The Church Needs Skunk Works

8 steps to implement a process that will foster innovation and transfuse organic life into your church.

The more you can reduce the boundaries, keeping them to an absolute minimum, the better off you will be. The issue is how willing you are to trust Jesus to actually shepherd His flock. In fact, we will go so far as to say that the more boundaries you establish in the beginning, the less likely you will ignite any organic life or movement. Unless your people are free to follow the Great Shepherd out into the world where they live, they will not truly be the church on mission or even true disciples for that matter. The real question is, do you trust the Great Shepherd to lead His flock, or do you trust your own systems and boundaries to manage and control the people? In our opinion, the people of God have been penned up far too long.

That said, it is better to establish some boundaries in the beginning rather than let them be discovered the much harder way—by crossing them and encountering unexpected consequences. Do not take a centered-set approach to your skunk works project only to surprise participants later with a stone wall of fixed boundaries. Many times we have seen young people excited about fulfilling the Great Commission by making disciples only to find that they are in great trouble for having baptized them without permission (as if all authority of heaven and earth is not enough). Be honest. Individuals engaged in the new work will also appreciate not having to waste time and energy pursuing a direction that will ultimately hit a wall.

Start in Places Other Than Your Church Campus

The new project should be born outside the walls of the church building. We have found that if it remains contextually connected to the rest of the church ministries, it will likely carry the same culture. The new transfused work must have apostolic mission within its core being, so what better place is there to begin than out where the people you want to reach are living and working?

In The Great Good Place, social commentator Ray Oldenburg coins the term third place. Oldenburg defines the first place as your home and the people connected to your home life. He defines your workplace, where we actually spend the most of our time, as the second place. The third place, which he goes on to argue is important in establishing community and civil life together, is the place and people we connect with outside of the other two important places. Robert Putnam in his groundbreaking work Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, argues throughout the book that this third place is essential for our society as a whole. What better place is there for the church to flourish? Recognizing the demise of such places, Starbucks has actually found its niche in providing a third place and made billions of dollars there.

Many consider the church itself to be a third place, and rightly so, but when we exist as our own third place and isolate our lives from others socially, we no longer have influence on the world.

We would argue that church should happen wherever life happens. Let this new project be birthed off the church campus in the locale where people live and interact.

Once you start on church grounds, the likelihood of ever getting off campus is weak. But if you start off campus, you will find fewer restrictions in the future and more opportunities in the present. Besides, it is healthy if the church finds itself out in the community figuring out ways to bring the kingdom of God to a place.

Establish Lines of Communication

Make sure that in the very beginning you establish a method of communication so that you are kept aware of how things are going. Often communication will just be assumed without established channels, and then communication may or may not actually happen, resulting in frustrations on both sides of the project.

We recommend that the senior leadership, no matter how busy you are, take an interest in the project and be in on the communication personally. This should probably be more than just receiving reports. Be in on the meetings and planning as long as your presence doesn’t intimidate the other leaders. When you are in the meetings, lead with silence. In other words, let other people speak and share ideas so that they own them, while you model what it means to empower others. Most church cultures are designed in such a way that when a senior leader is in the room, he or she is expected to do most of the talking and have most of the ideas. If that is the old environment of your church and you want to transfuse a new DNA into the life of the congregation, this is the place to change the expectations. We have found that remaining silent, even when it becomes uncomfortable, usually leads to others stepping up.

We strongly suggest that you mentor the new leaders personally. In fact, we have found that the extent that the senior leadership is vested in the project determines how much the transfusion can reach the rest of the body. When the senior leadership is vested in word only, but not in true value, whereas you have invested time and affection such that you take joy in the successes and grieve in the difficulties, you are more likely to spin off a new church than to revitalize an existing one. R&D is usually about the future, and if the senior leadership is not leading into the future, the organization has little hope of getting there.

