Church Leadership Innovation management

7 Ways to Build a Sustainable Movement

A flywheel is needed to build a sustainable movement.
A flywheel is a rotating mechanical device that is used to store rotational energy.

Want to see change? Don’t start a church. Don’t start a business. Don’t hire a bunch of experts.

Those things are great. But they are a bit finite in their ability to affect macro-level-change in society.

Instead, start a movement of people.

And if you really want to see change, start a sustainable movement. As in, something that’ll go beyond you, outpace you, and grow bigger than you can imagine.

A sustainable movement starts with you and grows a life of its own.

It is possible. It is within your skill set. And it just might be what God wants you to do. 

Church Leadership

Outsmarting Your Opponent

Rocky Long is crazy. Yesterday, he told reporters that as head coach of the San Diego State football team he is planning on always onside kicking and always going for it on 4th down.

Rocky Long is genius. By telling his opponents he is not going to traditionally kick the ball off and not planning to punt on 4th down, they have to prepare for that potential even if he has no intention of doing it.

This is Rocky Long’s Moneyball moment. After 40 years as a head coach he has a wild idea and he’s toying with the gamble. He sees something that his opponents don’t. And he’s convinced that this could give him the competitive advantage over more talented teams that he needs.

He told the Union-Times:

And yes, Long — who apparently hasn’t yet tried it all in his 40 years of coaching — is serious about this. “It makes sense,” he said, seeming almost giddy in talking about the possibilities. “Additional plays would allow you to score a lot more points,” he said. “It also puts a whole lot of pressure on the defense.” source

As a season ticket holder I know that this announcement is influenced by his personnel and not just a crazy idea he woke up with. He lost 4 of his most crucial players to the NFL and wasn’t able to replace them with players of equal/higher quality. (QB, RB, MLB, Punter) Additionally, they are one year away from entering the Big East where he will likely have a competitive disadvantage every single week of conference play. He’s interested in a gimmick because he is desperate to give his team any sort of advantage. And just the threat of this makes other teams prepare for it.

That said, the person he’s learning this philosophy from is pretty successful with it.

The possibly not-so-mad professor of this “punting-is-for-wimps” practice is Kevin Kelley, the head coach of a small private school, the Pulaski Academy, in Little Rock, Ark. In nine years, Kelley’s teams have posted a 104-19 record, winning three state titles. Last season, Pulaski went 14-0 and averaged 51 points per game. source

It’s crazy. But it might just be crazy enough to work.

What’s your competitive advantage?

In ministry, the head coach of the other team is Satan. And he’s been doing some winning lately, hasn’t he? Sick of him winning yet? He has more resources than you. He’s got great recruiters. He’s actually smarter and more experienced than you. You are losing, not because you’re a bad person, but because you’ve been outsmarted.

My prayer is that you’re ticked off about this. My hope is that you’re tired of losing. And my eye glimmers with the possibility that maybe you are ready to start playing with the team you have and not the team you wish you have.

Maybe it’s time to try that idea you’ve always wanted to try but thought was too risky? Maybe it’s time to look around and discover something that’s way outside of the box but is totally working? And maybe it’s time you took a 48 hour retreat and figured something out?

youth ministry

The 48 Hour Self-Retreat – How to plan your Fall 2012 Ministry Strategy

It’s August 1st. 

For most youth ministries things really kick off in 30 days. That means in the next 30 days you need a publishable Fall calendar, you need to check in with all of your volunteers to make sure they are coming back, and you need to host a volunteer training meeting as well as schedule a parents meeting.

Plus, you have all your normal day-to-day work. And you still have summer ministry stuff going.

The Vortex of Doom

Remember that feeling you had in May? The one that looked at what you were doing through a critical, tired eye? The one that said… “Gosh, this was pretty good but we can do a lot better.” The one that resolved to make 2012-2013 better?

Remember how you were relieved to have made it through your annual review unscathed? You left that meeting with a sinking feeling that you probably bought another year before people start demanding “results.”

And now you’re here. You have taken the time to evaluate the past year. You’ve taken a little time away from normality to get some perspective.

And now there is a lot of temptation in your busyness to just do what you did last year with a few minor revisions and hope for different results.

I call that the Vortex of Doom. The Vortex of Doom is that rushed feeling you feel right now, anxiety whispering in your ear… “You won’t be ready in time!” The Vortex has gravitational pull to “just get stuff done” and results in you not doing your very best.

