Book Review | Breakout Churches | Thom Rainer

Bibliographical information: Rainer, Tom S. Breakout Churches; Discover How to Make the Leap. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).

Author Information:

Tom Rainer is the current president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources out of Nashville, TN.  Before coming to LifeWay, Dr. Rainer was a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years, and was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and church growth there at SBTS.  Dr. Rainer speaks at hundreds of Christian venues each year and previously led the Rainer Group, which provided church growth and help insights to hundreds upon hundreds of churches and organizations.  Dr. Rainer has written twenty-two books to date including Essential Church, Surprising Insights from the Un-Churched, and The Unexpected Journey.  Dr. Rainer is married to Nellie Jo and they have three grown sons, Sam, Art, and Jess.

Content Summary:

Breakout Churches is a result of an examination of more than 50,000 churches, in an effort to find what he calls “breakout churches.”  This research was conducted by The Rainer Group, Rainer’s consulting firm.  With the help of a research team of thirteen gifted individuals, Rainer went through great strides to find churches that broke out of mediocrity to become great churches.  Rainer and his staff began with 52,333 churches, and, after their initial screening, trimmed that number to 1,936 churches.  Of the nearly 2,000 churches that were selected only 831 supplied the needed data to be evaluated by the research team.  Only 211 of those churches met the initial criteria of reporting a decline followed by a breakout, which was then followed by a period of growth, and only seventeen of these reported a decline followed by a breakout followed by a period of growth, all under the same pastoral leadership. Four churches did not meet the screening criteria and were thus eliminated (p. 215).  What remained were thirteen churches that broke out from mediocrity to greatness.  From these thirteen churches, much can be learned about church growth, health, and spiritual leadership.

Rainer begins his first chapter with an eye opening statement, “It is a sin to be good if God has called us to be great” (p.15). This first sentence is an excellent indicator of what the next 235 pages will be like – in God’s house good is simply not good enough. In fact, he quotes Jim Collins by saying that, “Good is the enemy of great” (p. 15). Rainer gives the criteria used to uncover thirteen “Breakout Churches” churches who understood that good is the enemy of great.  The church must have at least 26 conversions annually. The church must have an annual conversion ratio of 20:1. The church must have experienced a decline for several years prior to a breakout year. The church must have sustained new growth for several years. Additionally, the church must have experienced the slump reversal and breakout all under the same pastor (p. 21). Rainer then discusses what he calls the Chrysalis Factor(s) that led to the transformation of the churches.  The Chrysalis factor helped “to identify as clearly as possible the events, patterns, plans, strategies, crises, and other factors that took place when a church made the transition to greatness” (p. 24). Rainer then discuses briefly the six major components of the Chrysalis factor which are the basis for the subsequent chapters of his book.

In the next two chapters, Rainer discusses leadership characteristics that were common among all thirteen breakout churches.  Leaders of breakout churches understood their calling, led their congregation to look beyond themselves, were passionate and bold, and were “legacy leaders”, meaning that they were “quick to give ministry to others and let them take credit for their work” (p. 44).  These leaders exhibited confident humility and were not afraid to accept responsibility when things did not go right.  Additionally, they “expressed an intense love for the members of their congregation” (p. 62).

In chapter four, Rainer discusses one of the crucial events that led these churches from mediocrity to greatness, called the ABC moment.  Churches must be aware that something is wrong in their ministry, must have a strong belief that God can turn the situation around, and must endure the painful crisis that takes place once the change begins.  Once the ABC moment has occurred, churches must then go through the phenomenon called the “Who-What simultrack” (p. 92) where they get “the right infrastructure and the right people in place” (p. 108).  In chapter six, entitled “The VIP factor”, Rainer indicates that an interesting characteristic of breakout churches was that these churches “simply do not seek to discover their vision” (p. 111). These churches care about a vision but they focused on their spiritual gifts, their passions, and their community’s needs, and allowed their vision to discover them” (p. 113).

