12 Best Books of 2012

Making a “Best of” list is always hard – it’s a very subjective process, driven by my personal tastes, professional needs, and plain curiosity.

I’ve always been a voracious reader – a cherished habit passed down to me by my late father. In the past year, though, I’ve been able to ramp it up considerably because of my role as Vision Room Curator.

It’s not only a pleasure to read, it’s part of my job description – how cool is that?

Even so, it’s also hard to narrow it a “Best of” list down: in 2012, my reading included:

  • 127 books checked out from my local library
  • 68 print books purchased
  • 31 books received for review
  • 75 digital books on my Kindle

I also perused dozens of bookstores on my travels, writing down 63 titles for future review and/or acquisition. There are also a lot of late releases just coming out that I don’t have time to take a look at – yet. Be that as it may, here is my list of my 12 favorite books published in 2012.

Outside In

  Outside In

Guest Experiences for ChurchWorld is my passion, and this book by Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine will provide churches a “go-to” manual for years to come


Deep and Wide

Deep and Wide

Andy Stanley and Northpoint Ministries have a solid model that all churches would do well to study – not to duplicate, but to understand how to impact your community for Christ.


Center Church

Center Church

Tim Keller delivers a textbook for doing church; possibly the most important church theology/leadership/practical book in a decade


The Advantage

   The Advantage

Patrick Lencioni captures the concept of clarity (he uses the phrase “organizational health”) like no business thinker today


The Icarus Deception

   The Icarus Deception

Seth Godin’s most recent book is probably the most challenging personal one I’ve read – and that’s saying a lot!


The Lego Principle

   The LEGO Principle

Joey Bonifacio writes in a simple, profound way about the importance of “connecting” in relationships that lead to discipleship


Missional Moves

   Missional Moves

Rob Wegner and Jack Magruder in a quiet, unassuming way, illustrate how Granger Community Church is transforming into a community of believers reaching their community – and the world.


Lead with a Story

Lead with a Story

Paul Smith delivers a powerful tool to enhance the leader’s skill in storytelling.


Design Like Apple

Design Like Apple

John Edson delivers a stunningly designed book that challenges the reader to understand and utilize Apple’s principles of design



Better Together

   Better Together

Church mergers (and closings) are going to be a huge event in the next decade; Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird give an excellent resource on how to survive and thrive throughout the process.




Susan Cain writes the book I’ve been waiting for over 30 years – because I am an introvert leader.



Midnight Lunch

   Midnight Lunch

Sarah Miller Caldicott delivers a powerful primer for collaborative teamwork.



HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations

   HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations

Nancy Duarte is not just a great writer – she knows how to deliver a great presentation from the first idea to the final applause.



Okay, it’s not 12 – but it is a baker’s dozen!

Let’s see – there’s still over 2 weeks left in 2012 – plenty of time to find a good book – what do you recommend?


Today’s post closes out a series looking at the new book “The Other 80 Percent” by Scott Thumma and Warren Bird. The authors listened to thousands of church members’ voices to discern what motivates less-connected, inactive members to move toward a life of discipleship and living out their faith in community.

Previous posts included a look at where the 80/20 Principle originated, defining the other 80 percent, the creation of listening teams, and the use of learning teams. The authors challenge church leaders to put everything they’ve learned into practice by, well, leading. First, a warning – it is critical to balance energetic appeal to newcomers with care of existing members. It’s easy to be gung-ho about welcoming new faces to your church, but what happens when the “new” wears off? After that, Thumma and Bird recommend something so common sense most leaders miss it entirely: Begin reaching out to your marginal participants by doing more of whatever you are doing that already promotes participation. Don’t reinvent the wheel – at least unnecessarily! Other ideas include:

  • Proceed with your best efforts
  • Affirm your expectations for commitment
  • Reevaluate the process of participating
  • Help people use their gifts and interests
  • Individualize avenues of participation
  • Make sure the rewards aren’t limited to heaven
  • Expand what it means to participate

While the 80/20 Principle may work just fine when it comes to the business world (and applied correctly, in ChurchWorld), most often the 80/20 Principle needs to be carefully watched. The way to keep Pareto at bay is for a church’s leadership to be truly committed to being a spiritual shepherd, always connecting activity with some aspect of spiritual maturity.

“The Other 80 Percent” is an excellent book for church leaders to read and put into practice. An unusual combination of research and practical helps, it will serve leaders well as a guide to helping understand and activate what oftentimes is a majority of membership.

