No Small Calling: How Change-Ready Is Your Church?

We’ve all heard that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. What’s true for addiction is true for any area of life where change is needed.

I have endorsed the poverty alleviation book When Helping Hurts before. In the small group curriculum, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert provide tools to help churches assess whether individuals in poverty are ready to change and how to move these people from where they are to the next step.

Most churches in small towns are relics of the age of Christendom in America, when there were enough Baptists or Methodists or Christians of any denomination in a town to support a church. As long as you had halfway decent programs and limited conflict, your church could even thrive just by opening the doors.

Most of these churches have never had to think strategically to reach people or adapt in any major way from what they’ve been doing all along, but the age where the culture fed the church is over. Any church that hasn’t changed drastically or wasn’t started from scratch in the past decade or two is probably in need of significant change. But these churches are often highly resistant to change.

So how does a pastor assess how ready the church is for change? How can he take them from where they are to the next step toward where they need to go? I have adapted the stages from When Helping Hurts and applied them to change-readiness in the church.

Stage 1: Everything Is Fine

In this stage, the church has not yet felt the pinch. Baptisms might have slowed down, but the waters are still stirred at times. There is decline, but it seems like it could just be a slump. If we just try a little harder at doing what has worked so far, things will be just fine. Or maybe the church is just happy with the families they have and don’t feel the need to add more.

This stage is difficult for a pastor, because you have the choice between two unfavorable options–to either let the church remain in its delusion or run the risk of seeming overly negative or critical.

Jesus confronted a church like this in Revelation 3:17, saying, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”

If find yourself as pastor of a church like this, you should invest a few years praying and asking God to use you to open the people’s eyes to the truth and their calling. But if the church remains in this stage, any attempt to move them forward will be futile.

Stage 2: Things Are Bad, But It’s Not Our Fault

Churches in this stage are usually angry. They see things are bad, but the blame lies somewhere else. If that pastor hadn’t come in and messed everything up… If the factory hadn’t closed… If the neighborhood hadn’t changed… If those people hadn’t split the church… If the younger generation wasn’t so selfish…

Your job here as a pastor is to help the members of the church realize their own responsibility for where the church is today and their own accountability before God for where it will go from here.

Many of the “blame statements” are true. Outside factors like the job market and other economic and cultural factors do impact the local church. Sometimes churches get a lousy or corrupt pastor. Even in difficult circumstances, however, God calls us to own up to our contribution to the problem and be faithful with what we must do next.

Stage 3: Things Are Bad, and It’s Hopeless

Churches at this stage look at the same factors as the blame-shifters (stage 2) and instead of being angry, they despair. Because of the damage already inflicted, because of the economic, demographic, or cultural environment, nothing can be done to turn it around. They would like to change, but success seems impossible.

Part of the reason for this attitude is the realization of an important truth: the past isn’t coming back. The church will never be what it was. When the church looks backward to the 1980s or ’50s or any other previous decade to define what success looks like, they will conclude quite accurately that the church will never be like that again.

The pastor’s job in this situation is to speak hope. We serve the “God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (Romans 4:17). We are called to prophesy to the dry bones to hear the Word of the Lord and come alive.

Communicate a forward vision, painting a picture of a healthy and thriving church that looks different from the “glory days,” but is full of life and brings glory to God. Then help the people move forward, full of hope.

Stage 4: We Need to Change, but We Don’t Know How

This church realizes the situation and has a sense of responsibility and calling. What they need is direction. In churches like these, efforts are often scattered in a bunch of different directions, as well-meaning people take initiative in various ways. Sometimes people are working very hard in ineffective programs, hoping for better results. Other times, the church is paralyzed by indecision, not knowing what to try next.

If you’re a pastor in this situation, you can’t be afraid to lead. One temptation will be to stand back and let leaders in the church run with whatever idea they have. Good leadership involves teaching good principles, coming alongside those who are taking initiative to help assess the situation and finding solutions together. The church needs a unified vision and unified effort. You will also have to work through some grief and conflict as ministries and pet projects are laid aside for the new vision.

Stage 5: We Need to Change, and We’re Ready to Start

Pastors rarely come into a church at this stage (perhaps following a really good intentional interim pastor, you might come close). It’s the pastor’s job to recognize this stage when it finally arrives in your church and then not to waste it. Seize the opportunity and boldly follow the Lord’s leading.

Since no church is perfect, all churches are in need of change. All churches need a pastor to love them where they are and guide them to the next step. Pastors also need to be wise enough to assess whether a church is ready to move forward. If not, well, some churches need more time in the wilderness before they are ready to conquer the Promised Land.

Where do you see your church in this spectrum? Share your thoughts in the comments…

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