The Work Goes On
Navigating the Rough Waters of Change
By Brad Ransom
Change. It might be the scariest word in the English language.
Nothing is harder to adapt to than a new Bible or a new computer, and those are small things compared to many issues of change we face in our lives. Why is change so hard? Honestly, I think the greatest reason we don’t like change is fear. We don’t necessarily fear the change; we fear the process. New processes mean unclear expectations, moving targets, and a lack of comfort. No wonder change is hard.
Change often upsets tradition. For some reason, many people think of tradition as a bad thing, but it’s not. Tradition is good. It helps us remember. Consider the story in Joshua 4:5-7, when the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, and Joshua had stones set up at the crossing to remind them of God’s provision. This is an example of establishing a good tradition. It’s always good to remember what God has done. Tradition reminds us of our past, how far we’ve come, and what God has done.
Families often establish traditions around Christmas or other important holidays. Our family had a wonderful Christmas tradition for many years. My parents, sister, and her family would always get together with my family on Christmas Eve. We ate a lot of food, exchanged gifts, and just enjoyed spending time together. Then, on Christmas morning, before we opened our gifts we read the Christmas story from the Bible. These were wonderful traditions!
Eventually though, the kids grew up. They married spouses who had their own family traditions. For several years, our family fought against changing our tradition, trying to force our grown children to keep it. It didn’t work. Eventually we had to adjust our family traditions to their new family dynamics. What am I saying?
Tradition is fine and a great way to remember, but tradition isn’t constant. Traditions change. This may be painful, but it’s true. Tradition can become detrimental if we refuse to change just for the sake of habit, comfort, or enjoyment. We must guard against this. As long as tradition is still working, we may not need to change. But when circumstances and other factors change, so should we. Understand, I’m not suggesting we stop reading the Christmas story on Christmas morning; we may just need to read it separately, with our own immediate families, rather than all together like we did in the past.
I’m reminded of the children of Israel who were led out of slavery in Egypt and wandered in the wilderness. They saw the mighty hand of God at work firsthand, but every chance they got, they reverted to Egyptian traditions and worshiped false gods. They made idols, and even though God delivered them, they quickly and frequently returned to their old, comfortable ways. Those traditions were familiar. They were comfortable.But they weren’t good.
The fact is, sometimes change is necessary. We can’t depend on fluctuating tradition. So what do we do with that? As humans, we naturally have strong feelings about it. “What if I don’t like the change?” “What if I need to lead change and know people won’t like it?”
Principles for Change
When change happens and you don’t like it, it’s okay. I’m sure it probably isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last. Remember when the cable provider changed the channel lineup without asking you? Remember when you walked into Walmart, and the entire store had been rearranged? Those feelings are okay. You can’t help how you feel. Feelings are feelings.
When change happens, mourn, then move forward. In some ways, change is like the death of a friend. You’re saying goodbye to a loved and treasured practice. It’s hard. Mourn it. Don’t forget it. Those memories are great, but we must forge ahead.
Look for effort, not results, especially if you are not in charge of the change. Change is hard for everyone. Try not to be critical during change. Remember it’s about the effort, not the results. Results will come. Patience and grace are important. This is especially true when you don’t like change that occurs in your church. I can assure you, most of the time church leaders have prayed, labored, talked it through with others, and have good reasons to implement change.
If you are the one implementing change, and you are afraid of the reaction, I encourage you to break long-term change down into bite-size pieces, especially big changes.
Navigating a Necessary Change
An appropriate question is, “When do we need to change something?” The difficult but honest answer is, when what we are doing is no longer effective. Albert Einstein famously said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.”
Many churches are in decline and struggling, because they are doing everything exactly the same as they did 20 or 30 years ago. Our culture has changed in the last 20 or 30 years. We can’t reach people (or keep them) the way we did decades ago. Again, remember what I said earlier. I’m not suggesting you “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Keep what works, but be willing to change what doesn’t. Is your church healthy and growing? Do you have a steady flow of first-time visitors? Is your church seeing salvation decisions? Is the baptistry being used? If not, find the reason. Be honest and admit you have a problem.
