In many ways, the local church can be quite a unique organization. Though it sometimes functions similarly to other groups (businesses, civic groups, etc.) there are several realities that make the local church unlike anything else you’ve ever led.
In this series, we’re going to take a look at several such realities because these facts greatly affect your ability to lead change within the local congregation. Yes, there are numerous books and resources that provide great insights into the process of organizational change, but what about those things that make the local church its own unusual arena? Where is the help you need to bring successful and enduring change to your local church? Hopefully, you’ll find some assistance in this series of articles.
Perhaps we should begin by considering why change is uniquely difficult in this setting. We know that churches struggle with change more than other groups. While our culture lives in a state of rapid change, the church only achieves significant change over a long period of time. Little wonder, so many congregations have become disconnected with those they are trying to reach. But why is this true? There are a lot of possibilities.
First, the preference for familiar things at church can be a reaction to the constant change people experience the other six days of the week. We are weary of trying to keep up. It can feel good to have one day where stuff doesn’t move, but feels like it felt last week. Most people find a lot of security in the familiar and since they don’t get enough of that all week, keeping the church the same becomes a refuge of sorts.
Of course differing agendas affect our ability to achieve change at church. People are slow to trust the agenda of a new pastor, especially if they feel a previous leader has taken advantage of them. They want a pastor who will care for them and be available for their needs, while often the pastor is living in the challenge of reaching others. He sees what can be, but the people tend to treasure what already is, so these different motivations make the battle lines are to draw.
We know all the reasons about change being difficult, or sometimes being perceived as a criticism of the past. Frankly it’s easier and more affirming to keep running down the same paths, especially when those paths meet my personal needs. As we have often said, inward focus is the core cause of ultimate decline in a church, so having things the “way I like it” not only prevents change. It becomes destructive as well.
Another odd reality is that many people see God through older eyes. Their sense of the sacred is more easily attached to older practices. So older music becomes more valued, even though it was a bit radical in its early years too. Older ideas take on more than a nostalgic value—they become traditions that we feel a need to honor. A leader desiring relevance frequently runs into those who simply have an old view of what God prefers.
And that’s another dangerous place. After living with inward focus for a while, we can start “creating God in our own image.” That odd statement simply means that we decide God prefers what I prefer and wants me to do what I want to do. So if I like things a certain way, I find myself insisting that my way is the best, or even the only, way to please God.
There are many additional reasons why organizations struggle to achieve change, but these are the realities we must add to a look at church change. Next time, we’ll discover that the primary reason people have connected with your church can also become a deterrent to change.