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Change Happens! We Cannot Escape!

Change often frightens people. People do not relax well in the midst of change. It makes them anxious. As a church revitalization leader, you will discover that nothing is more challenging than leading through times of change.

Whether by aspiration or by avoidance, everyone is dealing with change. God knows change affects us, so He put stories throughout Scripture where His people struggled with change in their lives.

I’ve reflected on why people fear change, and my mind was drawn back into the Old Testament to the day that the Israelites were at the border of the Promised Land for the very first time. Do you remember what happened? They were afraid of the change. Was it the size of the giants, or perhaps the strength of the walled cities? Did they see the giants, or did they see God? They were afraid of change because they had their eyes on the giants and not on God. They were too busy looking at the mob instead of following Moses—God’s man. Their fear came from the fact that in their shallow minds, they thought their God was not big enough to handle the challenges they faced.

We are living in an age of change, and the swift turbulence that comes with it is all around us. As a church leader, if you learn to handle change well, you will be more successful. If you avoid learning how to make subtle changes as well as monumental ones, it will cause you much pain, and it could lead you to failure.

We are now living in a generation that seeks change. This generation wants to grow and experience it. They do not want to stagnate; they want to try new things, experience new opportunities and have possession of the vision for the future. These young adults want to play a part in a vibrant team that is going somewhere. This group of individuals that is coming into church leadership during this generation loves change and is spiritual, emotionally and physically charged as a result of change! Perhaps the best recommendation then for you and me is to learn how to challenge this generation with change—real change! Change according to John Kotter, is “never about strategy, structure, culture, or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing behavior of people, mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.” (1)

I found this neat quote, and while I do not know who said it, it is worth reading, thinking about, and even learning from:

Change is what you dig for when there’s nothing left; it’s what buys you a treat when your pocket is empty.

The church revitalization leader today, regardless of the church he plants or leads, must become the agent of change if lasting growth is to occur and/or continue, even when your pockets feel empty. Someone has said, “We must be more like thermostats than thermometers.” Both instruments are capable of measuring heat. However, they are poles apart. A thermometer is inactive; it records the temperature of its surroundings but can do nothing to change the situation. A thermostat is a lively instrument. It determines what the atmosphere will be like. It effects change in order to create a climate.

Early in the 1900s, Danish-born industrialist William S. Knudsen immigrated to the United States and worked various jobs, which eventually landed him working for a Buffalo bicycle factory. By 1911, Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company purchased the factory, and Knudsen became the production manger, where he quickly became known as a leader in his field. Knudsen became convinced that the now four-year-old Model T had to be updated. But Henry Ford loved his creation so much; it was well known that he opposed changing anything about the car. According to Robert Lacy, Knudsen thought to convince Ford by building an updated and impressive model to show what could be done with a few changes in color and design.

Ford had just returned from a European vacation, and he went to a Highland Park, Michigan garage and saw the new design created by Knudsen. (2) They say that the car was it was a four-door job, and the top was down, painted gleaming red and built on a new, low-slung version of the Model T. One eyewitness tells how “Ford had his hands in his pockets, and he walked around that car three or four times. He wrecked the car as much as he could.”

Knudsen left for General Motors, where he served as its president from 1937 through 1940. Henry Ford nursed along the Model T, but design changes in competitor’s models made it more old-fashioned than he would admit. Competitive necessity finally backed him into making the Model A, but his heart was never in it. (3)

Now think about this bit of history for just a moment—Henry Ford was one of the most creative men of his age, and yet even he resisted the obvious need for change. Sometimes, whether we want to admit it or not, we are not always ready to deal with the various aspects of change. We often operate in a “now what” type of mode. Observe the following nine styles of change that a church leader moving from initiation to growth must utilize at various times in ministry:

The Catalyst: The one who is able to start things out of nothing. Often this is referred to as “being able to start something from dirt!” This type of change agent has the ability to develop something out of nothing. You have that deep drive to get things moving and make it happen at the initial phase of a church’s renewal. In fact, you might find that you are much better at getting things moving and off the ground, but you’re not as good at keeping it ever moving forward and growing numerically. Many church revitalization leaders have the ability to get things moving, but not the giftedness to keep it advancing for God’s glory. I have seen hundreds of church planters like this, and it works for them well, but for a revitalization or change-leader, it can be damaging, because you usually only get one chance to do it right!

