Book Review: Twelve Keys to an Effective Church, by Kennon Callahan


I am a social scientist by education, training, and profession. I have spent a third of my life thinking about research methodology, statistical analysis, and applying social scientific findings to many social problems and public policy issues. So, it was with a haunting sense of familiarity that I read Kennon Callahan’s Twelve Keys to an Effective Church and leafed through the many formulas and tables designed to help church leaders estimate and predict the kinds of growth they could expect if they follow his keys.

Twelve Keys to an Effective Church purports to draw upon Callahan’s twenty plus years of experience with over seven hundred and fifty churches across the U.S. The book’s aim is to “assist local churches in their strategic long-range planning to be effective churches in mission.” This general aim is further defined by two objectives for the book: (1) to “deliver a general understanding of strategic long-range planning” and (2) to “deliver an understanding of each of the twelve keys….”

Callahan defines the twelve keys using both “relational” and “functional” characteristics. Relational characteristics include:

  1. Specific, concrete missional objectives
  2. Pastoral and lay visitation
  3. Corporate, dynamic worship
  4. Significant relational groups
  5. Strong leadership resources
  6. Streamlined structure and solid, participatory decision making

Functional characteristics include:

  1. Several competent programs and activities
  2. Open accessibility
  3. High visibility
  4. Adequate parking, land, and landscaping
  5. Adequate space and facilities
  6. Solid financial resources.

According to Callahan, relational characteristics are the sources of congregational satisfaction and functional characteristics are the sources of congregational dissatisfaction. Truly effective congregations have at least nine of these characteristics in place with the majority of them being relational.

With its emphasis on planning and mission, the book reads more like an introductory text in public administration or municipal planning than a studied consideration of what makes for an effective church. Noticeably absent from the entire 127 pages is any serious attempt to understand what constitutes an effective church using the Bible’s teachings. In fact, the one direct quote from scripture (Rev. 21:5) which the author offered had little to do with his central thesis. The closest Callahan comes to even suggesting a connection to the biblical data are statements like:

From the perspective of the Bible, it is consequential that a church first decide its strengths. They are present precisely because God has enabled His people to develop them. In a sense, a church that denies its strengths denies God. A church that decides to claim its strengths affirms that the power of God has been at work in the congregation, enabling it to develop these specific strengths. It is not on an “ego trip.” In a genuine sense, these strengths are gifts from God, and as gifts, they now belong to the congregation. With God’s giving and compassionate power, the congregation has nurtured these strengths. To claim them is to claim the compelling presence of God’s power. (pg. xvi)

This is as theological as the book gets; and sadly, the above statement and the twelve keys are a woefully inadequate view of the nature and purpose of the Lord’s church.

Callahan’s problems start with the very title of the book. Consider the notion of identifying keys to an “effective” church. By “effective,” Callahan appears mainly interested in success. In fact, he asserts “we need more churches that are interested in success and fewer churches that are preoccupied with their own problems” (pg. xxi). The goal of effectiveness or success may be well-intentioned, but it is wrong-headed when compared to the biblical record. In scripture, we find that faithfulness – not success – is required of the stewards of God (I Cor. 4:1-2) and that perhaps the most “successful” missionary of the early church – the apostle Paul – lived a life that would appear anything but “successful” (see the apostle’s catalogue of his trials and difficulties in 2 Cor. 6:3-10 and 1 Tim. 4:11). From the start, Twelve Keys loses sight of the central fact that Jesus Christ promised to build His church by His own sovereign design and not by our best pragmatic ideas.

From this wrong emphasis on effectiveness or success, Callahan goes on to offer a number of recommendations that rest on faulty theological grounds. For example, Twelve Keys posits that the mission of the church is to meet the needs, hurts, and hopes of people in their community with key programs and services. With this focus, Callahan actually relegates the gospel and the true mission of the church to secondary status. While he at times inserts statements suggesting that the programs are efforts to build relationships so that Christ may be shared, the weight of his recommendations falls on the importance of “competent programs” and not on faithfulness to proclaiming the biblical gospel.

Related to the “mission drift” described above is Callahan’s insistence that churches begin to think more broadly about the total number of people they serve each year. The author argues that churches should think not just of its members but also of its constituents (non members who participate in church activities) and “persons served in mission in the community.” In other words, Twelve Keys forfeits the idea of a vibrant, committed church membership for an increasingly broad and amorphous notion of “people served.” Instead of arguing for higher commitment from church members, defined by the author as persons at least “marginally active” in the church’s mission, Callahan actually argues that churches placing their emphasis on caring for the membership are working on the wrong priority! In his view, constituents are to be viewed as regular customers who can be added to the pool of “stockholders” for the church. Any notion of regenerate membership, covenant relationship, accountability and discipline is conspicuously absent.

According to Callahan, “if a church could have only five of the twelve characteristics well in place, it would be these first five that would deliver whichever of the remaining seven that would be important for that church to accomplish its mission in the world” (pg. 40). But a cursory analysis of these five keys demonstrates the unbiblical nature of his strategies. For example, the second key – pastoral and lay visitation – has been used of God to spark genuine spiritual revival in His church. However, Callahan reduces this ministry to a study of traffic- directing patterns and a “rule of thumb… of twenty visits per week with participants in the church and twenty visits per week with people in the community (un-churched and newcomers) and adequate visitation to hospitals and homebound people” (pg. 11). What faithful pastor could carry out this schedule of visitation – all of which are with non-members – and prepare adequately for teaching God’s word to God’s people?

Or consider Callahan’s ideas on corporate, dynamic worship. Whenever four of the following are present, according to the author, corporate and dynamic worship exists: (1) warmth and winsomeness in the service and congregation; (2) music that is inspirational and not too “intellectual”, “complex”, or “comprehensive”; (3) easily understood sermons involving humor, struggle, and a hopeful or helpful message; (4) moving liturgy; and/or (5) comfortable seating. Whether the service is regulated by the pattern and teachings of scripture or strange fire offered with idolatrous hearts receives no attention in Twelve Keys. Callahan’s recommendations about the centrality of music programs betrays serious concern for worshipping the Lord in spirit and in truth, or for loving God with all our hearts, minds and strength. It is no comfort, for example, to hear the author confess without shame that “on Sundays when my own preaching is off, I count on the music to carry the service.”

The chapter on strong leadership resources makes no mention of either the biblical qualifications for leadership (I Tim. 3 and Titus 3) or the responsibilities of church leaders. Instead, strong leaders are those who can develop “missional objectives,” pastoral and lay visitation programs, dynamic worship, and small groups. Paul’s qualifications give way to Callahan’s call for competency, compassion, commitment, “life strengths,” and “personal character and self-esteem.” Savvy leaders may be able to affect a form of godliness, but this approach denies the power thereof.

Church growth and seeker-friendly ideas and methods pervade Twelve Keys to an Effective Church. Consequently, the book relays some of the most serious theological weaknesses from those movements. Each chapter includes at least one worksheet or formula designed to help the reader “strategically plan” for the growth of the church. If there is one thing I have learned as a social scientist and participant in innumerable strategic planning fiascos, it is that formulas and the latest business management fads are poor substitutes for the wisdom of God and the centrality of scripture when caring for His people. The pastor would do well to invest his time in a more faithful work than Callahan’s Twelve Keys.

Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is one of the pastors of Anacostia River Church in Southeast DC. You can find him on Twitter at @ThabitiAnyabwil.

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