Much of the hard work of church revitalization is in leading the church through changes. As I’ve often written, there is no revitalization without pain, because revitalization means change, change means loss, and whenever there is loss there is pain. And since none of us like pain, it is natural to avoid making the necessary changes that will lead the church to be healthier and grow.
Unfortunately, the results of not leading those changes will be continued maintenance and/or decline in the church. Since you’re reading this, you probably are wanting to see your church revive, so here are five strategies that will be helpful when introducing change:
- Focus on the most important and easiest things to change first. Ask,“What will make the biggest difference with the least resistance?” I once heard a prominent church consultant say that churches spend most of their time working on the wrong solutions to the wrong problems. That’s not good! It is better to identify what changes will make an impact, and start with the ones that will cause the least amount of anxiety in the church body. In this way, you can gain some small victories which will build trust in your leadership and momentum for the mission.
- Be a proponent of the new, not an opponent of the old. In Mark 2:22 (NLT), Jesus said, “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” It’s not wise to try to make the old wineskin hold the new wine because both the new wine and the old skins are lost! No one benefits. It is better to honor the old and add the new when possible. An example in church revitalization would be trying to turn a traditional worship service with mostly older people into a new contemporary service to reach millennials. The best way to go about this would be to keep (honor) the traditional service and add the contemporary. Yes, there are challenges to the change of adding new but you are less likely to lose both the new and the old.
- Respect and enlist support from “key influencers” in your church. Know who the people are in the church who are the real leaders – even if they are not on the vestry. These are the people who everyone looks to when a change is announced to see if they approve of it. If they do approve, then the others will too. One of the people I always talked to early on about any change that was coming was “Joan.” At least, that’s what I’m going to call her for our purposes. Joan was in her late 80’s and was super supportive of the church’s mission. Joan was also the woman that all the other “old ladies” in the church looked to when a change was announced. If I took the time to make sure Joan understood the change and why we were doing it and she was “on board,” when I made the public announcement of the change all the old ladies would look over at Joan, Joan would nod her approval and all of them were “on board” as well! Who are the “Joan’s” in your church. Respect their influence and enlist their support early for the changes.
- Call every change an “experiment.” If it doesn’t work, it was an “education!” This is kind of funny but very true! Not every change you make in the church will work. That’s perfectly okay. When that happens, learn what you can from that experience and move on. Let it be an education! By calling the change an “experiment” you keep expectations realistic. It took many years, but we eventually developed a culture of change in our church where it was expected that changes would be continuously made in order to better fulfill the Great Commission. Some changes worked, some didn’t, but everything was an education.
- Enlist intercessors. As a young priest, I would hear older clergy that I respected talking about having intercessory prayer teams and often a personal intercessor. I thought, “Well, I want that!” It took time, but I eventually was able to identify and build trust with some mature intercessors. Once I did, they became the first people I would enlist when contemplating a potential change. It was only a small group and I called them my “special forces” prayer team. They held the upcoming change both in prayer and in confidence. It never ceased to amaze me how much better a change would go having had prayer going out ahead of it. Who are the mature intercessory prayers in your church who you can enlist early about the changes you need to lead?
If you want your church to grow, you are most likely going to have to change something. Hopefully these tips will help. Take a look at our Revive! Church Revitalization website for more tips, videos and help for church revitalization.
Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization and Coaching for the American Anglican Council.