The Wisdom of Outsiders

3 Big Ideas That Changed the Course of Our Ministry

Every innovation, change and vision begins with an idea. The proverbial light bulb goes on and we suddenly realize something we’ve never noticed before.

Here at North Coast Church, a handful of big ideas and insights radically changed the trajectory of our ministry. They not only solved an immediate problem, they also had a far greater long-range impact than we realized at the time—both for North Coast and, in some cases, the church at large.

But before looking back at a few of these game-changing insights, let’s first take a look at where these kinds of big ideas come from, and what we can do as leaders to better position ourselves to see what we (and others) have previously missed.

ME, MY TEAM AND MY TRIBE

We all take our cues from those around us. It’s true in every area of life, not just leadership. We dress like our peers, think like our friends and value what our culture values—which explains why most of our ministries tend to look and feel alike.

In most cases, that’s fine. Change for the sake of change has little value. As I like to tell the pastors I mentor, “As long as the fruit is good, don’t change the watering schedule.”

But what if the fruit isn’t so good? What if the yield and quality drop off significantly? That’s when it’s time to tweak the process, and in some cases to make significant changes to the way we’ve been doing things.

Most of the time, we follow a well-worn path when it comes to solving problems and deciding what changes to make. The first thing we typically do is to turn inward to find the solution. I call this the “me” stage. We pray, think and jot down the solutions that come to us. And it often works well. That’s what makes us a leader: We tend to see and envision things that others don’t.

But this inward stage of leadership can only take us so far. Eventually, every leader comes up against problems and challenges beyond their ability to solve alone. And that’s when most of us turn to our team, the people we work closest with. They share our values and goals, and together we often can come up with the breakthrough insights we need. But what happens when the wisdom of our team falls short? It’s at that point that most of us turn to the next option, our tribe.

Your tribe is the group of people who share your values and worldview but are outside of your local team. Everyone has a tribe, even those who claim they don’t. All I have to do is ask, “Whom do you read, listen to, hang out with or model your ministry after?” Once I know the answer, I know your tribe. Sometimes it’s a denominational tribe. Sometimes it’s a theological tribe. Sometimes the connection is formal. Sometimes, it’s not. But in every case, it’s a like-minded group that sees the world like you see the world.

There are lots of breakthroughs to be found within our various tribes. That’s why we read, listen to podcasts and go to conferences. But sadly, that’s also where many of us stop in our search for answers and new ideas. Once we’ve exhausted the insights that we, our team and our tribe can come up with, we assume there are no more answers.

OUTSIDERS

Yet there is another group with incredible wisdom. It’s what I call “outsiders.” Outsiders have ideas, insights and solutions we would never think of because they aren’t restricted by our traditions or blinded by our paradigms. And it’s these outsiders who often hold the key to solving our biggest problems and removing our most stubborn roadblocks.

For instance, it was a NASCAR pit crew that provided the engineers at General Mills with the insights they needed to cut a production line changeover from over four hours to 12 minutes. And it was a theatrical makeup artist who specialized in preventing facial breakouts who gave the chemists at 3M the breakthrough they needed to come up with a product that prevented surgical infections.

The untapped wisdom of outsiders is massive. That’s why I believe it’s vitally important for every leader to develop a personal plan to systematically get outside of their natural comfort zone and ministry circles. The fact is our best out-of-the-box ideas and answers are seldom really out of the box. They might be outside of our box. But in most cases, they were piled high in someone else’s box, usually in a big bin labeled “Obvious Stuff That Everyone Already Knows.”

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Most of the big ideas that changed the trajectory of our ministry at North Coast came from outsiders. They were the result of associative insights: the “aha” that happens when two things that we would not normally connect link together to create a new insight, idea or answer. Here are three of the most significant ones.

1. The Power of a Preaching Team

When I first became a pastor, preachers were expected to preach. It was supposed to be their primary focus. In my tribe that often meant preparing and delivering two or three new messages every week. Sure, there were others who would preach occasionally, but only when the lead pastor was unavailable or on a vacation or mission trip.

It didn’t take me long to realize that a huge downside of the pastor-always-preaches model was the lack of margin it provided. No one can wake up thinking about two things at once. In my case, it was preaching. For some of my friends, it was leadership. But in both cases, the lack of a preaching team guaranteed that either our sermons or our leadership decisions were less than the best.

While I knew this was a problem, I didn’t know how to solve it until I learned a couple or things about the theater and baseball. An understanding of their differing marketing strategies opened my eyes to the solution I needed.

Broadway runs on a star-based system. The name of the lead actor or actress is prominently displayed in lights. It’s no wonder that patrons are deeply disappointed when they get stuck with an understudy. Broadway understudies are an off-the-charts talent in their own right, but theatergoers are always going to be disappointed with an understudy because of the way that Broadway’s culture and marketing presents gifted thespians as secondary substitutes.

Baseball, on the other hand, is a team sport. It has stars, but it also has a pitching rotation. No one expects the star pitcher to pitch every game. No one is bummed when they get the next pitcher in the rotation. Fans may have their favorites, but winning the game is far more important than who’s pitching.

