written by Whitney George
Let’s be honest, when it comes to church culture, the idea that it’s possible to initiate changes that please everyone in our congregations is a pipe dream. I mean really, if anyone could have done it it would have been Jesus and we all know what they did to him. The fact is, making changes in any organization is hard. But it’s especially hard within a church because people on our staff and in our congregations get so easily attached to traditions that are often difficult to let go of.
I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had over the past decade with pastors and leaders who’ve wanted to initiate changes in their church but were unsure how to respond to the negative criticism they were sure to receive from people within their own ranks. There’s no doubt, it’s a tough road to navigate and I’m certain there are no one-size fits all approaches to this problem. But having been through some pretty major changes ourselves at Church on the Move these last few years, I might be able to offer you a few thoughts from the lessons we’ve learned.
1. TAKE THE TIME TO UNDERSTAND WHY YOU’RE CHANGING
When we have bad experiences with products or businesses, for instance a bad customer service interaction or a stupid product design, so often the first question that comes to our mind is, “Why?” Why would you treat me that way? Why would you design your product like this? Why would you have a policy like that? When things are broken, we always want to know “why” first. Interestingly, when we have great experiences with products and businesses we have exactly the opposite reaction. The first question that comes to our minds is almost never “why” but rather “how”. For instance when we go to Disney we never ask “why” their employees are so happy and helpful (most of the time), we’re much more interested to know “how” they do it than “why”.
The point is, when we see things that inspire us, like a great church service or a particular design style, we often skip right over the “why” and move directly to the “how”. The danger with this approach is that we get more focused on a particular technique or strategy without ever understanding the reason and heart behind it. So our changes seem less authentic and people in our congregations and communities can feel it. They interpret the changes you’re trying to make to be surface-level and superficial and therefore they disdain them. As Andy Stanley says, “If you don’t know why something is working when it’s working, you won’t know how to fix it when it’s broken.” So, when you’re making changes, be sure you take the time to understand clearly “why” you’re doing what you’re doing so that your changes will be authentic and from the heart. This will help you endure the inevitable criticism when it comes.
2. CHANGE STARTS AT THE TOP
So often, people try to change their church from the middle. I’m sorry to tell you, it won’t work. Unfortunately, major change within a church can’t be simply delegated to the next generation. And let’s be honest, if you’re trying to delegate the changes to some younger member of your staff, you aren’t really changing, are you? You’re simply allowing change to happen around you. But you yourself aren’t changing. This is a recipe for disaster, because once again, the people within your congregation who don’t like the changes will pick up on it and begin to pressure you to change back because they can see you aren’t fully committed to it.
Our church has been through a seismic shift the past decade (we used to be quite traditional). But if my dad (our pastor) had not been the one to publicly lead the charge for the changes, no matter how much our staff may have wanted to change, those changes would have never happened. Change starts at the top. That’s what leadership is all about. It’s about having the courage to say, “Where we are is not where we need to be,” and having the will to do whatever is necessary to make the change happen.
If you’re the point leader in your church, allow for some healthy argument and discussion about the changes you’re considering behind closed doors. But by all means, when it comes to presenting those changes to your congregation, be unified and lead the charge. Your changes will never stick otherwise.
3. MAKE YOUR CHANGES SLOWLY
So often when we get inspired to change, our first inclination is to change everything right away—this can be a big mistake.
When we first started changing things up at our church, I was like a kid in a candy store. I wanted to do everything at once. It was probably because somewhere in the back of my mind I feared we might never change again, so I needed to make the most of my opportunity while it was there. But my dad had the wisdom to see that making too many changes too quickly might jeopardize the very thing we were changing for in the first place.
When you do things too quickly, you give people the impression that your changes are in response to some fad or trend and it makes you appear less stable. Think about it, the last time you saw someone going through a mid-life crisis, did you think of them as more or less stable? Less right? The point is, when we change in a radical way over a short period of time, we appear to be unstable. That’s the last thing you want to project in a time of change.
So know this: change is possible. Our church is living proof. And while you may not do everything right the first time, and you’ll probably have your fair share criticism along the way, if you take your time and make your changes from the heart with plenty of vision and conviction, I’m convinced you’ll be able to make the changes you’ve been dreaming about.