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Stumbling Blocks to Church Change

Just like there are essential building blocks to church revitalization, there are also many stumbling blocks to church revitalization. It is, granted, much easier to discover the stumbling blocks than it is to unearth the lasting building blocks. In this article, we will deal with the former.

To be perfectly candid with you, if the work of a church revitalizer was easy, we would have more ministers from all denominations committed to doing the work of church-strengthening and renewal. It is a difficult thing and often hard, grueling work that gets messy at times. It is not something you can package and sell in the local bookstore. At the heart for most of these stumbling blocks are people and churches who are not all that interested in change!

Have you ever played dominoes? I have, but what I really enjoyed as a kid was taking a large number of these ivory rectangles and laying them out so I could eventually tip over the first one and watch the rest follow suit. Sometimes, whether we mean it or not, this is what we do in church revitalization. We tip over the first domino and can’t catch it before the rest of the dominoes come falling down. You try to catch (or fix) one challenge, and before you know it, the rest begin to tumble faster and faster until it is all lying in rubble.

Let’s look at some stumbling blocks often revealed in church revitalization:

Stakeholder Symmetry – We have all seen it in churches where a select few kind of “own” everything that is going on in the church and make all of the decisions. These individuals are the ones who have the greatest stake in the church since, in their opinion, they have been around the longest. They are the ones who planted the first set of shrubs around the sanctuary. They are part of the initial group who decided what the facility was going to look like. They might even be the ones who selected the organ (which you probably can’t move at this juncture in time, even though it probably would help!) When a church has too many individuals who are holding on to the past and refuse to let go of it, it might be one of your biggest stumbling blocks you will face. In churches I work with in the area of restarting, this is the biggest stumbling block and one of the reasons that only thirty percent of those churches who need to be restarted ever will be! Most of these churches simply will not let go in order to move into the future. By the time they are willing, the church has dwindled to such a state that it is no longer a viable candidate for a restart.

Pardon Me, You Are Sitting in My Seat – It sounds almost humorous if it were not for the truth behind this stumbling block. Years ago, I cut out a cartoon as a young pastor from Leadership magazine that had an elderly man showing a piece of paper to a young couple who were sitting in a pew as guests. The paper had “Title Deed” on it. Humorously I LOLed, but today it is more of a reality in some churches needing renewal. Many new people come to a church only to find it hard to actually find a place to sit that is not already reserved for those who come each and every week. When that happens, the feeling of being welcome goes out the door—and so does the prospect!

Poor Theology – Many a struggling church’s membership is so desperate for new blood that it is open to include those who are not theologically aligned with where the church is going. Denominational churches often find some potential participants with a theological bend that is totally different than what the church was built upon and stands for. Once they let these people in without first seeking to assure they are theologically aligned, even more challenges arise. Then the church leaders wonder why it is hard to get anything moving because there are just too many factions all pulling the nucleus in different directions.

Confusing Worship – Another stumbling block is when a church has a worship program that is confusing to those who are not a regular part of the experience. Standing up, sitting down, or saying a favorite phrase is expected but not explained. That is a big turnoff to first-time guests. For example, in reciting various creeds, themes, or prayers, if it is not explained well in either the order of service or on the visual screens, even something good can be a turn-off for guests. While it is often a big thing to many pastors to recite something that only the “regulars” know, it is a gigantic problem to those seeking to discover if they might fit in to your church. Another example is singing the familiar “church anthem” in worship—I once had a group of people who loved the song “Haven of Rest.” While the song is full of encouragement and useful theological underpinnings, it is a bore after the two-thousandth time you have heard it! Using songs or hymns that guests would not know is hard for visitors. Remember that those not brought up in the church will view these songs as strange and will struggle to participate. Even popular praise music is uncomfortable on an ear that is seeking to adapt and learn on the run. Having someone sing it first might help your guests.

Apprehensive Leadership – When pastors are afraid to make changes because of the consequences, the apprehensive leader becomes a stumbling block to revitalization. If negative responses can cause you to abandon church revitalization efforts, stop now! Premature abandonment of changes will hurt the momentum toward renewal. If God has called you to lead the renewal process, do so; if he has not called you to be the leader, allow the Lord to raise up that individual. Church revitalization does not always need to be led by the lead pastor.