In the next chapter, the title says it all: “A Culture of Excellence”.  Breakout churches, unlike many other churches, focused on just a few things and did those things well.  They believe that “anything attempted for God should be done with excellence” (p. 131).  The desire for excellence among breakout churches “was always biblically and theologically driven.  They sought to do their best for the Savior they served” (p. 144).

The last characteristic of breakout churches is discussed in chapter eight, entitled “Innovation Accelerators.”  They adopted innovation slowly after scrutiny and deliberation, yet they were not afraid to innovate as long as it was in line with the vision of their ministry.  Breakout churches made certain that any innovation they adopted would enhance their vision.

In chapter nine Rainer writes about the “Big Mo”. The Big Mo is the result of all of the six components of the breakout churches.  After applying these characteristics, these churches experienced momentum which can only be accredited to a sovereign and omnipotent God.  This momentum occurred because of the churches’ faithfulness in applying the six components or characteristics of breakout churches and “because of the power of a great God” (p. 198).  This Big Mo is a time “when one success builds upon another” and is what seems to be “an inexplicable momentum” in the church (p. 182).

Rainer closes the book with chapter ten which is entitled “To Become a Breakout Church.”  Here Rainer reviews many of the key characteristics and insights previously discussed, and pours his heart out for the reader to see.  “There is little doubt that many American churches are sick.  The documentation I provided earlier certainly paints that picture” (p. 187). Rainer calls his readers to be the godly leaders that Christ has called them to be by having a “Christ-like spirit” (p. 191).

Evaluation:

The first strength of this book is, undoubtedly, its success in achieving its goals. Breakout Churches accomplished the goal it set out to accomplish, which is to “offer specific examples and principles to help [a church] become more effective”, and also to “reveal the process of becoming a breakout church and the factors that lead to this spiritual metamorphosis” (back cover). This book has done this and so much more. With more than 3,500 churches dying each year, Rainer’s book is very much needed. The state of the church today is in crisis mode, and Rainer’s book gives accurate, helpful insight from some churches that are doing church right. This book offers 252 pages of wisdom, research, insight, and stories of how church can succeed when so many other churches around them are plateaued or dying. This book is a breath of fresh air and reminds the reader that there is indeed hope for the church today. From the first page, the reader can ascertain that this book comes out of the love and passion that Rainer has for the church and its health and growth. His desire is to see all churches reach the point of breakout.

Another strength of this book lies in the candidness and honesty of the author. The author does not paint a rosy picture at every corner and pretend that all went well with his research and findings. This adds to the credit of both the author and the book. From the onset of the book (p. 16), the author talks of the difficulties he had in finding adequate data and results to use in his book. The author candidly admits, “I questioned my sanity at enduring this project from start to finish” (p. 34). However, in the end, it was well worth it for both the writer and the reader. “The lessons we learned”, says the author, “are priceless” (p. 16). The lessons the readers have learned and continue to learn from this book are priceless and are vital for the health and longevity of the local church.

Even the additions to this book, such as the appendices and end notes are unusually valuable. The author first addresses about twenty of the most likely questions a reader will still have once finished with the book, many of which this reviewer still had. He gives thorough but concise answers to each question before moving to the next appendix where he gives the reader insight into the intricacies of the selection process. This helps the reader feel as though they are a part of the process themselves, and gives them a sort of “behind the scenes” look at the development of the book. Another valuable tool is a short synopsis of information on each church, which summarizes nicely much of the information previously stated concerning each church. Whereas throughout the book the information on each church is divulged in pieces, the appendix on the churches (Appendix D) gives the complete picture on each church, including background and pastor information. As if these appendices were not enough, Rainer and his team developed a spiritual inventory of sorts to help churches assess themselves in light of the traits that helped the breakout churches leap to greatness. This assessment can act as a barometer to help churches identify their areas of weakness and help them develop an action plan to be on their way to the point of breakout.

