I remember the first Sunday of January 2004 like it was yesterday. I had just been elected Lead Pastor of New Life Church, the church where I was saved and had served as youth pastor. It was my first official Sunday, and our Superintendent was going to “commission” me as Lead Pastor.
It snowed the entire night before (In Seattle, snow shuts down everything.) The Superintendent called, saying he couldn’t get there. So, I was up to preach—my first time as Lead Pastor. Even better, only 30% of the normal Sunday crowd arrived! Nevertheless, I stood at the pulpit and started preaching, not realizing the winding, complex road that lay ahead.
New Life was a good church, but it had plateaued. The church was in a dangerous place, what I now describe as “deceptively healthy.” It had signs of health, but if not revitalized, it would slowly die. I knew it needed new vision and leadership, however I had no understanding of the courage this would take––or the pain it would cause.
I soon realized that the changes needed were more than a new preacher or some quick cosmetic modifications. New Life was a choir-driven church, with a strong Sunday school and midweek program. I recognized that necessary changes would be deep and cultural: music style, discipleship approaches, transition to an intentional church model, and a change of core priorities.
The first three years were really hard. I quickly learned, “It would be easier to change the Bible than the music style.” Many at New Life saw change as a threat; they watered down the gospel and lessened the church's impact.
I remember the day when the top giver left the church. Over lunch, he said, “I am leaving. I don’t agree with what you're doing with…" His list was long. It was a difficult thing to hear from someone who just a year earlier was one of my biggest supporters.
My hardest decision was getting rid of our choir. I liked our choir and loved the people, but I knew in my heart a different worship culture and style of gathering was needed for New Life to grow. It was hurtful, because some people called me a liar and deceptive. Looking back, I understand why, as I had honestly thought the choir was part of our future. But having discovered the type of worship that would move our church forward, I had to make this painful decision.
Then, everything came to a boiling point. I had lunch with a long-time member of the church, who started to tell me everything I was doing wrong. I angrily jumped up from my seat and said, “You don’t know what the hell you're talking about!” (Yes, I really did say that – in a public setting!)
And I left, full of rage.
That was the day I realized I had a problem. Either I had to recalibrate myself as a leader, or I would grow bitter and never effectively lead this church.
A significant book that helped me navigate this storm was Gordon McDonald's Who Stole My Church? He helped me identify the very real pain and emotions my people were feeling. People weren't acting like “Pharisees” or just resisting change; instead, they literally felt like someone stole their church! They felt violated. Understanding their emotions and their reasons woke me up as a leader.
I was quickly immersed in the school of leading change. I learned there are two dynamics/undercurrents that accompany any change in a local church:
- High Impact vs. Low Impact changes
High Impact changes cultivate momentum and move your church forward. These are the “Mission Critical” changes of your church. Low Impact changes have little to no effect, sometimes even distracting from the mission.
- High Resistance vs. Low Resistance changes
High Resistance comes from changes to the things that are like the load-bearing walls of your church. These things up-hold the culture and the way things are done – the church's very DNA. Low Resistance changes are like changing non-load bearing walls. While it creates a mess to take down, people readily accept the changes and provide the leader with the needed creditability to move the church forward.
Over the years, I have developed what I call “The 4 Quadrants of Change.”
In the midst of people leaving New Life, as well as my own personal chaos, I made my first mission critical decision: Focus on Sunday services, kids ministry on Sundays, and small groups. This decision changed everything for me. Without this clarity, New Life would have been a failed church revitalization story.
I knew I didn’t yet have the credibility to make changes in the main gatherings (9 and 10:30 a.m.), so I started a new service at noon called “The Well.” The Well was NOT a contemporary service, but a ‘lab’ of sorts. Put another way, it was a supporting wall. In construction terms, contractors build supporting walls to hold up the house while new construction occurs and beams are installed. At New Life, The Well provided an environment for proving new ideas and concepts for our services without actually affecting or disrupting them.
The Well gave me an opportunity to create a prototype for our future. The worship was guitar driven. The service had a casual, warm and welcoming environment. Slowly, we intentionally introduced these aspects in our regular services––but only once it seemed natural and appropriate.
We also created Softer Sundays. I knew I would eventually lose good people who had supported our church for decades if I didn’t address their musical preferences. This service featured worship with timeless music and hymns. The message was delivered via video on a huge screen. It was held at 9 a.m. in the chapel, simultaneous with our main gathering.
These mission critical decisions caught on! New faces started to connect. Young families came to the church in droves. Today at New Life, you will see all of our gatherings are very similar to The Well. Softer Sundays remains one of our key venues, honoring the history and legacy of our church—our "Pillars."
I have narrowed this process of recalibrating a church to four phases. It's not this simple, but it will get a pastor on the right track.
Get brutally honest
The pastor has to look in the mirror and get brutally honest. Stop making excuses! This takes courage to make decisions that may cost you.
Think Mission Critical
Not everything needs to change today. You have to know the difference between High Impact and Low Impact changes and what changes have High Resistance and Low Resistance.
Focus your church
Your church will never revitalize without focus. Focus on the one thing that will change everything.
Make it stick
Change isn’t change until things actually change. Making permanent change takes time! It also takes skill and competency. You have to change the anchor points, language and winds of your church.
Fast forward 15 years. Today, New Life runs over 5,000 people in our 4 locations. We have 1,000 kids every weekend! We also have 2,100 adults in non-Sunday smaller group settings each week.
Every established church is worth recalibrating. The greatest kingdom potential we have? Recalibrate the 350,000 churches in America. Are you ready?