The Promise

If you give into the Vortex of Doom every August and plan to do what you did last year, just a little bit different and just a little bit better, than don’t be surprised when you get to May 2013 and you:

a. Feel worse than you did in May 2012…

b. Get fired because you delivered the same results yet again…

I promise you this. If you take 48 hours and re-evaluate your 2012-2013 plan right now… you’ll be thankful all year.

If you do last years strategy with only minor changes you will not see a different result. Why? Because a bad strategy, wonderfully executed and fully funded, is still a bad strategy. Doing it again this year, with gusto, won’t change things. Investing in your past will never lead to your future.

You work with teenagers… change has to be in your DNA to survive.

The 48 Hour Self-Retreat

Here’s one of my little secrets. While it’s really hard to get my team away for a planning retreat, it’s actually pretty simple to identify 2 full days of planning for myself. Then I can schedule some meetings with key leaders as part of my retreat, say have coffee or have them over for dinner, and they are participating in the planning retreat without even leaving home. (Or knowing they are on your retreat. BAM!)

Tasks for the 48 Hour Self-Retreat

  1. Prayer. Spend an hour or so each day in silent prayer. I’ve found it useful to spend the first 30 minutes just listening and slowing down. Next, I like to spend the first day praying for all of my leaders and students. The second day is spent asking God for wisdom.
  2. Celebrate the victories. I’ve found it really useful to spend an hour or two celebrating what God has done in the previous year. What were wins? Who were the people impacted?
  3. Make some resolutions. What big things need to change? Maybe it’s your target demographic. Maybe it’s what students learn? I can’t answer that for you.
  4. Two-fold research. First, spend 2 hours doing a basic ethnography at 2 different places. Do observation, take notes, etc. (Here’s a link to how to do that.)
  5. Meet with 2-3 key volunteers to ideate. I like to get this to a point of asking, “What if” and “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” statements.
  6. Meet with 2-3 key student leaders to ideate. Same as above. Depending on your set-up you might even do t his with those adult leaders. A dinner is a good way to accomplish that.
  7. Meet with 2-3 “fringe students” to listen, dream, ideate. I actually like to meet with a couple groups of them. Those in the church who should be involved somehow but aren’t. And those truly on the fringe, maybe have visited a couple of times and you see at school, but aren’t engaged at all. Take them out for a coke or go to Dairy Queen… something simple like that works wonders.
  8. Spend a couple hours compiling all of this data, identifying the top 5 learnings. Do this before lunch on the second day.
  9. Have a “So now what” session. Go into a room with a big white board, chalk board, or butcher block paper and just start brainstorming ideas. Look at your data and your learnings and start saying… “So now what?” If you can gather your team for this, awesome. But seriously… this is one of the most critical parts of the process, otherwise you just learned a bunch of stuff but haven’t done anything with it.
  10. Identify 1 measurable difference for the coming school year. It’s not that you are only doing one new thing… it’s that you want to everyone to be able to clearly identify what that 1 thing is and recognize it when they see it. For example, last school year the ministry I volunteer with wanted to dramatically increase the “I know you” factor. So we changed a whole bunch of things so that the group interacted more, hung out more, and got to know one another. At the end of the school year we could all point to that and say.. “Yep, that’s way better.”

So, how did it go? I’d love to hear how your 48-hour retreat went!  

The Youth Cartel

Freebies for registering early – The Summit

This week we opened registration for The Summit. This is our brand new, TED-like, national youth ministry event. [Here’s the announcement]

And, as excited as I am about The Summit, this post isn’t really about the event itself so much as it’s about the type of ministry organization we want to be.

Here is a phrase from the announcement:

We have lots of freebies to reward you for registering early. Why? Because we think early adopters should get the most rewarded. (Duh!)

You might not know this but that is an upside down methodology within the marketing world. For instance, I get regular emails from Southwest Airlines offering me great deals from San Diego to the places I visit most often. But why is Southwest offering me those special prices? Because the market isn’t buying them at their regular fare price, so they’ve discounted them to try to entice me to buy low. And it works! I’ve actually booked trips I wouldn’t have booked simply because the flight cost was so low!

But, for me at least, I would like to think about The Youth Cartel as the type of organization who rewards our most loyal folks with the best possible deal. We’ve done it in some small ways by offering pre-order specials on books and curriculum and gotten a great response.

