“My Church Hates Change!” …No It Doesn’t. 10 Lessons in Leading Change and Transformation

Do established congregations hate change? Do “old” people not like young people? Is your church going to “die?” I know many of my colleagues experience great frustration when they try to “change a church.” Maybe we have skewed expectations of what this should look like, or why it needs to happen.

Over my short time in ministry I have learned some interesting lessons about congregational change. I hope that you can be encouraged by these things as you seek to lead congregations into greater missional effectiveness.

  1. You must respect the established members of the congregation. Though at first glance it may seem that they are opposing you or opposing “change,” remember that 20 years ago they were doing the exact thing you are doing now—seeking to improve the effectiveness of your church. Be careful when you slam the current state of the ministry as ineffective: you may completely devaluing the Spirit-led decisions of those who came before you.
  2. Beware of the “invisible ‘them’.” “We can’t do that because “they” won’t like it.” Or “…people won’t go for that.” Discover immediately who exactly we’re talking about here. Is there even a group that is actively opposing change? Don’t be party to creating factions.
  3. It is healthy to begin with the idea that at the core of most hearts, people would like the church to be effective. Often when people react negatively to an idea, a creative risk, or a change, the issue is not that they don’t want to be an effective congregation. The issue has more to do with having difficulty visualizing how their lives will be different and how they can positively live into a change.
  4. A pastor (especially in the UMC) doesn’t need to be (and probably shouldn’t be) the source, executor, and evaluator of all congregational change. By this I mean that the pastor should lead the congregation into a discerning the call of God in a corporate manner instead of developing a “vision” and trying to get people on board while leaving in the dust those who will not. Remember that every person experiences God differently. Just because one or a few people have more pull than others doesn’t mean that their mode of worship/growth/service, etc need be pushed on the entire congregation. The congregation as a corporate body should respond to God’s call for how a particular church should “make disciples” in their particular community.
  5. “This congregation will die if….” “This church needs….” “If we have nothing but old people, then we are gone in 15 years.” Stop saying these things. The truth of the matter is this: at this particular point in time, God has called this particular group of people, with this particular set of characteristics, to this particular place, in this particular time, for a particular purpose. A pastor is called/appointed to that location. Serve them and help them to discover how God has called them to make disciples of Jesus Christ in their community.
  6. Don’t assume that you know the desires and needs of an entire generation and force things upon a congregation in the name of “attracting young people.” Every group of people is different in every different place. Seek to know the people in your area of service.
  7. Procedure and stylistic changes won’t attract anyone unless there are heart changes first and foremost in the lives of your current people. After all, consuming a product is different than building relationships.
  8. Avoid absolutes. Remember that what you know is conditioned by your experience. Be open to new experiences yourself and you will find that your own understandings of how “church should be done” growing and changing in inspiring ways.
  9. Focus on what people are doing to effectively and celebrate that. Celebrate it a lot. Then watch as they desire to become even more effective.
  10. If you are what you eat, then maybe your attitude is conditioned by the rhetoric you consume. Let the statisticians and the Chicken Little’s tell you that the denomination is dead and that mainline Christianity is a white-washed tomb. That doesn’t change the fact that you are a child of the living God, called to pastor His people who are also God’s children, called to be disciples of Christ. As a spiritual discipline, we should regularly fast from doomsday rhetoric.

Most of all ask yourself this question: does the change I desire to bring recognize that I am only one part of a larger plan that God has for this whole people in this particular community in this time for this community? If so, slow down and allow God to bring people to it.

What do you think?  What would you add?  I know there will be some issues with my outlook.  What would you change?

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5 responses to ““My Church Hates Change!” …No It Doesn’t. 10 Lessons in Leading Change and Transformation

  1. So, to sum the ten in one statement: Sensitive, compassionate change in a united, positive way, built upon the past successes of a congregation…

    I enjoyed #8. “Avoid absolutes (period)”

    Oh, and #10 was well worded.

  2. Looks good to me, Josh!

    None of this is intended to overlook the pastor’s ability to see the potential of what a congregation could be. However that vision should be exactly that: not what a pastor “feels called to do,” but what a church IS called to do as a body!

    You seem to be one that isn’t frustrated by change in the complex organism of a missional church.

    Any further thoughts that could help us keep our heads?

  3. Change is good or bad depending on whether or not the change leads to realization of a vision for ministry. Far more important to focus on creating/developing/birthing a vision for ministry around which the congregation coalesces. If that occurs, then changes which help us to realize the vision come more naturally.

  4. Good word, Derek. Your ideas are close to where my heart is for congregational transformation!

    Thanks for reading!

  5. For everything there is a season. When a congregation embraces a culture that doesn’t replenish its numbers, it dies. As long as it is doing God’s work, and is intentional about it, there is nothing bad about it. Likewise, it’s OK for a church to refuse change, again, as long as it is doing God’s work and is intentional, as long as it willingly shares the community with churches that embrace a particular change, for example, leadership by another generation, or acceptance of a different lifestyle.

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