Changing methods isn’t sinful. Methods are practices. Sure, I wish things were like they used to be. I also remember the “good ole days.” I remember people pouring into special services and the altars filling at every service. And, I’m not saying that can’t still happen. It can. But, in general, our methods must adapt to the culture to reach the people of our communities.
Important questions include: “What or how should I be willing to change?” and “How do I guard against making wrong changes?” The only thing worse than change is change for the wrong reasons. Use the following guiding principles to navigate necessary change.
Identify your core values. These are unchanging values worth dying for, such as preaching truth, evangelism, and missions. These are non-negotiable. They become the filter all changes must go through. In other words, you would never consider replacing preaching in the Sunday service with a magic show or dance troupe, even if it would bring people in. (Yes, those are ridiculous examples, but they illustrate my point.)
I challenge church planters to identify five core values to use as the filter to guide all change. This keeps your church on track without the fear of compromising. Everything your church does and is about should align with those core values. Does the proposed change help you reach more people without violating these values? If the answer is yes, then go for it.
Define your philosophy of ministry. What is your philosophy of ministry? How do evangelism, discipleship, missions, community, etc. all fit into your ministry? What is important?
According to Dr. Larry Gilbert of churchgrowth.org:
Philsophy of ministry simply puts into understandable terminology the direction, purpose, and methodology of building a church. It means that you study the truths of the Word of God, looking for principles that will lay a foundation for your knowledge of the church’s ministry. Then those principles are incorporated in a system of doctrine, beliefs or teaching to guide the pastor and church leaders in practically applying God’s Word in the lives of those to whom they minister. This, in turn gives wisdom that will keep the pastor and leaders composed when challenges arise in how to minister to the people under their influence.
Write a mission and vision statement. I believe the best mission statement for any church is the Great Commission. The mission of every evangelical church is to evangelize and make disciples. You can dress that up however you want, but that’s the bottom line. Your mission statement defines what you are about. It should be short, only one or two sentences. Once you’ve perfected your mission statement, you can expand it to four to six sentences that explain how you intend to accomplish the mission. This is your vision statement.
Think strategically. Every change requires strategic planning. If your outreach program isn’t working, you need a new one. What will it look like? You will probably take a hundred steps to implement the new process. Don’t make the critical mistake of failing to think through every step strategically, especially if you change something. Nothing screams failure louder than a lack of planning.
Consider the impact. If you design a new outreach system, you probably also need to check your assimilation or follow-up system. If you masterfully plan an outreach event and have 50 first-time visitors, how will you follow up with them? Every part of your ministry is linked together. Don’t let one good change sabotage success because the impact of that change was not considered.
Finally, implement change slowly. Nothing can be more damaging than moving too quickly. I know of a music minister who thought it would be a great idea to implement change in his music program by adding new instruments. One Sunday, the congregation worshiped with a piano and organ. The next Sunday, without warning, guitars and drums sprawled across the entire stage. While nothing is wrong with adding instruments to your worship service, don’t do it without warning!
I’m sure we could identify other steps to implement change effectively, and my purpose isn’t to provide a comprehensive step-by-step plan, but to help you think through the process.
Change is necessary if we are no longer effective. I encourage you, whether pastor, church leader, or church member, to embrace the idea of change.
If you are a pastor or leader, consider everything your church does. If you don’t having a steady flow of first-time visitors, there’s a reason. If you have first-time visitors, but they don’t return, something is wrong. Figure it out and change it. Maybe it’s your worship service. Maybe it’s your children’s ministry. Maybe it’s your people. My point is simply this: figure out what isn’t working and do something about it.
Change is necessary. It isn’t always easy, and it is often messy. But, if we want to continue to reach people and see churches healthy and growing, change just may be the thing that gets us back on track.
About the writer: Brad Ransom is director of church planting for North American Ministries. Visit www.fwbnam.com.