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Four Strategic Thinking Strategies to Shape Your Church’s Future

For several months I’ve been meeting with a team of leaders to evaluate and innovate our discipleship strategies at Christ Church. These planning times are essential to clarify direction for the future. Unfortunately, strategic thinking at many churches too often looks like a rehashing of last year’s ideas or a carbon copy of the church’s strategy from down the street. However, the best way to innovate for the future is not to rip off someone else’ strategic plan. Leaders must cultivate strategic thinking practices that will shape the future of the church. Here are four strategic thinking approaches I recommend:

1.  Scan, Measure, & Analyze the Present – Before you can decide where you want to go, you need to understand your current reality. Here are four ways to get your head around your church’s “here and now”:


  • Scan the Environment – Look outside of your church and scan your community and city. Consider economic conditions, racial diversity, community needs, technology, educational factors, family dyanmics, religious influences, and basic demographic information. The better you understand your community, the more equipped you will be to minister effectively.
  • Do Your Research – As I’ve met with our Discipleship Team, we’ve taken time to read and discuss Willow Creek’s REVEAL research on spiritual growth. Accessing important research helps you understand what’s happening in the world and the church and offers valuable insights that will shape your future strategies.
  • Check Your Measurements – Most churches measure something…attendance, salvations, small groups, offerings, missions giving, community service, etc. Look at the trends from the past five years of whatever your church measures.
  • Conduct a SWOT Analysis – A good analysis of your SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) will help you understand where you thrive, where you struggle, the opportunities you should consider for the future, and the threats that are lurking over the horizon. Strengths and Weaknesses tend to have an internal focus (they define who your church is right now) whereas opportunities and threats have an external focus (they focus on potential ideas to pursue and make you aware of potential threats that could derail your efforts).

2.  Look for Emerging Initial Conditions
Author Irene Sanders espouses the importance of foresight in the strategic thinking process. It’s one thing to have insight (you’ll get that during step one above) but foresight is different. Foresight comes when you pay careful attention to the issues emerging under the surface. These “Emerging Initial Conditions” give you clues to the future and how your church can actually shape what’s to come. Sanders suggests a series of questions to help you pinpoint these emerging conditions including:

  • What seems small now, but if it mushroomed overnight could go through the environment like a bolt of lightning and completely rearrange it?
  • What could have a dramatic impact on the future of the organization or issue being scanned?
  • What thoughts or concerns about your work or this issue keep you awake at night?
  • What is your intuition telling you? What do you feel in your stomach, but don’t talk about?

The better you understand emerging initial conditions, the more you’ll be able to create the future rather than simply react to it.

3.  Move From Possible or Probable to Preferred
Author Glen Hiemstra says that every organization begins with the present (their current reality) and has three futures to choose from:

  • Possible Future – This future includes every single possibility imaginable. The problem is, no church can do everything. Just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for you to pursue.
  • Probably Future – Your probable future is where your church will end up if you continue to do what you are currently doing. Long-term, there is little hope with this approach because every strategy eventually runs its course. The probable future is one pocket of the possible future.
  • Preferred Future – Your preferred future is your focused understanding of where God wants you to be. It overlaps some of your probable future because most churches do not completely depart from their DNA. A large chunk of your preferred future is in the possible future…it represents where you hope to be. But then there’s a slice of your preferred future that even falls outside of the probable future. It’s that slice that seems completely unattainable but which faith drives you to pursue.

When you can understand your preferred future, you’ll have the clarity you need to redefine your strategies.

4. Challenge Assumptions Before Creating Strategies
This is one of the best things you can do with your team. Sit down together and ask yourself, “What assumptions are driving us to do ministry the way we do it?” This simple yet mind-stretching exercise will help you shift your approach to creating strategies so that you develop plans that are best aligned with your preferred future. For example, ask yourself:

  • What assumptions have we held about how best to disciple people?
  • What assumptions have we held about how to recruit and develop leaders?
  • What assumptions have we held about reaching people far from God?
  • What assumptions have we held about the use of technology?
  • Are our assumptions true, false, or misguided?

Your assumptions are the biggest influence on your ministry strategies. And if your assumptions are off-base, every strategy you form will fall short of its potential.

These four strategic thinking strategies will help you thoroughly evaluate what you do, where you want to be, and how you should get there.

Question: Which of the four strategies is most challenging to you? What other strategies would you add to the list?