Breakout Churches: Discover How to Make the Leap

By Thom S. Rainer
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2004). 259 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
16.1 (Spring 2005) : 175-177

In more conservative and Calvinistic circles the “Church Growth Movement” and constructs of Church Growth have been roundly, and in many instances, rightly criticized. The emphasis on methodology and pragmatism has often been at the expense of theology and a biblical view of the sovereignty of God. The perceived excesses of the Willow Creek and Saddleback models of ministry, the theological aberrations of Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral model, and some of the unguarded statements of C. Peter Wagner (along with his own problematic theology) have caused many to view the movement with a jaundiced eye.

\The author of this work has been a leader in the conservative wing of the Church Growth Movement for many years. He is the author of several significant books in the area of church growth, and is the Dean of the Billy Graham School of Evangelism and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also the president of The Rainer Group, a church consulting firm.

This work is modeled after the template of Jim Collins’ bestselling business book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (HarperCollins, 2001). Rainer acknowledges his deb t to that model work (13-14). A reader might think this is just another so-called Christian book borrowing from the pragmatism and secularism of American business, but this is wrong.

Church growth and effective evangelism is entirely in the hands of a sovereign God, but God does not override poor planning, bad methodology, and outright ineptitude (or sinfulness) on the part of church leaders to grant successful evangelism and growth. John MacArthur, well known for decrying pure pragmatism in church ministry (e.g., Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes like the World [Crossway, 1993]), has noted that one cannot ignore the practical aspect of ministry if a local church desires to be successful (e.g. “Marks of an Effective Church,” in The Master’s Plan for the Church [Moody, 1991] 103-16).

Rainer’s work examines 13 churches that made the transition of a “Breakout Church” using the criteria established by Rainer’s study. The 13 churches studied were selected from an initial group of over 50,000 churches. The sample churches had to meet five criteria (213-15). Key among the criteria was a church’s need to experience the breakout under the same pastor (214). This requirement was key because, following Collins’ work, Rainer also emphasizes what he calls “Acts 6/7 Leadership” (5-67) as foundational to “Breakout Churches.”

Rainer notes that, “it is a sin to be good if Go d has called us to be great” (34) and this work details the biblical princip les that undergird greatness. He details a six-stage process that the “Breakout Churches” he studied went through. Initially, they were churches in decline, from there the pastor commited to “Acts 6/7 Leadership,” which emphasizes the “called leader,” the “contributing leader,” the “passionate leader,” the “bold leader,” and the “legacy leader.” The first five concepts are built on the leadership qualities seen in the apostles in Acts 1–5 and the final state is demonstrated in a large measure by the leadership qualities of Stephen in Acts 6–7. From there the church moved to what Rainer calls the “ABC Moment,” that is the realization that something is not right in the church (Awareness), that the leader acknowledges this and confronts it (Belief), and the willingness to face the opposition from those satisfied with the status quo (Crisis). The next step is the “Who/What Simultrack” where, to paraphrase Collins’ work, the wrong people got off the bus, the right people were put on the bus, even the right people who were there are put into the right seats. Next he details the “VIP Factor” where the “leaders discovered vision through the intersection of three factors: the passion of the leader, the needs of the community, and the gifts, abilities, talents and passions of the congregation” (30). The next step is a development of “Culture of Excellence” where the good is eschewed in favor of the best. Finally comes the feature of “Innovation Accelerators.” Rainer notes that methodologies and innovation are the end-result, not the solution, to declining churches. “How many church leaders have divided and demoralized congregations by introducing innovative methodologies and approaches before the church was ready to accept them?” (31).

The results of Rainer’s research and study of his 13 churches was eyeopening, particularly to those who have an inclination against “Church Growth” type of studies and materials. One was the centrality of biblical preaching as a foundational factor in the “Breakout Churches.” Rainer notes that all pastors involved in “breakout” renewed emphasis on the study and preaching of the Word. As he notes:

The evidence of our research is convincing. These churches never abandoned the basics in their transition to greatness. There were obviously many methodological issues that were of great importance in their breakout. But any methodological factors were secondary to biblical fidelity, preaching and prayer. The Big Mo cannot be sustained by methods. The breakout churches are truly Acts 6:4 churches: “[We] will give ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (173).

Rainer notes several other factors and details a group of comparison churches that did not “breakout.” There is a helpful series of appendices, including a “Frequently Asked Questions” section as well as a detailed subject index. The work is well noted. A detailed bibliography would have been a helpful addition to the work, however.

As the author repeats throughout the work, this is not a book of methodology. He rejects the notion that A+B+C must always equal D. “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. To the contrary, the opposite was true” (172). He debunks the myth that churches can grow simply through methods and innovations or the securing of a “great pastor.”

This is a book that pastors and church leaders serious about fulfilling the Great Commission and leading effective and God-honoring and biblically sound churches need to read and digest thoroughly.