Checking Your Adult Class' Health

The "Bonsai Theory" and Adult Ministries Vital Signs

Between the seminar room and the classroom a great gulf is fixed. We have all listened to an "expert in his field" teach fascinating principles that clearly are alien to our experience. Expert credentials seem to be conferred only in situations that cannot be duplicated. After all, if success were easy, everyone would be doing it.

In the real world most adult ministries, ranging from elective courses to singles to family seminars, tend to fall victim to common patterns that drain them of life and power. Ken Hemphill calls this the "Bonsai theory": Churches unwittingly trim off their growing edges to become miniature versions of what they could be. (The Bonsai Theory of Church Growth Church Growth Institute #193).

Good news! The theory works in reverse too. Ministries can grow naturally when the obstacles are removed. Doing a few simple things well is the key. High-tech programming and motivational quick fixes will eventually be trimmed unless the nature of the enterprise is changed.

Let's apply this idea to your adult ministries by looking at two scenarios.

Scenario 1: "We don't know where we're going, but we're making great time."

This pattern begins as a conversation–something like this: A concerned person pours out his heart over the unmet needs of singles, seniors, busters, boomers–you name it. A caring decision maker authorizes a new program/class targeting this group. The concerned person is usually asked to serve in leadership. Materials are ordered. The first meeting is promoted. Early attendance is strong.

Six months later, another conversation takes place: The group leader is still concerned–but now about the potential collapse of the program. Attendance is down. Finance is in the red. Enthusiasm is waning. The leader is shouldering more and more of the work and enjoying it less and less. A series of patchwork solutions are applied to keep the program in existence. No one wants to face the embarrassment of canceling, so things stagger onward.

Scenario 2: "The lights are on, but nobody's home."

This ministry may be a Scenario 1 survivor. More likely, it was pioneered years ago when audiences were greater and competition was less. It is more a product of good timing than good planning.

A Scenario 2 ministry often goes this way: The church experiences an influx of new people, perhaps young couples. Someone realizes that grouping these folks together would be a good way to assimilate them into the church.

A class begins. The students bond easily because of their similar lifestyle. This cluster of people becomes the flagship of the adult program. A deeply committed leader guides the group for many years. Key church leadership positions are filled from the class's ranks.

Before anyone realizes it, a decade or more has gone by. With age, the health of the ministry has begun to wane. The group exists for its own sake. The original sense of mission has long since decayed into a comfort zone, which is relevant only to insiders. In truth, the ministry is on life support.

Vital Signs

While all ministries struggle in some ways, Scenario 1's and Scenario 2's exhibit chronic signs of ill health. Delia Halverson identified the symptoms of a sick program:

- People visit the class once and don't come back.
- Members don't know the names of visitors.
- The class rattles around in a too-big meeting room.
- The class is shoehorned into a too-small room.
- Visitors and absentees are not followed up.
- There is no plan for getting together outside of class.
- Students in need receive no contacts from others.
- Curriculum and teaching staff are unplanned.
- The group has no project outside the classroom.
- The same few people dominate discussion.
- Students argue over study matter. (Leading Adult Learners: A Handbook for All Christian Groups. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995, 71).

Both Bonsai scenarios can be dominated by these unhealthy dynamics in some combination. Contrary to what the leadership may think, growth is not the best medication. Why drive more people away by exposing them to substandard programming? Health must be restored before growth will have any meaning.

Listening for a Heartbeat

There are several ways to determine if a ministry fits into one of these two patterns. Of course, attendance and income can be down and dirty indicators, but this type of measurement is like a thermometer–it only registers a fever after the infection has set in.

The best preventive technique is to sit in with the group and just listen to them interact. Jesus said the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart (Luke 6:45, NIV). This is a spiritual insight and an extremely important management principle: Listening to people opens a window on their inner thoughts and intentions.

