3 Surprising Misunderstandings About Church Turnarounds

turnaround 200cWhy do you want your church to turn around?

There are a lot of good reasons to do so. Among them, you might want to see your church move from:

  • Unhealthy to healthy
  • Inward-obsessed to outward-focused
  • Stuck in the past to excited about the future
  • Unloving to loving
  • Uninviting to inviting
  • Legalistic to joyous
  • Shallow to deep
  • Passive to active
  • Struggling to vibrant
  • Hurting to life-giving

But there are some misunderstandings on this subject. What one pastor means by “turnaround” might be completely different from what another pastor means.

Today’s post is designed to set the record straight on what I mean when I talk about turnaround, so you don’t waste any of your time trying to implement principles that really aren’t what you’re looking for.

Specifically, there are three things I am not talking about when I talk church turnaround.


Turnaround Does NOT Mean… 

1. Bigger

If you’re looking for ways to make your church bigger, this post is not for you. In fact, almost nothing I write will be helpful to you.

It’s not that a numerically growing church is wrong. It’s great – especially when it’s also kingdom growth. It’s just not what I do. I tried to grow my church, and failed at it. So I won’t pretend I can help you do it. You won’t find church growth strategies here.

If church growth is what you mean when you say church turnaround, try a Google search for “church growth”. You’ll find tons of great resources.

On the other hand, don’t be fooled into thinking that your church has turned around just because it’s growing. They aren’t necessarily the same thing.


2. Reboot

Some churches need to be dismantled and started all over again. They need to be stripped down to the studs, maybe even to the foundation, maybe even have the foundation torn up to expose a gaping hole in the earth where it once stood.

This is not about that.

Very few churches need a total reboot. The need is rare enough that I wonder why anyone would bother with the dismantling process, at all. Why destroy an old church, when you can just plant a new one? If it’s because you want to use a pre-existing building, I’ve never seen a building that’s been worth that hassle.

Turnaround is not about destroying one church to build another one. When I talk about a church turnaround, I mean taking an existing church, using its DNA, working with its congregation, re-discovering what drew people to it to begin with, then building on that core to see something new spring up.

Sometimes it means tweaking and redirecting existing good ideas to better uses. In other situations it means years of lovingly nurturing an all-but-dead plant back to life again.

This is spiritual healing, not spiritual demolition.


3. Predetermined

One of the biggest turnaround mistakes I see pastors make, is thinking they know what the final product should look like.

If you want to turn your church around so it can look like a photo in your head, you’re in for a world of disappointment.

A church is not the pastor’s pet project. It is a living, breathing organism, designed by God and filled with people. And both of them – God and the people – have a greater stake in it than we do. And they’re pretty stubborn about it.

A church won’t go where you want it to go. It will go where the dynamic relationship between God and the people take it.

It’s not the pastor’s job to create something new. Or to duplicate something he saw at another church. The mature pastor recognizes that we are explorers, not inventors. Our role is to serve as a spiritual guide, leading people into a clearer understanding of God and a deeper relationship with him, then to stand back and see what that relationship ignites.

One of the best phrases I ever heard a pastor utter, was spoken by a lead minister whose church was in the middle of a turnaround. It was going well, but the changes hadn’t been what the pastor had expected. He knew the final product wasn’t going to look like the picture in his head.

But he was OK with that. As he told a group of ministers, “I’ve learned to worship God in a style of music that I don’t like.” Oh, for more pastors like that.

You won’t like everything that happens when God and the congregation start talking to each other again. But it’s not about you.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, need and obstacle to having a turnaround church is this: A turnaround church needs a turned-around pastor.

We’ll take a look at that in our next post.


So what do you think? Have you fallen for any of these misunderstandings about what a church turnaround means?

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(Turnaround G photo from Mattcameasarat • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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6 thoughts on “3 Surprising Misunderstandings About Church Turnarounds”

  1. Great topic, Karl. I’m actually wrestling with all this right now at a small church where I just started serving. I’m the new guy who’s trying to see what God has been doing here over the years, and see what God would have me do here in the present and future to help aid in “His” kingdom coming, not mine. Thx

    1. Thanks, Barry. And welcome to the discussion. The first few years at a new church require as much listening and learning as talking and teaching. It doesn’t come easy (at least it didn’t for me) but it’s worth it in the long run.

  2. #3 is an EXCELLENT point!! (all of them are) But #3 shot out to me against the current fad of “vision casting.” As I understand it, that’s exactly what vision casting is. I get a picture in my head of what and where I want the church to be. I’ve ALWAYS struggled with this. For one thing, if God has a vision for a church and it’s GOD GIVEN…wouldn’t it stand to reason that the “vision” wouldn’t change with the succession of pastors? I know congregations get so TIRED of having new “visions” with every new pastor that comes along. Seems to me (simple as I am) that if a “vision” was truly from the Lord for a particular congregation it would stay the same no matter who was pastoring it.
    This whole idea of letting the PEOPLE get in contact with GOD…seeing what GOD is doing and joining HIM in it (versus asking Him to bless all of our well laid plans and schemes)…wow. Casting vision just takes imagination. Finding what God is doing, what HIS WILL is for your church and you…takes TIME, takes PRAYER, takes attentiveness to what He is doing. The easy way is not always the best way…especially in this thing we call Christianity.

    1. Thanks for the recent comments, Cindy. I think the vision-casting thing may have been the biggest struggle for me when I was trying to negotiate my way through all the church growth teaching of the last few decades.

      Most of the teaching on it was well-meaning, and there’s no question we need a sense of direction, or we’ll end up lost. But I just don’t see the pastor as the only person capable of catching God’s vision. It’s too much pressure on one person, and it leaves the people out of one of the most important aspects of what it means to be the church.

      If we really believe in the New Testament teaching of the priesthood of all believers, that means the congregation is as capable of discerning God’s direction as the pastor is. Better to have the vision bubble up from what God is speaking to the congregation, than giving the pastor the unenviable task of discovering it, selling it and overseeing it.

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