Taking Your Church to the Next Level by Gary McIntosh

McIntosh, Gary. Taking Your Church to the Next Level: What Got You Here Won't Get You There. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2009.

Gary McIntosh, author of Taking Your Church to the Next Level: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There states that his book is, “about cycles of fruitfulness and the importance of continual improvement to diminish destructive forces that keep a congregation from focusing attention on its mission” (16). That statement is loaded and could mean a great number of things, but it, according to McIntosh, “is not to help you build a church larger than the one down the street. It is, however meant to assist you in understanding what is blocking the growth of your church and what you can do to see it reach a new level of impact” (191-192). McIntosh’s argument appears to assume two things: first, that size is the greatest measurement of the health of a local church, and second, that pastors should desire to grow through the life stages of a church, which, incidentally are measured only by the number of congregants in attendance and years of existence. No attention or thought is given to the church that determines to remain at or under a specific size by continually planting more area churches, nor is any thought offered to the small-town church that simply will not grow into most of the church sizes mentioned in this book. ‘Fruitfulness’ and a church’s ‘mission’ in the statement above both appear to hold a definition that places a greater emphases on numerical growth over spiritual growth. Yet, even if one disagrees with these two assumptions (as I do), there is still a great deal of helpful, thought-provoking material in Taking Your Church to the Next Level.

McIntosh offers some tools that the pastor should have in his leadership toolbox. These tools, if utilized in conjunction with many other pastoral tools—something McIntosh seems not to suggest—should provide many pastors with helpful ways of thinking about numerical growth.

The first helpful tool is the church life cycle, or St. John’s Syndrome. Utilizing ideas from the business world as well as research from a number of scholars who have studied church growth, McIntosh identifies distinct stages most churches grow through based on size and age. While the specific size or age boundaries are disputed, thinking about the social constructs and communication methods within each stage is extremely helpful. These stages explain why some people enjoy the smaller churches while others are more comfortable in much larger churches. Looking through the lens of the St. John’s Syndrome also helps us understand why some pastors are more successful in different stages of numerical growth.

Another useful tool related to the church life cycle is McIntosh’s different categories of the church leader. The Catalyzer is the one who is an entrepreneurial type who can start church groups from scratch (90-91). The Organizer is one who takes the assembled pieces and introduces organization that maximizes resources (91-92). The Operator “keeps and organization going by improving its general procedures and systems (92). A Reorganizer is a turnaround leader who takes a church from a declining to a new direction, and a Super-Reorganizer brings about radical redirection, often saving a church from death (93-96).

Finally, McIntosh’s chapters on moving through various stages in the church growth life cycle are thought provoking. These chapters may serve to help pastors who are relatively weak in the area organizational structure. “The bottom line,” according to McIntosh, “is it takes different skills to lead a church during each stage of its life” (89). By providing examples of the garden-variety church at each stage along the way and then providing practical suggestions, the pastor has a framework on which to hang his ideas.

All of McIntosh’s guidance appears to be backed by a great deal of research and practical experience. It is helpful. This however, must be seen through the assumption that numerical growth is the desired outcome. Of course, churches should hope and pray to grow numerically (alongside the more important areas of spiritual growth and growth in faithfulness), just as the early New Testament church in Jerusalem was adding large numbers day by day, but McIntosh’s tools are really only designed to help with numerical growth.

If the pastor’s primary goal is numerical growth, McIntosh’s book should be among his top resources. This book is well thought out and supported by a great deal of research. However, while McIntosh’s work is highly practical, it is lacking in theological support. There are very few paragraphs dedicated to spiritual growth (if any) and almost no biblical references among his sited sources. For a book written to pastors for the purpose of growing churches the Bible aught to be the primary guide, which only further demonstrates McIntosh’s high value placed on numerical growth. Taking Your Church to the Next Level can easily be applied to para-church and non-profit organizations as well as non-Christian faith systems and cults.

In addition, Christ says he will build his Church (Matthew 16). Men can and should draw plans and strategies through prayer and submission to the Lord’s will regarding the assembling and managing of a local church, but in the end, God determines if a local church will or will not grow. The best plans of men still come with absolutely no guarantees. However, McIntosh’s tone is as if these methods are sure to bring numerical growth. Indeed, pastors should seek ways to grow as well as remove those things that are stopping numerical growth such as “the lack of adequate seating, parking, and classroom meeting space” (139); but pastors should first be men of character seeking to serve faithfully and trusting the results to the Lord.

I personally found the information and tools of Taking Your Church to the Next Level helpful but my experience and the scores of other similar books on the topic left me feeling that McIntosh’s goals are misguided. There’s nothing wrong with seeking growth—I know I certainly would like to see more people involved in the church were I serve as well as the church I am planting—but my first preference would be to see healthy growth. Therefore, this book should be paired with at least one more on the topic of spiritual growth in order for it to be more effective and avoid such a business tone that is absent of an apparent faithfulness toward the mysteries of God.

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* This post comes from portions of a paper written for the partial fulfillment of a DMin at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.  It has been redacted and modified for this website.  ** Purchases from the links on this website help support the ministry of SaltyBeliever.com.