Who’s Driving Your Church—and Why That May Be a Problem

April 17, 2023

Have you ever fallen asleep at the wheel? I (Shane) have, and it’s not a fun experience.

One Thanksgiving, back in college, I was driving along I-80 through snow-covered Pocono Mountains with a carload of friends. I’m not sure if it was the late nights after a holiday weekend catching up on me, the McDonald’s meal sitting in my stomach, or the heat blasting from the dashboard vents that did it. Maybe it was all three. All I remember was one moment I was in the passing lane and the next moment my roommate was shouting a few expletives from the passenger seat as our black Pontiac became a bobsled, engulfing the car in mounds of snow as we plunged into a deep ravine.

By God’s grace, everyone was OK. But we all learned that it’s never a good day when the person who is supposed to be driving takes an involuntary nap.

Imagine Your Church As a Car

Imagine with me that your church is a car—an all-terrain ministry vehicle of sorts. It’s driving on a road that we’ll call Ministry Mountain. What would happen if who you think is actually driving the car is taking a nap? Many churches can’t seem to move into what God has for them next because some very important people have dozed off.

Many churches can’t seem to move into what God has for them next because some very important people have dozed off.

Why do I bring this story up? This idea of a ministry vehicle is based on George Bullard’s work on the life cycle of congregations.1 In addition to the analogy of human development (from birth to growth to maturity to decline to death), he also uses a clever alternate metaphor. In our experience, this alternate analogy (adapted here with modifications) greatly helps church leaders to understand more insightfully how their congregations got to where they are today and what they may need more or less of next as God draws them into the future.

Ok, back to your church as a car. At the start of the trip, the church has only one occupant, the driver, whose name is Vision. Vision represents the church’s core identity, its articulation of purpose, and its dream of the good that God brought it into existence for. When Vision is driving the car, the church is compelled by its ultimate call and a shared missional dream of the future, which is the mission of God lived out in the church’s specific context through its unique people.

Vision is the only one in the car in a new church’s pre-launch phase. When a group of believers gather in a living room burning with a holy fire, praying and seeking God for what he wants to do in their community, all the church has is vision.

Get In, Disciplemaking Relationships

But as Vision starts driving up Ministry Mountain, it can’t get very far on its own, so it pulls over and picks up someone to function as the co-pilot. The new passenger is named Disciplemaking Relationships. To adapt a simple definition from Bobby Harrington and Josh Patrick, disciplemaking is people helping people trust and follow Jesus.2

It’s about people coming to Christ and growing in him through the incarnational influence of God’s people alongside in the context of genuine relationships. Disciplemaking Relationships keep Vision on track as to what the goal really is, and it validates that the path Vision has set is a good one. Picking up Disciplemaking represents a church’s launch phase, when it becomes more than a dream in the heart of a group of believers—when it actually grows by drawing others to Jesus and raising them up in him so they can help others do the same.

I Call Shotgun!

As the car continues up Ministry Mountain, the church reaches a size where it gets difficult to accommodate the burgeoning number of people joining in on the Kingdom fun. The growing number of people, on mission together, begin to organize their relational time together. In this organizing phase, the church starts developing structures and rhythms to help support the disciplemaking relationships. To accomplish this, Vision pulls the car over and picks up a new passenger, Programs.

By programs, we mean the organized activities and rhythms in the life of the church. The church already had some organized activities in the sense that there was a regular date, time, and place for people to gather in both larger and smaller groups. Yet now those “programs,” which are meant to support the disciplemaking, become more logistically complex. And often, the number of options and activities increases—there are groups, classes, gender-specific ministries and care ministries, retreats or special weekends and, most of all, programs for children and youth.

When Programs gets into the car, it is critical which seat it takes. The best seat for Programs is behind Disciplemaking Relationships. But, more often than not, Programs calls “shotgun” and hops in the front passenger seat as Disciplemaking Relationships graciously moves to the back seat.

Programs demand more investment of time and energy, and so the people who contribute the most to the church shift their attention and effort from fostering disciplemaking relationships to running and managing programs. Now Vision is still driving, but Programs is navigating. For the first time, vision success is defined by program success, not disciplemaking success.

In many churches, Disciplemaking can move to the back seat so quietly that no one notices it’s happening. But it has a big impact on what the church becomes, and when leaders look back later, they come to regret it.

