Book Review: Advanced Strategic Planning, by Aubrey Malphurs
It’s always refreshing to read the work of a man who loves the local church, and Aubrey Malphurs, a church planting consultant and Dallas Seminary professor, surely does. The whole purpose of his book Advanced Strategic Planning is to help local churches become healthy and biblical. He hopes to do this through the process of strategic planning.
Malphurs begins Advanced Strategic Planning by identifying the following problem, endemic among American churches. The “life cycle” of many churches is reflected in what is called a “Sigmoid curve,” or an S-curve, in which a church begins well, trends up, but eventually declines.
He summarizes the problem this way: “The message or lesson of the sigmoid curve is that all good things (and even some bad things) end…Even brand-new institutions and organizations such as a church will, in time, plateau and then die. No matter what institution it is, organizational “dry rot” sets in. The institution becomes brittle, ceases to function, and expires” (11).
What’s the solution for this sad situation? The church must “launch new S-curves” (14), a process carried out through the work of strategic planning. In strategic planning, one goes about “discovering your core values; developing a mission, a vision, and a strategy,” and then implementing this knowledge (14).
These ideas, presented in the first pages of the book, form the bulk of Malphurs’s solution to the problem of church decline. The following three hundred pages unfurl this strategy for improving churches, elucidating in depth his belief in such ideas as “dream planning,” vision and mission statements, the assembling of a “ministry dream team,” and a “Strategic Initiation Team.”
1. Love for the Local Church
The most obvious strength of Advanced Strategic Planning is the one I already mentioned. Malphurs has a heart for the local church. He’s particularly burdened for the contemporary church, which he likens “to a ship without a compass, drifting aimlessly on the ocean” (31). The ship is struggling to stay afloat, buffeted by “the winds of change and the currents of postmodernism” which threaten to lead “the church even farther off course.” The strategic planning process is simply Malphurs’s response to this crisis. This heart for the local church shows itself in numerous places throughout the book and marks it as a text which seeks to be part of the solution, not the problem.
2. Desire for Congregational Harmony
Throughout the book, one detects a genuine desire to preserve the unity and harmony of the church’s fellowship in the midst of the strategic planning process. For example, in speaking about the necessary communication between pastor and congregation, Malphurs writes, “If you conduct secret meetings and fail to communicate in general what happens in those meetings, you will not be able to lead the congregation, because they will not trust you….During the strategic planning process, as well as at any other time, you must communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more” (63).
Such advice shows clear concern for the harmony of the body. Malphurs evinces care for the churches that he seeks to assist.
3. Focus on Theology
Malphurs attempts to ground his call for strategic planning in the Bible. Before he lays out the various suggested steps for strategic planning, he offers an 11-page section on the spiritual principles that must undergird the planning process (79-90).
His steps are simple but needed. Each is grounded in Scripture. Examples of this include Malphurs’s call for church discipline, as well as an encouragement to the congregation to submit to the church’s leadership. In each of these matters, as in others, Malphurs seeks to ground the planning process in scriptural principle and godly behavior.
1. Overemphasis on Strategic Planning
In general, it seems that Malphurs places too much value in strategic planning. He seems to regard it as the principal means by which struggling churches may be saved from dissolution.
It’s true that some measure of strategic planning can be helpful. For example, Malphurs’s exhortation to pastors to think through the identity of their church and the people they are targeting is excellent. With this noted, I think Malphurs overestimates the value of strategic planning. Does not the health of the local church depend most on its preaching of the Word, its exercise of the ordinances, and its cultivation of healthy body life and evangelistic outreach?
Insofar as the church does contain institutional elements, there is a place for strategic planning. Many churches have not thought enough about their purpose and their mission, and such thinking can do much to revive tired congregations. That said, Malphurs’s model focuses too much on the church as institution and not enough on the church as family, flock, or bridegroom of God. This overly institutional focus leads to an institutional solution for the church’s problems. This solution, in turn, leads us away from the plain biblical means of church health and growth.
2. Unhelpful Means of Evaluation
Malphurs encourages the church to evaluate itself, which in itself is a healthy idea. His form of measurement, however, is concerning.
Evaluation takes place according to “PIs,” performance indicators that reveal the church’s progress toward its goals. For example, one might evaluate the effectiveness of a “seeker service” by the number of baptisms, or the effectiveness of personal evangelism by the number of professions of faith (307).
While numbers may reflect the blessing of God on our ministry, they may also reflect other realities. Our numbers may be high because our doctrine is shallow and easy to stomach. Our evangelism may appear fruitful because our evangelistic program goes soft on hell and perseverance. Isn’t it better to evaluate one’s church according to its faithfulness to Scripture?
3. Strange Model of Polity
Advanced Strategic Planning offers a confused summary of traditional polity and then presents an innovative model to replace it.
Malphurs rejects the traditional elder-led polity of the Bible and conflates it with elder-rule. He explains that “Government by elders or elder rule is when power is vested in a governing board of elders and not in the congregation. Thus the congregation has no power, not even when it acts corporately, which is rare if it happens at all” (218).
Seeking to avoid this problem, he proposes a unique polity, one based not in the New Testament’s outline for a church, but “in the various passages that address the wisdom of teams,” all of which come from Proverbs. The “board” model is basically this: “the board should be made up of the board members and pastor, and there should be a board chairman and probably certain committees” (215).
The abuse of eldership can and does happen. Perhaps Malphurs has seen this in action, and thus he avoids elder-based polity. Regardless, it is a happy fact there are many elder-led churches today that are richly congregational and that invest considerable weight in the church body’s vote (I have belonged to two).
One understands Malphurs’s attempt to avoid a harsh and disenfranchising model of church government, but one wonders whether Malphurs has misunderstood biblical polity and reacted to a caricature of it.
Advanced Strategic Planning reveals a heart for the local church that is missing from much of the contemporary literature on the church. It is an energetic, innovative, and scripturally-minded book. But I’m not sure if Malphurs’s solution, his strategic planning program, is the cure-all for the church’s various maladies that he conceives it to be.
That said, Malphurs’s diagnosis of the problems affecting many churches today hits home. Many churches today face decline or despair. Their members have grown discouraged. In these difficult times, though, we have a great hope. The Lord is sovereign over his church, and he rewards those faithful to his Word. He will not abandon us. In days of great change and struggle, this is our confidence.