Real Tools for Real Churches: Can our church change? Are we ready?

March 22, 2016

Almost nobody WANTS to change. A favorite quip of mine addresses this reality: “The only person who wants change is a baby with a wet diaper.”
On the other hand, the world is changing at breakneck speed. In order for the church to bring the Kingdom of God to the world in which we live now – in order for our congregations to BE the church in the 21st century culture – most churches need to embrace change.
Some of the healthiest churches have a long history of incremental change. Such churches have stayed connected to their neighbors, set goals, implemented plans, evaluated their ministries, learned from their experience, tapped the wisdom of those outside their congregation, and become a learning, loving community.
Betsy Waters
Most likely their neighborhood culture has been relatively stable and practices of spiritual formation across the lifespan have been embraced by a large percentage of the congregation. Incremental change is part of their DNA.
But that is not the usual story. More typically, planning centers around filling the calendar with traditional events. “Which weekend will we offer the turkey dinner?” Perhaps someone advocates to add a can drive or new fund raising effort. But this kind of planning, which can be done in a couple of hours, that is familiar, that is “how it’s always been done around here,” misses some key elements.
Did you notice? The neighborhood around the church is changing. A mill closes or a new highway makes commuting easier. People move out and a new group moves in. Or people move out and nobody moves in. And then there are the larger cultural influences: phones in our pockets, a global economy, climate change, and people who are chronically overwhelmed.
Did you notice? These people that have been part of the church with you for decades are getting older and there are fewer
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and fewer younger people in the pews. For you, the church feels like a family. Those gathered identify this warmth and comfort as the church’s greatest strength. And yet, not many people who come through the door stay.
Church people start to notice when the money gets tight or when leadership positions remain empty or when they notice that the old energy and spirit isn’t there in the way it used to be. Then, “the need to change” becomes a theme – in sermons, in newsletter columns, in agenda items at church conferences. But actually changing is much easier said than done. In reality, if it were easy, the church would have done it already.
So, the question becomes, “Is our church ready to change?”
That is a more difficult question than appears on the surface. The answer cannot come from the pastor or a small group of lay leaders. A large part of the congregation must be ready to tolerate the uncertainty, the disruption, the disagreements, and the discomfort that are the inevitable side effects of the change process. It takes faith and fortitude to embark on the journey of change.
Do you want to find out if your church is ready to change?
Start with these steps: 
  • First, explore the change that’s needed: have a couple of meetings with neighbors or town officials who aren’t members of your church. Ask them: What are some of the pressing needs in this community? What might a church (or several churches working together) do to address these needs?
  • Second, share what you’ve learned with your local church, not just at the governing board, but with the whole church body. See what kind of energy and interest are sparked by this research.
  • Third, capitalize on this energy by calling the Parish Consultants who can provide an all-church event where your congregation learns about cultural change, takes a brief survey of individual preferences, prays together, interprets their own results, and determines next steps. This tool helps a congregation listen to each other and listen to God to determine the path into the future that fits them today. It is a great first step in the journey toward a new tomorrow. 

Betsy Waters is a New England Conference Parish Consultant and UCC Interim Minister.