Programs often work to place disciplemaking into slots on the church calendar. You now have to go to church to make disciples; you aren’t being the church by making disciples wherever you are.

When Disciplemaking moves behind Programs, people keep coming to Christ and growing in him through relationships with others, but it doesn’t happen the way it did before. Before there were programs, disciplemaking relationships happened in people’s everyday lives and in everyday places. Now that Programs sits in the front seat, Disciplemaking forgets how to function without Programs. Programs often work to place disciplemaking into slots on the church calendar. Worship gets a slot on the weekend. Community gets 90-minutes on Thursdays in a home group. And the mission gets a couple of weeks in the summer. You now have to go to church to make disciples; you aren’t being the church by making disciples wherever you are.

In addition, when disciplemaking relationships are dependent on programs rather than experienced as a way of life, leadership development turns to creating great volunteers. In a real way, disciplemaking’s role, now, is to support programs by providing the workforce that programs can’t do without.

When Management Climbs In (I Need to Pull Over)

Nevertheless, Disciplemaking is still functioning and Vision is still driving, so the car keeps going and the church keeps growing. Now well-organized, the church reaches the expansion phase—it looks to expand its number of worship services, its small groups, its ministries, its building size, its number of sites, and so on. But to handle that steep challenge, the church needs more help, so Vision pulls the car over again and picks up one more passenger: Management.

Management is about the systems of administration required by a complex organization. Every family needs a little management–accountable, flexible systems that help to support the vision. Management involves the formality and rationality of governance, human resources, money management, and asset management.

With Management supporting Vision from the back seat, the car crests Ministry Mountain. The church has arrived, so to speak—it is a real, established entity with expansive reach. It may not be the fulfillment of the exact dream that Vision started with, but it’s a cause for celebration after all the work it took to get there. The church enters the satisfaction phase; people feel a sense of accomplishment. After much labor, they want to enjoy the new building, the multi-site model, the new ministries, and the popularity that comes with them.

Vision Is Getting Sleepy

In the meantime, though, quietly, and probably without being noticed, Vision pulls the car over again. Vision is exhausted; it’s been driving the car for years to this destination, and it’s given all it can. For the first time, Vision gets out of the driver’s seat, and it crawls into the back seat to take a nap. In Vision’s place, Management takes the wheel.

This moment marks another fundamental change in the church. For the first time, the church’s primary thrust is to manage what it has, not pursue what it might become. It has already begun to decline—even if numbers are all going up. Few people notice that the car is coasting down Ministry Mountain, because by all appearances the church is still moving. But the clear, compelling, catalytic vision of who the church is, what it’s called to do, and where God is taking it has moved to the back seat. And if Vision is there long enough, it will get out completely at the next rest stop.

After a while, when Disciplemaking sees Vision sleeping, Disciplemaking decides to take a nap too. Without vision leading the church, relational disciplemaking dries up. The church no longer runs on people coming to faith in Christ and growing in him, even though it still mouths disciplemaking language and has the Great Commission etched on its wall. Programs are as busy as ever. The church becomes sterile, running pleasing activities for Christians but no longer catalyzing true discipleship growth or helping new people find Jesus.

The church has now entered the maintenance phase. It keeps doing all the activities it ever did, but with Management driving, Programs is now an end unto itself. The dangerous possibility that entered the church all the way back when Disciplemaking left the front seat is now the evident reality. In the ministry system and in participants’ hearts and minds, programs don’t serve the church— programs are the church. Without programs, there is no church.

Unfortunately, Programs too is now under serious stress. Without Disciplemaking Relationships pumping volunteers into it, Programs eventually can’t stay awake anymore and falls asleep in the front seat. The programs that people knew and loved—next generation ministries, classes, retreats, events—start drying up and shutting down one by one. Since programs were the only thing keeping many people involved, more people leave the church than come in. When nearly all programs collapse—when only a worship service and a few seasonal events are left, desiccated remnants of their former selves—the church is in the persistence phase. It continues on for no evident reason except to continue on, the bulk of the energy going toward doing the chores that keep it continuing on.

Eventually, even Management falls asleep and drives the car off the road at the bottom of the mountain, and the church closes. In best-case scenarios, the church releases its assets and merges with a healthier church or steps into a replanting process—which requires new leadership and, ultimately, a starting over.