For The Summit — we’ve ramped that WAY UP to make it so that the people who register first get the absolutely best deal on price & rewards. Our early bird price is valid all the way through August but if you register in May you’re going to get all sorts of stuff for free that people who register in September won’t get. (Or will have to pay for.)

  • An invite to our private Friday night after party
  • A vote for who gets to speak in the soapbox session
  • Video downloads of every session
  • One registration to a pre-event session
  • Entered in a raffle to win things like… free lodging, car rental, and other fun stuff we’ll dream up.
  • MP3 downloads of every session
And then, as we get closer to the event these rewards start to go away. So folks who register now get the best possible deal and those who wait get a little less.

So that’s my theory. What do you think? Is it a crazy theory? Do you think it’s better to go the traditional way and discount stuff when it doesn’t sell?

And… are you planning to attend The Summit? We’re hearing from youth workers all over who are planning to come, which is rad! Are you registered yet? If not, what are you waiting for?

youth ministry

Is your strategy as big as your vision?

Our vision is to provide high quality, age-appropriate experiences which invite every student in our community to experience the Good News of Jesus Christ.

This could be the vision statement of any youth ministry team in the country. Like you, I’ve seen vision statements like this in youth ministry literature, on youth group websites, and even painted on the walls of youth rooms for years.

The problem is that they have a vision (mandate) to reach 4,000 students in their community but a strategy which scales to reach a lot less. The result of this strategy vs. vision mismatch is frustration-induced angst. No one strategy can reach 4,000 teenagers in a community!

We all know youth workers who have quit or been fired. And one of the reasons? They failed to focus on something they could actually succeed at. A lack of measurable results makes it easy to quit any job. (Or get fired!)

You could work 32 hours per day 8 days per week and not make a serious dent in that vision– it’s too big. Simply put, the vision is not right-sized for the strategy. (Most youth ministries employ a single strategy system– a youth group model.)

Compare that vision to the vision of the local public school system– which likely reaches 90%+ of teenagers in your community. They might have a similarly large vision/mandate. But it takes hundreds of full-time, professionally licensed employees and anywhere from $6000 to $9000 per student to enact a strategy that reaches nearly 90%+ of the students in your community.

There’s no youth ministry in America that employs enough people to reach 4,000 students built on the youth group model. It simply falls apart at a certain size.

Youth workers rightly have a burden to help students walk with Jesus and introduce others to Jesus for the first time. But we need to shrink our vision to something we can actually handle strategically instead of aiming at everything and hitting nearly nothing. 

To get more effective you need to shrink your vision to a realistic size that your strategy can actually accomplish. Then, if you start to nail that, you can expand your vision a little bit bigger. (Better yet, discover new strategies altogether to reach different types of students.)

Sometimes to grow you’ve got to shrink. 

Photo credit: Gary Jungling via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Church Leadership

The Apostles Stayed in the Neighborhood

Did you know that The Way wasn’t the only Jewish cult in Jerusalem in the first century? 

Visit a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit and you’ll learn all about the strict rules and discipline of the Qumran community. While they didn’t have a Messiah figure, they were disciples of a teacher. Who had his own beatitudes and life plan which sounds very similar to Jesus. Devotees left society altogether and lived in no mans land in the desert. (Remember, it took 1900 years to discover the Dead Sea scrolls– not exactly prime real estate.)

And there were others. Collectively they are known as the Essenes. Most of them were built around a claim of the messiah or a certain apocalyptic vision or a withdrawal from societies pleasures. (Some took vows of celibacy, which seems like a tough multiplication strategy.) They each tended to remove themselves from society by first creating compounds in the city, then once you’d proven yourself truly worthy, you were allowed access to the leaders.

My point isn’t to give an exhaustive list. Rather to point out that at the time of Jesus’ resurrection The Way joined a few other groups in the city. (I’m sure there are other books about this. But one I’m familiar with is Communities of the Last Days. Also see Josephus.) Jesus’ followers copied some of what they saw from these other groups since this is what all the cults did,  these will seem familiar in light of the Acts record:

  • Asked followers to forego their families for the sake of their group.
  • The entry point was communal living.
  • Baptism was a symbol of identification.
  • Followers sold everything they had and gave it to the group for the sake of the common good/needs.
  • The ones in Jerusalem all had a base near where the Last Supper and early church hung out. It was kind of a neighborhood of cult groups.
  • Once you’d proven you were all the way in, memorized everything, worked your tail off, proven your devotion… then you got to spend time with the leaders. (For most that meant complete withdrawal to the desert. For others that meant living in protest in the city.