Scenarion 1 groups tend to talk about shared uncertainties. Their fears, doubts, and questions will hold center stage. They got together in the first place to meet felt needs. This atmosphere appeals strongly to baby boomers and has the advantage of promoting vulnerability, encouragement, and closeness. The integrity of the class is based on its ability to build genuine relationships that help struggling people.

The downside shows up when Scenario 1 becomes problem-centered instead of Christ-centered. The line can be fine between self-disclosure and self-obsession. Pooling pain is not the same as dealing with it.

When listening in on these meetings you will hear a formless agenda, a reluctance to commit to outside projects (everyone is too busy), and a flood of personal stories told at great length. At first, this seems wonderful. Those with the felt need in question may flock to the group as if it were an oasis in the desert. In a sense, it is.

Several months later, the meetings are on the rocks. Members have found other ways to meet their needs. Group activities have been replaced by competing events. Lifestyle changes have undercut both available time and motivation. For instance, sometimes marriage lifts the burden for singles ministry.

Perhaps key leadership personalities have been driven away. They feel uncomfortable in organizations that drift along without clear objectives. In addition, they will seldom stay in a setting dominated by personal pathologies. One baby boomer professional told me she could not find a place in a Scenario 1-style church because she was simply not sick enough.

Support and recovery groups fall into Scenario 1 only when they are badly managed. They can be led in a way that is Christ-centered and healing to the individual. When this is not the case, however, any ministry can turn inward, lose its focus, and die. Like the Bonsai tree, the natural potential is pruned off, leaving only a pale reflection of what might have been.

Now let's visit Scenario 2. The first thing you notice is that the same people attend every week. Listening to their conversation reveals they are gathered around shared certainties.

Times of interaction in Scenario 2 will be peppered with personal testimonies and references to Scripture. To the outsider it seems that students attend simply to make small speeches about what they already know. Scenario 1 people find this maddening.

A typical Scenario 2 meeting often resembles a little church. It is centered on the leader, who spends most of his time in one-way talk to the group. Feedback takes the form of students amplifying the teacher's point–sometimes even topping the presentation. Success is judged not by vulnerability but assent. To get the amen is everything.

The problem with the Scenario 2's is not their age in and of itself. Ministry to midlife and senior adults is one of the sunrise issues of this century. The fault lies in the way the program is being executed–or, should we say, not being executed.

A Scenario 2 unit fills up with people who would never be caught dead in Scenario 1. They find self-disclosure unnerving and even undignified. Public airing of personal problems seems to them like an exercise in self-pity and unbelief.

Meanwhile Scenario 1 folks think the Scenario 2's are stiff, repressed, and "dysfunctional like my parents." The irony is that both groups are failing, but neither can see it.

In both scenarios the church is accidentally amputating some of its most vital growth assets. As a result, the organization may look fine on paper, but it will lack power and relevance. Nothing is wrong with being small. A lot is wrong with being stunted.

Decide now that this will never happen again.

Require that all leaders of new ministries fill out an application specifying goals, plan of action, outreach, leadership development, and financing. (An excellent example is in theWe Build People Pastor's Kit.)

The application process can provide a cooling-off period that prevents failure-prone ministries from starting. Your adults deserve a solid disciple-making organization that fits the church's vision, not an assortment of knee-jerk reactions to felt needs.

Include a sunset clause in all ministry charters.

Eternal life is promised to believers but not to their programs. Review every adult ministry annually to determine its effectiveness and relevance. Ineffective ministries need to be upgraded or phased out. A fringe benefit here is that busy adults often find short-term programming attractive. It suits their lifestyle nicely. In any event, a successful venture can always be extended.

Use the calendar to your advantage.

I once had a ministry staffed by wonderful people who were committed, well meaning, and incompetent. Unknowingly, they embarrassed the church (and me) almost weekly. When summer arrived, I simply declared that we all needed a vacation and put the ministry on hold. As a result, the cohesion of the group ebbed so much that it essentially ceased to be. A few members questioned this move, but I assured them their beloved project would return one day. It did. Later that year we were able to resurrect it. The time off allowed us to reshape the staff and vision of the ministry into something that proved to be a great joy.

