So, you’ve slogged through the difficult work of planning, dreaming, preparing, and convincing, and you’ve made some changes. You’ve put yourself on the line (hopefully without any ultimatums)… and while you’re sure these changes will work—you are equal parts unsure. You’re energized and hopeful and terrified all at once.
Change is scary for most people—but you’re not most people… you’re a leader. And you know a different kind of fear… the fear of steering an organization directly into the open waters of change… where nothing is guaranteed and everything is at stake!
But you’ve fought through that fear, charged forward, followed a clear vision, and now (praise God!) the people are voting with their feet… and you are GROWING! (Now don’t forget to celebrate: see suggestion below).
How to celebrate: Buy yourself an old DC Talk CD, turn it up to 11 on your Sony Discman and dance to Toby, Michael, and Kevin while wearing sporty but comfortable overalls… You are FREE AT LAST! Once the police show up, show them your WWJD bracelet and ask if they want to give their hearts to Jesus, because you are on a ROLL!
In all seriousness, if you’ve made the hard work of change actually happen, and your church or organization is growing, let yourself smile a little. And growth—particularly church growth—is incredibly exciting! I believe it’s something heaven gets excited about—why shouldn’t we?
Why is it so exciting? Because—yes—it’s about more people. And here’s where we get hypersensitive mainliners (whom I love because I am one) and small church leaders (whom I love because I was one) saying, “Yeah, but numbers are not the only indicator of spiritual growth… commercialism isn’t the same thing as spiritual growth as a result of the gospel of Christ.” You know what? I agree completely. Of course numbers are not the only indicator of growth! That would be ridiculous.
BUT… I think it’s equally ridiculous to say that multiplication is not a measure of faithful evangelism. Healthy things grow. That’s a fact of all created reality. And numerical growth—all the way back to the first church—has always been a measure of God’s blessing. I think sometimes saying numbers aren’t everything is an excuse to avoid the hard work of change—or to face the realities of ineffectiveness.
We need to learn (I do all the time) from our mega-church brothers and sisters who have done an incredible job figuring out how to reach people! The average church size in the United States is 75 people. Most churches aren’t killin’ it so to speak. Don’t get me wrong, they might be wonderful churches (many small churches are), and they can do things a big church just can’t. But they cannot seem to grow no matter what they do because they have no clue how to reach people who aren’t already there. (By the way, I think most of them can grow but that’s for another post).
I think a more balanced way to frame church growth is to say: Numbers aren’t everything… but they definitely are something.
Now, on the flip side, does this mean you can have skyrocketing numbers and not be growing? Well, sort of… Sometimes growth is a house of cards. Sometimes it’s built on the excitement of newness or the charisma of a leader or even lucky accidents. But if growth isn’t built the right way, it can not only crumble, but also inhibit growth in the future.
HERE ARE 3 PITFALLS TO AVOID WHILE LEADING CHANGE so that your growing church does not inhibit your church’s growth:
PITFALL #1: DON’T BE A SUPERMAN (OR SUPERWOMAN)… BE AN AVENGER.
Yes, you were hired to lead. Yes, you were probably hired because you are gifted in the areas your organization or church needs. But, if it’s all about you, change will ultimately fail. Let me say that again: it… will… fail.
This can happen in several different phases of the change/growth continuum. For younger pastors, this happens mostly on the front end—the vision process.
If you are a pastor, the truth is, you are most likely the chief visionary-in-residence. You are the one praying and studying and listening constantly. You are pouring out your creativity and imagination and love and God is filling you up. It doesn’t take long for God to reveal those places where greater faithfulness is needed and where change is necessary. But if you’re not careful, you can accidentally fall into the trap that you are the ONLY visionary-in-residence. The reason this is such a big trap for younger pastors is because their greatest strength is their greatest weakness: energy.
When I was fresh out of seminary I knew how to fix any church. I knew what was wrong with the Church in America and I was going to change the world! So, I got to a small, declining church, and over the course of 3 years implemented a vision that was largely my own, while garnering some support (but not input). During that time, the church doubled… and after I left, shrank back to where it was.