The balance here is in being a leader who empowers others and is vested in the project without making them dependent on you in the process. Our experience is that meeting one-on-one with the key leaders in a mentoring appointment on a regular basis (every other week or once a month) is the best solution. When you meet, listen and ask questions without telling the apprentice leader what to do. Let these leaders discover for themselves what they need to learn. They will be able to stand on their own as leaders without being dependent on you, and you will also model for them how to be an empowering leader for the next generation. To do this well, you will have to rejoice in another’s success rather than gleaning all the credit yourself. This is hard for some senior leaders who are wired to find success and popularity built on their personality and gifts in the old system, but the old system is broken. If transfusing new life into the church is your aim, you will have to lead differently, which is why we devoted so much space in earlier chapters to leading differently. Neil’s book Organic Leadership: Leading Naturally Right Where You Are presents principles of mentoring to multiply that can help significantly with this process.

We have found that the leaders who are able to equip and empower others in this manner tend to be surrounded with higher-caliber people because those leaders are trusted by the people—and by the Lord. Leaders who simply use people to get their own results will likely not succeed in the transfusion process and will also find that they are surrounded with lesser-quality leaders. Such leaders will also not multiply because, frankly, God doesn’t want any more of them.

There are two benefits to setting up a clear line of communication. First, the people doing the new project will feel valued if you take the time to listen to what they are learning. Second, the people in the church will have more confidence in the project knowing that you are personally connected and the people are not off on their own without any relational accountability.

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Block Incoming Hostilities

As you release a few key people to attempt new practices based on new paradigms of church, it is important that they be protected by the leadership of the church. Using football language, we call this “blocking.” The truth is that the enemy of the new is most often the old. Some people may view this new work being started as a threat to a way of life or a church practice that they have long held dear. A kind word and gentle defense from a secure pastor will go a long way to allowing something fresh to occur while keeping peace with everyone else. Let everyone know that this is experimental and needs to be given a chance to develop. Make it your responsibility to intercept any criticism directed against the skunk works project.

Our personal experience is that when someone comes after a person or ministry with a negative complaint, a move toward relationship will often ease much of the hostility. Grant the one with the complaint a listening ear and a positive relational response first. Take time to hear the complaint and validate the one complaining in any way possible before you defend the project. It is often possible to find a legitimate concern to value without necessarily validating the complaint. Often if the one complaining knows that his or her concerns were heard and understood, a lot of problems will be eliminated. There may be times, however, when this is not enough, and you may need to be more assertive in protecting the project.

Share Reports Regularly and Enthusiastically

In an established congregation, the pulpit is the one place where you can communicate to almost everyone at once. Use this venue to share your own enthusiasm for the new works being done. Tell stories and illustrate your sermons from the new ministry. Give reports of any successes, and ask for prayers from the congregation for this new venture. This is not meant to motivate the unmotivated, for that is useless. But in every congregation there will be others who love Jesus, are frustrated with their current lack of fruitful living, and will be looking for a chance to grow. They need to hear that there is hope and opportunity.

Provide an Avenue for Early Adopters to Join the Skunk Works

In Diffusion of Innovation, Everett M. Rogers identifies five different groups according to the point in the innovative process at which they accept change: (1) innovators, (2) early adopters, (3) early majority, (4) late majority and (5) laggards. In a typical population, innovators represent only 2.5 percent, early adopters are around 13.5 percent, the early majority weigh in at around 34 percent, and the late majority are about the same. The laggards are around 16 percent of any populace.

Malcom Gladwell, the bestselling author and journalist, took Rogers’ ideas and expanded on them to demonstrate that a “tipping point,” which will generate a movement and bring change or influence to the whole society, can occur after the early adopters join in. Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson, theorizing based on Rogers’s and Gladwell’s works, say it takes about 16 percent to reach that tipping point.

This social science provides a clear road map for anyone wanting to bring change to a group of people. Start with innovators, and once you get the early adopters, you will have enough motivation and momentum to eventually change the whole society.

