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Reasons City Transformational Movements Stall

Jack Dennison


October 2000

I think we have crossed an important milestone in the growing City Reaching movement in the United States. I encourage you to read this report carefully. I believe that though not all of the issues and obstacles in City Reaching will be represented in your current circumstances, my experience tells me that many of them are.

When our approach to City Reaching (strategic) began six years ago most of our effort was directed toward vision casting that would lead to an awakening of the Church to God’s love for the city and the Church’s biblical mission and responsibility to the city. I believe the milestone that we have crossed is that the Church has largely been awakened to God’s call and the possibilities that the process of City Reaching provides as we pursue its goal of community transformation. So that today, though vision casting and awakening must be continuous, the focus of our efforts is more on helping local leaders with the process of City Reaching rather than simply casting vision for it. This is, I believe, a fundamental and significant shift. We are making progress!

I recently completed a ten-day journey through five US cities. It was a wonderfully productive time that provided another great learning experience for me. I want to share with you my learning from these five cities since each of them were facing very similar and formidable obstacles in their City Reaching effort. Many city initiatives seem to stall. They lose momentum. The leadership and vision community becomes a closed group. The prayer effort becomes marginalized from the broader pastoral community. The group becomes consumed with tactical activities and events. What began for many with a clear and compelling call from God to reach the city has gotten lost in the dense forest of confusion, distraction and activity. It seems the more lost we become the faster and more feverish is the pace of our activity.


1)      We get stuck at the level of prayer and relationships.

2)      We have not achieved a vision that is widely shared by others and is commonly articulated in city vision casting.

3)      We have been unable to extend our circle of influence beyond the initial joiners.

4)      Our city reaching initiative has become largely event and activity driven.

5)      We don’t know where we are, where we’re going, and exactly what steps to take next

I found myself reading George Otis’ comments from the Foreword of the City Reaching book as a backdrop to finding solutions to each of these formidable challenges. I believe there are solutions to these matters and if we do not find them and implement them the city reaching effort will die a slow death. George Otis writes, “A key question is, are these (community transformation) results reproducible?  Are there certain steps we can take to attract the transforming power of God into our own community?  If the answer is “no,” then there is nothing more to be done.  If divine visitations are inherently arbitrary, then our approach can only be one of hope.  Faith does not enter the equation. If, on the other hand, divine visitations are the result of a cause and effect process, then we must discover the principles involved.  We must follow the divine pre­scription, believing that if we do, God will honor His word and grace us with His presence.”

Otis underscores the importance of the Church’s role and responsibility in the Divine partnership. The Church must seek God and the collective wisdom of others in its effort to be as purposeful and intentional as possible in aligning its activity with the activity of God. If we do not, He will not do for us what we are called to do, and His purposes and our goals will remain largely unmet. Being good-hearted and well-intentioned people is not enough to avoid the pitfalls that prevent the achievement of God’s goals in our lives and in our community. Otis concludes, “In the end, divine visitation is as much our responsibility as it is God’s.” In other words, we must be careful observers of how God works, noticing that on occasion He is serendipitous and spontaneous but typically He is planned and methodical, and so must we be.

Let’s look at some possible solutions to these major roadblocks.

1)      We GET STUCK at the level of prayer and relationships.

Prayer and relationships, or spiritual and relational vitality, are fundamental to the Church’s ability to sustain its efforts and achieve its goals. We can do many other good things but fail to do this one thing and our overall efforts are destined to disappoint. But if these two elements represent all that the Church is doing in its city reaching effort it will soon lose momentum and eventually become stuck.

My view of the City Reaching framework has been expanded from the three essential elements that formed our initial approach (prayer, leadership, and information) to seven essential activities that run throughout the city reaching effort from its inception to its culmination.

Prayer -- Establishing the fountainhead of ministry through spiritual vitality

Prayer is the initiating and sustaining factor for effective ministry. Personal, corporate, and community transformation results from the supernatural work of God and requires the Church's spiritual and functional partnership. God's presence experienced in the gathered community leads to a spirit of shared unity, saving grace, and hunger for God that releases spiritual power into the city.

Unity -- Sustaining the momentum of ministry through relational vitality

Spiritual power and practical effectiveness are released through genuine and authentic community. Prayer and unity results in a life giving power and witness that the people of God experience as they passionately pursue God's vision for their lives, congregations and community. Without authentic spiritual and relational vitality the Church does not have the wherewithal to engage and sustain community transformation.