Vision, according to scripture, is a team sport. Some of us are gifted with vision. But vision for the Church always arises from discernment. And discernment always arises from the Body of Christ. It is communal. If your personal vision is detached from communal discernment, there is no way of knowing whether your vision is the same thing as God’s vision. It must be tested and affirmed by the Body.
Of course, you may end up feeling that the particular expression of the Body (your church) is misguided or isn’t listening to the Lord. Then, you need to: collaborate (because your vision isn’t complete), wait (because your vision isn’t ready) or move on (because your vision doesn’t fit).
A practical way to make sure your vision process is an act of the Body is to start with a team. Instead of pre-determining what needs to change, do the hard work of analysis in community.
- Select a team of sold-out Christians of different generations who have collaborative spirits.
- Conduct a S.W.O.T. (Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats) analysis of your church together.
- Take time and re-work or re-visit your vision statement.
- Present your findings/ proposals for change to the congregation.
PITFALL #2: DON’T JUST LEAD FROM OUT FRONT… CIRCLE BACK AND LEAD FROM BEHIND.
Sometimes change and growth falls apart because there wasn’t enough buy-in from the organization or congregation. This often happens when the pastor leads so far out front that they lose track of everyone behind them. Sometimes time-constraints force an early timetable on change, which exacerbates this issue.
In one of the churches I served, I worked with a team but we did not take the time to go slowly and build consensus with church members. The result was rapid growth with so much dissent that we had to stop, go back, and do the communication we should have done from the beginning. It was much messier than it needed to be.
While criticism is par for the course with leading change, there is a threshold. If a critical mass (pun intended) of people feel like they are not on board (or their concerns have not been heard), it will eventually derail. This problem can be averted by slowing down and allowing opportunities for many voices to be heard… especially the voices of dissension.
**Please note: there will ALWAYS be people who feel like they haven’t been heard enough. If you wait for all of them to get on board, nothing will ever change. But there is obviously a balance.
A practical way to do this is to hold a series of town hall meetings around the specific proposals/changes that come from the VISION TEAM. This will add critical data to the team’s work, but it will also frame a conversation around positive and specific proposals.
NEVER have a town hall meeting that doesn’t have clear boundaries or you will get a huge gripe session with mixed outcomes. The narrower the focus of these meetings, the more effective they become.
PITFALL #3: DON’T BE AFRAID TO KEEP CHANGING… EVEN YOUR OWN CHANGES
I once heard Carey Niewhof, a church planter and strategist from Canada, say: The biggest obstacle to your future growth is your current growth. I have found this to be so profoundly true. When things are going well and growing, we all have a tendency to fossilize what’s “working” and never change. And yet, it was this willingness to change that led to the growth in the first place. [Carey, by the way, is a great follow on Twitter: @cnieuwhof ]
A great example of creating a culture of change is Andy Stanley’s Northpoint Community Church in Atlanta. Change is their modus operandi. They are constantly looking at their environments and ministries and changing, re-branding, and re-packaging. But it’s not just a willingness to keep changing that makes them so effective, it’s their willingness as an organization to not let current growth derail future growth.
It’s one thing to change someone else’s ideas. We’re making things better… we’re bringing things into the present… we’re making the church relevant again… at least according to our own perception. What’s really, really difficult is changing OUR ideas. It might hurt to admit that our once innovative and effective ideas have become tired and less effective over time. But we must constantly evaluate and be evaluated if we are to do this well.
A practical way to guard against the instinct to safeguard your own ideas is to invite a few people you trust deeply to critique your leadership on a regular basis. Maybe frame it around the question: “If you were me, what would you be doing differently?”
Let’s never give up the hard work of change! God wants us to grow.
Dr. Bob Whitesel, a church growth consultant who studied under Lyle Schaller, offers a healthier rubric of growth that go behind numbers using Acts 2:42-47 in his book A House Divided (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000):
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
- Growth in Maturity (vv. 42-43)
- Growth in Unity (vv. 44-46)
- Growth in Favor (v. 47)
- Growth in Numbers (v. 47)
If you’d like to discuss your church’s growth, contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a complimentary strategy call.
Now blast that CD again… and get ready to celebrate along with God, the growth that is in store for you!