Every church I’d ever been around was organized and marketed like a Broadway show. The lead pastor was heavily marketed. It never entered my mind that it could be done differently. But once I noticed the differing marketing strategies between Broadway and baseball, and the radically differing responses to who was on stage or the mound, I had a powerful aha moment.

I realized that with a few small changes, I could alter the way that we presented our sermon series, and in so doing, alter the way that our congregation looked at those who preached. All I had to do was quit marketing the preacher and start marketing the series, while making sure that I positioned other preachers as part of a teaching team instead of my substitute or understudy.

To do that I made sure I was highly visible when others preached. It positioned them as the “other” instead of a “substitute.” For the first few years, that meant coming home from vacation a day or two early to make announcements and be seen by everyone. It was well worth it. In a short time, most folks got it. They began to understand that the sermon was about the passage, not the preacher.

Suddenly I had weeks where I could work on leadership issues without the pressure of an upcoming sermon. Our congregation received the gift of multiple voices, becoming more diverse and well-rounded. And to my surprise, instituting a preaching team became one of the more widely copied hallmarks of our church.

2. The Accessibility of Sermon-Based Small Groups

Small groups were hardly a cutting-edge idea when I became a pastor, but the reality was that most churches were better at talking about the importance of small groups than actually getting people into a small group. We were no exception. We pushed our groups hard, yet no matter what we did, they remained a niche ministry with a revolving door.

We also had a hard time getting leaders. Looking back, it’s obvious why. Few people had the discretionary time needed to properly prepare a lesson and follow up with everyone in their group. I thought we were asking a lot, but in reality, we weren’t. We were asking too much.

We also had a hard time getting men and new believers to try out a group. Again, looking back it’s obvious why. Meeting in a home to discuss a study guide or a Bible passage freaked them out. It sounded way too intimidating. And when we talked about sharing each other’s burdens, they were terrified that they’d be forced to spill their guts.

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This led to our small groups mostly being filled with the kind of people who liked school, enjoyed reading and discussing ideas, and had a gift for gab (plus a handful of high-maintenance types who wanted an audience to share their life with).

The breakthrough moment for me came when I was exposed to some secular research on educational theory. Study after study had shown that a lecture/lab model increased content retention and led to greater life change. And it didn’t matter if it were a group of high school students or high-level military officers in training. A lecture (not reading material) plus the opportunity to discuss the content produced the greatest impact.

Suddenly it hit me. If our small groups simply discussed the previous weekend’s sermon, we could solve most of our problems. No longer would we need leaders with lots of discretionary time and the inductive study skills needed to prepare a lesson. We’d simply need facilitators. The men and new believers who were too intimidated to join a group would no longer be asked to discuss a study guide or passage they knew little about. All they’d have to do is discuss a sermon they had experienced. Better yet, the prep time for both leaders and participants would no longer be a problem, since listening to the sermon would constitute the bulk of their preparation.

This simple idea of turning our small groups into a lecture/lab model exploded. Participation skyrocketed. For over 30 years now, we’ve had well over 80 to 90% of our weekend adult attendance numbers in small groups. And it’s a solution I would have never found without the insights of those who know nothing about churches or ministry.

3. The 20-Minute Drive-Time Barrier

When I first came to North Coast, I assumed the best way to reach the most people was through a two-pronged strategy: Plant as many churches as possible and grow each one as large as possible.

The rise of the early megachurches inspired me with a vision for reaching more people than the neighborhood churches I was raised in. And I assumed the best way to do so was to keep building bigger and bigger buildings to hold larger and larger crowds.

Yet it soon became evident that these new massive churches were facing some significant fresh challenges, As they became increasingly regional, the percentage of visitors who came as a result of a personal invite (not a special outreach program or marketing) shrank considerably, as did the percentage of students involved in their youth groups.

At first, I thought that this was an unavoidable consequence of church growth. After all, everything has an unintended consequence. These were simply the dark sides of reaching more people for Jesus. But then I learned a principle that changed my perspective and the way we would handle our growth. It came from urban planners and a corporate executive who had previously headed up the real estate divisions for both In-N-Out Burger and McDonald’s.

It’s the 20-minute drive-time barrier. They taught me that most people tend to spend their nonworking hours within a 20-minute drive time circle. So, when it came time to choose a site for a community center, a shopping center or a burger joint, they knew that customers and participation would drop precipitously once they were outside of that area.

The application to our ministry was obvious. Suddenly it made sense why the larger and more regional a ministry became, the less come-and-see evangelism it experienced. It wasn’t the size; it was the distance. And it was the same for dwindling youth groups in these larger churches.

This simple insight (well-known by outsiders but a complete mystery to everyone in my own ministry circles) played a huge part in our decision to stop building bigger and bigger campuses, and instead to launch a campus whenever and wherever we had a large group of people driving more than 20 minutes to get to church. And as a result, we’ve seen a predictable upsurge in come-and-see evangelism and a much larger percentage of youth participating in our youth ministries.

These are just three of the many “ahas” that triggered new ideas and radically changed the way we do ministry. Most of them would have never happened had I not found ways to constantly get beyond my personal insights, the wisdom of my team and the knowledge of my tribe. There are a lot of great ideas to be found in our team and our tribe, but it’s always the outsiders who hold the answers to our most perplexing questions and most frustrating roadblocks.

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