Doing What You Have Always Done – While I would be the first to admit that some of what you are doing is actually what you should be doing to help revitalize the church, if it makes it hard for you to look towards the future, this is a stumbling block! Pastors can get locked into only seeing the present, unable to stretch beyond the usual. People (and pastors) of habit cannot see other things. The past for some also affects this fear of future, as well. Many members are comfortable in the routine; they like the same old same old, no matter how unappealing it may be. While things are changing all around them, they opt for remaining the same.

Fearful Membership – If the membership and the pastor are fearful of new changes and new things that might be done for advancing the church and getting it back on the road to recovery, renewal will be hard. Many laity fear that there is change all around their lives, and they are unable to cope with it, things like their changing health, physical vigor, children, etc. Many see the present state of affairs at church as the safe place. Older members want a safe place to worship and grow, and evangelism is not as important to many seniors as it once was. The familiar is more important than new things. Ritual is a comfort. Understand that any change could shake or even anger some older members who feel the change means that their safety is no longer important.

“I’ll Take My Toys and Go Play Somewhere Else” – I always was amused with my wife and her excitement when someone would join our church from another church in the area. We would discuss it after the service at lunch, and she often would question my lack of enthusiasm. The reason the new folks were joining us was because they didn’t like the changes at their church and wanted to make a statement to the pastor and staff. End result: They eventually will leave! If they left a former church when things did not go the way they wanted, you can be sure past performance is an indicator of future performance.

Inability to Change Leaders’ Thinking – If pressed, most church people want to keep things status quo. This is why we often hear things such as “Let’s just do what we are already doing better, more frequently, or with new spirit-led leadership.” Excellence is not always the answer. I would rather see lay volunteers doing something 80% well over a professional minister doing it 100%. In reality, if volunteers are at 80%, in five years they will be doing it better than you were, and it is one less thing you must do.

Unawareness of What Healthy Looks Like – Since many ministers and church members grew up in unhealthy churches, they are not able to understand nor are they aware of what healthy looks like. The result is that these churches keep the same level of dysfunction they’ve always had. Some churches allow unscriptural things to go on; others don’t want to be without church leadership, so they allow sin in the camp to blossom.

Your Church’s Strength as Its Weakness – Church revitalization leaders know this all too well! Usually what you are really good at is also what can become a part of why you are really bad at something else. What is it that you do well? Often our strength can be part of the problem, because we are unable to move on past that one or two things we do well. Revitalization is a process that moves the church away from polarization, yet one’s gifts might be part of the challenge. Stretching helps all of us as ministers, so never be afraid to expand your skill sets.

The Bylaws & Constitution – It is amazing how often people who never follow the church constitution will use it as a club towards anything or anyone who is trying to do something new with the church! Many church bylaws keep things from happening! I could say much more about this, but in this case, less is more.

Building Barricades to Growth – Sometimes a building that is not well thought-out and is confusing for new visitors can be a stumbling block. I have been in far too many of these, and while you cannot rebuild the church in most cases, you can place volunteers at key entry points within your facility to help people navigate confusing structures.  

What Lessons Can Be Learned Here?

Let’s look at a few revitalization lessons we can learn for the stumbling blocks shared:

  • Revitalization Lesson #1: Any changes made in the church must have at their heart the design to facilitate ministry and to make it easier for the church to follow its God-given vision and reach more people with the good news.
  • Revitalization Lesson #2: Revitalization is less about programs and more about who the church really is. You must work towards changing the church’s personality. If your church members are hard to get along with, exclusive, graceless, and hateful, you will struggle towards renewal and revitalization. The change in the personality of the church happens only when the church experiences healing of broken relationships and forgiveness of past hurts. Tension has to be released before a true welcoming atmosphere can prevail in a church. Healing must have taken place before warmth and love will be present.
  • Revitalization Lesson #3: Conflict is inevitable. Managing conflict is a basic skill needed in living life, and especially in renewal and revitalizing a church.
  • Revitalization Lesson #4: Do not change just for change’s sake! Change has a high risk for stirring up some already troubled waters, so do not bother causing conflict without it yielding a strong payoff. Don’t become the bully for change. Weigh out your decisions.
  • Revitalization Lesson #5: Congregations change only as the people in them change. The major question is, “What does God want out of us as the church?” Once this is known, it is better to change the people first, then the church second!

God’s people must become more excited about who God is and what he is doing in their midst. They must become a praying church. The church’s structure needs to change to facilitate ministry taking place. As the lead pastor, your role must evolve, and the laity needs to comprehend this evolution. The major role of the church must move from doing maintenance ministries to doing and becoming on mission.