Envisioning -- Vision for the completed task is the beginning point for aligning the Church's transformational efforts

God’s vision for the city must become increasingly clear, concrete and compelling. Continuous interactive vision casting results in shared vision, shared values and common goals. Common language emerges enabling deeper understanding and commitment to vision, principles, and processes.

Research -- Increasing understanding of the current situation

In order to be a relevant, shaping force in its community the Church must gather information describing the makeup and needs of the community (Harvest Field) the Church (Harvest Force), and diagnostic data describing the spiritual forces (Spiritual Mapping) behind the current reality. The Church must see the city as it truly is and not merely as it appears to be. These data will direct leaders in discovering God's top priorities and highest leverage ministries that will result in the greatest impact and the most enduring results.

Leadership -- Empowering leaders and establishing strategy for community transformation

Empowerment requires a growing base of committed leaders and the removal of barriers that prevent them from serving effectively. Effective leaders develop the structures and strategy to accomplish God's vision. Strategy results from the prayerful planning of leaders to identify the activity of God in the community and make the corporate adjustments needed to join Him in that activity.

Learning -- Increasing the Church's capacity to achieve God's vision

Fulfilling the comprehensive will of God in our cities is a formidable and complex challenge. Changing paradigms and approaches call for a new level of learning in personal and corporate skills and competencies. The development of appropriate structures and processes for collaboration and effectiveness requires a commitment to training and continuous learning. Discovering what the Church needs to learn in order to increase its impact is crucial to achieving its goals.

Serving -- Presenting the Good News in words and works with power

The Great Commandment calls the Church to meet the needs of people demonstrating in practical ways the love of God for all people. The Great Commission calls the Church to share the message of hope and salvation in Christ with every person in culturally sensitive and appropriate ways. Increasing the Church's credibility through acts of kindness and compassion will increase its capability to ingather the harvest and expand the kingdom.

My observation is that when prayer and unity become the sole focus of a city reaching vision and process the momentum is soon lost. ALL seven activities must be pursued

SIMULTANEOUSLY, NOT SEQUENTIALLY. If we commit to prayer and relationships believing that we must attain a certain level of activity here before including additional dynamics we will never get good enough to move on, and therefore we get stuck at the initial level of commitment.

Another observation is that when the call to pastors to come together to meet with God and one another began in the early 90s it was a unique, novel, and compelling call since the activity was foreign to the routine and experience of most pastors at that time. This is not true today. Pastors have many opportunities to enter into spiritually and relationally vital experiences with their peers. If your vision call to pastors is simply “come out and pray with other pastors” I am finding that pastors are increasingly turning a deaf ear to the call, not because it is not important to them and not because they are disinterested, but because they are already doing this with other individuals and groups. I have had numerous conversations with city leaders who bemoan the fact that pastors, especially larger church pastors, are not interested in reaching the city. When I ask them to describe the events which pastors are not participating in that leads to the conclusion that these leaders don’t care about the city the response is almost always the same. “They won’t come to our prayer cells, to our citywide prayer events, to our prayer retreat, and so on.”

These well-intentioned prayer leaders have defined their city reaching strategy and vision cast around prayer and relationships alone and since some pastors fail to attend their sponsored activities prayer leaders conclude that those pastors don’t care about the city. My experience is that pastors, most pastors, do care about the city and do care about prayer and relationships. But in this day they have many opportunities to pray and relate to their peers and another call to “come out and pray and get to know other pastors” is insufficient to dislodge them from their current peer prayer groups to join someone else’s prayer group. I am convinced that the vision call to pastors must be to reach the city together which requires a collective level of spiritual and relational vitality that we do not currently experience. The Church will not reach the city without regular and vital collective experiences of spiritual vitality with God that result in dynamic horizontal encounters with one another.

Let me share the story of one city that is doing this well. Jim Herrington tells the story of Katy, a large suburb of Houston. Each week the pastors meet together for one hour or prayer. Currently, nearly half of the pastoral community comprises the vision community. Upon entering the meeting place they find chairs set in groups of four. They have been trained to fill each group of four before filling another group. This insures that group composition changes week by week. The first ten minutes each group receives a list of questions. For ten minutes they will discuss questions such as, “Where did your family live when you were 12?” “What person was the center of warmth in your family as you grew up?” “What person was the center of warmth for you as a child?” Imagine what this level of sharing will produce over time in their efforts to know one another more deeply.

This is the commitment to relational vitality. The next fifteen minutes are devoted to increasing shared vision. Currently the group is studying through my City Reaching book, later they will turn to another resource. For these minutes they will discuss together the vision, concepts, principles or practices of some dimension of city reaching presented through the assigned reading for that week. The last thirty minutes are devoted to large group prayer as they stand in a circle and share their needs with God. Others enter into to the prayerful needs expressed and minister to one another when that is appropriate. The final ten minutes of the prayer time is devoted to praying for the city with as much specificity as possible.

