Leaders are always thinking about ways to take a tribe into the future. They also have a good idea how far they can push before meeting immovable resistance. Whether it’s within a church context, non-profit, or corporation, leaders can only move as far as a culture permits. Generally speaking, the larger your organization, the harder it is to change identity (and that’s not even considering the time it would take to implement successful change). The largest corporations either begin with a culture that embraces innovation (think Google, Facebook, etc.,) or die trying (or not trying) (think GM, Kodak, United Airlines, Wells Fargo., etc).

Churches are in the latter category.

There is, however, a solution. Wise leaders in big or small organizations know of a way to ‘cheat’ the challenge of change: start something completely new from the outside. 

Corporations accomplish this by launching independent divisions. Venture capitalists do this as their business. Churches have significant problems thinking, let alone doing, new things.

Why is change so difficult to initiate and sustain in churches?

The main reason is the tendency to protect what’s left of the empire by holding on to control. [tweetthis]The lack of innovation in favour of short term certainty ends up crippling long term sustainability.[/tweetthis]

To sustain the empire you can’t rock the proverbial boat. To accomplish this church leaders condone consumer Christianity, growing consumers who generally oppose changing from status quo. Seemingly insignificant changes may be viewed as drastic thereby immobilizing any movement for meaningful shifts. Consumers are not built to accept discomfort–they want to consume–and if pushed they’ll opt for a replacement or withdraw completely. Churches built on congregations that sit and–well–congregate around Sunday services and programs will rarely be successful flipping a culture on its head without substantial losses. It’s a sad struggle for the church, a body supposedly rooted in denying selfish ambition for the good of the whole.

This predicament leaves leaders with two options when steering a church forward. 1) Press hard through change and lose people in the process (which may not be a bad thing). 2) Make incremental changes that have limited impact and/or take forever to reach the desired outcome. The former is necessary for change but it hurts, the latter is what most churches do and why most struggle to find a new identity in our present world.

Option? My suggestion is to let sleeping dogs lie.

Consumer church culture will not broadly accept profound change in a reasonable timeframe, that much we know, but maybe we don’t have to! Maybe there’s–dare I say it–an easier solution? What if leaders slowly develop a culture that values starting new things yet intentionally falls short of rocking the established status quo? 

I’m NOT suggesting a church is off the hook to engage in the unfolding Kingdom hope of righting wrongs in the city and beyond. I AM suggesting how we approach change becomes strategic so at least some form of change lasts. The reason I advocate leaving sleeping dogs lie (don’t change what the consumers want) is twofold: it may be unnecessary to disturb the majority, that majority can bankroll new expressions.

Returning to the corporate world example, established brands or identities implement change. But rather than upsetting the balance of the whole, which may not be necessary (or doable), they start something new. In the church context this looks like starting a new expression outside of the normative. I want to take this idea one step further, since starting something new is too easy to achieve for churches (hey look, we started an evening service with the same people!). I’m suggesting the repeated, continuous, and multiple launching of new ‘divisions’ that look unlike anything you’re used to, but reflect aspects already unfolding in the church community.

Churches big and small all face similar dilemmas: “how do we get more people engaged in mission”? The odd church will merely ask: “how can we get more people to volunteer for church programs?”, but this type of self-absorbed delusion seems to be quickly eroding. The mission of God needs to be bigger than your church walls. How you get it there may be easier than you think. You could,

  • Look where your church (the people) are already connected beyond church sanctioned activities, and leverage from there.
  • Look for your outliers, mavericks, and ideas people, and build their capacity.
  • Rather than the 1 expensive church plant, look at doing 10 smaller ones and see which ones stick.

All of these ideas can operate on the edge of inside of the existing church, not bound by traditional expectations, not threatening the lukewarm consumers, but shaped by shared belonging in one body. Finding more diversity within your unity will help you stretch beyond Christian culture and into the unknown literally next door.