Bringing Innovative Strategies to an Established Small Church
Three starter principles to help an existing church move from stuck and dying to healthy and innovative.

Why bother trying to resurrect an old, dying church?

I’ve heard that question a lot.

There was a time when it seemed like every pastor I went to Bible college with was following church growth principles and starting new churches. In a few years they were buying land to accommodate the growing crowds.

But I was sitting in a pre-existing small church, nurturing it along through the beginning, challenging stages of a turnaround. It’s a long, hard road from dying, introverted, and tired, to healthy, outward-looking, and innovative.

My friends in ministry saw my struggle and gave me two pieces of advice:

"Plant your own church."

Establish your own vision, instead of fighting against an old one.

"Tear it all down and start from scratch."

Tear the old structure apart and say buh-bye to anyone who won’t get on board.

I chose a third path:

Work with the current church to rediscover a new vision together.

It was a harder choice, but for me and the church it has been the most rewarding.

Why Bother Resurrecting an Old Church?

Some are called to plant new churches. Some are called to strengthen healthy, existing churches. Some are called to resurrect dead or dying churches.

You have to go where your calling takes you.

For those whose calling has taken them along a similar path to mine, here are three starter principles that have served me well in what is now a successful and long-term transition from stuck and dying to a healthy and innovative small church.

1. We Are Stewards, Not Owners

This matters in any church, but it's crucial in an existing small church.

It’s not our church.

It’s not our church. It belongs to Jesus first, then to the people.

It belongs to Jesus first, then to the people. They were here before us and they’ll be here long after we’re gone. Especially if we’ve done our job well.

We need to listen to them. Hear their heart. Understand their fears. Earn their trust.

Turnaround in an existing small church is a multi-year process. We need to settle in for the long haul. If pastors can’t do that, their calling may be somewhere else.

In my previous church, I had a short stay. The problems were deep and most of the people were resistant to change. I realized that a turnaround would take five years or more to take root, and at least another five to bear fruit. When I considered what those years would cost me and my young family, I decided it wasn’t worth it, and I left for another calling.

It wasn’t my church to change.

But even in my current pastorate of 23 years, where things are working well, the rule is the same. It’s not my church.

2. Give Them Time to Adapt – Just Like God Gave You

God doesn’t just speak to pastors.

If we really believe in the priesthood of all believers, we have to give people a chance to hear from God on their own. Then listen to them as they try to express it. We need to be patient with them the way God was patient with us.

After all, how many exciting, innovative, church-changing ideas did you hear just one time and were ready jump right into it, ready for immediate change?

Maybe a few.

Now, how many good ideas came that way? Even fewer, right? Maybe none?

Good ideas take time. Big ideas take a lot of time. They need to simmer in our hearts and spirits before we’re ready for them.

Giving people a chance to get on board takes time. But the long-term benefits are worth the wait.

It’s not fair to present an idea that’s been simmering in your spirit for years and expect a leadership team or congregation to jump in after a 20-minute Powerpoint presentation. No matter how cool the graphics are.

Giving people a chance to get on board takes time. But the long-term benefits are worth the wait.

But don't insist on consensus. There will always be a few people who resist all change no matter how much it's needed or how long you give them.

3. Make Decisions the Next Pastor Will Thank You For

The position of pastor is like a coat we are privileged to wear for a while. It doesn’t belong to us any more than the church does. We need to respect it and leave it better than we found it.

Our decisions can’t just be about what we like. We need to ask ourselves if our choices are something the next pastor will be grateful for, or will be frustrated by.

Lay a foundation. Teach eternal principles. Promote health. Don’t put the next pastor through the same problems you’ve had to endure.

That’s my long-term goal. Fifty years after I’m gone I want the leaders of the church to be grateful that Karl Vaters was here. Even if they have no idea who Karl Vaters is.

(Today's post is part of a continuing series that started with How to Tell If a Small Church Is Strategic or Stuck.)

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