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24 Aug '12

Moving a church from deeply institutional to missional

Posted by T.J. Addington in change, institutional, missional
Those who are attempting to move a church from institutional to missional face a daunting task, but not one that is impossible - with a lot of prayer, wisdom and perseverance. In fact it is a job to attempt only with eyes wide open, knowing that this is one ministry where a fair amount of blood can be shed before it is accomplished.

As I often point out, congregations have a very specific and ingrained genetic code. They do not change easily and the longer they have been in existence, the stronger the resistance to change. People inside a system often cannot imagine or picture life outside the system and since what is works for them, they have no incentive to move to what could be. Churches are like family systems and family systems are difficult to change.

Resistance to change often leads to sinful and obnoxious behaviors when someone seeks to bring renewal (seen as unneeded change). YouTube has many examples of church fights (ah the wonders of everyone having a cell phone) and behavior that would be funny if not so tragic. 

People may say things, assume things, accuse others of things that are downright nasty and to say the least lack the character of Jesus. Even if their motives are not bad (and we cannot judge those), behaviors can be truly destructive. Remember that it is a family system that naturally moves toward protecting the comfortable and known status quo.

And then there are the politics of power which can be as unhealthy in a congregation as in the workplace. Remember, someone has a vested interest in what is. They helped create it and they have had influence within it. To suggest moving away from what is can be a threat to those who created it and they may well resist that movement knowing that if it happens it impacts their influence in negative ways. 

The resistance may well not be overt but rather is often passive aggressive and therefore more difficult to pin down and deal with. If you are going to challenge the status quo be very sure what individuals you are also challenging and be aware of how they may respond. Be realistic about how they may respond rather than taken by surprise. 

An absolute key is to get the right people in leadership to provide a guiding coalition of resolve to move the congregation in healthier directions. This means finding ways to move the wrong people out - those who will resist the move from institutional to missional. Until there is a core of healthy resolved leaders, it will be an uphill and often impossible road.

Recognize that this is a spiritual battle as institutional and inward focused churches are not a threat to the enemy while intentional, missional and outward focused churches are. An ongoing and unrelenting prayer strategy is essential to make the shift.

A key is to appeal to those in the congregation who want to accomplish something for God. You will probably not convince those who are deeply opposed to change so it is not worth your time trying to do so. In fact, you may assume that there will be people who will always be convinced that you have ruined their church no matter what transpires. The constituency you want to appeal to are those who are more interested in reaching people for Jesus than they are in guarding the status quo.

Expect that people will leave the church. Whenever major change takes place some people will get off the bus. This is normal. If your board is united and you are moving the church toward health do not let the fact that people leave threaten you. They may well be very happy where they go and what is at stake are many who will never hear the gospel unless the church becomes healthy.

Be resolved about your direction but remain kind and gentle to those who disagree. Listen to those who are unhappy but stay the course. This is not about people liking you. Rather it is about helping the church become the church it was meant to be. In the middle of such a transition you are likely to be deeply discouraged and wonder if you did the right thing. That is not the time to abandon ship. It is the time to see the change process through. In fact, to start the process and then leave in discouragement may well do more harm to the congregation than if one had not attempted to bring change in the first place.

Be clear where the leadership believes the church needs to go and what that looks like. Celebrate small wins as people respond to the new vision and live it out. This will reinforce the new values and practices in a powerful way. It also gives people hope that the church will emerge on the other side of change.

Finally remember that this is not about whether people like you. It is about whether the congregation becomes what God wants it to be. In the process you may take major hits. It is the nature of leading through change. It is not comfortable but it is natural. Good leaders have counted the cost, have major resolve and stay the course with their eyes fixed on what can be, not what currently is.