17 Reasons the Church Cannot Change
and What We Can Do About It
1. Goals are not defined.
Many congregations work hard to draft mission statements that end up with some form of “To Make Christ Known.” That’s hard to define and harder to measure. The result? Congregations work at finding more members to fund old ideas. Nothing really changes.
We can’t demand change without defining goals. Goals of laity are often very different than those of clergy. All the more reason to have a meeting of the minds to choose and prioritize goals.
WHAT TO DO: Define your goal. How do you want to change? Don’t just say “We want more families.” Look at your community realistically. Forget for a moment what you want. Instead ask: Who can we serve? How can we serve? Set multiple goals—attendance, budget, inclusiveness, service, and most important, effectiveness.
2. We assume tradition defines the rules.
- What is allowed to change? It is likely that there are possibilities that are never considered because people assume things have to be done in certain ways.
- What must remain the same?
- Can we change the relationships between clergy and members? Can we divide the work load differently?
- Can we change the way we use physical space? The sanctuary? The classrooms? The surrounding land? Are there benefits to doing things off-site?
- Can we change the way we spend and invest money?
- Can we change the ways we deliver the message? Can we use social media? Can we change worship style? Can we change the schedule? Who is in charge of these decisions? What oversight is needed?
WHAT TO DO: Spend time asking and answering these and other questions. You might find there are hidden possibilities.
3. We cannot visualize change.
Sometimes the cries for change are rooted in nostalgia. We make better use of our rearview mirror than our crystal ball. A return to the past is impossible. So what will the Church of the future look like? Visualizing this will help us look outward.
WHAT TO DO: Check your mission statement. Does it demand anything of your congregation? If it doesn’t, start over. A mission statement should point to action. When you are satisfied with you mission statement, USE IT! Measure every action taken by you governing board or auxiliary groups by your mission statement. Refer to the mission statement at meetings and worship. Recite it together whenever you gather.
4. We don’t allow for failure.
Failure is part of change. Failures are stepping stones. Congregations have to be able to work through difficulties. That means taking risks. They cannot do this if regional bodies are monitoring them for failure and if leadership, local or regional, sees its role as protecting assets.
WHAT TO DO: Have an ongoing discussion with your congregation about what you are willing to risk to achieve mission. Be flexible in making plans. Always have a Plan B. Help your congregation celebrate success and honor efforts that seem to fail. Sometimes efforts that seem to have failed are necessary steps to eventual success.
5. We expect change to happen on a prescribed schedule.
Progress is best made with baby steps. Any leader who comes into a congregation with an action plan that uproots everything and dictates prescribed steps and timetables is putting a congregation at serious risk. Putting process before results fails to recognize the unique character of each congregation. When it fails—and it will—the congregation will be left feeling inadequate, when in reality they weren’t really part of the process at all.
Congregations need confidence. That confidence will radiate their message. If they are in a downward trend (and most congregations are), they need to rebuild their sense of worth and security in order to succeed at welcoming others.
WHAT TO DO: Study the work of B.J. Fogg. The role of leader is to motivate and facilitate change not to issue orders. Help your congregation identify abilities. Find what motivates and triggers or activates your community. Help your congregation love itself again—all the better to love others.
6. We protect what we create.
Recently, a denomination created worship resources to help congregations address the tragic killings in American churches. In an effort to address a timely issue, they put the resources online. Great! But they password protected the resources so only their denomination or people who paid could access the worship resources. (We assume God has the password.) The thinking is economic. Pay to pray. We wrote this conversation with God. If there is money to be had in sharing, it belongs to us.
Remember, they were addressing a current national crisis. The message they sent was that they have answers to current problems but won’t offer them without compensation—either monetary or to add to an email list. Is peace an issue we want to copyright?
You don’t want the people to think you care first about your bottom line and helping others second. Think of the message they would send if they distribute resources to churches for free in a form that encouraged sharing—especially in times of crisis.
WHAT TO DO: As you plan for change, consider how your efforts are perceived. Be prepared to give without expecting financial benefit.
7. We expect change to be led by large, healthy congregations.
Large, flagship churches have the means for change but they lack motivation. Money is still available. Bills are paid regularly. They can try to reach the troubled, but they are often isolated from the threatened and disadvantaged. Meanwhile, things will be fine for them whether or not they change.
Change almost always comes from unexpected places and often from people whose authority is outside convention. The Bible is full of examples. Abraham and Sarah. Jacob. Moses. Ruth and Naomi. Saul. David. John the Baptist. Mary. Peter, Paul. A host of saints! Is this type of serendipity possible today?
WHAT TO DO: Look for change agents in your neighborhood within and outside your congregation. Create an atmosphere where they can prosper. Explore teamwork. Network with other groups, religious and secular.
8. We look to clergy to lead change.
Clergy are probably the professionals slowest to embrace modern change. They entered a profession with ancient roots and have a vested interest in things staying the same or returning to how things used to be.
WHAT TO DO: Ask your leaders what they need to lead change? Do they need help with the internet? Do they need training? Do they need partners? Demand that clergy use modern tools! Let your seminaries know what you need from professional leaders in order to change. Seminaries are used to hearing from clergy. If congregations never let them know what they need, they will keep training clergy in what they think we need!)
