As we have said, momentum is critical in helping a struggling church move in a new direction. Momentum comes when there is a slowly rising ground swell of new thinking, even if that shift has yet to produce new results. When there are signs that church is beginning to think differently, it’s time to start reinforcing that shift with new actions.
Many churches are unaware that their seemingly normal actions are actually working against them. Now certainly, unhealthy actions are easy to spot–unfriendliness, unresolved conflict, and public criticism of leaders top this list. People who act in these ways put themselves ahead of what is healthy for the local church. No one needs to be told that these matters are an ongoing problem for the church.
But less obvious are some of the “good ideas” that aren’t so good after all. Like lengthy, detailed announcements aimed at providing seemingly-needed information for some in the congregation, but hardly appropriate for those less involved. Or a cluttered main entrance area filled with evidence of much church activity, but hardly an inviting area for guests that might visit. These well-meaning acts chase a purpose that’s largely internal and actually hinder the church’s effectiveness in connecting with new friends.
In the church I pastored, one such well-meaning effort was standing in our way. In an effort to demonstrate compassion for the existing congregation–an aging collection of dear people–church leaders had reserved parking places and front area seating for senior adults. A half-dozen of the best parking spots were marked with “reserved for senior adults” and hard plastic signs with the same message were velcroed to about a dozen of the best seats in the house.
Now, such efforts were made with genuine kindness toward our older adults, a level of consideration any pastor would be proud to see his people demonstrate. Unfortunately, though, this signage was sending a different message to guests, especially young adults. When such folks entered a room flowing with silver hair and saw that the best spots in both the parking lot and the sanctuary were reserved for these insiders, it was easy for them to decide that this church was a place for older people…and not them. The act of kindness completely undermined the congregation’s genuine desire to connect with young people.
You may think, Well, they should have been more understanding, but no one seemed to feel these efforts were inappropriate. They just sent a first-impression message that this church isn’t for us. (By the way, visitors shouldn’t be expected to look past our stuff and like us anyway.)
So one night, a leader complained to me that some of the high school students were sitting in those front-row seats. Did you hear what I said? Complained that students were sitting in the front of the church! After we both took a minute to reflect on his complaint and chuckled a bit, he disappeared and returned with two handfuls of “reserved seat” signs, and I never saw those signs again. The parking signs remained (I believe to this day), but we no longer would forbid young people from sitting as close to the front of the church as they might choose.
When churches have been inward focused for awhile, there are likely a few behaviors that reflect such focus. As you build momentum toward new ideas, carefully identify and root-out some of these choices, but be sure to do so as a team. Help people see their behaviors through the lenses of outsiders who aren’t aware of the not-so-obvious reasons we do things. In fact, begin challenging your new-thinking friends to start viewing a lot of things through those lenses. Remember that outward focus drives the local church toward better health.