Why Is It So Difficult to Lead a Church Through Change?
Change is inevitable. Equally inevitable is the difficulty that is faced by anyone seeking to effect change. Leading change in the life of a church is no different; it is difficult. The question is why. Why is it so difficult to lead change in a church?
After all, if we are all trying to make disciples of those who are far from God, it should follow that we would be willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal. Even if whatever it takes includes barbequing a few of our most sacred cows. It should, but often it does not.
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes once said that a “cord of three strands is not easily broken” (Eccl 4:12). While it is not likely that the Preacher had leading change in mind, there is an application for leadership that can be made. That application helps us to get a handle on why bringing change in the church can be so challenging.
There are three strands that get woven together in the lives of many believers that cause us to be resistant to change in our church world. Those three strands are one’s relationship with Christ, the way in which we worship, and the facility in which we worship. It seems that when these three strands get woven together, they are not easily broken, and they are highly resistant to change.
The first strand is a person’s relationship with Christ. More accurately, it is how one perceives his or her relationship with Christ. Although the Reformation blessed us with the doctrine of salvation through faith alone, for many people, their relationship with Christ is subconsciously tied to something outside of trusting in Christ’s finished work.
For example, some people tie their denominational commitment to their relationship with Christ. When I was a teen I recall hearing a pastor’s wife asked, “Are you a Christian first or a Baptist first?” Her response is etched in my memory: “Well, a Baptist, of course.” For her, she had connected something external (her denomination) to her relationship with Christ. If you asked her if she were saved by “faith alone,” she would have said, “Yes.” Yet, she could not perceive of being a Christian and not being a Baptist.
That is vitally important to remember for those wanting to lead change in churches that have significant denominational loyalty. While each situation will be unique, be alert for the external commitments that are perceived as essential to one’s relationship with Christ.
The second strand is the way in which a person worships. For years we have heard about the “worship wars” that raged in many churches. The labels could make one’s head spin: traditional worship, modern worship, postmodern worship, emergent worship, contemporary worship, liturgical worship, and on and on it goes.
These battles were often reduced to simplistic ideas such as hymns vs. praise songs or, worse, were marked by hurtful generalizations such as “they just don’t understand worship” or “they are trying to destroy our church.” Here again, the issue is that people often tie together the manner in which they worship with their relationship with Christ. Practically, that means that when someone (usually a young pastor or worship leader) suggests that we add guitars to the organ and piano, it is heard as an attack on the faith of those who love organ- and piano-led worship.
Of course, this goes both ways. Those who have grown up with more modern worship music can, unfortunately, be quite condescending and dismissive to those who love the old hymns of the faith. If you are leading change in a church, be mindful that making changes to our worship style has implications far beyond the songs that are sung by the congregation.
The third strand is the facility in which a person worships. There are many old jokes about churches that split over the color of carpet or on which side of the church the organ should be placed. The sad thing is that they are not jokes. The sentimental connection between our trust in Christ and the physical paraphernalia of worship is often very strong. People can get very protective about the building in which they worship. It really is astounding how often we can connect our faith in Christ to bricks, mortar, sheetrock and paint. Ooops, I almost forgot the carpet and instruments!
When attempting to lead change in the church, it is vital to keep these three strands in mind. For many people, it is this bundle of three strands that defines their faith. So, when leaders begin to tug at one of these strings, it can feel—to the person being asked to change—that the leader is tugging at the very fabric of their faith. While there are no easy answers or strategies that will fit every situation, it is important for church leaders to be mindful of how these three strands interact.
Sometimes simply knowing why people are reacting the way they are helps equip those responding to such criticisms. It is also a good opportunity to reinforce the truth of the gospel, that we are saved by grace through faith alone, and not of ourselves—or our denomination, or worship style, or facility—but it is the gift of God, so that no one can boast (Eph 2:8-9).