The Originator: This is the other catalytic type of church change leader. While this quality is similar to the pure Catalyst, the Originator can actually grow the church past a three- or four-cell configuration. This type of individual demonstrates more of the “founding pastor” quality which enables the leader to grow through the various levels and operate with various natural and learned qualities to continue to lead and grow the work. As an Originator, you will learn new avenues in your leadership and be more able to guide a church into a strong and lasting future. You will find yourself moving in and out at various times in his ministry.

The Manager: As the renewal leader of church, you often will operate from this style! The Manager is the one who has the gift for organizing the ever-growing array of stand-alone ideas and projects. You are the one who can bring everyone into a working structure for the advancement of the church’s ministry. Every church leader needs to have some level of organizational skills. Far too many ministers today want to default at this point, and it often hurts the work of the church if they are poor managers. Lay ministry volunteers and leaders will not trust you with big things until they see that they can trust you with the simple and tiny things. I am not saying leaders need to do all of the organizational stuff, but you need to be aware of what is going on and able to organize the mix towards a functioning church structure.

By the way, here is a word for the novice church planter: While your church is still rather small, you will find that it is up to you to do most of this managing work. As your new church moves past the 125 attendance level, you will begin to be able to give this type of work away to those who are more gifted in this area. One word of advice for the new church that is growing: Never fully relinquish this area until you are much, much larger. Planters can stall the growth of a new church (or even an existing church) when they appear to be unaware of what is going on, and the laity begin to question their ability to lead, even though there have been early advances.

The Shaper: The change leader becomes the one who thinks about the vision and strategy to keep the church growing and expanding. They have the ability to chart out the course prayerfully and strategically. As the need for change arises, the renewal leader begins to shape and design what the church will look like past the initial first 1,000+ days of its reforming life. This quality allows a leader to come up with new ideas that invigorate the changing church and keep it moving in a positive direction. All change leaders will face the need to shape and guide through the Lord’s guidance the many new opportunities for the work. When you focus on the renewal effort in the way you sense God leading, the Shaper in you will not get lost from your church’s intended focus and revitalization goal.

The Motivator: The eternal encourager in the mix. It was John Maxwell that taught me, now more than 20 years ago, the importance of keeping the momentum in a church! This is so very important for the church leader, as well. Momentum is the greatest of all change agents. I have noticed that over 90 percent of the thriving changes we can make as a church revitalization leader are often the result of creating momentum before asking people to make changes. To maximize the value of momentum, renewal leaders must develop an appreciation for it early in the restoration effort, know the key ingredients of it, and pour resources into it. It is extremely important as you continue to sense God’s leading that you keep the renewing church from stalling out! Most Catalytic types that I mentioned above struggle at this point, because their skill set of launching a new work is greatly challenged later, and they are unprepared to make the momentum shifts necessary to maintain growth. That is why for those with the purely Catalytic skill set, it is important to pass the church revitalization effort off to a leader that is wired to keep it advancing.

The Developer: A church leader will often find himself operating as the Developer both for him/herself as well as a particular set of individuals who will help lead and grow the church. I have discovered that personal growth is the first avenue that will surface in this area, and we should embrace joyfully the fact that God has chosen to grow us first before we grow others around us. The second area is the ministry of growing others. Church revitalization leaders face this early and often. Ministry leaders in some churches don’t recognize the importance of creating a climate conducive to building potential leaders. They just don’t understand how it works. While other traits of change in this list come and go, the Developer knows or has learned how to follow up what has been done.

The Consolidator: While we all will have times as change leaders where we need to practice the art of consolidation, if one is not careful, consolidation could become a means to circle the wagons and eventually become the cause for your church to stop growing and enlarging. While sometimes a good Consolidator knows how to keep things going, strength can also become weakness in this instance when it becomes a form of maintaining the status quo.

Church revitalization leaders who are for the very first time facing the need for new facilities and new buildings often struggle with this trait. While there is a real need to keep your church on the plan and eventual goals of the strategic vision, sometimes you will face the need for consolidation. In one of my churches, when Shell Oil pulled out and downsized in the area, we faced the need for circling of the wagons for a little while! We were in a building program, building a new education building, and things became a little tight with the loss of about a quarter of our church family due to job transfers outside of our immediate area. We worked as a team to seek the Lord’s wishes on the plan, and the result was that we did build the building, but instead of contracting it out like we had planned, we met every Saturday for about 18 months (except holidays) and worked at the church. Our men never before experienced such camaraderie, and the ladies in our church would come over for lunch and serve us a great meal each week. The result was that the entire fellowship felt like everyone had had a part in the new building when we open its doors for the first time! Consolidation sometimes works in your favor if everyone knows why you are doing it. But there is the other side of this trait, as well: If you consolidate just so you can keep what you have, the end will probably not turn out as well.

