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What To Do When People Want A Church To Grow…But Not Change

I’ve heard it several times this week already this week from different sources.

One of the tensions many of us wrestle with as leaders who are trying to navigate change happens when people tell us:

I want our church to grow. I just don’t want it to change. 

Every time I hear or read that, my brain says “Ugh”.

As much as I think that’s a dumb reality to live in, it’s a reality so many of us face in leadership.

How do you respond when people want a church (or organization) to grow, but not change?

Here, Eat This Bacon Cheeseburger

The problem you and your organization are facing is a challenge a lot of us experience in life.

Isn’t wanting to grow but not really change actually like saying “I want to lose weight, but I really want a bacon cheeseburger”?  Well, yes, it’s exactly like that.

People hire personal trainers all the time to help them lose weight.

A trainer’s message is not revolutionary.

It is almost never “just take this diet pill and you will magically lose 50 pounds while eating cupcakes.” Yet most of us want to believe that we can take a pill and eat cheeseburgers and cupcakes and lose weight. At least I do.

A good personal trainer’s advice is always some variation of “eat smaller portions, eat healthy foods, exercise and make sure your calorie input is less than your calorie output”.

And people pay them money—lots of money—to tell them what they already know to be true.

You’re not that different as an organizational leader. Really.

 

Six Things You Can Do

As a leader, don’t try to navigate change in a congregational meeting. You will get stuck in the mud before you know what’s happening. 50 people or 500 people won’t agree on anything. And they will certainly never agree on anything courageous. (I talk more about navigating the dynamics of change in my book, Leading Change Without Losing It).

Sit down with your real leadership team—your board, your key staff, or even a new group you form for the purpose—and start the conversation.

As you lead that conversation, here are 6 things you can do to tackle the challenge of leading a group that wants to grow but doesn’t want to change:

 

1. Tell The Truth

Usually we hire trainers, coaches, counselors and consultants to tell us the truth we kind can’t see or, often, already know but won’t face.

That’s my job and your job as the leader of an organization: we need to help people see the truth.

So what’s the truth about wanting to grow but not wanting to change?

It’s quite simple.  Your patterns, habits and level of effectiveness as a church got you to where you are now.

If you want your current level of effectiveness, keep doing what you’re doing right now.

If you don’t want your current level of effectiveness, change.

It actually isn’t much more complicated than that.

Sometimes great leadership is simply about pointing out the truth that nobody else wants to talk about.

You need to do this in love, but often our desire to be loving kills our need to be truthful.

So, as a leader, help people see the truth.

 

2. Plot Trajectory

Learning how to plot trajectory is one of the best skills a leader can bring to the table.

Plotting trajectory is simply mapping out the probable course or path an organization, person or object is on. This is critical because usually, when it comes to people and organizations, we’re not sure where we’re headed.

To plot trajectory, ask two questions:

If we continue doing what we’re doing today, where will we be 1 year, 2 years and 5 years from now?

If we change X, where will we be 1 year, 2 years and 5 years from now?

Sure, you don’t know for sure where you end up, but if you start asking the question, you’ll be amazed at what you discover. Try it.

 

3. Ban Delusional Talk

Those of us who resist change are often delusional.

I can continue to be rude to my spouse and our marriage will get better.

I can slack off at work and get a better performance review.

I can get abs of steel in a workout that lasts 60 seconds.

Most of us become crazy people when we’re fighting change.

So, as a leader, ban delusional talk around your table. 

Call it out. In love, let people see how crazy their thinking really is.

I understand you think your program is amazing but it has an attendance of 3. What are we going to do about that?

I know you love Southern Gospel music but most of the teens we want to reach don’t.

I realize you love our organization just the way it is, but the average age of our attenders is 65.

I know you think a new building will solve all our problems, but why can’t we solve them in our current half-empty facility?

Don’t let your leaders be delusional.

 

4. Get an Outside View

Familiarity breeds contempt and distorts perspective. If your team doesn’t immediately respond healthily to a call for change, you might be ripe for an outside voice to help you arrive at a new place.

This would be the perfect time to read a book together, attend a conference, or (best yet), hire a consultant. If the future is at stake, it’s not a bad investment to spend the money on an outside perspective.

 

5. Offer Constant Feedback

As you move through these conversations, keep people honest. It will be hard. But you need to do this.

Continue to point the group back to the truth.  Honestly, gracefully, but truthfully.

