Navigating Change Without Crashing

Every church goes through major changes. Far too often, churches make changes that blow up on them.

Take, for example, one pastor I know who longed to lead his church toward greater missional impact and more lives reached for Christ. He envisioned multiple campuses and organic church life, centered in home-based small groups. And so he and his leaders embarked on a plan to reach those dreams. Over the course of a few years, they even achieved some of them.

But then, everything changed. Suppressed tensions between the pastor and the “old guard” eventually erupted into open conflict. Over 18 months or so, about a third of the congregation left. Many who remained were angry and discouraged and no longer invited their friends to church.

This pastor’s vision was good, but his attempt to lead the church through change ended in disaster. What happened?

In consulting with him, as well as many other church leaders like him, I have learned that a church’s ability to navigate major change comes down to how well it lives out one core principle: Change values before you change structures.

The importance of values

If a traditional church, for example, launches a new service aimed at unchurched people, with a different style of music, but the congregation has little passion for reaching unchurched people, the new service will fail. People will gripe about the music, about everyone not being in the same worship service, about the pastor dividing his attention and more. Why? Because they value other things more than they value reaching unchurched people.

On the other hand, if the pastor can ignite a passion for unchurched people, the people themselves will generate creative ideas for reaching them. Those ideas may or may not include launching a new service, but people will be willing to be inconvenienced, to set aside personal preferences, to step outside their comfort zones for the sake of something they value more.

The secret to navigating change without crashing, then, is for people to change their values (actual, not stated, values) before the church changes its structures. If you skip this step, brace for a crash landing.

How to change values

1. Model the new values.

Consider the worthy vision that many church leaders share, for greater evangelistic impact. A pastor lacks credibility, however, when he exhorts his people to evangelize but is not himself intentionally building relationships with people far from God. If you as a leader want your congregation to make decisions based on a passion for reaching unchurched people, they need to be hearing stories of how you delight in hanging out with your non-Christian friends.

2. Build strong team relationships with core leaders.

One-hundred percent of the congregation does not need to buy into a new value before you introduce change, but a critical mass of your core leaders must embrace it. How does this happen?

To see change happen, a pastor must invest deeply in relationships with the church’s core leaders (formal, informal and emerging). While leaders do need to spend time on management decisions, they need to spend even more time sharing joys and sorrows, detailing deep personal needs, and praying for one another. They need to become an intimate community, a working laboratory where heart change is constantly taking place.

Why? First, because heart change is what God is up to in our lives, but also because heart change equals values change. And shared values provide the soil from which shared vision grows.

Photo: Dennis Hesselbarth. Anna Mendoza enjoys fellowship with both children and adults in her house church.

3. Start small.

When Hilltop Urban Church (EFCA) in Wichita, Kan.—where I am on the staff—began transitioning to a house church model, we started with a single pilot group. That pilot house church met for eight months to figure out the DNA that fit the culture we were serving and to train the shepherds who would lead house churches. Only once we were confident we had the DNA right did we launch multiple house churches.

Why start small? First, so you can learn by trial and error without involving the whole church in your beginners’ mistakes. Second, so you can start with those who are eager to experiment, rather than pushing change on people who don’t see a need for it. Third, because most people won’t catch a vision of the new just by reading or hearing about it. When you start with a prototype, skeptics get to see the new way and hear the enthusiasm of those doing it, and that enthusiasm is contagious.

4. Share stories that showcase the new values.

To encourage the growth of a small-group culture, for example, regularly invite people during the worship service to share what God is doing in their groups. To promote ministry teams, highlight reports of God at work in their teams. Make a point to often include stories in your sermons that model the new values. (Caution: Preaching alone cannot drive culture change; but sermons that grow out of what God is doing among the core leaders can invite others to join in.)

5. Don’t get too far ahead of your people.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “If you’re ahead of your people but they’re not following, you’re not leading; you’re just taking a walk.”

We are sometimes tempted to view those who are slow to embrace change as obstacles. When you see good people holding back, people who you know love God and the church, don’t treat them as adversaries. Talk with them.

About a year into Hilltop’s “extreme church makeover,” a church survey suggested that trust between the pastor and some members was strained. This surprised the staff. We took the results to the team responsible to review the survey, and they said, “It’s obvious: Some of our old guard don’t understand the changes.”

The pastor and I met with those who had concerns. As we affirmed how much we valued them and they received answers to a few questions, we were blown away by their enthusiasm about what God was doing, even though some of the changes were outside their comfort zone. Trust was restored.

6. Signal your turns.

Before rolling out a change that affects much of the congregation—a new service, a new staff position, a change in worship format—take great pains to avoid surprises. Confronted with a big change that they haven’t had time to process, most people will feel afraid.

Turn signals prevent wrecks. Before you make a big turn, start signaling well ahead of time. Explain. Take questions. Explain some more. Create safe places for people to process. Adopt a “no surprises” rule. If you’re almost fanatical about signaling turns, your people will tend to trust you in those rare emergencies when sudden turns can’t be avoided.

7. Help people grieve.

No matter how healthy a change is, it involves loss. These losses are real. Be clear about the tradeoffs—what you gain, what you have to give up. Acknowledge the price people are paying. Never shame people—“Don’t you care about unchurched people?”—simply because they find loss painful.

For those of us eager for change, taking the time to change values before changing structures may seem slow. Yes, it does take longer to lay the groundwork. But once that groundwork is laid, change accelerates. As your people internalize new values, the resulting innovations will far surpass anything the staff alone could have dreamed up. Rather than introducing a single change, you will have created a culture of innovation.

Ministry doesn’t get much more fun than that.

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