The Decision-Maker: One who sees the vision clearly and is leading the renewing church forward in the God-given direction for which it has been called and placed. When a change leader fails at this point, problems become nightmares, and nightmares lead to a lack of growth momentum in the church. Church revitalization leaders must make decisions. Sometimes they are hard ones. Regardless of the decision there will be consequences. Some of these will be positive and some of these will be negative. It is part of growing as a church revitalization leader and understanding that making the hard calls are part and parcel of planting a new church or any church for that matter. If you are unable to make the hard call or the timely decision, you might become the cause of the church to stall.

The Entrepreneur: I hear it all the time from church change leaders that they are really entrepreneurs. That sounds good, and it probably makes them feel the same way. If the church leader is not careful, though, they can become stuck in this trait and operate in a manner that only functions as a maverick. Change leaders usually have within them that maverick trait, but if they are not careful, that trait becomes rebellious, and then it is all about what they desire instead of what the church needs. One vital lesson of church revitalization leadership is that you must become the one who constantly expands the circle of ministry for the growing church. It is vital that you learn how to become more inclusive in giving away your leadership.

To see the relationship between environment and growth, look at nature. An observation was made by a man who dives for exotic fish for aquariums. According to him, one of the most popular aquarium fish is the shark. The reason for this is that sharks adapt to their environment. If you catch a small shark and confine it, it will stay a size proportionate to the aquarium in which it lives. Sharks can be six inches long and fully mature. But turn them loose in the ocean and they grow to their normal size.

The same is true of potential leaders. Some are put into an organization when they are still small, and the confining environment ensures that they stay small and underdeveloped. Only leaders can control the environment of their organization. They can be the change agents who create a climate conducive to growth. (4)

As a church revitalization leader, the ability to motivate others to jump aboard or remain in the effort is part of the new skill sets the person in charge must develop. His influence in this area will greatly aid the future health and vitality of the now-expanding, renewing church. Often this one intangible trait helps the leader propel, with the Lord’s guidance certainly, the church forward for a marvelous future. Instead of becoming confined to something small, it grows like a shark does when given space and freedom to discover the new things God has in store for that church in its personalized revitalization process.

Many churches needing revitalization balk at even the slightest change in their historical routine. Even when they’re fairly sure the changes would be something pleasing to God, they still resist. Yes, it is easier as a new plant, but new church plants are almost as resistant to change as older more established ones after they have been around for about three years or more.

People are afraid of change. Times are changing, so change with the times. Our God, however, is a God of change. We can learn at least two things from scripture about change: Initially, we can learn that Christians should not be afraid of change. In Revelation 21:5, He declares “Behold, I make all things new.” God does all kinds of “new things” in our lives every day. When we first become Christians, we die to our past, are buried in the waters of Christian baptism, and rise up a “changed” person, a new changed creature in Christ. Our God is God of change, and God can do great things when His people and His churches allow Him the freedom to change their lives. Someone once observed that the only persons who like change are wet babies, and they need it often. Churches needing revitalization are notorious for that kind of attitude, as well.

True spiritual maturity is approached when people turn their attention to those outside the church and seek ways to spread the good news rather than exercise their entitlements as members. It has become far too apparent to me that most church leaders do not understand that the decline of their church is due to the lack of spiritual depth on the part of their leadership. Remember that while we talk about change, it is important to recall that God is still in charge, and that is the constant which never changes.  

1. John P. Kotter and Dan S. Cohen, The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations, Harvard Business School Press, 2002, pg. X.
2. Britannica Online Encyclopedia, William S. Knudsen, 4/2/2009.
3. Robert Lacy, Ford: The Man and the Machine.
4. Maxwell, John C., Developing the Leaders Around You, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1999, c 1995.

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Tom is the co-author of Spin-Off Churches (B&H Publishers), a conference speaker and a frequent writer on church planting, new church health, and church revitalization. You can contact him at Tom@Revitalization101.com or visit www.BoomerangChurches.com. You can connect with Dr. Tom Cheyney and the Church Revitalization Coaching Network additionally via Facebook at the Church Revitalization Network.