Just keep snapping people back to reality.

I say this because it will require herculean effort to ensure you don’t end up hoping for a diet-pill and cupcake solution. There is probably little gain without significant pain.

 

6. Draw a Line and Call it For What it Is

At some point you have to stop talking and start doing.

Here’s my suggestion. If you’ve been in an honest dialogue for at least a year and are not making progress (that is, you haven’t made a plan for change you are ready to act on), you have come to a moment of truth.

At some point, you just need to tell everyone where you have landed.

So our plan for change is to implement X, Y and Z by this date. Let’s do it!

Or

So essentially we have decided that we will not grow. We are content with the status quo. We will not change. And we will live with the consequences of stagnation, decline and decay.

Guess what? 99% of leaders will never utter the second statement.

And that’s why they’re stuck. That’s why they’re perpetually frustrated.

But that second statement is exactly what you need to say if that’s your reality.

And then—are you ready?—you need to decide whether you want to lead that organization.

This isn’t easy at all, but I do think it can help leaders who feel stuck leading an organization that says it wants to grow but doesn’t want to change.

What do you think?

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  • jim

    My family joined a wonderful full contemporary style service meeting in a small warehouse. When the lease came up again talk started about finding a bigger place. All were ok with that. Where we ended up is a lease with a movie theater that seats about 500. It was very un-personal compared to the warehouse. This has a large stage and the pastor is towering over us. Well people started finding new places and we are down from 350 to 125 on a good day. It is sad that the only change was the new location and that made such a large impact.

    • Wow…that surprising Jim. I would think there has to be another factor. Location alone shouldn’t account for that big a drop unless it’s a really hard to find neighbourhood.

  • Stephen Budd

    Sadly many churches are content to sit, soak and sour. Some great advice to any leader who is trying to navigate the waters of mission, vision, and strategy.

  • Dave Lee

    What if the resistance is more of a reluctance to pretend to be something that I/we are not just to win friends and add members? What if the desire to grow is precisely because we have something good and beautiful and healthy and encouraging as we are now? Somehow authenticity has to be more important that allure…

    • Good healthy things grow naturally. So I would say enjoy it, if I’m understanding your point Dave. If you have something good and beautiful and healthy, it will grow.

  • Thanks for this post, Carey! Great stuff. I am concerned, however, with the number of posts in this thread regarding how the preferences, desires, and wishes of senior adults should be considered as churches seek to carry out necessary change. Much of what I read smacks of entitlement for older members. I believe their wisdom is needed. I agree that they need to be a prime part of the conversation for change, but I’m not sure seniority should equate to rights of ownership.

    I was called as pastor to a church that had been in a 15 year cycle of decline. The largest attendance block was the 50+ range, since young families had already left over the past decade. Preschool, children, and youth ministries were largely ignored, while the senior adults were quite comfortable. With the retirement of my predecessor the folks realized their situation and sought to see growth again. When I joined the staff, I inheited a large group of active, outgoing, and very outspoken senior adults – wonderful people who said they wanted to grow! The first wall we hit was the realization that change requires things to be done different. As a wise person onec said, “Everyone is in favor of change until they are asked to do something different.” This was huge, and led to some breakthrough conversations.

    Many very well-meaning and godly seniors adopt a mindset that says, “My years of faithful service grant me the right to greater ownership and control of the church.” I slowly began to walk them through a different paradigm, one that says, “My years of faithful service have given me the responsibility to invest my wisdom and experience in stewerdship of the church’s future.” I’ve tried to teach them that seniority is about giving up one’s rights and taking on responsibility. The rights belong to those starting out, those in whom the future is invested. I regularly say that the “the more responsibility one takes on, the more rights they give away.” I think Matthew 23:11 provides a great basis for this paradigm.

    This was a very hard sell. Quite a few seniors left for churches in town that gave them their rights. However, there has been enough buy-in to this paradigm that I can say my seniors are among the most supportive agents of change. They are conduits of blessing as they invest in the many young families now attending. Overall attendance has increased significantly with young singles and families with children/ teens. Yet, the fascinating part of the story is how our senior adult group is growing as well.

    Far from being left behind, when seniors can be discipled to understand their responsibility to the church, rather than demanding their rights within the church, everyone wins.