What will you do TODAY to understand the other 80 percent?

More importantly, what action will you take THIS WEEK to help them become active?



Frustrated by the lack of commitment and involvement in your church?

Scott Thumma and Warren Bird may have the answers – or at least help you ask the right questions to discover the answers yourself. Their latest book, “The Other 80 Percent,” features exhaustive research on the problem of less-connected and inactive members in churches just like yours. Building on the foundation of this research, they then offer practical steps to develop listening and learning teams to help assist leaders uncover membership patterns, cultural norms, and leadership blind spots. Yesterday’s post covered The Listening Team; today, let’s take a look at Learning Teams.

The listening ideas covered yesterday help, but they won’t give you all the answers you need to address the dynamic of marginal commitment and involvement in the group Thumma and Bird call the other 80 percent. The fact is that the problem doesn’t rest solely in unwilling or dissatisfied people. Some issues require you to look beyond your people.

Enter the Learning Team.

A focus on learning seeks to gain an even bigger picture of the other dynamics at work that prevent “the other 80 percent” from being involved. These insights provide additional prospective and tools needed to turn your church’s spectators into active disciples.

Changes in Society

Changes in society and culture have significantly complicated the challenge of involvement levels at church. Some changes are obvious, but others are subtle. Here are several cultural shifts the authors found significant:

  • Eroding traditional connections
  • Blurring of religious distinctiveness
  • Increasing individualism
  • Desacralizing sacred time
  • Declining civic engagement

Before you point your finger in blame at society, leaders also need to look at several ChurchWorld contributions to the problem:

  • Emphasis on membership
  • Counting attendees as a primary measure
  • Sunday only based Christianity
  • Conversion as an event rather than a process
  • People looking to church only to meet their needs

Patterns in Churches

The programs, routines, and physical reality of the church all have a powerful formative effect on those who gather. While people constitute the congregation, in reality the church’s structure acts back on what takes place inside of it. Research conducted among thousands of participants in various church groups across the country demonstrate how certain organizational realities help or hinder church participation and volunteer recruitment. Factors include the following:

  • Size matters
  • Denominational family
  • Worship format and church dynamics

Leadership Approaches

Leadership teams often try to encourage participation and yet in doing so miss the mark completely. In addition to learning about the cultural hindrances of involvement and church structural challenges, it is critical for the leadership team to learn how its own involvement efforts can backfire.

Consider newcomer involvement patterns

  • New people are not complete strangers; nearly all first heard about the church from friends, so someone at the church had already asked them to come
  • New people are the least connected, so don’t overlook the need to help them develop meaningful relationships
  • Churches and staff overwhelmingly see the “front door” of worship and the pastor’s identity as the way and reason folks come in
  • People are more open to expanding their involvement when they are asked personally by someone they know

Too many pastors think that the pulpit, worship bulletin, or church newsletter is the primary trigger for involvement. It may take some work to structure a church so that the norm is a personal request by someone known, and the culture welcomes people taking initiative or responding to an inner prompting.

The Learning Team

In a similar manner to the Listening Team, the goal of a learning team is to uncover the external social and cultural dynamics in your community that may indirectly hamper church involvement. Study in-depth the content areas highlighted above. After creating a list of five or so specific areas to explore, meet with the Listening Team, sharing your information and listening to and learning from them.

As the Listening and Learning Teams process and digest their findings, it is very possible that they will discover that diminished participation involves more than personal issues. It also stems from systematic issues that have potentially programmatic remedies.

So far Thumma and Bird have discussed Listening Teams and Learning Teams. The final segment of their book will suggest specific ways to lead your people into greater involvement based on what you have gained from listening to your congregation and learning from the influences outside the congregation.

Tomorrow: Leading


In almost every church a sizable group of members and attenders remain largely uninvolved. There is no single reason why this is true. Each less-than-active participant has unique grounds for his or her low level of involvement. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, but there is a process that can help you discover why members are not involved – and it begins with listening.

Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, authors of “The Other 80 Percent,” have compiled extensive research and matched it with practical suggestions gleaned from the research into a 3 step process to help turn your church’s spectators into active participants. Step One develops a framework to Listen to your congregation. Step Two lays out a foundation to help you Learn about changing the system. Step Three will show you how to Lead all who identify with y0ur church into a far more engaged level of committed involvement.

