I couldn’t believe it. It was obvious this church building had been built with a deep desire to honor God and help people. It had been beautiful … all white with the cross placed purposely atop the bell tower to be seen for miles.
It had once stood proudly as a guiding light and symbol of hope. Something went horribly wrong. In the end, it was abandoned, boarded up, and left as a symbol of disappointment and shattered dreams. As was typical of many older churches, there was a cemetery on the church property. Yet what happened in that cemetery one day in the early ’60s wasn’t typical. They buried their church! Literally! The gravestone reads:
Immanuel Lutheran Church 1906–1963.
How surreal. The church is supposed to be a place that gives evidence to the resurrection power of Jesus Christ, where people find new life and hope. It’s supposed to overcome death and destruction, not submit to it. And yet, this church was buried. It’s not supposed to be like this. It doesn’t fit the picture Jesus painted of the church in Matt. 16:18: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
Regrettably, though you won’t often find the blatant honesty of the people of Immanuel Lutheran Church, many churches are dead or dying these days. They aren’t reaching any new people with the hope of Christ and haven’t for a very long time. Their congregations are getting older and smaller every year. Though the people inside are often sincere and love their church, they appear to offer nothing of value to outsiders. There’s no gravestone, but signs of life are quickly diminishing or have already disappeared.
While it’s true that many churches are dead or dying, it is equally true that they don’t have to stay that way. There are ways churches can transition from what they are to what they can and should be. Your church can successfully change without compromise by planting seeds today that will take root and grow into the future. Although scary and seemingly insurmountable, change—resurrecting a dying church, shifting from single- to multi-service or single site to multi-site, switching from traditional to contemporary worship, etc.—is possible and necessary if you want others to see your church as a place of hope and new life.
The Essential Targets
So how can you help the people in your church prepare for and process upcoming changes? When we were in the process of transitioning NorthRidge from a dying church full of older people to a growing church with a younger dynamic, I discovered that I needed to limit the number of changes at one time. You can’t change everything at once, nor do you need to. In any given church, no matter how bad things may be, usually only a couple of issues are hurting and hindering the church significantly.
Most church transitions have difficulty because the leaders either change too many things at one time or they change the wrong things. Both mistakes are potentially harmful. If you make too many changes, people can become overloaded, stop embracing the change and retreat. The wrong adjustments can hinder the positive results people expect and need to see, causing them to question the leadership and pull back their support of future changes. So it’s essential that we as leaders identify those key issues—the essential targets of change.
What’s Killing Your Church?
When I was a young leader, a very experienced pastor gave me great advice that through the years has helped me determine what does and doesn’t need to be changed: “You’ve got to kill what’s killing you, but you can let what isn’t killing you die of natural causes.”
Simply put, you want to differentiate between those things that are actually hurting the church and those things that just aren’t helping the church. If something’s hurting the church, it must be removed. However, if something’s not helping the church, it doesn’t need to be so aggressively eliminated and can be left to die on its own.
In our church, this was easy to identify. The Sunday morning service was killing us. We couldn’t reach new people because the service was irrelevant to everyone but insiders. More often than not, this is the problem in churches that aren’t reaching people. And it’s usually the place where change should begin.
Immediately, we began changing everything about our Sunday service—the style, music, design, elements and look—to reach out to a younger group.
Of course, we didn’t attract new people immediately, and our existing members didn’t like the changes one bit—especially the shift from hymns and an organ to contemporary worship music. Though I continued to explain why we were making these changes—to fulfill the Great Commission—you could still sense the tension. Though our music pastor fully believed in and supported the transition, he once told me that leading worship during that difficult season of change was like going to the dentist—painful but necessary. To be honest, it was tough to make and stay true to these changes. The majority of people couldn’t identify with them. Some even became belligerent and cruel.
But shortly after making these transformations, God affirmed our strategy in an awesome and obvious way. A young couple in their 20s visited our church one morning. Later, they shared with me the story of that first day.
Seated in the balcony, surveying all the older people around them, they’d already concluded the church wasn’t for them before the service even started. But when the service began, they got the surprise of their lives. They were blown away by the worship and message. The couple eventually became part of the core of the church, along with hundreds of others like them who were reached because we changed the services to effectively communicate to them.
Old and New Buy-in
So as you identify what’s killing your church and take the necessary steps to eliminate it, how do you keep the new people and the old members in the midst of the change?
It’s one of the biggest issues for pastors of churches in transition. Unfortunately, leaders sometimes make the mistake of seeing these veterans as the enemy. While some people do become negative and disruptive, they’re still God’s people who have given sacrificially to start, build and grow the church. The goal isn’t to get rid of them, but to get them so committed to being like Jesus that they’re willing to sacrifice what they love to reach those whom God loves. We learned that as we made the essential changes to reach new people, at the same time we had to continue to provide a place for those loyal churchgoers who’d been there since the doors opened.
For example, we transformed the Sunday morning service but left their adult classes alone. We reasoned that if their classes never changed, it wouldn’t keep the church from growing. We were able to honor and keep them in the church, while we honored God by reaching out to those who so desperately needed His hope. And by doing that, we experienced less loss and greater support.
Besides, if we look honestly at Scripture, the church isn’t supposed to be exclusive to one generation or group. Ideally, the church can and should be multi-generational, multicultural, multi-educational and multi-economic.
Who’s Influencing Who?