    • Kevin..so well said. I agree 100%. I want to BE that senior. There’s a season in life in which you stop taking and start giving. That season should start when you become a Christian. If you’re pushing 40 or 50, you should be moving into that season for sure. Love your approach. I agree.

  • Guest

    I’ve said something your second statement in point 6 – and it certainly clarified matters; a surprising number of people agreed and my subsequent review made it plain I was no longer welcome in the organisation…

    • That is sometimes the result of clarity. Feel for you on that one. I hope it was a good move in the end.

  • MW

    Love this post.

    However, this is only good if your the leader. If you are the youth pastor or children’s pastor. You won’t be able to do anything if the senior pastor won’t change. I have brought up that we need to change, showed areas that need changing and they all agreed with me. But, the senior pastor said no to a church consultant because he didn’t want to get his toes stepped on. What do I do now?

  • christoph

    Yes, great stuff. Sometime a group that really cares about the future of the church should sit down and ask these tough question. In some cases that is not the church board.

    • Carey

      I pray for the day it is Christoph!

    • True. Sometimes you need to work around an existing team to create a new team.

  • Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve visited this
    website before but after going through many of the
    posts I realized it’s new to me. Regardless, I’m certainly delighted I discovered it and I’ll be book-marking it and checking back frequently!

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Welcome!

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  • Dallas

    About four years ago when I joined the vestry I saw Stephanie Spellers giving a lecture called “A Radical Welcome” I saw this as a way to grow our church. Her book is below, but if you can see her in-person it is a delight. One of the things that was stopping us from growing was the large number of chair warmers on the vestry, good people that I do love but not doers. After 4 years of hard work and now being the Sr. Warden I have a vestry of overachievers, that on Saturday will began our plan for growth, with our priest now understanding there has to be change.

    Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation by Spellers, Stephanie

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  • Joel

    Great conversation here, Carey. The greatest changes that I have witnessed over the last 30 years in the same church have been when leaders gather in humility to pray intentionally, with expectation and anticipation of God’s leading. Along with corporate prayer, I’ve seen hope of change when leaders are honest (with themselves and their congregation), then repent and seek relational renewal with members of the body who are hurting. Often times, dealing with sin in love and meeting to pray are difficult early steps to take. Humility, honesty, prayer, and relational renewal are needed as we rely on God to guide us through changes He has in store for us. Thank you for inviting us to join this important conversation.

    • Joel…so appreciate this perspective. So true. So good.

  • Bill Johnson

    Excellent…and familiar.

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  • Rev. Beth

    Spot on, Carey.

  • Christoph Koebel

    change from one service to two services and then back to one took us about 10 years, because 1 couple was against change. That is reality

  • Brian Dare

    I know this is going to sound like a crazy question, but I would love for you to define “change.” There seems to be two extremes here even as we seek to define that word. When some think about change in a church, they practically think about a ministry shut down and relaunch, some have actually done this with varying success. That is, we are going to close this church down, and relaunch with a new name, new identity, and new way of doing everything.
    On the flip side there are churches who know they have to change, but they are very uncomfortable with it, so they may add some new songs to the song set, or update their materials, and think that they’ve done what they need to do to see some new life in the church. And almost every church changes just a little bit even if they are very much adverse to change … sometimes its by people leaving!

    • I think change can mean all those things. And generally, people don’t like any change. Which is why we need a strategy for change. Which is why I love conversations like these.

      • Brian Dare

        I guess what I’m asking, and this may be next to impossible to really answer, is what do you do when you have a church that thinks very mild changes are enough of a change to keep the pastor(s) from ever saying “So essentially we have decided that we will not grow. We are content with the status quo. We will not change. And we will live with the consequences of stagnation, decline and decay.” And on the flip side when does a church know that a major overhaul, or at least a core and fundamental change is necessary to keep alive. That rearranging the furniture on the sinking titanic isn’t working either?

        • I think of it this way. If you want incremental results, adopt incremental change. If you want radically different results, you’ll need to embrace radical change.

  • Eric

    my experience also in leading organizations is like an iceberg; there’s what’s above the water, the external change, add a service, end a service, change a program, etc. Then there is the rest of the iceberg underwater which deals with the internal stuff, the values, myths, and unspoken commitments. The lower iceberg stuff is harder to change but it if doesn’t change the above changes never stick. Carey’s questions get at what’s below the iceberg; what do you really value, having life remain the same or truly being different. And the below the water level are the motivations. Does a church want to go grow because it fears closing its doors or does it want to grow in faith or does it want to serve beyond’s front doors. Those below the water line motivations drive or crash the changes made above water.