The Involvement Continuum

Thumma and Bird framed their work by identifying 3 distinct patterns of involvement:

  • High Involvement – attend, give, invite, serve, lead, develop deep friendships
  • Medium Involvement – attend less frequently, might give, have friendships
  • Low Involvement – attend rarely or never yet have some affiliation past or present, might still give, might still have friendships.

 With this framework in mind, the authors suggest that church leaders start the process by listening to those who demonstrate high involvement. It will be very instructive to think about this group from the perspective of why and how they have become so involved. What exactly is it that they love about their church and its leaders that motivates them to be so engaged?

You can and should continue to strengthen those connections and involvements that increase participation, and make congregational life even more spiritually meaningful for your most committed participants.

Increasing Involvement

Thumma and Bird’s research showed that participation increased when a number of components were present. There needed to be opportunity for involvement, motivation for increased participation, and the ability to be more involved. Across the wide-ranging data they drew from, the responses of those who had increased their involvement confirmed this three-part combination. Their sense of spiritual fulfillment directly correlates with greater involvement in the congregation. The research also indicated that there was no single factor to increasing involvement, but instead suggests that most churches need multiple pathways to help increase involvement.

Diminished Involvement

The profile of people whose participation has decreased in recent years looks like the direct opposite of those described above. Folks with decreasing involvement (averaging about 10-20 percent of a congregation) are likely to be cycling off committees, heading to college, changing jobs, dealing with illness, or having family difficulties. Interestingly, the research showed that length of membership correlated with declining participation: churches are much better at creating initial commitment than they are as sustaining and enhancing that involvement. Material from surveys, comments, and interviews suggests that the move to lessened involvement is a gradual drift toward detachment. This body of people is perhaps the most crucial group for church leaders to listen to. They have the most to share with church leadership about what isn’t working; they are the “red flags”, the warning signs of even deeper issues. Unfortunately, in most cases they are not obvious or even noticeable. They often just drift away, slipping into the shadows until they are no longer there.

Low or Marginal Involvement

While it is often difficult for church leaders to perceive those who are drifting away, it is easy to identify the third group from the authors’ research. One reason is sheer numbers: the low or marginally involved often comprise a third of the total membership. They have the lowest level of participation. They may attend, but they do little else: they are spectators. However, it is wrong to lump them into one group; a closer look at this group reveals at least four distinct subgroups with different needs and patterns:

  • Guests and Newcomers – people who are brand new or are still visiting the church
  • Dating but Undecided – newer people, attenders who are not members, and those who divide their loyalty among several church homes
  • Connected and Needy but Uncommitted – people who attend very infrequently, yet are long-time members of the church and are known when they show up
  • Aged or Infirm – people who have contributed to the life and ministry for decades, but can no longer attend because of old age and/or illness

Thumma and Bird’s research demonstrated a common theme in the comments of the 80 percent of the flock who are less connected: they express a desire to be connected. When these “least involved” were asked what would increase their involvement, their responses suggested that they could be reengaged if the church strengthened three things: meaningful worship, pastoral care, and ministry to the sick, shut-in, and bereaved. Those answers suggest that many needs are not being met in the group of members who are decreasing or already diminished their involvement. What will it take to reengage them?

Discovering Your Church’s Participation Quotient

Thumma and Bird suggest that creating a structure to listen to your members – all of them, not just the most involved – can be the key to understanding and revitalizing your congregation’s involvement levels. Here is a quick paragraph overview; check out their book for the complete process.

Create a “Listening Team” with a two-fold purpose: (1) to gain an accurate picture of your members and/or attenders’ involvement in the congregation; and (2) to uncover the church leadership’s often hidden assumptions about involvement at the church. The process involves surveys and visits to all (or a representative group) of your membership and attenders. The goal of these visits is to reestablish a connection and listen to members as they describe their family life, involvement expectations, and any needs or desires thy have regarding the church.

Learning Beyond the Membership

In “The Other 80 Percent,” Scott Thumma and Warren Bird challenge church leaders to listen to their members – of all participation groups – in order to understand what helps people stay connected and involved and what is missing from those who aren’t. In accomplishing this task, leaders will soon discover that there are outside factors involved which diminish commitment and hinder involvement. It is necessary to both listen to membership and learn about the world they live in.

Tomorrow: Learning

The Other 80 Percent

Turning your church’s spectators into Active participants

The title of this post is about a new book from Leadership Network, and that book is all about the 80/20 rule that’s in play at your church.

…and it’s not a pretty picture.