9. We assign the role of follower to all laity.
Ironically, today, when the laity are often as well educated as clergy, we still think of laity as a volunteer pool to fulfill traditional roles that barely tap their talents.
Laity have been instrumental in major church movements in the past. Start with 12 disciples. Move on to Paul and friends. Now jump ahead 1700 years. The Sunday School movement started in the late 18th century and prospered through the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Sunday School was responsible for the sense of community and service that grew the Church of the 1940s and 1950s. Ah! The halcyon days! The Movement was lay-led. Even today in some areas Sunday Schools operate separately from the governing structure of host churches with their own budgets and boards.
WHAT TO DO: Unleash your laity. Give them ownership of mission. We might surprise you! Let them develop internet ministry. Let people in on the planning. Here is just one small idea to use as a test. Each week, run a poll online. List five or six hymns appropriate for your next week’s worship (you still have control). Then poll the congregation. Use the top two or three. People will feel some ownership of their worship.
10. We market resources to those with the ability to pay for them.
Makes sense—unless your mission includes reaching people who are less advantaged. Small church leaders often complain that resources provided by their denominations aren’t helpful to them. Yet church publishers develop and market to the stereotype and to their vision. Statistically, as many as 80% of congregations are small. How can we provide quality resources geared to their situations and budgets?
WHAT TO DO: Experiment. Leaders of small churches may be on their own for a while but the internet opens possibility.
11. We don’t measure.
And when we do, we don’t measure the right things! When things aren’t going well, we stop paying attention to statistics. We accept and pay for years of ministry with no progress.
WHAT TO DO: If your congregation is spending all its resources without measurable improvement, figure out what can be changed. Don’t expect magic. Start small. Chalk up some measurable successes even if they are very small.
12. The voice of the Church is carefully controlled.
There is no place in free society that makes freedom of expression more difficult. Worship is generally prescribed by the denomination. Pastors work with carefully chosen support staff to shape the experience. Homogenous congregations are more likely to accept and thrive this way. Reaching people who are unaccustomed to this control will be an uphill struggle. As our society restructures from the vertical leadership model of the past to a more horizontal, participatory model, this will become harder to sustain.
The web creates voice. Many pastors don’t have the skills to evangelize on the web and don’t trust anyone else to do it. And so we stick to communication styles of the past. Church publications are clergy led. Letters to the editor are moderated by clergy. Voting is representative but the representatives are likely to be chosen by a stellar ability to follow. Change agents are not welcome—no matter what the sign on the door says!
One of the most popular bishops in church history was called without being either baptized or particularly interested in Church. (St. Ambrose)
The number of saints who flunked Choirboy 101 are many (Francis, Augustine)
WHAT TO DO: Invite speakers from unusual places (other faiths, different neighborhoods). Find the people in your congregation who can use the internet. Give them room to work. If a valuable viewpoint surfaces in Bible Study or over coffee, encourage the person to share by writing a post or speaking.
13. We suffer from “not my job syndrome.”
Many churches are trapped in this hideous cycle. Congregants look to pastors to do the work of creating change. Pastors expect the laity to provide manpower to implement prescribed strategies. No one takes responsibility. Fingers are pointed. Peace is found in prayer without action.
WHAT TO DO: Start a conversation in your congregation about roles in the Church. Ask people to identify their interest and skills. Don’t just look for people to fill pre-defined needs. Ask: How do you see your talents serving God? Then help them do it.
14. We equate peace with health.
WHAT TO DO: Create a safe place for differing viewpoints. This is tricky. The first unintentional, patronizing comment will shut down all dialogue. Visionaries need time to test the water,
15. We believe that someone has all the answers.
If there were someone in church leadership with all the answers, their wisdom would be packaged and distributed throughout the Church with success close behind. Answers are more likely to be found within your community.
WHAT TO DO: Make sure there opportunity for people to weigh in on issues facing your congregation. Make room for them to act on their ideas. Side with faith and hope, not blind tradition.
16. We rely on labels.
This is particularly prevalent among church leaders. They characterize congregations and assign labels. Oddly, labels usually emphasize the negative. Psychologists know that people live to labels. Congregations do, too. Are your women labeled as teachers and social hosts? Are your men labeled as board members and property experts? Are your youth labeled? How about your visitors? Labels limit.
WHAT TO DO: Stop thinking in terms of labels. Love one another.
17. We don’t believe our message.
Although last on the lift, tackling this is foundational to success. It is difficult to ask others to believe in God when we feel lost, weak, and forsaken. Church failure reflects insecurity. We want to believe God loves, redeems and empowers. Our doubt has us measuring success by our own well-being. If we are OK with God, that’s enough.
WHAT TO DO: How empowering was the revelation that Mother Teresa wrestled with doubts! We all need encouragement. Small steps. Small successes. Less criticism. Less judgment. Education is also key. Explore challenges faced by biblical leaders and the saints. The internet makes it possible to do this without expecting people to come out for formal classes.