No matter how well a leader and church balance the ministry, there will always be those who want more for themselves and genuinely believe that church is all about them. So you can almost count on the fact that when you make positive changes in your church, you’ll encounter roadblocks and face strong challenges, even from existing leaders. The only way to navigate the challenges and ensure the changes are accepted is to make sure that the primary influencers in the church understand, embrace and are willing to fight for the values of Christ and His ideals for your church.
That sometimes calls for intentionally changing and/or expanding your base of influence. It’s up to you to change the influencers—especially true if they’re standing in the way of fulfilling the Great Commission.
Of course, this process requires time and wisdom (James 1:5). I learned that lesson the hard way. In my first pastoral ministry, I didn’t seek God’s wisdom about the placement of leaders and as a result, I stood by and supported the reappointment of a board member—the same man who eventually led the charge against my leadership.
Though I’ve certainly had my share of failures in this area, fortunately I’ve also made some very positive moves as well. Because I’d inherited staff and leaders who had been in the church for years, I decided that if my leadership was going to gain any traction, I would have to gradually reduce their influence. And I knew the only way to do this was to remove them from the platform in our services so they couldn’t influence the new people we reached.
As well, I moved new people into positions of influence, allowing them to start influencing the church. And as these new leaders gained influence, they rose to levels of leadership in the church, which carved a path for more significant changes.
Too many leaders fail to understand the importance of changing the influencers and as a result, they never genuinely become the leader of the church. When I first came to my current church, they called me the senior pastor but I was still the outsider. The only way I became the true leader was by slowly but intentionally changing the base of influence. The senior pastor title didn’t do it.
Character Wins Influence
Of course, to change the base of influence, I had to win influence—a feat that can only be accomplished by establishing character and competence. This takes time. But if a leader is authentic in character, people will start to see it.
In those days, my character was constantly tested. People were watching my every step. And my competence as a leader was on the line with every decision I made. Many people were just waiting for the changes to fail. But though we didn’t set the world on fire for the first six years, by God’s grace we did begin reaching new people. The more my leadership led the church to positively impact lives, the more influence I established.
Planting Seeds for Future Change
If you’re a pastor leading a church in transition, you’ve probably figured out by now that change doesn’t happen when you announce it. Change grows. And it requires that you consistently plant seeds in the present for future change, always looking ahead.
The bigger and more difficult the change, the further ahead the seed should be planted. Almost 10 years before it happened, I started planting seeds for the idea of changing the church name, originally Temple Baptist.
Successful change takes time to grow. And change doesn’t have to be destructive if it’s led in a positive and thoughtful way. To do this, we must, with God’s wisdom, clearly identify the essential targets of change and appropriately make the changes. It doesn’t happen easily or quickly, but with the right kind of leadership, it can and does happen.
When they’re the right changes, they can create positive consequences that surpass our dreams. As Eph. 3:20 says, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us …”
This kind of reality requires us to stop thinking and talking about it, and actually do it. Plant seeds of change and watch your church’s influence and outreach become what God always intended it to be … the hope of the world!
SIDEBAR: THE ROAD TO CHANGE
“In my mind, I had come to the church riding a white horse to save the day. The church was not working, and I was going to fix it,” says Brad Powell.
That was in 1990 as he, a 32-year-old pastor, walked into Temple Baptist Church in Detroit where some 1,000 people attended each weekend. Although large to some, that number equaled less than one-fourth what the church’s attendance had been. In fact, the church had lost nearly 90% of its membership in the 10 years prior to Powell’s arrival. Nevertheless, members continued to celebrate past victories instead of changing for the future (the church had been one of America’s 10 largest churches in 1969).
Now, 16 years later, to say the church has transitioned is an understatement. Temple Baptist has been renamed NorthRidge; has moved to the western Detroit suburb of Plymouth; and now averages weekly about 9,000 people who have a median age of 30, instead of 57. But the church’s story is not one of beautiful transformation but of hard, gritty, seemingly impossible change—change that can make a pastor want to quit, if not give up ministry altogether.
“After two years, the church was no better and all my effort left me drained, discouraged and defeated. I was failing,” says Powell. “I was working harder than I ever had and was getting nowhere.” Not only was attendance continuing to decline, but so was the fervor of the congregants who were hanging on.
What happened to invoke change? Powell came to some important personal conclusions. “I had been leading ‘His’ church as if it were ‘my’ church. I had been leading people to me … rather than to Him. I had been attempting to change the church by the force of my personality … and they hated my personality,” says Powell.
“I realized that I couldn’t successfully change the church because I couldn’t change the hearts of people. Only Jesus could do this,” he continues. “The only way I could effectively lead the church through the change was from the bottom … in full recognition of my weakness and inability and complete dependence on Him.”
Taking a humility lesson from Paul, Powell leaned on 2 Corinthians 12 for guidance: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, … But the Lord said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ ”
In weakness, both Powell and NorthRidge have been refined. And if that’s possible, Powell believes it’s possible for any church, which is why he wrote Change Your Church for Good: The Art of Sacred Cow Tipping (Thomas Nelson; Bradpowellonline.com) and launched the “Change Without Compromise” conference (churchdare.com).
“My passion is to help churches and leaders through the vital process of transition,” says Powell. “It is my firm belief that God has allowed our church to transition so dramatically and successfully in order to encourage and equip others to do the same.”
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