Imagine what this threefold approach to a single hour committed to prayer and relationship will produce in that community of pastors over time. Katy is a great example to us of intentionality, balance, and progress.

2)   We have not achieved a vision that is widely shared by others and is commonly articulated in local vision casting.

I am convinced that the only way to achieve shared vision is through continuous vision casting and ongoing dialog and feedback forums where vision for community transformation is interactively presented over and over again. My experience is that few leadership teams have invested the necessary time to discuss vision materials, language, and concepts out of which can emerge a shared understanding and commitment to principles and process. Since this is not done they lack a shared vision and surrender their calling to articulate a shared vision, beliefs, principles and process to others they seek to influence.

I want to present the following example as one approach to helping leadership teams move toward shared vision. I used this approach in a recent retreat with a leadership team. I placed the city reaching definition on the overhead and formed the team into groups of four.

“City Reaching is the ongoing process of mobilizing the whole body of Christ in a geographic area to strategically focus all their resources on reaching the whole city with the whole Gospel, resulting in the transformation of the city and its societies.”

They would have 15 minutes to discuss each of three questions and then we would reconvene for reporting and discussion. They would have a total of 45 minutes to answer: "As you read this definition what words or phrases . . .

1)   Touch you deeply; what connects with your passion, what deeply moves you?

2)   What red flags, concerns, or problems are raised by this language?

3)   What remains unclear or confusing?

The small group discussion was lively. I then had each group report with a little discussion but not much. I wanted to get the responses on the chart board; each page was then hung on the wall. Because of a lack of time I did not spend much time on the passion piece though I would have liked to. I concentrated mainly on the fact that we are each moved by different things. Our vision must be comprehensive enough to tap into the passion of each person. I talked some about Ezra (prayer, revival) and Nehemiah (mobilization, strategy, leadership) to illustrate my point that people are wired differently and will respond differently to various aspects of the city reaching vision.

I then went to the second question regarding red flags and concerns. As you would imagine all of the issues you would expect arose. Let me give two examples of how I approached this.

1)   “Whole Gospel” . . . I asked . . .

a)   Why do you think the word “whole” is used?

b)   Has the Church ever divided the Gospel in the past?

c)   Into what components?

d)   What has been the result?

e)   What are examples of the two components? This led to a great discussion of the importance of the cultural mandate and that it is balanced with the evangelistic mandate. What was invigorating is that they became impassioned about this component without me needing to say anything about it.

f)    If the Lord were to assess your congregation's ministry what would he say about the balance you have brought between the evangelistic and cultural mandates?

g)   What do you think he would want you to do about it?

h)   And so on . . .

2)   “Transformation” . . . I asked . . .

a)   Does George Otis believe a city can be transformed . . . I emphasized in my tone the past tense or completed sense of the word?

b)   Do YOU think a city can be transformed?

c)   What is true of a transformed city?

d)   What is not true of a transformed city?

This got the group into a discussion around a process definition of transformation rather than a static completed one. The discussion was again very enlivened. I spent about 30 minutes on each issue. It is vitally important that leaders take the time to work toward shared vision. Without this they don’t know what to say and continuous vision casting does not occur. Over the years we have also discovered that the first time a person hears the vision language of city reaching and community transformation they resonate deeply with it. If they are then asked to describe what they resonate with they do it using old paradigm language and imagery. It typically takes several times of interaction before the shift really takes place that enables the listener to fully describe the vision and process to others.

3)  We have been unable to extend our circle of influence beyond the initial joiners.

I have heard Joe Aldrich, founder of the Prayer Summit Movement, say on several occasions “every soul is equally precious, not every soul is equally strategic.” Aldrich’s point introduces the fact that that though there is no differentiation of value among individuals we do entrust individuals with varying degrees of influence. We ascribe greater influence to some than to others. Picture with me three levels of influence within the ranks of leadership in the City Church. Draw three concentric circles and in the outer circle simply write the word SOME. Label the middle circle with MORE and the inner circle with MOST. More often than not citywide movements (whether prayer, relationship or events and activities) seem to be initiated by outer circle leaders. In fact, one of the reasons for writing the City Reaching book was to get to middle and inner circle leaders more rapidly hoping that they would come to the fore of leadership earlier on in the process.

