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.
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.
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.
So what do you think? What are you and your church doing to be more adaptable? What can you add to this list?
We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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