Adapt Or Die: 6 Ways to Create a Change Culture In Your Church

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Adapt or die.

The longer I spend in pastoral ministry, the more convinced I am of that truth. Especially in Small Churches.

The good news is, because of our size, Small Churches can 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.

This was the 4th most-read post of 2013. Click here for the entire Top 10 list.

Historically, small congregations are where most of the church’s revolutionary changes have been birthed – often spilling out into the culture at large. With the American Thanksgiving holiday coming up, it’s important to remember that 37 of the passengers on the Mayflower were members of a Small Church. Yes, a Small Church founded the United States of America! There are many more instances of Small Churches changing world and church history, many of which I outline in The Grasshopper Myth.

This is not just theory or history. It’s a present-day reality. In the last 21 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 6 steps that many innovative Small Churches have taken to become nimble and adaptable.


1. Figure out how to say “yes” to new ideas

As I’ve written before, this may be the #1 way for a church to become adaptable and innovative

Every church has people with new, fresh ideas. Then we (yes, pastors, I’m looking at you!) scare them away by putting on the brakes before their ideas can be tried. Or we humiliate them when an idea doesn’t work.

New ideas need the space to breathe. They need a champion. In a church, that 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 with new ideas know they’ll be heard, their ideas will be 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 ideal programs or material goods, then set them in place forever. It’s the false notion that all we need to do is find just the right building, program, curriculum or furniture, then stick with it until the (always) bitter end. In a destination mindset, items and ideas become idols.

But 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 change needs a plan and a process if it’s going to work consistently. A church needs to decide why, how and when changes will occur. (I write more about this in my follow-up post, The #1 Rule to Help Reduce Church Clutter and Renew Effective Ministry.)

A clear and rational change process gives a congregation a clear path to follow. It reassures the timid and it inspires innovators.


3. Provide and promote stability zones

Our church 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 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 establishing stability zones has allowed Richwoods Church to have a church 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 the trapeze artist the freedom to try daring new feats because there’s something to catch them when they fall.

The more a church is open to change, the more they must emphasize the things 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 and must 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) (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 them 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 change

People need to know what’s being changed and why. They need to be reminded how a changeless gospel needs to adapt to a faster-than-ever changing world.

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of reducing surprises by communicating changes well in advance. People can handle change. But three things need to be in place first:

  • 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 21 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 don’t change those things to be cool, different or even relevant. I change 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 adaptable church is only possible when it’s led by an adapting pastor.

Click here to read more in my follow-up post, The #1 Rule to Help Reduce Church Clutter and Renew Effective Ministry.

So what do you think? What are you and your church doing to be more adaptable? What can you add to this list?

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(You’ve Changed photo from Marc Falardeau • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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10 thoughts on “Adapt Or Die: 6 Ways to Create a Change Culture In Your Church”

  1. ‘Stability zones’ a real insight from ‘Dirt.’

    Is there ever a time that you don’t need to be thinking ‘change?’ What about the axiom ‘if it’s not broken don’t fix it?’

      1. Probably never. Maybe broken is not the best term. If it’s truly broken it probably needs fixed. For me…I spent years trying to fix things that were not broken.

        Change is a broader subject. I like your #4 the most. From an Acts perspective–all change should be Spirit-directed change. Learning to walk in that is another thing.

        1. Some of what I’m aiming at will be better explained in Monday’s post about the “Closet Rule.” It may be more about tweaking and upgrading than fixing, once a church is healthy. I agree we need to be careful we’re not fixing things that ain’t broke just because some author or blogger tells us to – me included.

  2. I like your play book! You’re Right On Target !
    It is my experience change happens comfortably, effectively and in the right way when a valued congregation is the primary contributor to the changes being made.
    I firmly believe the right changes happen effectively when the pastor refocuses his role from being CEO to being encourager, enabler and empower-er. I don’t know where I heard it first but Karl, you have reinforced for me the concept that pastors present the “What” and the “Why” then patiently empower and encourage a praying people to figure out the How and the When. That concept makes the process of adjustment making functions at the “Team” level – people up, and not at the Management level – top down.
    Affirmed, encouraged and valued people who feel safe, know their spheres of influence best and will intentionally minister there. If they are enabled they will be incredibly efficient. They can figure out the best ways to minister and effectively accomplish what needs to be done. That they are motivated, and excited about what the Holy Spirit is doing through them inspires them go back for more!

  3. I like the idea that change is actually a new and fresh way of doing things, to get us re-vitalized, re-energized, instead of the same ole, boring route way. Creativity in worship, ignites excitement and wow in worship..besides we need to remember there is a new generation coming up and we need to do things with the times, without compromising the foundation.

  4. Praisethe Lord I was truley bless by the teaching and prinicple of word of God. This give me a clear understanding as a new pastor and has enlighten me in a great way thanks. I will be using these prinicple bless u
    My brother.

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