The importance of stringent criteria in the initial selection of a team lessens as early adopters and then an early majority buy in. Don’t hear us wrong; it is still important that those who are motivated internally get involved, but it’s not necessary that they all be creative risk takers as the work proceeds.

Remember, you are not ending the church your people are accustomed to, at least not initially. You are merely allowing a fresh expression to occur on the side. For transfusion to occur, two different cultures must be present simultaneously. The newer culture should eventually win over the previous one, not in a violent coup but rather in a progression in which health eventually overcomes sickness. We believe that the best sort of change will start gradually and will build momentum over time. A little leavening leavens the whole loaf. A more abrupt and violent transition at the start can create much havoc and may not be necessary. In essence, we are suggesting that you allow some members to pursue a reimagined picture of what life in Christ can be like, let them taste it and tell about it and over time many others will start to move in that direction. Rather than see this as merely an ending to what your church was before, people can see it as a new direction to a better fulfillment of who you are as a church in the future.

Leverage the new success discovered in the skunk works to lift the whole church. This will be something that likely needs to be done incrementally. John Wooden, former UCLA basketball coach and arguably the most successful coach in all of sports history, once said, “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. … Don’t look for the quick, big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.”

This leveraging of success to the rest of the church is important if your aim is to change the church rather than simply birth a new thing. We actually believe in doing both, but in order to do both, you must allow the health and life found in the more organic skunk works project to filter into the general body of the church. Otherwise you will merely birth new works that are not influencing the body as a whole. There is nothing wrong with birthing new works. We hope that the transfusion of your church will produce many, but here we are talking about how to bring transformation to your existing church.

Every church has a culture, and it’s this culture you are seeking to change. When we speak of a tipping point occurring at around 16 percent, we are not suggesting that you seek to recruit that 16 percent to the new way of operating and call it a day. Life change, even for the truest of disciples, is a process. As people in your church continue in relationship with those who are changing, ideas, insights and experiences will be shared. It’s these unscheduled and unscripted moments that ultimately produce change. Focus on the life and health of the disciples, not the accomplishment of some other goal, whether it be a new church or outreach or anything else. As people learn to follow Jesus, their changed lives will be naturally contagious. Be patient and let Christ work. He will bring about lasting and sometimes unforeseen results. You will be pleasantly surprised.

Most church leaders usually approach change by starting with the elders and leadership staff in hope that the change will work its way down. Phil started this way with Los Altos and saw good results. When I (Neil) began introducing a new way of relating to God, one another, and the world while leading an established church, I intentionally chose not to start with the elders. I didn’t make this decision because the elders were bad guys; quite the opposite. I chose to start with the “bad guys,” the ones who needed their lives to change. I began with a struggling alcoholic named Kenny. When his life turned around dramatically because of the gospel planted in his soul, people noticed. His life change, and then the subsequent change in the lives of those he influenced, was dramatic. Even the elders started to notice, and a godly jealousy was spurred in them so that some also asked to be part of our new disciple-making project. Godly jealousy can actually be a very useful means of involving people in your transfusion. You can assume that some who are not currently growing have a deep longing inside to be more vital in their faith. Watching other people transformed will call out to that primal desire within them, and they may be spurred to join in the transfusion. Unfortunately, the passage of time and the rut of routine will often lead people into a stale form of faith that needs to be reinvigorated. When people begin to see real change in others, they begin to get excited about what God can do in them. We found that even mature elders have room for life change, but they first had to be hungry for it, and watching a young addict come alive stirred that in them. Kenny eventually became our youth pastor.

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Don’t expect everyone’s full acceptance, and certainly don’t wait for it. Don’t try to get everyone on board before change begins to be implemented; just build toward a majority. The first 16 percent is enough to change the whole. Learn to work with those motivated few, and don’t feel you must include everyone equally. The truth is that every church is made up of people who have different motivations. Expecting full acceptance by all before change can be implemented is a sure death knell for a church.

