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Vision and Strategy Church Trends for 2011 and Beyond

This time of year, I enjoy reflecting and sharing the observations I gain from working with a diverse group of church leaders in North America. Here is my take on what to expect not only this year, but for years to come.

TREND #1: Expect Increasing Diversity of Opinion on What Good Vision and Strategy Look Like.

A year ago at New Year, you could digest Tony Morgan’s Stop Making Goals for the Future and scan Michael Hyatt’s leadership reflections on wanting to do more strategic planning. Both are excellent posts, but on the surface they contradict. This year Craig Groeschel posted on the Death of the 5 Year Plan, yet vision mavens like Jim Collins still talk about 20-year BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). What’s the right perspective? To add to the confusion, the list of “how-to-do-church” books grows exponentially. We’ve gone from simple, deep, organic and total to sticky, viral, dangerous and hybrid. Are we getting clear yet? Well, I almost hate starting a trend list with this bummer observation, but it’s very important to acknowledge. If you want a good place to start, read Clarity 101.

TREND #2: Articulating the Biggest Picture will be the Leader’s Greatest Asset Like Never Before

If trend #1 isn’t bad enough, every church leader  is saturated with countless best practices, bombarded with more communication (and more conduits of it) and ministering to people struggling with increased life complexity. It all boils down to a hyper-need for clarity. Communicating Jesus-centered meaning in life has never had more competition. The best leaders won’t  fool around for one second without showing and telling what their church is ultimately supposed to be doing. They won’t take the most basic assumptions for granted.

Over Christmas break, I met with senior pastor Doug Sager of First Baptist Concord, a large Southern Baptist church in Knoxville. I love a comment he made: “When you know the why, you can live with any how. That’s the spirit that effective leaders must continue in order to keep people connected to the big picture. The phrase echoes the central theme of a popular business book on clarity this year, Start with Why, by Simon Sinek. His bold assertion is that leaders traffic in what they do and how they do it, but most can’t articulate why. His blog is a good resource.

TREND #3: The Digital World and Social Media will Open New Possibilities for More Churches

Unfortunately most churches lag behind the “real world” by 10 years or so when it comes to technology and communication. But online giants like LifeChurch.tv not only lead the way with technology, but do so generously by bringing sites and apps to the world like VideoTeaching.com and YouVersion.com. The bottom line is a new world of possibilities for vision and strategy not just for large churches but for every spiritual leader with an innovative spirit. Church online, facebook and twitter are just the beginning and just the tip of the iceburg! A few folks to follow to learn more about this world are Gordon Marcy, a long-time media maven in the Christian space, John Saddington who recently left North Point Church as their tech guru to blog full time, Charles Lee who champions ideation, networking and social entrepreneurship using technology, and Terry Storch, the technology pastor at LifeChurch.tv.

TREND #4: Visioning and Spiritual Formation as Disciplines will Merge More Visibly

True visioning in the local church should always be a Spirit-led, Word-anchored exercise of daily spiritual formation. One consultant, George Bullard, years ago coined the phrase, “The Spiritual Strategic Journey” which I have always loved. But it is easy to separate the strategic and the spiritual in daily practice. Every year, more  Auxano clients express direct appreciation for the fact that our consultants (we call ourselves navigators) are pastors first, with a theological training and a Godward impulse. In the future there will be little tolerance for strategic conversations and visioning exercises that aren’t first God-worshipping and God-listening initiatives. Church leaders are tired of anything in the name of vision that smacks of corporate ideology.

TREND #5: Small Will Continue to Be the New Big

Beyond Seth Godin’s book title from 2006, thinking, acting and leading small will continue to mark the church landscape. What are a few mile markers along the way? First is the new normal of multi-site churches. Leadership Network played a key role in accelerating this innovation which helps larger churches expand through smaller beachheads. Read their 2010 LN_multi-site_report.

Second, as church planting and missional thinking continue to expand, smaller expressions, from house churches, to missional communities become more legit against the traditional, monolithic measurement of big-church-butts-in-seats. This year the Exponential Conference, a gathering dedicated to church planting, will be larger than ever. We have recently witnessed the birth of a new network to small-town, small church America called The Sticks. Last year even brought counter-intuitive book titles and blog posts like The Strategically Small Church and The Micro Manifesto.

TREND #6: Networks are Becoming the New Denominations

The rise of church planting networks not only validate the entrepreneurial spirit but enable new groupings of ” the small” from the prior trend to exert more influence. As the new learning, new strategies and new relationship cluster in these front line networks, the knowledge, encouragement and accountability of traditional denominations bring less value. It’s no surprise to most readers that the time and resources from most denominations are woefully tied up with ineffective congregations.

What are some of these growing networks? Here are few: Acts 29, Redeemer City to City, New Thing, ARC, ChurchPlanters.com, PLNTD, Vision360 and the  ICF Movement. Of course there are countless more and new ones popping up all the time. Two that just started are the Houston Church Planters Network and the Launch Network in Atlanta. Please note that these networks are not trying to be new denominations, but their momentum is changing the game. Also note that some effective networks like Stadia and the Church Multiplication Network are denominationally based.

