There are churches that feel unchangeable, but any church can experience change and become a healthy, growing, even multiplying church.
Before we get into how to change an unchangeable church we need to admit something together: If churches don’t change, they die. This is a reality we may try to avoid or ignore but it is very much true.
I know this because I was the lead pastor of a dying church.
Can I just paint a picture for you that too many pastors find all too familiar? We were stuck, didn’t know how to change, in a rut. The people who attended this church had great hearts, loved God and loved people, but somewhere along the way we stopped changing, plateaued and shifted into decline. The average age of the church was 60 and it was located in one of the toughest rural counties (a place I love) in the country. People told me it would never change.
The church was dying, but it didn’t die.
Now, a few years later, this church is still located in that county with an average age is 35. It is bursting with life, experiencing rapid growth and charting a course to multiply this next year. The journey has been amazing, fun, frustrating at times, and beautiful. As I look back on the journey, I am amazed at what God will do when we are willing to courageously follow Him.
A church that once seemed unchangeable is now a place that welcomes change and values flexibility. It took an intentional culture shift that is reproducible in any context. It’s easy to get lost in survival mode and be uncertain of how or where to start. But, in any church, in any setting, the place to start can be simple and clear.
Here’s how we made that intentional culture shift that changed everything.
Any change you want to make in your church as a whole begins with you and your leaders. Start by creating, defining, and communicating a healthy culture WITHIN your organization.
The goal is to become a church that values flexibility. Flexible churches adapt and adjust and do so with little or no tearing. Flexible churches are free to grow and reach more people in an ever changing context. Flexible churches make your job exciting.
To become a church that values flexibility, focus on creating a culture that accepts change. Once you have a culture that accepts change you can start to cultivate a culture that invites change. Once you have a culture that invites change it is easy to transition that into a culture that values flexibility.
Did I lose you? I’ll make it simple. Move your organization along the stages below toward flexibility.
Accepts Change –> Invites Change –> Values Flexibility
Where on this cultural journey is your church?
Listen, if we did it, you can too. Start to develop a culture that accepts change with the list below, but warning, you will have to lead with courage. If you can’t lead with courage in the face of opposition you probably shouldn’t be leading anyway. If you are worn out, maybe it is time to sit in support of someone with the energy to lead the charge. (Here is how a pastor of 35 years managed that transition ushering in new growth to his church and revitalizing his ministry.)
Still here? Good. Let’s start to create a culture of change. If you want to turn a dying church into a healthy growing church this is the place to start.
7 Ways To Start To Change An Unchangeable Church
1. MAKE SMALL CHANGES OFTEN. Ok, you probably can’t make the big drastic change to your constitution even though your constitution was written in 13 BC, but you can make a bunch of small changes. Often. Small changes are easier for your organization to digest. Make a bunch of them. Spread them out and implement them often. Examples: Tweak the bulletin, change the lighting, adjust the seating, redo your website. Make small changes on a Sunday morning – in the music, the message, how you collect offering or how you do communion.
2. STOP ASKING FOR PERMISSION. There are a lot of changes you can make without getting permission from a stuck board or a resistant congregation. Use wisdom and act in love, but also be courageous enough to know that, as the leader of the organization, you don’t need permission for every decision you make. If you are teaching and want to ditch the podium, ditch the podium. Your announcement guy will figure it out. Or better yet, ditch announcements. You don’t need permission to buy a drum set and add it to the front of your sanctuary. If you stop and think about it, there are plenty of changes you can start to make without asking for permission.
3. START WITH THE THINGS YOU CAN CONTROL. You may not be able to control the power players in your church, but you can control you. Be intentional about what you communicate and how you communicate it. In fact, be intentional about everything you do and have a strategy for communicating toward a healthy future. Examples: Change how you preach. Change up the sermon series more frequently. Run meetings differently. Have more individual meetings with staff and make those meetings shorter. Create a strategy and start to implement it before you even tell anyone about it.
4. DON’T SAY OR LISTEN TO STATEMENTS THAT INCLUDE “OLD WAY” THINKING. There are statements thrown around church that you should be ignoring and never, ever saying. Such as: This is how we’ve always done it. Trust me you don’t want to change ________. We never did it like that before. This isn’t who we are. We don’t really do things like that around here.
5. CHALLENGE TEAM MEMBERS TO PROBLEM SOLVE BY THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX. Don’t settle or look for easy answers or old methods. Get your team to come up with and think through multiple solutions to challenges you face. Challenge “old way” thinking by asking good questions. Such as: What are new options or approaches we could take to address this challenge? What can we do differently to get a different result? If we were to change how we did this, what would we change? What is missing or confusing about what we are doing or planning to do?
6. STAY CONSISTENT. Does that sound ironic in an article about change? Consistently change things. Don’t allow yourself to settle in and get comfortable. To change culture you have to be consistent for a long period of time. Keep changing things. Don’t stop. Instead, learn how to pivot.
7. CAST VISION LIKE A FLY FISHERMAN. Have you ever watched a fly fisherman cast? It is art in motion. The heavy fly line creates a loop back and forth casting the fly out just above the water time and time again before finally finishing the cast, landing the fly at the most opportune time and place to move a fish. Cast vision like a fly fisherman. Keep throwing the vision out there, over and over again. Constantly search for opportune times to plant a vision in the best places to move your organization and your people forward toward health.
Be courageous. God’s got this, you just have to follow.
We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments!