Though it is cliché, change is the constant in our culture. Even before COVID, the world was changing steadily and constantly. When the pandemic came, change was accelerated, and the challenges were exacerbated.
In earlier years I was an advocate of “eating the elephant” change, that is making incremental, “one bite a time” changes. I no longer hold to that position. Church leaders and church members must deal with the reality of rapid change today. Incremental change is not sufficient.
Of course, I always add the caveat that we do not attempt to change the unchangeable truths of God’s Word. And we don’t forsake radical obedience to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. But we must be willing to change the way we “do church.”
I have read Michael Green’s classic, Evangelism in the Early Church, at least a dozen times. Green looks at the early church and its evangelistic priority through the first half of the third century. In my most recent reading, I was impressed at how adaptable the churches were during the tumultuous times in the Roman Empire. Without compromising biblical fidelity, the churches made change after change to reach the world with the gospel.
We are in another global period of rapid change. Few leaders or members in our churches have lived through such times. How do we respond to these changes? Here are seven suggestions:
1. Acknowledge the changes. It’s not 1989 or 1999. It’s not even 2019. The world has changed dramatically. Don’t avoid reality. Ask God to help you deal with the changes in the world so your congregation can be a more effective gospel bearer.
2. Keep informed. While you can’t read everything or listen to everything, stay informed. My news sources are varied. Some do not reflect my worldview. But I don’t ignore them. I particularly appreciate those sources that give me information in summary form. I can always dig deeper if I choose. We are committed to keeping you informed at Church Answers about issues that affect local congregations.
3. Work with change leaders in your church. While you must be pastoral to all of your church members, spend focused time with leaders who will walk alongside you in these tumultuous times of change. You no longer have the luxury of pacifying resistant church members who are slowing down the entire congregation.
4. Stop fearing failure. Sure, you will make some mistakes, but you can’t let the fear of failure slow you and your church down. Pray through changes. Don’t do stupid things in the name of change. But quickly make the moves you need to make. Remember the words God spoke to Joshua: “This is my command – be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
5. Re-envision your church budget. It is likely your budget is a good fit for 2019 or 1989. But the pace of change today demands we re-think how we use the resources God has given us. Everything needs to be on the table. Every church should prepare a zero-based budget without preconceived notions (at least as much as possible) about how God’s funds should be used.
6. Accept membership losses. Sadly, some members will only support their congregations if the church does ministry the way they’ve always done it, or at least the way the members demand it. You can’t let self-serving members hold the church back.
7. Keep the church outwardly focused. One of the biggest takeaways from my multiple readings of Evangelism in the Early Church was the way the churches stayed laser-focused on the Great Commission. If we are obediently looking outwardly, God will sustain us and lead us in tumultuous times and new territories.
Churches around the world are facing both big challenges and big opportunities. Those that can see the opportunities and act upon them are likely the churches that will see the greatest Great Commission fruit.
Our response must be profound but simple: Trust God and make rapid changes in his power.
Posted on January 10, 2022
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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I’ve found, rather sadly, that very few clergy in particular (though it may seem like a generalisation to some) are either reluctant, or even hostile to change. They see the reality all around them, but persist in doing maintenance ministry. They conduct meetings with the tired agendas and resist any input to put those old agendas aside, have a radical approach to what needs to be discussed. And there are church leaders who become antsy when you raise the need to start being different in how we approach the ministry of the church.
I’m a retired minister, but am still actively involved in the church. Our new leaders are unwilling to be radical. They laments the consequences, of course, but fail to see how they are contributing to the downfall of the church. Our numbers have dropped quite significantly, but the church leadership act like it’s business as usual. Recently, we spent almost two hours talking about business that was almost a year old. But nothing was said about a very uncertain future.
I’ve chosen to work with a small group of committed Christians who are anxious about our future, and they are open to try a different approach. However, the truth is, unless our church leadership embraces change, we will continue on this decline with an inevitable outcome almost guaranteed.
I share your posts with several clergy as well as leadership in the hope that it will awaken a desire to take the church in a new direction, as uncertain as it is. Though there may be resistance, I refuse to give up. I love the church too much, and will continue to serve my Lord and his bride until I am called home.
Thank you for your tenacity and ministry, Keith. May your tribe increase!
Clergy are the most at-will employees there are, especially in Evangelicalism. All it takes is upsetting one person in the unofficial power structure and the clergy is sent packing. This is why so many seem opposed is that they want to remain employed. Talk about the hen guarding the fox house and the foxes seem to be fans of fried chicken.
I think one of the benefits of your second point can be underplayed. Having people with perspectives that are not like mine is one of the places of growth for me. When I have to interact with someone who has a different opinion than I do, or a different worldview, I am often compelled to examine both their claims and my biases. In weighty things, I find disagreement to be a catalyst for examination of my principles and what I claim or profess.
A wise professor in Seminary, who had had debates with an atheist (Richard Dawkins), shared his perspective. It wasn’t simply enough to disagree with Dawkins because he was an atheist, my professor had to be able to discuss Dawkins’ claims in sufficient detail to refute with evidence, not to simply disagree.
As we said when I served in the Navy, the only failure in life is to not learn from your failures. As long as we formed and executed a plan to the best of our ability, even when the outcome wasn’t exactly as envisioned, the process of debriefing and identifying issues helped us make a better effort the next time. Nothing in life goes exactly as planned.
Last, I think these past two years have served as notice. We cannot continue to do what we’ve always done, because the world has changed. To continue to function like everything will “return to normal” is short-sighted. It probably was before, but the past two years have amplified that truth. Second, and more importantly, by doing the best we can in worship and pastoral relationships we become more accessible to people who are seeking something (most often – something they can’t define).
This sentence is gold: “To continue to function like everything will “return to normal” is short-sighted. It probably was before, but the past two years have amplified that truth.”
When leadership Is self-perpetuating, you will not get different perspectives. When leaders don’t talk to different people, you will only hear about what affects that group. Retirees are vastly different than young professionals.
Thom, My copy of “Eating the Elephant” is as tattered and worn as my “Evangelism in the Early Church,” but you’ve done us a great service in this post by modeling your own advice, telling us that “one bite at a time” is no longer valid. I love that book, but you’re so right. Everything has changed, but the first disciples got it right. Thanks for the kick in the pants!
Thanks so much, Darrell.