Change is a Four-Letter Word

The cross-stitched verse over the cribs in the church’s bed-baby room beautifully portrayed the words of 1 Corinthians 15:51: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (ESV). The old joke is true. In most churches the only people who like change are the babies in those beds!

In many churches change is a four-letter word. Years ago I was having a conversation with my grandmother when I made a reference to a topic that was considered no big deal to my generation. To hers, it was taboo! Seriously, taboo! I will never forget her response. There were some breathless, “Oh, oh, ohs.” Then she ran out of the room. I’m serious. She ran out of the room. She was eighty years old at the time! She ran out of the room. She couldn’t take it!

I have seen that reaction from others over the past three decades of ministry. Not over the taboo topic I brought up to my grandmother (though it would likely have a similar result), but over one that elicits a more visceral response – CHANGE. I had been at the church only a few months when a long-time staff member and I were having a conversation about the mindset and mood of the church. We were still in the honeymoon stage of excitement, but I had sensed an underlying tension from some. As a longtime staff member, he was in a position to hear what I could only sense, and he confirmed that some of our people were uneasy because they knew that change was coming. Even the thought of change made them uncomfortable.

Thom Rainer has said in his book, Who Moved My Pulpit?, “If most of our churches don’t change, they will not be healthy. Many of them will die.” He goes on to report, “Change is absolutely necessary in our churches. Major change is needed in most of them. But change is very difficult in most churches. Church members have become complacent and comfortable. Many church members have become highly change resistant.”

I had a conversation with a denominational leader a few weeks ago about the rise of church conflict that results in pastors and other staff members being forced to resign. In his words, “It is an epidemic.” If so, it is an epidemic that needs to be addressed… For the sake of the gospel… For the sake of the church… For the sake of ministers and their families… This topic cannot be taboo.  We must acknowledge the elephant in the room before we can begin to curb the epidemic. We must acknowledge that as the need for radical change increases so does the probability of significant conflict.

From 1990 until 2009 I served four Southern Baptist churches. One was a family chapel in rural southern Mississippi. One was a suburban church. Two were First Baptist churches in county-seat towns. While each of them had their own personalities and unique ways of doing things, they were virtually the same. They were each franchised versions of virtually every other Southern Baptist Church. They shared the same…

  • Music and Worship – Each church had its own favorites or go-to hymns, but we all sang from the same hymnal. The personality of the church was more likely to show up in the style of music sung by the choir and/or soloists.
  • Polity and Decision Making – No matter the size or setting, each church made congregational decisions in monthly business meetings. The only variations from church to church had to do with the level of input expected from the pastor, deacons and committees.
  • Programs, Ministry and Missions – Every church had a Sunday School that met before the morning worship service. Almost every church had Discipleship Training that met before the evening service. Missions was coordinated through the WMU and the Brotherhood and was mostly confined to education, prayer and giving. Some churches took an annual mission trip that was usually connected to WMU (Activaters, Appalachian Ministries, etc.), Brotherhood (Carpenters for Christ, World Changers, etc.), the local association or the state convention (national and international partnerships). Wednesday nights looked essentially the same in every church with Family Night Suppers, Prayer Meeting and some kind of children and youth programming which included children’s choirs, RA’s, GA’s, Mission Friends and a large youth gathering. The really radical churches had AWANA or TeamKid!

From a leadership perspective, my primary responsibility was to manage the organization. The most controversial decisions we made had to do with buildings and grounds, times of services, and adding and/or calling staff members. Success was measured by increases in giving, attendance and membership with bonus points for baptisms. Many church members thought the church existed to serve our members by keeping them busy and felt like we were doing a good job if the church calendar was full.

During the first decade of the 21st Century things were beginning to change. By the end of the first decade of the 21st Century change was coming faster and faster. It was true in the secular world, and it was true in the church. The reasons for this rapid change included the explosion of technological innovation, the economic depression of 2008, the decline of cultural Christianity and more.

The rate of change has not slowed. If anything, it has increased. Consequently, churches must be willing to adapt if they want to be relevant and impact our world. Churches that have held on to the franchised approach are struggling to exist. Many of our churches are on the verge of death. Most of our churches are experiencing a prolonged decline that will lead to death if they don’t embrace change. Rainer points out that ninety percent of our churches are either declining, or they are growing at a rate that is slower than the growth of their communities.

In the church I served in the first decade of this century, we routinely exceeded 300 in Sunday morning attendance. This past Sunday, that same church reported 150 in attendance. I have recently worked with three different churches whose trajectory is even more drastic. All four of these churches are facing death if they don’t embrace change. The church I served as pastor all those years ago may have a generation. The others probably have a decade.

The stark reality for all of these churches is that things will likely get worse before they get better.  Remember, as the need for radical change increases so does the probability of conflict. Mark Clifton is the Senior Director of Church Replanting at the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is considered to be the expert on church revitalization and replanting. Recently he Tweeted about the angry reaction of a long-time church member who called him a church wrecker for “1. Moving senior adult SS to another room and giving their space to our growing kids ministry. 2. Leading church to adopt a membership covenant & new bylaws. 3. Sheet rocking over a window in the church.” To be sure, only one of these rises to the level of significant change, but you can see the visceral response.

I am not advocating a bull in the china shop approach, but the kind of change that many of our churches need to embrace will result in conflict. As the need for radical change increases, the probability of conflict will also increase.  Some members will label leaders as “church wreckers” or worse. Some members will try to get those leaders fired. Some members will leave. The way that the church responds to the conflict will determine what kind of four-letter word emerges from CHANGE… Last time I checked, HOPE is a four-letter word!

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6 thoughts on “Change is a Four-Letter Word”

  1. Rob
    God is using you and you have said what needed saying very well. I continue to pray for you, your ministry and all your family. I am grateful for your continuing ministry and commitment knowing what you have endured.
    To many church members know about God but don’t know God. When people submit to God then God’s will becomes their will. When a group or congregation is following God’s will then all will be in harmony without conflict. Conflict is the result of imposing one’s will on others. Unfortunately in the church often someone claims his or her position is “what God has told them!”
    Keep on keeping on growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

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