So, Who’s Driving Your Ministry Vehicle?

The story of the ministry vehicle probably sounds familiar to you—you’ve probably lived at least part of it, maybe even different parts in different churches. If your church has been around for a few generations or more, it has actually gone through much of this journey multiple times, because a one-way trip down the far slope is not inevitable. There is a path forward, but it takes some significant shifts for a revived Vision to persuade Management to get out of the driver’s seat–because once Management gets the wheel, he believes it’s where he was always meant to be.

You might be able to locate the position of your church’s ministry vehicle on the mountain right now. In fact, we recommend that you use this as a conversation with your leadership team. Knowing where you are can help to identify what you need most next and the level of urgency of your current reality.

You might be able to tell the whole life story of your church with this analogy. That’s great if you can, and it will help your people when you do. But the path we described isn’t the only route up Ministry Mountain. The church reaches new heights if Disciplemaking stays in the front seat.

Hey, Programs! Hop in the Back

Now, let’s pause here and imagine a different picture. Imagine that Vision pulls the car over to pick up Programs, but this time Vision sends Programs to the back seat to support relational Disciplemaking. Disciplemaking relationships remain the heartbeat of God’s people and are its real ministry. Disciplemaking still defines the journey for Vision–helping it to know when to speed up and when to slow down so that the people keep pace with what the Spirit is doing.

In this arrangement, the role of Programs is to assist Disciplemaking Relationships all over the place. Disciplemaking doesn’t staff programs nearly as much as programs become one way to develop disciples and disciplemakers. Programs provide just enough organizational support for disciplemaking to flourish and keep it from getting lost in the obis of an “organic-only” system.

When Vision is driving and Disciplemaking Relationships is navigating, supported by Programs and Management, the expansion phase of ministry mountain has a different quality from expansion in a Program-driven or Program-navigated church.

With clarity of a shared disciplemaking vision, the future of the church is more about expanding a movement than increasing an organization. The organization may grow in obvious ways—number of attendees, physical footprint, and so on—or it may not. That’s not the main point. The real expansion is in the growing number of disciples in successive spiritual generations infiltrating every nook and cranny of a society like yeast worked through the dough (Matthew 13:33).

Keeping Disciplemaking in the front seat doesn’t keep a church from cresting Ministry Mountain. But leaders can choose what the satisfaction phase is like. If the church rests on its laurels, savoring its popularity, it will eventually find itself sliding into the maintenance phase.

Vision can drive across a bridge to a new expansion phase as it is pulled by the Spirit into its next chapter of effective missional ministry. Even then, however, Disciplemaking must not give way to Programs on a new upslope and allow the church to take a lesser path.

But if leaders and people instead catch their breath and re-form around the church’s true identity and dream a new dream of where God wants to take it, Vision can drive across a bridge to a new expansion phase as it is pulled by the Spirit into its next chapter of effective missional ministry. Even then, however, Disciplemaking must not give way to Programs on a new upslope and allow the church to take a lesser path.

We have known churches and met leaders in all positions on Ministry Mountain. But the most common type of church we’ve helped is one that is in the satisfaction phase, but someone in leadership isn’t satisfied. It’s a church that’s been seeing numerical growth ever since it got organized, but something is missing. Sometimes the pastors of these churches look around the peak of Ministry Mountain and wonder, “Is this all there is? Is this what we dreamed about in that living room so long ago?”

No, it’s not all there is! You do not imagine things. The dissatisfaction you feel is because Disciplemaking Relationships, which was so strong on the lower slope, yielded its place to Programs. But there is a way to a better future that regains a disciplemaking future you can believe in. And if your church is in maintenance mode and Management is gripping the wheel, you and your leaders can still articulate and live into a shared disciplemaking vision. But, it will require some shifts. Those shifts don’t start in the church. They start with you as a leader and a leadership team.

5 Steps to Awaken a Shared Disciplemaking Vision

We’re running into a growing army of leaders with a heart to wake up disciplemaking and vision in their church. We love seeing leaders with this heart. Now the question is whether they have the stomach for disciplemaking and what it will be necessary to move forward with a shared vision. Because re-awakening vision and disciplemaking is not easy. And, it usually does not start with the congregation but rather with a renewal of the convictions, thinking and practices of the leader(s).