The Difference

Of course, those groups collectively known as the Essenes, are all gone today while The Way became one of the largest religions in the world.


As Christians, we believe Christianity spread because it was true. But another practical answer is strategy.

Followers of Jesus didn’t withdrawal from society. They indwelled it.

Once followers of Jesus had proven they were all in, memorized everything, been baptized, gave everything they had to the group– they were sent out to love their neighbors in ways that were defined by the needs of the neighborhood. Instead of withdrawing they deposited and invested in their community. (This was radical thinking! No one else did this!)

All of these other groups, their contemporaries and fellow Judaic cults, believed that their strict obedience to rules would lead to the messiah coming, or the apocalypse, or revival of the people.

But Jesus’ followers became an unstoppable force because of their profoundly simple strategy. They loved their neighbors as themselves. They didn’t just know them. They didn’t just witness to them about Jesus’ resurrection.

They loved them.

As people used to harshness and exploitation, when they experienced love in the name of Jesus, they wanted that– experiencing the practical realities of Good News made for fertile ground for Jesus’ message to be received.

The Good News wasn’t just a theological reality, it was an unstoppable force of love for their neighbors. To date, no army has been able to stop the spread of love. The Way was an insurrection of the heart and it changed everything. It spread like wild fire. Think about it, within 200 years this simple strategy spread throughout the known world.

Love literally conquered all. 

And my belief? My belief is that the simple strategy of The Way is what we need today.

Let’s indwell our neighborhoods and truly be the Good News in the name of Jesus.


youth ministry

The cup is 95% empty

“Adam, why are you always assuming that the cup is half empty?” 

Youth workers say this to me over coffee. Their lives are run wild with activities, planning, teaching, and meetings. Their ministries are full and something I’ve said has called that busyness into question.

My response, not trying to be trite, is “Oh no, I’m not saying the cup is half empty, I’m saying the cup is 95% empty.

Again and again I’ve challenged folks to do the math for themselves. Most people can do it in their head. You don’t need a scientist to measure impact if you know basic facts about your community.

  • How many students are in middle & high school in your community? How many students attend a youth ministry in your community? Divide. Probably less than 10% of the eligible population. (If you factor in students who attend youth group by choice… this number dramatically falls, doesn’t it?) 
  • How many years has the current model of youth ministry been impacting your community? 20, 30, 40 years? How much have churches grown as a result? At best, church attendance has flatlined over the past 20 years, likely declined compared to 30 or 40 years ago. 
  • You might be able to point to a couple of exceptional examples. (Communities of great impact or individuals greatly impacted) But for the amount of effort, amount of investment, in most communities the impact is pretty small.

My point is not to tear youth ministry down down. It’s to rebuild. We can’t think about the future until we can make a sober assessment of what our tribe has accomplished.

It’s not that the wrong people are in youth ministry, it’s not that they are uneducated, don’t care, are lazy, or even under-resourced. I actually think the frustration, the quitting, angst, and the burnout we see in youth ministry is because we have the RIGHT people working 24/7 [largely] on WRONG strategies. [More fairly, their current strategy is OK, just limited in impact.]

That’s not tearing down at all, is it?

My point is that the strategies we’ve used to date have a finite impact. We can look at 40 years of history and say “youth group” will impact less than 10% of any given student population. (How much more evidence do you need to see that this is true? 50 years? 100 years?)

The challenge to anyone who will listen is to think about the 95% of un-impacted adolescents in their community and ask themselves, “What are other strategies that might impact these students lives for the sake of the Gospel prevailing?

That’s not being negative. It’s missiology 101.

Photo credit: Mykl Roventine via Flickr (Creative Commons)
youth ministry

What if we made youth ministry’s goal simpler?

“What’s the goal of your youth ministry? Not like your purpose statement, but why do you do this thing?”

I love to ask this question. It usually takes people a few minutes to articulate something they feel comfortable with. And it always sparks a great conversation.

The answer to that question typically lands like this, “My goal is to create an environment where students grow in their relationship with Jesus.” And when we’re really honest a functional goal is, “Keep enough people engaged in my ministry so that my church thinks I’m doing a good job with that.” (In 2009 – 2010, the real honest answer was, “Whatever I have to do to keep my job.”)

