Pastors often ask me for ways to re-imagine and lead change in declining congregations. They’ll ask something along the lines of, “how do you get people to do, X, Y, or Z?” Be it how to build multi-ethnic communities, realize better discipleship, or increase missional activity in the neighborhood, one thing is constant: few of these pastors are hearing ideas for the first time. They understand what’s missing. What they want to know is how to implement successfully (which I talk about in my book, Thrive). Most want change but don’t have the skills or ideas to make it happen. Since they can’t see a way, they can’t justify the risk to shift, and everything remains the same.

Here’s how I often respond.

First off, trying to find a strategic method to implement change is a catch-22. On one hand you need strategy, which becomes incrementally more important the bigger the church. However, strategies are a generic response to the desired outcome of embodied change. It’s hard to change someone’s character (discipleship) through mere program offering.

Second, when pastors seek change in whichever department, I tell them they have to be first to live it out. Embody the change and compel others to join. You cannot lead without demonstrating first. Unfortunately, most conversations end here. The notion the one can embody change and lead another one is frankly too slow and large church pastors ignore the approach. They want something else. It’s obvious leaders should embody the change they seek, but a pastor of 200+ congregants wants to generate momentum across the entire community. That’s why the search for developed strategies is so strong (and necessary if you remain big). The trouble goes back to the first problem: the change we seek is often a change of being, and that can’t be imparted outside of deep life-on-life formation. 

The past generation has taught us that attempts to mobilize larger congregations strategically around deep life changing elements like discipleship doesn’t work very well. We can strategically gather people around sameness, such as race or income, but it’s harder to design a way to impart new ways of living. To come full circle, strategies are needed in larger churches because you can’t communicate from the top to 100s or 1000s one-on-one. However, the strategy/formula approach fails because you can’t produce a “one-size-fits-all” connection into the day-to-day lives of congregations.

Mobilizing a congregation, particularly a large consumer oriented congregation, to embrace a culture of deep discipleship (that is largely counterintuitive to consumer culture) is a long and arduous process. The vast majority of churches big and small who go down this road fail. Part of me wonders if churches that hit a particular number, say 120 and higher for the sake of this post, will always struggle with discipleship because size is the impediment. Larger churches by default need more strategic avenues to simply function. In the process they wind up looking more like corporations that churches.

The Road to Change Isn’t Rooted in Improving Strategic Execution

So what needs to change? First off, a re-orientation on how churches are built and led is necessary. I won’t talk about the need to move away from building larger churches (often by cannibalizing smaller ones), nor the problems of hierarchical leadership. Both are pressing leadership issues in contemporary Christianity. What I do want to focus on is the culture leaders build, and how it may be working against or attempts to change.

Most churches, and effectively all larger churches, build congregations towards executing and delivering unto a singular “church vision” (usually designed by the lead pastor). What must stop treating people as mere cogs in a system designed to realize organizational objectives. We need to build the body towards living out their gifts in neighborhood and city. We need a formation away from “vision leadership” and towards “culture curation” that responds to kingdom call for all.

Before change can occur in meaningful ways we have to shift the end goal. We build congregations to execute and deliver unto “church vision” when we should be chasing a culture shift unto a kingdom/gospel way of being.

Strategy vs. Presence

The design and function of larger churches is unfortunately stuck in a production mode that caters to the demands of the congregation. There is a constant need to provide “value” to the congregation rather than having them see their value unto others. That’s what I mean by cogs in a system. Volunteers are needed to execute the primary offerings of the church, which are the internal values of Sunday service and community programming. To work against this prevalent expectation will put your church in the “Goldilocks conundrum“.  It also means leading change in your congregation into change will mean losing these people.

So what kind of approach to change works? We understand, unfortunately, that our congregations are fragmented. Most have been formed to stop once they adopt right ways of thinking, which churches continue to condone (namely through the Sunday service where preaching is the forefront.) We need deep cultural shifts beyond changes in thinking but a pronounced alteration to how we live.

Of course, at some point this culture shift includes strategic elements (again, to help larger churches mobilize larger groups of people). One way is locked in a form of strategy that can be shaped at ground level. Clear enough to put everyone on the same page, but wide enough to fit into unique attributes of gifts and neighborhood where people are rooted. What this strategic application looks like at ground level will once again require someone to first embody the change themselves and report back. Leadership needs to be the first to start living out change, and they must be prepared to commit for the long haul….perhaps into generations.

Do you have such patience? Chase culture shifts even when the results seem immediately slow. The impact will hopefully span generations in an age where many contemporary congregations only have a generation left.