistic logic: Spiritual intensity in music is directly related to time.
Simplistic strategy: Songs that are repeated lots of times, and really long song brackets
Reductionistic logic: All contemporary worship music is theologically shallow and individualistic: Jesus is my boyfriend songs
Simplistic strategy: Only sing hymns or non-emotive and theologically dense ‘we‘ songs
Reductionistic logic: We’re here to disciple the kids not baby-sit them
Simplistic strategy: Don’t run social events
Reductionistic logic: People prefer worship that is from the heart and authentic rather than pre-planned and tightly controlled
Simplistic strategy: Never use pre-written prayers in public worship
Reductionistic logic: Church services should always engage children because it is wrong to think they are the future of the church – they are the church
Simplistic strategy: Sunday services must have a children’s talk or children’s song
Reductionistic logic: All that Christians need in a marriage partner is that they are of the opposite sex, single, and Christian
Simplistic strategy: Encourage people to marry without regard for cultural difference or even if there is no physical or intellectual attraction
Strategies to improve on frog strategic thinking
- Pray and ask God for wisdom
- Be slow to speak and quick to listen
- If you are on a ministry hobby horse then get off it
- Read and associate with ministry people who are outside of your ministry tribe
- Consult and use teams to make strategy
- Learn to know your leadership limitations
- Don’t assume that because a strategy worked once it applies a second time
- Invite people who you often disagree with to critique your strategies
- Have a healthy trust in your gut instinct, which means being willing to let it be critiqued and changed
- Draw a mind map of how ministries strategies relate to each other
- Go to counseling and work on your emotional intelligence
Finally, watch out for people who say, “yeah but…”
Because churches are frogs, there can be a problem that decision making becomes stifled by those people who always see alternatives and risks or problems with your strategy. You don’t want to never be able to make a decision. You will know of people whose default mode is to confidently disagree with any idea anyone suggests. Those are the people who will be reading this post right now, and saying to themselves, “yeah but…” If this is you, then stop, take a breath, and work out how to make the idea work rather than being an unhelpful blocker of creative thinking. You can still offer your thoughts but do it in a generous and encouraging way, and let others have their say.