Pretending to Change: 4 Honest Questions for Church Leaders to Consider
This week is my first week back from paternity leave. I'm so grateful for the time to welcome my beautiful daughter, Willa Jane, into this world.
Larisa and I have two toddlers in our home through foster care, two 80lb dogs, and now a newborn, so overnight our house officially became a zoo!
I love it.
For those of you who have kids, you know welcoming Willa was an incredible and surreal experience.
New life. New seasons. New structures in our family. New stresses. New (lack of) sleep patterns. And the list goes on.
On the surface, it’s been lot of new.
But deeper, it’s been a breath of fresh purpose for our family. It’s been a reminder of what’s most important. And it’s been an event that allowed my wife and I to slow down and be fully present for the season our family is in.
The experience also got me thinking a lot about the churches I get to work with through 95Network.
Many of the churches we work with at this ministry are plateaued or in decline. They haven't seen much growth, deep or wide. They haven't felt that new life breathed into their churches in a while. Or maybe they just are experiencing dysfunction at various levels of leadership.
You see, I love the Church. I grew up serving in churches. I’ve been loved by the Church. I’ve been hurt by the Church. I’ve been shaped by it. And I’m committed to helping it grow each and every day through this ministry.
And that commitment to its sustainability is why I want to highlight a message about change that has been on my heart:
Pretending to Change
We’ve all heard that our methods should change, but our message never does. Though that’s been a struggle for some churches we connect with, the majority of leaders know it to be true.
But for too long, we have pretended to be open to change while we're actually guarded to it.
For too long, we have put our presentation and style on the table of change, but we have held on tightly to our structures and methods.
For too long, we have let go of almost-dead programs, but refused to look at the effectiveness of the areas of ministry we love the most.
For too long, we have debated and discussed worship styles, while refusing to acknowledge the underlying inward focus that makes that discussion purposeless.
For too long, we have said we're about reaching people for Jesus, but we refuse to acknowledge the very real problem of the next generation remaining unengaged and even resentful of the Church today.
And for too long, we have highlighted the relevance of the Gospel at all times, but continued to operate in ways that don't reflect the massive changes in our world in the last decade.
Didn't COVID-19 Force Churches to Change?
The question might come up in your mind, Well, didn't the experience of COVID-19 force churches to change?
My answer? Yes, but not really.
Hear me out.
(And again, please know that everything in this article comes from a place of deep respect, love, and care for the Church.)
We saw a lot of churches go online as a result of COVID-19. A lot. Almost 90% of the churches we work with brought their services online.
It was incredible to see, and I will continue to applaud the steps forward these churches took.
For many of those churches, it felt like HUGE change! They faced personal and technological barriers that they had to overcome in a short time.
But if I'm honest, by and large, the changes that COVID-19 caused were surface-level changes. Adjustments of the method or platform we use for people to experience our service, but little change in the structure, approach, or perspective of "church."
In fact, I'd go as far as saying that Dale and I saw a level of desperation (especially at the beginning of COVID-19) for churches to recreate what they've always done, just online instead of in-person.
When our Sunday services were taken away, many of us felt like we had nothing else to give. So we replicated.
Adaptation by replication rarely works.
If our church "looks" different, but continues to operate in the same way it always has, there will not be change.
If our church "worships" differently than it has in the past, but continues to operate in the same way it always has, there will not be change.
The communities we minister to have been quickly changing for a long time, and COVID-19 accelerated many of those changes even more. Surface-level change just can't cut it anymore.
4 Honest Questions to Consider About Change
I struggle with change all the same. I don't have all the answers for how churches should perfectly adapt, but I do have questions. And if this article has at least created intrigue about change in your ministry, I hope these questions are valuable ones for you to consider.
Here are 4 honest questions for you to consider about change:
1) Why, in a world where I can learn anything at any time I want, do we prioritize “learning” as the focus of our gathering?
Whew, starting off heavy. Sorry!
As I shared above, a lot of times it's easier for us to discuss the style of a model that has existed for years than to discuss the model itself.
And I could be wrong, but I think our model could use some tweaking.
The big statement I've heard from leaders throughout COVID-19 is that we have to get back to gathering again!
But the question we have to answer is simple: Why should I show up at a weekly gathering (online or in-person) to do something that is no longer unique to that gathering?
Don't take that as ignorance towards the call in Scripture to not neglect meeting together. Consider that a fulfillment of it.
Are our weekly gatherings structured in a way that makes them worth showing up for?
2) Why, if our purpose ultimately is to connect with people outside of the faith, does 70-80% of our energy go towards a 1- or 2-hour experience primarily targeted to Christians?
This percentage was gathered from an informal poll we took of the members of our network. The numbers aren't perfect, but I don't think it's a secret that the majority of a pastor's time and energy goes towards Sunday.
Again, I love the Church. And I go to church every week.
But the more our Sunday service becomes our primary strategy for reaching people for Jesus, the less effective we'll be in the long run of our ministry.
The Western model of church has often struggled with balance of the command to "go and tell" with the structure that more easily supports a "come and find" model of ministry.
The Church isn't a compilation of Sunday services across the world. It's a community of people that all believe in Jesus Christ and live for Him daily.
When we make the gathering our main focus, we build a barrier to those who aren't already part of our faith community.
3) How has fear of failure, insecurity, or tradition kept you from being willing to take a step into real change?
I can't answer this question for you, but I believe it's a good exercise for every leader.
We talk about this a lot around here, but the fear of failure keeps many leaders paralyzed from trying anything new. Cycles of insecurity in your leadership take that fear and rationalize it as a valid reason to maintain the status quo. And when you have a congregation fully rooted in tradition for tradition's sake, it transforms that fear into full-blown complacency.
What if it doesn't work?
What if the people in my church don't agree with the direction?
What if I have to admit my decision was a mistake?
All those questions and more go rushing through our heads.
But there's one question that matters most:
What will happen to your church if you don't really change?
Failure is not final unless you quit. (Certain moral issues aside, of course.) There is no part of your calling to lead your church that suggests you should perpetuate ineffectiveness of any kind.
So take a moment to consider: What has kept you from leading structural change in your church?
4) Whenever you go back to meeting in-person (or if you already have), what can you say has really changed about your ministry?
At the beginning of the shutdown, we regularly encouraged churches to use this season of ministry to bring about real change. To reevaluate their mission and build their whole ministry around that defined purpose.
My fear is that many churches are approaching gathering again and the only real change is that more people are watching the service online.
Nothing looks different.
The church still functions the same.
They feel like they're finally fulfilling their purpose again because the gathering is back.
And "innovation" has served the purpose of tradition more than mission.
That's my fear. And maybe I'm wrong. But I encourage you to answer the question:
What has really changed?
My heart weighs heavy right now for the effectiveness of the Church. I have more questions that I will save for future articles, but I hope that these at least get the ideas and honest perspectives moving. I really want to encourage you to take the time to think about them, maybe even asking them to your leadership team.
Each week, I see more and more of my close friends leaving or struggling with the Church. It breaks my heart to hear their frustrations and hurt, especially in light of recent events.
Many of those hurts go deep. But that trend won't change unless there's real change.
I encourage you to move past conversations about surface-level change and into conversations about deep, structural change.
The future of your church depends on it.