7 Ways To Start Changing An Unchangeable Church

There are churches that feel unchangeable, but any church can experience change and become a healthy, growing, even multiplying church.

Before we get into how to change an unchangeable church we need to admit something together: If churches don't change, they die.  This is a reality we may try to avoid or ignore but it is very much true.  I know this because I was the lead pastor of a dying church.  Can I just paint a picture for you that too many pastors find all too familiar?  The church I was pastoring was stuck, out of date and resistant to change.  The people who attended this church had great hearts, loved God and loved people but somewhere along the way this community stopped changing, plateaued and shifted into decline.  People told me it would never change.  The average age of the church was 60 and it was located in one of the toughest rural counties (a place I love) in the country.  The church was dying but it didn't die.  Now, a few years later this church is still located in that county, the average age is 35, it is bursting with life, experiencing rapid growth and charting a course to multiply this next year.  The journey has been amazing, fun, frustrating at times and beautiful.  As I look back on the journey I am amazed at what God will do when we are willing to courageously follow him.  

A place that once seemed unchangeable is now a place that welcomes change and values flexibility.  To get there it took an intentional cultural shift that is reproducible in any context and I want to share how we made that shift with you.  

Most pastors feel limited in what they are able to accomplish in a stuck church.  It is easy to get lost in survival mode and be uncertain of how or where to start.  But, in any church, in any setting the place to start can be simple and clear.

Start with creating, defining, and communicating a healthy organizational culture.  

Lets set a goal.  The goal is to become a church that values flexibility.   Flexible churches adapt and adjust and do so with little or no tearing.  Flexible churches are amazing to pastor.  Flexible churches and free to grow and reach more people in an ever changing context.   Flexible churches make your job exciting.  To become a church that values flexibility first focus on creating a culture that accepts change.  Once you have a culture that accepts change you can start to cultivate a culture that invites change.  Once you have a culture that invites change it is easy to transition that into a culture that values flexibility.

Did I lose you?  I'll make it simple.  Move your organization along the stages below toward flexibility.  

Accepts Change - Invites Change - Values Flexibility

Where on this cultural journey is your church?

Listen, if we did it, you can too.  Start to develop a culture that accepts change with the list below, but warning, you will have to lead with courage.  If you can't lead with courage in the face of opposition you probably shouldn't be leading anyway.  If you are worn out maybe it is time to sit in support of someone with the energy to lead the charge.  (Here is how a pastor of 35 years managed that transition ushering in new growth to his church and revitalizing his ministry.)   

Still here?  Good. Let's start to create a culture of change.  If you want to turn a dying church into a healthy growing church this is the place to start.  

7 Ways To Start To Change An Unchangeable Church

1.  Make small changes often.  Ok, you probably can't make the big drastic change to your constitution even though your constitution was written in 13 BC, but you can make a bunch of small changes often.  Small changes are easier for your organization to digest.  Make a bunch of them.  Spread them out and implement them often.  Examples: Tweak the bulletin, change the lighting, adjust the seating, make changes on the website, make small changes on a Sunday morning, during worship, to the music, make small changes in how you communicate.

2.  Stop asking for permission. There are a lot of changes you can make without getting permission from a stuck board or a resistant congregation. Use wisdom and act in love but also be courageous enough to know that as the leader of the organization, you don't need permission for every decision you make.  If you are teaching and want to ditch the podium, ditch the podium.  Your announcement guy will figure it out.  Or better yet ditch announcements.  You don't need permission to buy a drum set and add it to the front of your sanctuary.  If you stop and think about it there are plenty of changes you can start to make without asking for permission.  

3.  Start with the things you can control.  You may not be able to control the power players in your church but you can control you.  Be intentional about what you communicate and how you communicate it.  In fact, be intentional about everything you do and have a strategy for communicating toward a healthy future.  Examples: Change how you preach, change up the sermon series more frequently, run meetings differently,  have more individual meetings with staff and make those meeting shorter, create a strategy and start to implement it before you even tell anyone about it.  

4.  Don't say or listen to statements that include "old way" thinking.  There are statements thrown around church that you should be ignoring and never, ever saying.  Such as: "This is how we've always done it."  "Trust me you don't want to change ________." "We never did it like that before."  "This isn't who we are."  "We don't really do things like that around here."  Have an example to add?

5.  Challenge team members to problem solve by thinking outside of the box. - Don't settle or look for easy answers or old answers or methods.  Get your team to come up with and think through multiple solutions to challenges you face.  Challenge "old way" thinking by asking good questions.  Such as: "What are new options or approaches we could take to address this challenge?"  "What can we do differently to get a different result?" "If we were to change how we did this, what would we change?"  "What is missing or confusing about what we are doing or planning to do?" 