TREND #7: Leaders will Pay More Attention to Shorter Time Horizons

Everything in the vision and clarity space pushes to shorter horizons as the pace of change accelerates. A mantra that Reggie McNeal coined is “Preparation over planning.” The emphasis on leadership is preparing for the uncertainties of the future, rather than trying to predict them. As a result, answering the question, “Where is God taking us?” requires a 90-day focus and a 1-year horizon of shared storytelling like never before. Will other time horizons be important? Yes they will, but not like the way we used to think about it. Read this post on the Five Horizons of Leadership to glean more.

Take note that this year, 2020 is exactly 10 years away. For better or worse (and I suspect mainly for worse) we will see a new glut of 2020 vision reports. While the use of 20/20 for its opportunistic pun has been used widely for 10 years, it will legitimately fuel some new dreams for many leaders.

TREND #8: The Intersection of Personal and Organizational Vision will be Magnified. This trend is the earliest in its emergence and perhaps it’s too early to note. It has been on my radar for ten years, as each year I work in the arena of organizational clarity, I get more and more requests from individuals. I have noticed that the greatest barrier to organizational clarity can be the clarity of individuals who lead them.

Peter Drucker was an early thought leader in recognizing that the movement from an industrial to an information paradigm would push the envelope on personal clarity and self-management for business and non-profit leaders. Strengths Finder is one of four books that has been on Amazon’s top 100 for over a thousand days.  Yet I find very little evidence in the ministry world that a hunger for personal clarity is making an organizational difference. I have had ongoing conversations about how to address this and envision playing a role in this field in the next decade. For now I keep looking for the overlap and  I would love to know your thoughts. If you are interested in learning more on the personal side,  two of my favorite vision initiatives in the individual space are Craig Groeschel’s book and companion website Chazown and Ben Arment’s Dream Year.

TREND #9: Visioning will be Interpreted More as Making Meaning than Predicting Future

Life brings a daily tidal wave of monotony. We all fight to keep our daily routine vital and life-giving in view of greater purposes. A key attribute of vision is and always will be, how it keeps people focused on the future. But one aspect of vision that will bring increasing value is how it refocuses our work today. This is why I like the word “clarity” as a practical substitute for “vision,” especially in church. Expect that people will not care about where you church is going until you can make meaning for them right now. Why am I in worship? Why should I participate in a small group? Why should I give to your church? Clarity today before you envision tomorrow.

TREND #10: External Focus and Biblical Justice will Stay Prominent

The most notable pastors in the American megachurch have all championed causes of justice in the last 5 years, from Rick Warren’s P.E.A.C.E. plan to Bill Hybel’s global adventures. In Evangelicalism we have seen the pendulum swing back toward biblical justice since the 1920’s when movements with social values rejected a high view of God’s Word. Now that biblical justice is mainstream it will stay a prominent feature in our vision and strategy work.

Strengthening this trend will be a generation of Millennials who will rise in organizational leadership. They mark an era of altruism where volunteerism and social entrepreneurship are the standard not the exception. Generationally speaking, they care more about people “outside of the organization” than the boomers did. The mantra we will continue to see, sparked by Eric Swanson, is “Don’t be the best church in the community, be the best church for the community. Or as Tim Keller has articulated, “We aren’t trying to have a great church, but a great city.

TREND #11: Consulting for Vision Clarity will Surpass that for Capital Campaigns

This trend may sound small, but consider for a moment that for almost four decades, capital campaign consulting has been the dominant category for “strategic outsiders” in local churches. But all of the traditional companies have been in decline including, RSI and Injoy, both of which have changed ownership in recent years. How is the role of the consultant shifting? It’s moving away  from packaged campaigns and programs towards the ability to navigate organic and culture-savvy solutions. In fact, help in clarifying vision has become the most common reason for a pastor to pursue a consultant. This statistic comes from a 2010 Future Trends report completed by Tom Harper with the Society of Church Consulting. It revealed that motivation for seeking consulting was twice as high for discerning a new vision (49%) than any other category, including constructing new space (22%). Download the report: FT_Executive_Summary.

As a the need for vision coaching increases, Auxano will be adding two world-class players to the team in 2010: Bill Donahue, a leadership guru formally with Willowcreek and the Willow Creek Association and Simple Church co-author, Eric Geiger, who will serve in addition to his executive pastor responsibilities at Christ Fellowship in Miami.

If you do want help with a capital campaign or other strategies for creating a culture of generosity, I highly recommend the folks at Generis. Their mission is to accelerate generosity toward God-inspired vision.


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Will Mancini emerged from the trenches of local church leadership to found Auxano, a first-of-kind consulting ministry that focuses on vision clarity. As a “clarity evangelist,” Will has served as vision architect for hundreds of churches across the country, including such notable pastors as Chuck Swindoll and Max Lucado. Will holds a Th.M. in Pastoral Leadership from Dallas Theological Seminary and has authored Church Unique: How Missional Leaders Cast Vision, Capture Culture and Create Movement; he also co-authored Building Leaders with Aubrey Malphurs.