One of the strongest aspects of Rainer’s book lies in what the book is not. It is not a “ten-step secret to unlocking the keys to church growth” type of book that promises growth after reading a book. It isn’t like many other church growth books on the market that gives ten steps to this or forty days to this. Rainer says, honestly and humbly, and with great integrity, that “I do not want to suggest that we have discovered some neat formulaic approach for leading churches to greatness. A sovereign God and the Holy Spirit are not instruments subject to manipulation by humans” (p. 27), Rainer makes it clear that his book is about discovering insights as to how God is working in the church, and is not a ten-step guaranteed fix for any church. Ultimately, only Christ can build His church, and Rainer’s thesis and book supports that idea.

One small area of weakness is the amount of references to Jim Collin’s book, Good to Great. Admittedly, the author disclosed at the onset of the book that his work was structurally based upon the work of Jim Collins, and that he would borrow from Collins’ work. However, it appeared to this author that too much time was spent quoting or referring to Collin’s work. Reading Rainer’s book was in many ways like reading Collins’ book. Less frequent mentions of Collins’ would have made Rainer’s work a bit more unique, and would have allowed Rainer’s ideas to stand on their own merit. Though Rainer’s research is all his, the content structure of this book too closely resembles Collins’ book and appears to be a “Christianizing” of an existing secular book. Rainer’s research and even his ideas are new and revealing, yet such strong ties to Collins’ work seem to diminish the uniqueness of Rainer’s work somewhat. Fewer references to Collins’ work would have served Rainer better and would have lent more originality to his work.

Breakout Churches is an incredible journey into the lives of thirteen great churches. Rainer takes his readers on this journey, from the lowest point of the church to the spiritual high point of breakout so that the reader can glean insight into those areas where churches were doing ministry and church right. This book has many great lessons not just for churches, but for pastors, deacons, and the laity. This book supports the idea that, aside from the sovereign work of God, church growth is deliberate and that God does reward those who seek to live their lives and direct their churches under His will. This book is for anyone who is serious about church growth, spiritual development, and the overall health of the Body of Christ. It is the prayer of this review that many people will read and digest the contents of this book so that they may know and experience those things that can take a church from good to great.

Personal Application and Reflection

As I read this book, one of the first realizations I came to was the importance of my own spiritual health for the growth and health of my church. It is easy to see the church as a corporate body, but difficult to see one’s self specifically as an important, vital part of the body. As a pastor, this book instilled within me the importance of sound doctrine and biblical wisdom as I lead. Though God is sovereign and can build His church as He pleases with or without me, God has chosen to use me to help build His church. In doing so, God has charged me with tending first to my own spiritual health before I can become concerned with the corporate spiritual health of our church. I must study God’s Word like never before, be willing to take risks, be willing to lead the church in ministry beyond the walls of the church, and focus on the basics of Christian ministry, such as preaching, teaching, and prayer. I play a more important role in the health of my church than I could have ever imagined. Rainer states that a lack of “legacy leaders” in the church is one of the reasons why church attendance is down in America (p. 45). This is a weighty responsibility that every pastor must take seriously.

Another personal application that is important to me as the Pastor of a small church is that there is much more to church than simply trying to survive. The fact that eighty percent of churches in America are in decline is staggering, and to make matters worse, my church is one of those churches. Churches such as mine have been in survival mode for so long that it appears we have forgotten about the basics of ministry and Christian service and evangelism, and are rather trying to find creative ideas to increase the number of visitors or members in our church. In other words, we are focused on the problem or the symptoms, and not the solution or diagnosis. Rainer’s book pulls the curtain back so churches can begin to think in terms of a solution. Myself, or any pastor or church leader for that matter, can take these ten traits and work from there to determine where they are spiritually.

I take away from this book a saying that I will never forget: “It is a sin to be good if God has called you to be great” (p. 34). In my ministry I must always strive to exemplify those biblical principles that will take me and my church to greatness. This book has encouraged me to always exemplify Colossians 3:17 in my ministry, which states, “And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him”. I can no longer show signs that I am addicted to mediocrity (p.71) in either my personal spiritual life or in the spiritual life of my church. I must strive for excellence in all things (p. 131) and glorify God by being both theologically and biblically driven (p. 132). I recommend this book highly!

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