A question I’ve been wondering the past couple of years is this…

What if we made the goal of youth ministry simpler? What if the goal of youth ministry became Christian worldview formation? How would that change the way I did youth ministry?

youth ministry

Youth Ministry is Flatlining

If I were to plot out the average youth ministry attendance in a local church this is probably what it would look like.

So when I say, “The way you are doing ministry is failing to reach students. It’s not you, it’s your strategy.” Youth workers look at me and say, “No, that’s not true. We are actually reaching more students than we were 10 years ago with less budget.

And from their vantage point, looking at that one view of the population of adolescents in their community, they could be right. They are reaching 10-15% more students than they were 10 years ago.

Flatlined growth

However, when you compare students engaged in youth ministry to the overall student population in your school district it looks a lot like this.

This is what I mean by “you are failing to reach students with the programs you currently offer.

Statistically speaking you are flatlined. (As in– no heart beat!) You’re reaching just about the same percentage of people you’ve always reached. That may be OK from a church politics situation but I’m not sure I’m OK with that from a theological position.

And I’m positive that this flatlining has lead to the following problems in youth ministry over the last decade:

  • A general cynicism about youth ministry internally and externally.
  • A decrease in youth ministry staff and general budget funding.
  • An increase in expectations that new youth ministry staff grow the program immediately.
  • Lots of great youth workers moving on to other ministries or careers.
  • The rise of family ministry models designed to circle the wagons. (Historically, youth ministry existed for evangelism. Popular models today are primarily interested in keeping church families engaged.)

Students are involved… just not in youth ministry

According to this 1995 study, 79.9% of all high school students were involved in an after school activity. I know that this study is 17 years old– but we would all agree that that percentage likely hasn’t changed much in 20 years, correct? (Maybe +/- 10%)

Every youth ministry strategy I know of is trying to wedge their way into this pie graph. They are looking for students, ultimately, to forego involvement in one of the programs at the school and invest in their program.

After nearly 40 years of youth ministry we know that this isn’t going to happen. Even the best youth ministry program model might only wedge their way in there by 2-3% of total student involvement.

A theologically appropriate number of students are not going to stop involvement in other things to get “fully engaged” in a local youth ministry program. And even if they did this it wouldn’t be a good strategy for continued growth, would it?

It’s 2012. You have flatlined for the past decade. Are you ready to try a new strategy?

This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Ephesians 5:14

Stay tuned, subscribe via RSS or get my daily email. This year we are going to look at new youth ministry strategies that are breaking this model and reshaping the way students engage with Jesus. 

Church Leadership

Lessons from the Cloud

I have a fundamental belief that the problems we experience in church leadership are technologically based. It’s not that we have the wrong mission or wrong people, it’s often that we are working on the wrong technologies. (Programs, agendas, projects)

You might not see the connections between this presentation and your church. But the parallels are stunning. 

  • Just like at this company, there are lots of committees and their agendas at play.
  • Just like this company, we have legacy programs which are expensive to maintain.
  • Just like this company, there are people who work at your church doing things deemed mission critical that aren’t actually critical to the mission of the church.

A grocery store company isn’t in the IT business any more than a church is in the building maintenance business. Contextualize that for your church. There are lots of things that each church does which are deemed mission critical but aren’t actually critical to the mission of the church.

Yet, when we talk about foundational changes in the church, getting back to the core mission, there’s tons of fear internally. Fear is what stops all change. Fear is what stops all dreaming.

Here’s what we learn from this talk that transfers right into the church.

  1. Different people buy into change for different reasons. The CFO wants to hear you’ll save money. The user wants to know you’re making their life better. Fiefdom owners want to know their fiefs are respected.
  2. End-users are wondering what’s taking you so long.
  3. The hardest shift is within the staff, it’s all about control.
  4. Continuous improvement is an expectation of the end user, even old people. And it changes the culture of the staff.
  5. Spend the time not on making changes but on change management. The changes themselves can happen quite quickly.
  6. Real-time collaboration is a better learning and leadership tool than presentations. (Though presentations still have a place.)
  7. Changing the focus back to our core mission helps the whole organization dream about new ways to live out the mission. Thousands of brains and hearts focused on the same thing is so much more powerful than a handful of leaders guiding the mission.