Even Jesus found that one of his inner band of men was not a true disciple. He instructed us through the parables that the wheat and the tares will grow together. He also told us that it is not until the end that the sheep and the goats are separated. He taught that there are four kinds of soil and three of them receive the message of the kingdom but only one will bear fruit. It is not only unrealistic to expect that every person in an established church is a willing follower of Christ; it is frankly an unbiblical expectation. We believe that one potential mission field in the Western context is in the established churches. Many who attend are Christians but not Christ followers, and there is a big difference. They need to hear the good news that the salvation Jesus offers includes everything they need to live a life of purpose and usefulness to God. Such a life is a grand adventure, and believers need to be encouraged to follow Christ into the wonderful adventure he has for them. This call should be made regularly, but as with evangelizing the lost, not everyone will respond. Keep at it, but don’t let the lack of response dissuade you from pressing on.

Many pastors need to be relieved of the responsibility to include every person in the church in everything the church does, especially a skunk works project. This type of mentality has led us to attempt to create churches where everyone can feel comfortable; that’s why we have churches full of bad soil that bears no fruit. Trust us, if you allow it, the bad soil will be glad to dictate how you should do church, and the church will not be fruitful. And even if you do make every effort to please these folks, some will still find reason to complain. Stop trying to please everyone; that should never be the goal. The goal is to please the King of Kings; that’s it. It is his body, not yours and not anyone else’s.

Unfortunately, many pastors take their job description to be to motivate unmotivated people. Every week they spend hours trying to figure out what it will take to get people motivated for one more week and wanting to come back again the next. I (Neil) determined long ago that I would no longer try to motivate unmotivated people, and that set me free. I figure that if the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus is not enough to motivate them, my sermon probably won’t do the job. I no longer feel responsible to chase down people and try to convince them to follow Christ. My life is too short for that.

That said, you do not have to offend people who are not motivated. We are not suggesting that either. What we are suggesting is that you find those who are motivated, release them and invest there. The rest can keep on doing what they have been doing, whatever that is. We are also suggesting that you no longer let the unmotivated people dictate what church should be about—that is how we end up with consumer-driven churches trying to please the most people possible. Instead of using your sermons to impress and attract Christian consumers, try using them to open their eyes to the truth that Jesus is alive in them and wants to use them to bring good into this world. Many who are seemingly unmotivated are this way because they have never fully understood the implications of the gospel message. We believe that many of these penned-up Christians need to be evangelized not for salvation but with a vision of what salvation truly entails.

In my backyard we have a type of grass called St. Augustine grass. I found out when I became a homeowner that there are many different kinds of grass, and they each have different characteristics. St. Augustine grass is one of the strongest because it grows laterally and spreads rather than simply growing vertically. You have to make sure you want it before you plant it because it is a hardy stock and hard to get rid of once it takes root.

If you look at a lawn with St. Augustine grass that is dead and brown with a single patch of green, don’t water the dead stuff; water the green spot and let it spread. That’s what we are proposing in this chapter. Let something grow that is alive apart from the bureaucratic institution and politics of normal church, and then pour your life into that.

Usually, if it is organic, it will not cost money. We often say that it doesn’t cost a dime to make a disciple; it only costs your life. Pour your life where there is health, and let it multiply and spread so that the life pervades the church body. This is a healthy leadership discipline.

Water the green spot, and let it spread. If it is organic, it will spread all by itself through natural reproduction—of disciples, leaders and finally groups of spiritual families (or churches). Reproduction is a natural function of all living things. Unfortunately, churches rarely reproduce, which is likely an indication of a health issue. Chapter 11 addresses this important subject and examines reasons why churches are not reproducing naturally and what it will take to release real health and reproduction.

Church TransfusionExcerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. Church Transfusion: Changing Your Church Organically From the Inside Out, by Neil Cole & Phil Helfer. Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Neil Cole and Phil Helfer are veteran pastors and co-founders of Church Multiplication Associates. Helfer pastors Los Altos Grace Brethren Church in Long Beach, Calif.

Order from Church Transfusion: Changing Your Church Organically From the Inside Out