The problem we face is not in the circle of influence that early leaders represent but the need to continue to expand the leadership ranks with leaders of ever-increasing levels of influence. In the end, if the Church’s mobilization effort is not led by leaders entrusted with the MOST influence it will not reach the necessary critical mass of size and momentum. I want to sound a cautionary note here by reminding us that we are not equating increasing levels of influence with the size of a pastors Church or of a leader’s paraministry. Influence is earned and given based upon credibility, trust, relationship, and other spiritual and character qualities. It is not positional leadership that I am describing but a relational leadership of influence.

The solution to getting stuck at the outer levels of leadership is to clearly identify who the Christian leaders are who have been entrusted with greater influence and identify the relational pathways to them. This must be done deliberately through prayer and wisdom. Once relational pathways are identified current leaders must carefully navigate them. The operative questions that must be presented to God and to one another are, “Who are they?” “How do we get to them” “What vision cast will we make to them?” “What are we asking them to do in joining with the broader vision community to steward their collective influence on behalf of God’s purposes for the city?” If current leaders are not mindful of the need to identify more influential leaders, are not successful in establishing relationship with them, and/or are unsuccessful in engaging and empowering these leaders the current group of leaders will oftentimes become a closed group in which others will self-select in or out and the momentum building will stop or be drastically reduced.

Leaders of more influence rather than less lead effective momentum building movements.

4)  Our city reaching initiative has become largely event and activity driven.

I have come to believe that the vision for city reaching is largely intuitive (God has placed it in the hearts of people everywhere) but the process is not. Not only is it not intuitive, it seems counter-intuitive. In others words, if we do what seems right to us, it may well be wrong. Here is a case in point. I recently met with a national leadership team representing 10 cities in their country that wanted to become more intentional in their efforts to catalyze initiatives in each major city. One city in particular was deeply challenged by the need to identify the biblical leaders of the City Church. They promptly returned home, called together a dozen pastors and voted on the appointment of a handful of leaders to be “city elders.” In so doing, I am convinced; killed the initiative at its inception. Though leaders are needed, following methods of the past (voting, balloting, assigning, etc.) to select them is the wrong, and usually harmful approach.

I believe many good-hearted and well-intentioned emerging teams committed to a vision for reaching their city turn immediately to what is intuitive and comes naturally to them and that is to do something . . . anything to impact the city. Many turn to the latest events and activities with little thought to timing, appropriateness of the approach, effectiveness, measurements for success, and means to monitor progress. A key issue for us at CitiReach International is our concern over leverage. We ask of others and ourselves over and over again, “Of all the things you could do, what are the highest leverage activities that would produce the greatest impact and most enduring results for the Kingdom?” We believe that we are called to be both faithful (doing the right things) and effective (doing the right things well). Measurements for success should be based on the results of our activity and not on our activity alone. So we frequently ask, “why are you doing this, rather than doing something else?”

I recently received an unsolicited evaluation of the recent distribution of The Book during our Easter season. Here is what I heard from pastoral leaders from several cities who conducted a citywide campaign for its distribution (not every city approached the task the way these cities did). The Book was distributed by various congregations as door hangers throughout the city and often into neighborhoods other than where the distributor lived. The assessment was that the distribution effort produced several detrimental outcomes both for the Church and the recipients. Many homes received multiple Books indicating to the receiver that Christians still don’t communicate much with one another. The impersonal approach (where we oftentimes trade ease of distribution for effectiveness) reinforced the belief that Christians really don’t care about others but that they are simply into the numbers game. In one city they reported that the Church did very little if any direct follow up (knocking on the door for a face-to-face visit after the distribution was completed) but the Jehovah’s Witnesses did.

Leaders reported that this approach had a negative impact on the Church too because it reinforced an ineffective approach to personal evangelism, reinforced an impersonal approach to outreach, and encouraged the Church to applaud its activity apart from any effort to measure the evangelistic success of the activity. The matter of leverage asks the question “if you took the dollars, time and people that you are committing to this project and invested it in some other activity, could you increase your impact and results?” If the answer is “yes” then doesn’t faithfulness and effectiveness require that we do it? Additionally, I hear pastors continuously bemoan these latest and highly time and resource intensive efforts presented to them as the latest and greatest inventions to “reach your city” but leave the city largely untouched in terms of actual impact. Pastors are asking that we place a moratorium on these efforts and give them a rest while they try to catch their ministry breath and seek the Lord for collaborative efforts that could result in a significant harvest for the Kingdom.

