By Thom S. Rainer
This is a thought-provoking and helpful book for any church that wants to become more missional and more effective in advancing the Gospel. The author and his research team examined data for 52,333 churches, of which only 13 met all their criteria for a breakout church:
1. A minimum of 26 converts in at least one of the past five years.
2. A maximum ratio of 20 members or regular attendees to one convert in at least one of the last five years. In other words, there was at least one convert for every 20 members or regular attendees (whichever was higher).
3. A period of decline in attendance followed by at least five years of sustained growth.
4. The decline, breakout and growth all had to take place under the same pastor. A “breakout” brought about by a change in leadership did not count.
5. Since the breakout point, the church has had a clear and positive impact on the community, and there are numerous stories that lives have been changed as a direct result of this.
These criteria clearly select churches that had become much more missional without a change in leadership. The conventional wisdom is that a stagnant church that wants to become missional needs to hire a new pastor, and a pastor of a stagnant church that wants to lead a missional church is better off starting all over again and planting a new church. This book seeks to find exceptions to this conventional wisdom and concludes that there are some, but not many. Extrapolating their research (they found only 13 breakout churches out of the 52,333 for which they had data) to the 400,000 churches in America would suggest that there are no more than 100-200 breakout churches in America.
It must be said, however, that their criterion that there be at least 26 converts in at least one of the last five years seems to eliminate a lot of small churches. A church of less than 520 could meet the 20:1 ratio of members/regular attendees to converts criterion and still not meet the 26 converts criterion. In fact, they only found that 4% of the churches studied met both these criteria, but they seem skewed against small churches of less than 520.
The book is very analogous to the popular business book Good to Great by Jim Collins. Just as Collins studied corporations that had gone from being good to being great, Rainer studied churches that had done the same. Many of Rainer’s principles for churches are similar to Collins’ principles for corporations, but they were uncovered by independent research, so his book is not just a clone of Collins’ book applied to the church.
Rainer identified six major components of what he calls “the chrysalis factor”, i.e. the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Each of these six factors will be described in a separate paragraph.
Level of Leadership Description Percentage of senior pastors
who have attained this level
Acts 1 Knows of God’s call to ministry 98%
The Called Leader and has responded to that call.
Acts 2 Takes time to do well the basics 22%
The Contributing Leader of Christian ministry, such as
preaching, teaching and prayer
Acts 3 Seeks to lead church and self 14%
The Outwardly-Focused to ministry beyond the walls
Leader of the church
Acts 4 Exudes a contagious enthusiasm 6%
The Passionate Leader for ministry, others gladly follow
Acts 5 Is willing to take risks, where success 3%
The Bold Leader is only possible in God’s power
Acts 6/7 Has a burden for a successful ministry <1%
The Legacy Leader beyond his own lifetime
Rainer admits to encountering several surprises among the keys to Acts 6/7 leaders. Their characteristics included:
a) Fierce Biblical faithfulness. They lived it as well as taught it.
b) Perseverance. Acts 6/7 leaders are willing, and even want, to have long term-
ministries at their churches. Their average tenure was 21.6 years, whereas the
average tenure of the pastors of comparison churches was 4.2 years.
c) Love for the members of their congregations.
d) Outward-focused and passionate about reaching those who do not yet
believe the Gospel.
e) Confident humility. This could sound like an oxymoron, but it is not.
f) Acceptance of responsibility. They do not tend to make excuses.
g) Unconditional love of the people.
h) A desire for a lasting legacy.
Breakout pastors tended to believe that slow progress is fine and to be sensitive and thin-skinned rather than thick-skinned. Surprisingly, they tended to be “reluctant leaders”. They were not “peace at any price” leaders, but they weren’t “my way or the highway” leaders either. They recognized that an established church is often entrenched in tradition and therefore change is difficult and often takes time, but they also knew that change was necessary, so they moved persistently and patiently toward their goals. “It just seems that the breakout church pastors made the decision to persevere, and that they sought God’s strength to see them through their trials and difficulties.”
