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"This Will NEVER Work"—The Top 10 Reasons Congregations Resist Change (and How to Respond)

Several times, after presenting to a group of pastors on reshaping the practice of the church for Mission, I lead a closing session where I ask pastors to share their top reasons for why “this will never work.” Last spring, I was in Nebraska leading a pastor’s workshop for the American Baptist Pastors, and during this session one of the pastors gave me his top 10 reasons in written form. I think they are great. My apologies to the pastor who wrote this list because I do not have his name. The list is instructive as to what blocks congregations from change. Here’s the list in bold, along with my quick responses in italics. What other hurdles do you face in leading change in your church body? What responses might you add to this list?

1. “We’ve never done it that way before!” And that’s possibly why we need to do this? Change requires doing something different than what has gone on before.

2. Unbelief in God’s power and presence. If we would lead change at all, we must lead people into Christ’s presence via prayer and the Eucharist. It is the foundation of all transformation in the church.

3. “We tried that before and it didn’t work.” We must ask ourselves, what does it mean for something ”to work” in God’s church, and how long might we have to wait  to see it happen? God is so excessively patient.

4. They don’t understand that the world and approach to ministry has changed. Sometimes we must start with the ones who do see as opposed to the whole congregation. This may be only two or three people. Jesus started with 12, not the whole nation of Israel. The small group’s lives then disrupt the enclosed status quo of the whole congregation, opening up space for revolution.

5. Lack of compassion or identification with the world. Compassion for/presence in the world comes from seeing God at work in the world. The leader’s primary task is to proclaim the good news that God is already at work in the world and is waiting for us to join in.

6. We’re too small. (We don’t have enough money). I have found that when we reach out to be “with” the hurting, God works in ways that take very little money. But people need to see it to believe it.

7. Fear of how it might change the church. Fear of change, inertia within the comfortable, is something leaders must always deal with and not get discouraged about. If it wasn’t there, there’d be no need for leaders or change either.

8. Fear of “the other” (what if they actually come to our church?). We must give people time to be changed by the “least of these” in our midst. It’s a miracle to behold if we can encourage people to stay in the tension long enough for it to happen.

 9. Overdependence on the pastoral role. “That’s his/her job!” My recommendation is, pastors should develop another vocation/skill that they can earn money from. Then propose a paycut, lower your responsibilities and force the church to become a living social body of Christ in the world.

10. Lack of imagination. It takes leaders filled with imagination for what God is doing to lead a church there. And this imagination is funded not by preaching expository self-help sermons for a better Christian life in America. Instead, let the pulpit be the place we declare the good news of what God’s doing around us and invite people into that.  

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David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.