However, the real heart of the matter is not in our events and activities but in our dream of seeing the whole Church taking the whole Gospel to the whole city. This requires a different approach, a strategic approach, rather than one that is punctuated by one event or activity after another. Leaders should understand that mobilizing the whole Church to reach a city requires different behavioral rules and values than conformity or uniformity around events and activities. The event and activity approach typically engages only a small percentage of the Church and only for the duration of the activity. I am afraid that until the Church shifts its approach from a tactical to a strategic effort and from low leverage to high leverage it will continue to live on a diet of approaches that produce fewer measurable results for the Kingdom.

What the Church does collaboratively should emerge as an expression of our unity rather than as the basis for it.

5)  We don’t know where we are, where we’re going, and exactly what steps to take next.

In our consulting with leadership teams in city reaching initiatives we ask six basic assessment questions.

On a scale of 1 - 10 (with 10 being high) how would you assess the progress of this team . . .

1) To what degree is the group experiencing spiritual and relational vitality?

2) To what degree has the group achieved shared vision and is able to clearly articulate that vision to others?

3) To what degree has a clear and commonly held map of the city reaching process been identified?

4) To what degree has your team identified several carefully chosen tactics that help move the strategic process forward?

5) To what degree has the group identified clear measurements to monitor progress?

6) Have you read the City Reaching book? (This reinforces the need to be fully familiar with the key vision materials including Informed Intercession, Leading Congregational Change, and Discover Your City).

In a leadership retreat we pray and plan around these six factors. I have already written about numbers one and two; spiritual and relational vitality and achieving shared vision. What is missing from the toolkit of many leadership teams is a map to help them navigate the white waters of city reaching. “Where are we?” “Where have we just come from?” “Where do we go next?” are each unanswerable without a map of the process that gives a sense of direction and progress to the effort. Jim Herrington writes about the value of a map when beginning unfamiliar journeys, in his book, Leading Congregational Change “Congregational (Community) transformation has many analogies to whitewater rafting. Whitewater rafting is an exhilarating adventure, but it can also be dangerous if it is not done properly . . . .

Jim underscores the value of “a wise rafting guide” and then presents the importance of a map. “For challenging raft trips, a map of the river is invaluable . . . A good river map recommends a particular approach to the tricky currents, highlights boulders hidden in the stream, and suggests places to stop for a rest or for scouting a difficult passage.” The map (which presents a general picture or overview of the process) that has guided the steps of CitiReach International over the past six years is included in the City Reaching book on page 206. This model is being expanded based upon our growing experience with local initiatives to include Seven Phases of Development and Seven Essential Activities. The latter, representing activities that run throughout the city reaching effort are listed under question #1 in this document.

The Seven Phases of Development are;

1)      Preparing & Beginning

2)      Awakening & Creating Urgency

3)      Establishing the Vision Community

4)      Discerning God’s Vision for the City

5)      Communicating God’s Vision for the City

6)      Implementing God’s Vision for the City

7)      Extending God’s Vision for the City

A graphic model that integrates the phases and activities of City Reaching will be released soon. But the point is that leadership teams need a map. They can choose one that has been developed by someone else (like ourselves) through their experience or they can create one of their own, but they need a map from whatever source it comes. In leadership retreats, after exploring a couple of conceptual maps, detailing and describing the city reaching water ways I form the small discussion groups. I want to underscore again the need for a general map that illustrates WHAT needs to be done, but leaves room for the group to determine the HOW and the WHEN of navigating toward each milestone. I am personally convinced that where there is an understanding of the WHAT that needs to be accomplished, that through prayer, reflection, and dialog the HOW and WHEN will become readily apparent to the leadership team. God is for us and wants us to be successful and He will illuminate any effort to discern His will and ways.

After asking the small groups to discern where they are according to the couple of maps presented I have said, “lets return to our groups of four to determine the highest leverage steps we can take over the next 12-18 months that will help us move to the next milestone or level of effectiveness. In other words, of all of the things you could do, what are the highest leverage activities you should do?” The response of each group are placed on the chart board and then prioritized. Once knowing the highest leverage activities (WHAT) they need to do over the next 12 – 18 months they can begin to seek God and one another for answers to the questions of HOW and WHEN. This provides clear action steps for the team to take with clear measurements of progress and a means to monitor their effectiveness. Since most leaders do not intuitively and comfortably turn a conceptual model into effective action steps, I believe, this is an important step for leadership teams to complete and repeat periodically perhaps on a semi-annual basis.

I hope that something from these reflections will be of value to you. I would welcome your thoughts on any of these matters. We are each members of a growing and global learning community who each desires to understand God’s ways as we prepare for His visitation to the cities of the world.


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