Adapt or die.
That's especially true in small churches.
The good news is, because of our size, small churches have the ability to adapt more quickly than our larger counterparts. Like steering a speedboat instead of an ocean liner.
Sadly though, that’s not our reputation. Of all the parts of the body of Christ, small churches have a far greater and more well-earned reputation for being stubborn, static and refusing to adapt than any other segment of the church.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can be the innovation leaders, as we have been historically.
For instance, every year when Americans celebrate our Thanksgiving holiday, we’re reminded of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, 37 of whom were members of the same small church. Yes, a small church founded the United States of America!
There are many instances of small churches changing world and church history, including the Azusa Street revival and the collapse of European Communism, several of which I mention in The Grasshopper Myth.
But this is not just theory or history. It’s a present-day reality. In the last 23 years, I’ve watched as the church I pastor has transformed from a static, dying place into a vibrant, innovative change agent. And there are many other small churches doing the same.
And no, we didn’t compromise our core values to do so. They’ve actually been strengthened because of it. (See point #3, below).
Here are six steps that many innovative small churches have taken to become nimble and adaptable.
1. Figure Out How to Say “Yes” to New Ideas
This may be the #1 way for a church to become adaptable and innovative.
Every church has people with new, fresh ideas. They use them at home and at work all the time. But they don’t try them at church. Why? Because we scare them away by putting the brakes on their ideas before they get a fair chance to succeed. (Yes, pastors, I’m looking at you!)
New ideas need the space to breathe. They need a champion. In a church – especially in a small church – that usually means the lead pastor.
Figuring out how to say “yes” to new ideas doesn’t mean green-lighting every half-baked notion you hear. You can still trash those 10-page manifestos written in crayon. But it does mean creating an atmosphere where innovative people know they will find a sympathetic ear. That, combined with a mature leader who will help edit an almost-there idea into a let’s-give-it-a-shot reality, is a winning combination.
I’m not the big idea-generator in our church. I don’t have to be. We’ve fostered an atmosphere where people know their new ideas will be heard and respected, their half-notions will be edited, experiments will be tried, successes will be celebrated and failure isn’t fatal.
2. Move From a Destination Mindset to a Change Process
A destination mindset is one in which we look for an ideal church program, building or piece of furniture (oh, those massive pulpits with the donor’s plaque on them!), then set them in place as never-to-be-changed idols.
A change process is one in which we realize that no facility, program or piece of furniture will last forever. They’re not sacred. That title is reserved only for God and our foundational theology.
But innovation needs a plan and a process if it’s going to work consistently. A church needs to know why, how and when changes will occur.
A simple, rational change process gives the congregation a clear path to follow. It reassures the timid and it inspires innovators.
3. Provide and Promote Stability Zones
When I came to my current pastorate 23 years ago, I didn’t start changing things right away. We spent a long time – years, in fact – nursing a sick and dying church back to health by re-establishing who we are and what we believe.
We studied scripture together. We asked hard questions like “if this went away, or that were added, would it strengthen or weaken our presentation of the Gospel message?” This allowed people to find a firm, stable footing before we started down the path of change.
In Dirt Matters, Jim Powell talks about how they have established what he calls Stability Zones to help foster an atmosphere in which Richwoods Church has a culture that is open to change:
Part of the problem churches face is that many people are freaked out and emotionally unsettled by the speed and onslaught of an ever-changing world. Without even realizing it, they want to be able to walk into a church and find a stability zone. A place that doesn’t change. An environment that is consistent and reliable… because little else in their world appears to be.
For us at Richwoods, this includes our essential doctrinal positions and some practical aspects of ministry, such as the practice of believer baptism. We also serve communion every week in our corporate worship services. These beliefs and practices are part of our history, and they serve as islands that people can drift to in the midst of rocky seas.
Stability Zones are a practical means of expressing the theological essentials. They’re like the safety net that allows X Games stunt riders the freedom to try daring new feats in practice because there’s something to catch them when they fall.
The more a church is open to change, the more we must emphasize the principles that never change.
4. Follow the Change Pattern of Jesus and His Disciples
One of the most amazing and admirable characteristics of Jesus’ early disciples was their ability to walk away from centuries of extra-biblical traditions and embrace the core of the Gospel. On the outside, it must have appeared to many of their family and friends that they had rejected Jehovah himself. But they had done the opposite.
What was it that gave them the wisdom to know the difference between fringe traditions that could be abandoned (like circumcision and eating pork) and essential doctrines that needed to be strengthened (like monotheism and a biblical moral code)?
The best answer to that was actually given by enemies of the Gospel. “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13 - NIV) (emphasis mine)
They’d been with Jesus. There is no substitute.
It was Jesus himself who established the best pattern for church change. Five times in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeated “You have heard that it was said…” followed by “But I tell you…”
In doing so, he reminded us of the Old Testament law, validated the core of it, then strengthened its ultimate purpose with new teaching.
5. Communicate the Need For and Nature of the Innovation
Churches can handle change. But they can’t handle surprise. And they shouldn’t have to.
Here are three things need to be in place to give church members the best chance at embracing healthy change:
- They need to know why the old idea is being tossed
- They need to know what’s better about the new thing
- They deserve not to be surprised when it happens
6. Lead By Example
Pastors, how have you changed in ways that the congregation can see?
In the 23 years I’ve pastored my current church, I’ve changed how I minister in every imaginable way. From the way I dress, to the way I preach, and just about everything in between. It was painful at first. It’s fun now.
No, I didn't make those changes to be cool, different or even relevant. I changed on the outside because I’m still changing on the inside.
God is still working on me. I’m not a finished product any more than our church building or programs are. And neither are you.
Pastors, take a serious and realistic look at yourself. Is the growth of Christ on the inside of you evidenced in any way on the outside? If not, is it possible you’re not really growing at all?
An innovative church is only possible when it’s led by an adapting pastor.
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