Make leadership development your priority.

Keeping sick ministries on life support is extremely draining. Worst of all, it siphons off the time needed for developing the future of your adult outreaches. Leadership is the cause of failure; leadership is the only cure. If many of your adults are trapped in bonsai scenarios, don't invest time in losing propositions. Rather, use a small group format to start training your next generation of leaders. Well-trained staff will improve everything you do, as well as evolving new ministry to shift things away from Scenario 1 and Scenario 2.

Recognize the difference between the baby and the bathwater.

The fact that a class is getting old together is not necessarily unhealthy.In Growing Adults on Sunday Morning (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1991), Knute Larson makes a compelling case for allowing this natural process to run its course under two conditions: (1) the class is fulfilling its fellowship, teaching, and evangelistic responsibilities and (2) new classes are created frequently for incoming groups of young people. Leadership needs to see the difference between a productive adult experience whose participants are aging and an aging adult experience whose participants are nonproductive.

Consider the death sentence.

This is a hard one. Both Scenario 1 and Scenario 2 can attract devoted followers. Some people are drawn to the very things that cause these groups to fail. Others attend out of guilt or sheer force of habit. Ministries end up with the people who want things that way. However, if reasonable efforts at reform do not produce fruit, leadership will need to begin dialoguing with the participants about the possibility of bringing things to a close. For a long-standing group, this is best handled as a celebration that honors their accomplishments. A ministry with less tenure can be treated as a stepping-stone for the students into other programs.

Don't showcase your worst feature.

Change is not always possible in the short term. However, there is no reason to put an unhealthy situation front and center. Consider arranging for the group to meet less frequently, lowering its profile in promotions, or moving it to a less obtrusive location. Until things can be changed, insulate visitors from Scenario 1 and Scenario 2 situations. Out of sight is out of mind. New people must not have opportunity to conclude that a bonsai approach is normal in your adult ministry.

Require an evangelism plan for all ministries.

Every adult group should submit written reports on attendance, visitors, conversions, follow-up, and other measurements of inclusion. Unless evangelism is structured into the group's expectations, the sense of mission will wither.

Newcomers bring fresh blood to the organization and new life to its members. If no one is being assimilated into the church through an adult ministry, leadership has to ask the tough questions about why.

Do new things.

Elmer Towns estimates that an effective church needs seven classes/groups for every 100 people, and at least 20 percent of these groups should have been started in the last 2 years. People are attracted to the energy and relevance found in new initiatives. Also, bringing new people into new groups is much easier than incorporating them into existing structures. Concentrating on innovation allows your adult ministry to prosper in seasons when changing current ministries is not feasible. A strategic plan for your adults makes it possible to develop new programming while avoiding the bonsai scenarios.

When all else fails, try the obvious.

I recently visited a midweek service set in the traditional style (sing/pray/give/preach/leave). Fifty people were scattered in the gloom of a dimly lighted 1,000-seat auditorium. A visitor could easily conclude this church is lifeless and uninviting. (If the members don't think this is worth turning onall the lights for, why should I be here?) Actually, this congregation is a very exciting place to be--when given a chance. What would happen if the group were moved into a smaller, piano-equipped room, formatted to be more interactive, given time for a light snack, and aimed at training leaders? If handled correctly, this dead spot in the weekly schedule could become a thriving enterprise. The auditorium would be free for a prayer meeting, choir practice, or even another (perhaps nontraditional) midweek service. Opportunity is often just a matter of grasping the obvious.

Sometimes growing is as simple as removing the barriers. When we stop trimming back our God-given potential, we just might be surprised by what happens.

Earl Creps III, Ph.D., director of the doctor of ministry program at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary Springfield, Missouri, is the author of several books on Christian education, including "Investigating Commitment to Membership" (GPH).Promotion and Training Department .Sunday School. All rights reserved. Used with permission.