Larry Osborne has been the senior pastor of North Coast Church since 1980, and since that time the congregation has grown from 128 in a single worship service to 9500 people meeting at different times and places over the course of a weekend. That represents significant innovation over the years, yet Dr. Osborne says that Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret is that “most innovations fail” (page 17).
With this confession, he goes on to talk about various strategies that support innovation–like encouraging younger leaders, being flexible, planning in pencil, being willing to experiment instead of changing things immediately. I’m in a very different setting and haven’t been pastoring for nearly as long, but as I consider my own congregation, I can identify with many of these same strategies that encourage creativity and innovation. As Dr. Osborne predicts early in his book, I found affirmation for some of my own experiences and thinking about leading change (page 26).
I also found some new ideas, particularly in chapter #15, “When You’ve Hit the Wall.” Some might say that the church in general has hit the wall in North America with declining membership and a less central role in society than it once enjoyed. Dr. Osborne’s comments here might well apply (pages 119-120):
What used to work well no longer works so well–or it no longer works at all. . . . Hitting this wall can usually be traced back to one of three things: (1) we’ve outgrown our leadership skills, (2) our organization has outgrown its structures, or (3) we’ve been blindsided by a cultural shift we never saw coming.
As part of a Future Directions Task Force for my denomination, we’ve been thinking a lot about #3 and what God is calling us to in the midst of a changing cultural reality for the church in Canada, and together we’re beginning to work at #2, what kind of structures are needed for the church to thrive and grow. But what about #1–what leadership skills are needed, and how do we best equip our leaders? If Dr. Osborne is right, we need to pay attention to that as well.
Further, he says:
The fact is, nothing grows and multiplies forever. The idea that healthy things do is a silly myth.
Those who buy into the myth of endless multiplication and growth think that it’s an idea supported by God’s creation. But it isn’t. There is nothing in the biological world that supports the idea that healthy things endlessly multiply and grow. In fact, the created order teaches quite the opposite. Only the lowest forms of life continually multiply and grow during their entire lifetime. The higher you move up the food chain, the shorter the period of multiplication and growth.
The popular idea that healthy churches and businesses will multiply and grow forever is hogwash. Healthy, living things grow to a size determined by their DNA and environment. Some grow to become ants, some elephants. But once they reach their predetermined size, they spend all their energy sustaining what they’ve become. They don’t keep growing larger.
The only way they grow beyond their predetermined size is with steroids.
I’ve often heard it said that a healthy church is a growing church–after all, in the book of Acts, thousands of people joined the church in a single day. And I’m thankful that my own congregation has continued to grow from the original 40+ founding members to 270+ today.
But I’ve often wondered, is a healthy church always a church that’s growing numerically? What about churches in areas of declining population? What about growth in faith and in all of the fruit of the Spirit, growth in missional identity and living? Is Dr. Osborne right that the size of a church or church denomination is (pre-)determined by their particular DNA and environment, and how might that change the way we think about church growth?
This book has reinforced some things for me, and given me plenty to think about for my own leadership and congregation, as well as for the church at large. It’s an engaging read with many stories and practical examples for anyone interested in innovation and change particularly in a church setting.
[Disclosure: I received this book free of charge from Zondervan and Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review.]