In case you missed it, here’s an introduction to the 80/20 rule from yesterday’s post. It’s mainly talked about in terms of efficiency, but when applied to ChurchWorld, it’s a crippling truth: for most of the roughly three hundred thousand Protestant churches in America, only a small percentage of those in regular attendance are active and engaged in mission and ministry. In fact, a church is highly unusual if more than half are.

“The Other Eighty Percent” is a practical guide for church leaders written by respected researcher Scott Thumma and noted author Warren Bird. Thumma and Bird have listened to thousands of church members’ voices to discern what motivates less-connected, inactive members to move toward a life of discipleship and living out their faith in community.

Reality Shows

Gallup surveys of Americans have shown that for decades roughly 40 percent of Americans say they are in church weekly, but recent actual counts of Christian attenders indicate that perhaps no more than 22 percent of Protestants actually show up in any given week. By the numbers, that would mean:

  • If the 40% actually showed up, that would mean each congregation would average 360 in attendance
  • In reality, the average attendance is under 100
  • If 80% of the country claims Christianity; and
  • 65% say they belong to a church; but
  • Only 40% show up sometime each month; then

The greatest American mission field may well already be the members of Christian churches

Root Causes

The current situation in American religious life is deeply engrained and far-reaching, but it can be examined and dealt with in your church. Thumma and Bird offer the following complex set of questions for you to study in order to address the problem – and develop a solution:

  • Is the lack of member involvement because the sheep no longer want to follow?
  • Do some Christians want a life of faith apart from the church?
  • Is the “low bar” situation in some churches the fault of the shepherds?
  • Is the situation the result of an organizational problem?
  • Is it a spiritual problem?
  • What can religious leaders do to reach the less-committed persons associated with their congregations?

The authors aren’t content to just document the problem; they suggest some very practical strategies that can stimulate a greater expression of faith and increased involvement in the portion of God’s kingdom that is the local church.

The message of “The Other 80 Percent” is this: If you pay attention to your less-involved people, they will become more involved.

Tomorrow: Listening

Economics Principles at Your Church

My college experience included four years serving as a student assistant in the office of the chairman of our school’s economics professor. For 10 hours each week I got a healthy dose of Economics – everything from Econ 101 to advanced statistical analysis. Dr. Cho certainly knew his subject matter, and the quizzes, exams, and homework I graded made me appreciate the field of study, even to the point of taking extra classes and obtaining a minor in economics.

Over the 30 years since college, various economic concepts have popped up in my work on a church staff and as a church consultant. The most regular of these has been “The Pareto Principle,” first written about in 1906 by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto.

You probably know it as the “80/20 Rule.”

John Maxwell recalls learning of it in a college business management course, calling it one of the most profound eureka moments in his life:

The professor was teaching the Pareto Principle, and as he explained its impact, my eyes were opened. He explained that:

  • 80 percent of traffic jams occur on 20 percent of the roads
  • 80 percent of classroom participation comes from 20 percent of students
  • 80 percent of the time you wear 20 percent of your clothes
  • 80 percent of the profits come from only 20 percent of the customers
  • 80 percent of problems are generated by 20 percent of the employees
  • 80 percent of all decisions can be made on 20 percent of the information

What an eye opener! It meant that the best 20 percent of my activities were sixteen times more productive than the remaining 80 percent. (from Leadership Gold, by John Maxwell)

Dozens of books in my Leadership Library refer to the 80/20 rule, most often in terms of resource and time efficiency. In this context, I think it is appropriate, and a very useful rule of thumb. Certain assumptions can follow from this idea – you should focus on your best customers, or your hardest working staff members, or your most profitable selling item – with these you reap the greatest results for the least effort.

But when Pareto comes to church, it’s not a good thing.

In ChurchWorld, a handful of members typically account for most of the effort in the congregations. (A corollary to this principle is that a few members cause most of the headaches, but I’ll save that for another day.)

How can you shift more of your church members from sitting to serving, from being spectators to engaging more deeply? Would doing so help more people to grow and develop spiritually?

A new Leadership Network publication may just be what you are looking for to answer those questions. “The Other 80 Percent” is a practical guide for church leaders written by respected researcher Scott Thumma and noted author Warren Bird. The authors draw upon new research across a broad range of Protestant churches of all kinds.

I can almost hear Dr. Cho now: “the distribution of your sheep can be shown like this…”

Beginning tomorrow, I would like to invite you to look deeper into “The Other 80 Percent” and see how you might use it to help move your church forward.

It’s time to break the cycle of commitment mediocrity