2. The ABC Moment: ABC stands for the three steps of precipitating change:
Awareness: Confronting the brutal facts, the unpleasant reality
Belief: Faith during difficulties, believing that things can change
Crisis: The cost of victory. Many people are deeply committed to the status quo, and changing the status quo rarely comes without a crisis, especially in good churches.
It should be emphasized that this book is about churches going from being good churches to being great churches. Rainer writes: “It is a sin to be good if God called you to be great.”
One of the most significant obstacles to becoming a missional church is evangelistic apathy. Rainer writes:
“A growing number of Christians tell us that they are reluctant to be evangelistic, because they do not want to impose their beliefs on others.”
a) Breakout churches would often leave a position unfilled for a long period of time rather than get the wrong person. When in doubt, they found that it was better to wait.
b) When personnel mistakes were made, or when personnel mismatches became obvious, the breakout churches would act quickly and compassionately with closure, compassion and communication.
c) They found that compatibility was more important than competency.
d) They knew that the church must know that its purposes are:
(1) To glorify God
(2) The Great Commission
e) They remembered that facilities and location are means and not ends, but they are nevertheless very important.
f) They believed that small groups are essential to the health of the church.
g) Their leadership groups had clearly defined roles.
h) A culture of “serious fun” typified most of the breakout churches.
a) The passions of the leadership
b) The passions, gifts and talents of the congregation
c) The needs of the community
Rainer recognizes that the passions of the leadership do not always correspond to the passions of the members of the congregation, but he assumes that there will always be some overlap. He writes:
“When leaders in a church are passionately clear about their vision, two inevitable results transpire. First, some will not be attracted to such a vision and will not join the congregation. If they are members, they will probably leave to find a church that is a better fit for their gifts and passions. Second, others will be attracted to the church because it reflects at least an aspect of their gifts and passions. The result is a congregation that is very unified in its vision and ministries.”
Including the needs of the community in the mix insures that there will be outward focus. It is obvious that these circles cannot overlap if the leaders and the members of the congregation don’t have some passion for those who do not yet believe the Gospel.
Of course, it is impossible to accommodate all the passions of the leadership, all the passions, gifts and abilities of the congregation and all the needs of the community. One must be selective in choosing to focus on those things that fall within the overlapping area of these three circles.
Breakout churches were characterized by both high expectations and high freedom. Rainer writes:
“The key to getting the right people is to create an environment that expects much of people and also gives them the freedom to do the work of the ministry to which they have been called.”
The book includes a matrix of freedom and expectations that very effectively compares the 13 breakout churches with 39 comparison churches:
7 comparison Churches
13 Breakout Churches
25 Comparison Churches
7 Comparison Churches
The breakout churches had great freedom within the boundaries of vision and excellence. They had high expectations for their staff and volunteers, but those same staff and volunteers had great freedom in seeking to live up to those expectations.
The author and his team found three big differences between the breakout churches and the comparison churches:
a) Laypeople in breakout churches knew the doctrines of the church much better than the laypeople in comparison churches.
b) The comparison church members often held theological positions in contradiction to the printed doctrinal positions of the church (especially on the fact that Jesus is the only way to God).
c) Even when the members of comparison churches believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation, they are unwilling or unable to share the Gospel. The majority of those interviewed in breakout churches were passionate about reaching people for Christ personally.
Rainer concludes: “I have attempted throughout this book to be very careful not to imply that the churches that moved to greatness did so with some magical methodological quick-fix formula…I do not want to suggest for a moment that the basics of Christian ministry were abandoned.”
This is an excellent book for any church that wants to become more missional. There is definitely a bias toward being outwardly focused. I can recommend it highly.
John Ed Robertson
February 24, 2006
Rainer, Thom S.; Breakout Churches; Zondervan; Grand Rapids, Michigan; 2005;