6.  Stay Consistent -  Does that sound ironic in an article about change?  Consistently change things.  Don't allow yourself to settle in and get comfortable.  To change culture you have to be consistent for a long period of time.  Keep changing things.  Don't stop, instead learn how to pivot.

7.  Cast Vision Like a Fly Fisherman -  Have you ever watched a fly-fisherman cast?  It is art in motion.  The heavy fly line creates a loop back and forth casting the fly out just above the water time and time again before finally finishing the cast, landing the fly at the most opportune time and place to move a fish.  Cast vision like a fly fisherman.  Keep throwing the vision out there, over and over again.  Constantly search for opportune times to plant a vision in the best places to move your organization and your people forward toward health.


What are your thoughts and experiences?

Be courageous.  God's got this, you just have to follow.

Your voice matters, 




3 Things That Can Kill Vision And Direction In Your Church

People follow vision and direction.  

Has your church plateaued? Note: A new person trickling in once in a while doesn't count as growth. 

Has your church been in decline? Note: Decline isn't measured in seasonal or short term attendance drop off.  Instead, decline means a sustained decrease in more than one area of your church. Are leaders leaving and finances dwindling? Is attendance dropping while volunteer recruitment has become next to impossible without tapping the same people over and over again? 

Are you feeling stuck and unsure what lies ahead for you or your church?  Note:  Being stuck can present itself in a number of different ways. Such as:  lack of clarity, unwillingness to consider change, a failure to consider new approaches to ministry.

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you aren't alone.  I have been able to answer yes to all of the above at some point in my role as a lead pastor.  

If you answered yes to any of the above questions the chances are one of the big issues you need to start with is a good, long and honest look at the vision and direction in your church. 

One of my main roles as a lead pastor is to drive and initiate vision and direction.  If you are the person at the top of your organization/ministry that applies to you as well.   Vision and direction needs to be initiated from the top. 

The problem: I'm not perfect and neither are you.  Ministry can highlight our insecurities and imperfections.  Sometimes ministry can just be down right tough and exhausting.  There are things that can get in the way as we try to find, initiate or drive vision and direction for our church and organization.

Here are three things that can kill vision and direction in your church.

  1. Pressure.  "I don't want to do it, but I will."  Pressure can become a driving force in our ministry in many different ways, but when it comes to the vision and direction of the church, it will sideline you.  Pressure becomes an unhealthy driving force when:  You give in to the power players at church who want the church to serve their agenda.  You are making the easier decisions instead of the right decisions.  Too many voices are considered in an attempt to please others.  
  2. Desire. "I want to."  You can easily lose your direction and vision when you put your desires and preferences above the needs of the church.  Desire becomes and unhealthy driving force killing your vision and essentially your church when "I" statements grab too much space in your heart.  Here are some examples: I want to have a big church.  I want to be a lead pastor.  I want to teach every week.  I want to retire in this town.  I want to be the most important person in the organization.  I want to write a book. I want to ___________. Seeking God's direction and casting vision is a constant removal of self.  I know you would never say those things out loud, but don't let them steal your heart's attention away from God's direction.  What if the vision and direction for the church should cost you your role at church?  What if God has something better for you?  What if the vision and direction of the church is bigger and better than you can imagine?  You will never be insignificant if you keep seeking God's direction.
  3. Fear.  "I am afraid to."  This one is so tough and it is the most common driving force that sidelines vision and direction.  The fears that pop up run deep.  Financial fears -> I won't be able to pay my mortgage if I lose this job. Fear of losing significance -> If I am not teaching every week, who am I. Fear of not having a future -> I can't do anything else if I lose this job.  Fear can be paralyzing, but you can trust Jesus through it.  Don't let your fears drive you to insignificance.  Step out in courage.  Here is a talk about my journey through fear  https://vimeo.com/240025716  You aren't alone.


The driving force of vision and direction is always and should always be faith.

You can get back on track as a visionary leader today in 2 simple steps:

 1) Evaluate the 3 driving forces mentioned above.  What pressures, desires or fears have you been wrestling with?  Have they been getting in the way of you initiating and driving vision for your organization?

2) Talk about them with a staff member/colleague/friend/spouse.  Once you start talking about these three driving forces they start to lose their power to push you away from the direction God has for you.

God is going to do awesome stuff through you as you continue to seek his direction for your ministry.  We all drift sometimes.  It's okay.  Realign yourself today.  Start leading with vision and direction and watch health start to blossom in your church.

Place your confidence in God. 

Let's do this.

Your voice matters.