How to change a church

The preacher stepped to the pulpit with dignity and passion. He was articulate. He was persuasive. He was enthusiastic. He was here candidating to be the new pastor of Old First Church. He was really giving it his best shot.

At one point, he got particularly fired up. He raised his voice. He raised both hands high in the air, letting his gestures punctuate his point. "If called, I will lead this church into the twentieth century!"

A hush fell over the crowd. Everyone was a little embarrassed for him in making this gaff at such a crucial point in his message. They were all cheering for him to do his best and cringed at this mistake. None were more embarrassed  than the would-be pastor's wife. In fact, she couldn't contain her embarrassment and spoke softy to her husband. Yet, most everyone could hear. "Psst! Honey, you mean, 'Twenty-first century.' You said 'twentieth century.'"

"We are going to take this one century at a time!" was his quick reply.

The story illustrates a basic principle of change. Many church leaders want to change their church, and are deeply convicted that their church needs to change, but they don't know how to change. This story illustrates a one word principle that has two applications. If you want to change your church, do so slowly.

The two applications of this one word principle work like this:

  • Don't try to change your church too fast. People will rebel, get mad, and reject the change.
  • Don't ever quit trying to change your church. Keep changing your church--gradually, continually, forever.

The point is not a contemporary church.

The point is not to change the church into a contemporary church, or into any particular kind of church. It is not to change the church from this to that. It is that the church is alive and that living things grow, and living things change. Growing relationships change. It is not about moving to some ideal style. It is just that the nature of life demands that we change.

As obvious as the point is, I am always surprised how often this principle is violated. I am so often in churches that have not changed at all in at least thirty years. They feel like the church that I attended when I was in high school which, at the time, felt old fashioned to me. It felt old fashioned thirty years ago, and so many churches feel just like that. They have not changed at all in thirty years, maybe more--maybe much more.

Living things change. Juan Carlos Ortiz illustrates this point with an imaginary story. "Imagine," he says, "I go to my wife and say to her after thirty years of marriage what I said to her before our first date, 'Sister Mary, I don't know if you have noticed or not, but I feel differently about you than the other girls in the youth group. Do you think I could take you to dinner some time?'"

This is a very normal and appropriate thing for a seventeen year old boy to say to a seventeen year old girl before their first date. But, if he is still talking to her in this stilted way after thirty years of marriage, something is dreadfully wrong. Growth demands change. Relationships change. Living things change.

Don't change too fast

One of the reasons why churches don't change is because they tried change and it didn't go well. So, they quit changing. They didn't slow down the rate of change. They quit changing altogether.

Mark Twain tells a charming story about this. "If a cat sits on a hot stove, you can be sure of one thing. It will never sit on a hot stove again. In fact, it may not sit on any stove ever again." The paraphrase of that for church life works like this. "If a pastor ever tries to change his church, you can be sure of one thing, he will never try that change again. In fact, he may not try any change again.

We change too fast--or try to--it doesn't work, so we quit changing altogether.

Don't try to change too fast. The key word on how to change a church is slowly.

By the way, how many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?

Five. One to actually change the light bulb, and four to reminisce about how great the old light bulb was.

The other answer works like this: CHANGE? Who said something about change?

Don't ever stop changing

This principle of constant, incremental, ongoing and forever change is not only my opinion, it is also the opinion of smart people.

Jim Collins has a whole chapter on this in the excellent book, Good to Great.

He asks the reader to imagine an enormous flywheel--a great rock on a huge, wooden rod. A large work force pushes against the rock for a whole shift and, owing to the enormous mass of the rock, are only able to move it one foot. The next crew comes in, and, building on the work of the first crew, they move the rock two feet. After a few days, each crew is moving the rock a quarter of a turn, then half a turn, then a full revolution in one shift, then a full revolution per hour and so forth. Each shift builds on the momentum of the last and is able to push the rock faster and faster and faster until finally it is whirling so that a whole shift could miss a turn and its momentum would still have it spinning like a top.

The whirling flywheel is a picture of success. It pictures all the effort necessary to create success, and it pictures the idea that once some success is created, success tends to breed success. Now, imagine someone sees this whirling fly-wheel and says, "Which push was the key push that created this success? Which was the key push?"

The question itself makes the point and needs no answer. There is no one thing that creates success for a business, for an individual or for a church. It is the successive effort of thousands and thousands of pushes--those thousands of efforts to change that wheel just a bit that creates the enormous, unstoppable, whirling momentum.

It is so easy to look at a church like Willowcreek or Saddleback or Northpoint or Fellowship or Lakewood and ask the wrong question: "What is the key? What was the change that created all this? What was the push that made it possible?

There was no one push. Thousands and thousands of individual, heroic efforts by ordinary people over a long period of time made it possible.

Gradual, slight, incremental change, if consistently delivered, can result in monumental change over a period of time. 

Three inches a week

A pastor was fired once for moving the pulpit from the side of the stage, as it is in some churches, to the center of the stage. He moved the pulpit and the church promptly fired him.

About a year later, he visited the church. To his shock, the pulpit was resting in the middle of the stage--the very place where he had tried to move the pulpit, only to be fired for doing so.

Overcome with curiosity, he waited for a private moment afterwards and asked the pastor, "How did you get the church to go along with moving this pulpit to the center? They fired me for trying. How did you do it?"

"Three inches a week," the pastor replied. "They never noticed."

Want to know how to change your church? Three inches a week. As easy as that sounds, don't miss the point. You have to change every week. I am in churches quite regularly that have not changed three inches in thirty years.

Gradual, incremental, forever change is the sign of life. How do you change your church?

Slowly.