In a subsequent group discussion on time-tested processes for congregational revitalization, the following question was raised: “But wouldn’t it be more spiritual to wait on God one decision at a time instead of seeking to achieve a church turnaround by way of an eight step plan?”
I understand the appeal of this “no planning” approach: planning is research-intensive, time-consuming hard work and it leaves the plan presenter looking responsible for the results. As the cartoon character Dilbert’s co-workers shouted in unison: “We hate your plan!!!” Believing that we are receiving one marching order at a time directly from God sounds faster, easier, and safer. After all, who can argue with God?
But while the “daily download” approach might save some time, I don’t believe it’s actually any safer or more spiritual, and here’s why:
1. God downloaded the whole Bible (and took 1500 years to do it) and the Bible – as in my earlier article – commends careful, prayerful, informed planning. It’s in Proverbs. It’s in Nehemiah. It’s in the plan that we can observe in Jesus’ earthly ministry. It’s in Jesus’ discipleship warning about building towers and counting costs (Luke 14:28-30). It’s in Paul’s missionary modus operandi (Acts 14:1, Romans 15:17-23, I Corinthians 3:5-15, II Corinthians 10:16).
Is it more “spiritual” to listen for the Spirit’s subjective “still, small voice” than it is to read and obey the book which He wrote? If I had written the Bible I would want you to read it first and then ask questions.
2. God built planning into the nature of His creation. God is the Great Cosmic Planner. The plan, as revealed in passages such as Ephesians one, stretches our minds to their limit. A couple of days after He put planning into the hearts of ants and beavers and many other less-than-human planners, He also put planning into our own, made-in-His-image hearts.
Granted: some of us are more bent towards planning than others, but even the most spontaneous among us does a great deal of planning every day: Walmart first, Walgreens second, Subway third. (And then there are those of us who have to plan to be spontaneous.)
3. Good planning is based on the collective wisdom of those who have undertaken the same tasks before us. Isn’t it wise to learn from the efforts of our predecessors and plan accordingly? A single issue of my former hometown’s weekly newspaper, The Hastings Star Gazette, contained an article about the highly successful three-phase plan that was followed in beautifying the town’s Mississippi River waterfront as well as a small business column on the importance of strategic planning.
4. Experience suggests that careful, wisdom-informed planning along with humble, passionate prayer is a winning combination.
In my eleven year, Milwaukee area pastorate, I and others prayed humbly and sincerely for God’s day-to-day wisdom and empowerment in leading the church through a turnaround process. We did some good things during those eleven years. Looking back, however, I can see that we did many of those good things in a random, less-than-helpful order. We put first things second and second things first. What we didn’t do was to follow a time-tested plan for church turnarounds and what we didn’t achieve was an actual, God-honoring turnaround.
In my seven subsequent interim pastorates we also prayed humbly and sincerely for God’s day-to- day wisdom and empowerment and we followed a time-tested, simple plan. The results surprised and delighted us over and over again. Of course it was God’s doing, but God worked through a plan which had us doing the foundation-laying tasks first and the finish carpentry last.
In the pastor’s, leadership training groups which I lead, we study the wise and helpful (though imperfect) plans for church revitalization used successfully by thousands of pastors and churches across America.
I’m so happy to say that the plans and strategies we are prayerfully studying are not my plans. They are, in my view, God’s plans, handed down to us indirectly through the sincere hearts and lives of the church-revitalizing, Christ-followers who have gone before us.