3 Starter Principles for Becoming an Innovative Small Church

Starter StepsInnovative? Small Church?

Do those words belong in the same sentence? Can innovation happen in a Small Church? Is it even possible in an older Small Church?

Turning a tired, dying congregation into a fresh, innovative church is one of the greatest challenges a pastor can tackle – even if the congregation is in full agreement.

But when the people are resistant or apathetic – well that’s even harder. And there’s no 3-step, 10-step or 365-step plan to guarantee success.

But there are some principles that can get the process started. Principles, not promises.

I made plenty of mistakes trying to turn Cornerstone around, even though the need was obvious and the congregation was willing. Much of that is written in (shameless plug alert!) The Grasshopper Myth. But the Lord helped me find a handful of foundational principles that stood me and my church well as we moved from old, tired and dying, to new, healthy and innovative.

Here are three of them:


1. Connect the Congregation to the Church’s Innovative Heritage

No one starts a church because they have a set of hymns they plan to sing forever. Or because they want to maintain a building. Or because they expect the preacher to do all the work.

Churches are started by visionary people who want God to do something in and through their lives and their community. One of the most powerful ways to get an existing congregation excited about the next wave of visionary thinking is to tie the new ideas back to the original church visionaries – some of whom might be their own ancestors.

For example, when Cornerstone celebrated our 50th anniversary a couple years ago, we asked long-time members and former pastors to look for documents from its founding days. They sent them in and we put them on display.

One piece jumped out at me. It was an article from the local newspaper printed the week before the church was launched. It featured a photo of the founding pastor under the headline “The Church Can Reach Juvenile Delinquents”.

In it, the founding pastor explained that one of the main reasons for starting the church was to reach what we today would call at-risk youth. I looked up from reading that article to glance outside the window at the skateboard ramps in our church parking lot – and I smiled.

Your church has such nuggets hiding in your archives. Dig them out, dust them off, display them proudly and link the principles you find in them them to what’s coming next.


2. Strip Away Everything but Jesus

Don’t start your church’s turnaround process by preaching about new ideas – I did that and it slapped me in the face. No, not literally – although that would have been less painful.

Let’s assess the situation. We ask a group of people to get together every week to hear teaching from the Bible, a book whose newest sections are almost 2,000 years old, then we can’t understand what makes them resistant to change. Really? Are pastors the only ones surprised by this?

We need to tie today’s changes back to that 2,000-year-old book. Besides, if the reason for the change can’t be found in the Bible, should we even be considering it?

Jesus Christ was the most revolutionary, innovative, world-changing person who ever lived. His followers should be the same.

Real change in a Small Church starts where every good thing always starts. With Jesus.

Just Jesus. Only Jesus. Nothing but Jesus. All of Jesus.

Let’s look at Jesus again. And let’s show Jesus to our congregations again. Not just in sermons, but through our lives. The change in my church needs to start with Jesus changing me.

The problem is that we’ve added so many layers to Jesus over the centuries it can be hard to see him clearly. And my new ideas? They’re just one more coat of paint (maybe dirt?) on Jesus’ face.

Most people can’t tell you that. They don’t even know it themselves. But they feel it.

We need to strip away everything that isn’t Jesus. Including our own new, fresh ideas. Let Jesus and his heart replace both their old ideas and our new ones.

It’s easy for a congregation to argue with the new idea the pastor found in the latest church growth book. It’s much harder to resist when you discovered it together in the gospels.

Speaking of discovering new ideas together…


3. Make it a Conversation

There’s an old saying that you need to earn the right to be heard. That used to be true. Not any more.

Years of manipulative advertising have made people very savvy to social cues. We can tell when someone’s listening with genuine interest. And we can tell when they’re just keeping quiet until it’s their turn to talk

We have to do more than earn the right to be heard. We have to actually listen to what people are saying. Monolog has to be replaced with dialog. Dialog doesn’t earn you the right to make your point – dialog is the point.

Most people resist change because of fear. As a Small Church pastor it’s my job to understand that fear. Why are they afraid? And what can I do to alleviate that? Not so I can get my ideas through. So I can help them live a less fearful life.

It’s time to put some pastoring into our pastoring.

You might build a big church by pushing your ideas through despite people’s fears and concerns. But no one ever built a great church that way – big or small. (Actually, no one but Jesus ever built any genuine church, but you get what I mean).

Finally we need to realize that, while some resistance to change may come from people’s fears, some resistance may actually be the voice of experience and wisdom.

You can’t know which is which until you know the person better. And you can’t know the person without listening.


So what do you think? Was this helpful? What other kinds of practical help for turnarounds would you like to read about?

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(Feet on Dock photo by Karl Vaters)

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