There are no silver bullets. But we have discovered some key shifts that, if engaged prayerfully and collaboratively, can begin to awaken a better future. Let us share them here briefly.

1. Funnel Fusion: Move the Finish Line

Shift the aspirational vision you have for your people from producing great volunteers to producing reproducers—those who live and multiply a disciplemaking way of life. This will require a shift in your picture of ministry success—the organizational win—from getting people into small groups and service roles to helping people find their family on mission and make their ultimate contribution in life. The first step we call churches to take is to define the problem in your context as specifically as possible in a single sentence—namely, what has inhibited genuine, missional disciplemaking in the past and present.

2. Crowd Cloud: Become a Hero-Maker

The second big shift often requires the staff to reimagine their role. It often requires exchanging your identity as the hero who delivers excellent ministry for an identity as the developer of the hero potential in others. It requires taking on a John 17:20 perspective that lifts your vision from the crowd that gathers on Sundays to what we call the Crowd Cloud–the relational sphere of influence that surrounds your people in the places where they live, work, and play.

3. Disciple’s Journey: Activate a Training Center 

Set a shared bull’s-eye of the kind of disciples you are seeking to be and make in your context. Then, through embracing the disciplemaking convictions, practices, and rhythms found in the life of Christ, move from a “tell-how” view of developing others to a “show-how” approach as you invest in a few.

4. Kingdom Platform: Empower Each One

A fourth shift that is often needed is learning how to elevate leadership development beyond becoming a great volunteer to helping each disciple step onto their own platform outside church walls. Who is God calling them to? Who are their persons of Peace? How is God inviting them (and others) to join him in being and bringing the good news to a particular people, problem or place? Keep relational Disciplemaking in the front seat by focusing on helping people become kingdom leaders (aka disciplemakers) in a way that can be customized for the people they’re being sent to reach.

5. Vision Frame: Create the Future

Get Vision back in the driver’s seat by discerning God’s unique disciplemaking vision for your church. Leverage the gift of vivid language and a shared picture of the future that pulls you and your people into your future missional story. This often requires answering five questions of leadership clarity, and then converting good intentions into repeatable actions.

At Clarity House, we use these master tools not to tell you what to do or prescribe a model. Instead, they surface the right questions so your team can have the right conversations to forge the future God wants for who you are and where you are going.

Keep an eye out for the Leadership Network Podcast where we will discuss these shifts further.

  1. George W. Bullard, Jr., Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation (Chalice Press, 2005), 75–96.
  2. Bobby Harrington and Josh Patrick, The Disciple Maker’s Handbook: 7 Elements of a Discipleship Lifestyle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), chap. 2, NOOK.

This article is a modified excerpt from Dave Rhodes’ forthcoming book Forging Future Church (this portion written with Shane Stacey).

Dave Rhodes

Dave Rhodes

Dave is the co-founder of Clarity House and the strategic director for the Grace Family of Churches headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. He has consulted with hundreds of local church leaders in creating disciple-making cultures for more than 15 years and guided hundreds of followers of Jesus to know and name their special calling from God. Dave co-founded Life Younique and The Future Church Co. He was the US team leader for 3DM and lead strategist at Wayfarer Ministries. He has worked as a collaborative partner with 100 Movements, 10,000 Fathers, PLI, and Exponential, and has written several books including Redefining Normal: An Open Invitation for Ordinary People Wanting to Become Extraordinary Disciples. Dave lives in the Atlanta area with his wife, Kim, and their three kids: Emma, Izzie, and Frankie. He can be found at Clarityhouse.us.  
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Shane Stacey

Shane Stacey

Shane is the co-founder of Clarity House, a coaching and consulting organization that helps churches take their next step into a disciple-making future they can believe in. He has served in and alongside local churches as a pastor, coach, and consultant for the past 25 years. Before joining Clarity House, Shane served as the executive director of Denominee, where he helped over 40 denominational and network teams lead with greater clarity and synergy. Shane also had the honor of serving as part of the national team for the Evangelical Free Church of America where he trained and coached ministry leaders in  building a disciple-making culture that flows from a disciplemaking way of life. Shane lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife Heather. He has three young adult children. Shane can be reached by email at shane@clarityhouse.us
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