    • Thanks Eric…sometimes I think there are also values at play. That when we change we sometimes threaten more than just strategy, we chip at people’s unspoken values. When that happens the fight deepens. I’m going to write about changing values in a future book on change.

  • Glenys Nellist

    Excellent Carey! If our church leaders could bravely implement all this, we would truly see a difference in our churches, our communities, and our world.

  • Toby Wilson

    In my experiences churches who have this attitude really don’t want to grow. They say that they do in order to justify there actions and attitudes.

    • Mark

      A lot of it has to do with certain groups losing control and power. Both are feared more so than seraphim and cherubim with flaming swords.

      • Best INotSay

        I attended a church a few years ago that began to devour its own members alive over the topic of ‘change’ when the long time Sr. Minister retired. Board meetings became angry, vicious power plays and many folks walked away. The church still exists, barely, but only a shell of it’s former self. The saddest part to me is that no remorse has ever been expressed to those that were hurt so badly.

        • Sad but true story. Thanks for sharing it. That’s exactly what happens when people refuse to change.

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  • Good stuff. Managed to do a lot of this at my kast call. Watching a church choose stagnation is painful, but it does happen. Never could figure out howmto lead such place.

    • George Barcus

      From my experience it is difficult as best to lead people to a place they do not want to go . I wonder who the real influencers were when it came to decision time and if the need to change was felt at a heart level or if it was just in their minds. Those bacon cheeseburgers have such a significant pull.

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  • Allen Bovey

    Having come from a small church background, I’ve never felt like there was something ‘wrong’ with a small church. My experience with churches that grow quickly, is that the new attenders are drawn by some gimick and they tend to be full of shallowness and disinterest in maturity. (I’ve experienced this personally in periods of time while looking for a church home) Sure, we all start off this way but my experience is that a big church with lots of programs doesn’t necessarily create the best environment for discipleship. I would say that success is better gauged in Spiritual Growth of individuals……..quality over quantity. “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad
    that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Matt. 7:13,14

    • Daisy Carter

      I also grew up in a small church. I never remember the membership fluctuating a lot and there were very few” bells and whistles” i.e. no youth group or church camps but a lot of dinners outside in the summer and prayer services every week-church on Saturday nights, Sunday morning and Sunday nights. Churches need to beware when catering to any certain age group (teens, for example). You make severe changes to appeal to the teen group, you could run off your older members – the church could face financial problems when this happens.

      • Mark

        But catering to old people and only them makes a lot of younger people and kids wonder why they are there. When 5 minutes of a long sermon can’t even be spent making the topic even semi-relevant to anyone else, then there is a problem.

        • Daisy Carter

          As I noted in my above comment-chruches should not cater to ANY age group. Preach the Bible-fits all age groups.

          • Christoph Koebel

            Daisy, the Sunday school at your church has age 3-95 in one room/class? I have a MA in Christian Ed…Your comment makes no sense

          • Daisy Carter

            Come on guys-common sense please. Of course, my church had different classes for Sunday School. For church-NO-everyone attended the same church services. Teens are smart enough to listen to regular church services-I know this-why have break out church services? Even children attended the same church service-there was a room for babies to be attended.

          • Thanks Daisy. And I appreciate your reminder to play nice. Agreed! I do believe the Bible reaches all age groups powerfully. But how we present it varies with age and stage.

          • Mark

            There is a difference in teaching age-appropriate material and leaving out a group completely,

      • Christoph Koebel

        well our church caters to older folks. But they would not think so. Within 2 years about 25+ young adults, including kids, left the church for various reasons. With 64 I’m the youngest at the monthly prayer meeting.. I feel it is a “Do not rock the boat” attitude. Worst of all this is that the church leadership does not realize it

  • James Watson

    Great stuff. I will say that far too many pastors and church leaders will say delusional things like, “our people won’t go for it” or “we’ve tried some different things and the people pushed back.” Sure change will be hard, but we’ve forgotten that we have the Holy Spirit to help and guide us and our congregations toward the people He wants us to be. We have to trust Him and step out in faith. Sure we might get fired, but at least we’ll go with our boots on (my grandfather used to say that…not sure what it means, but it always sounded good!)

    • Love it James. Often lurking beneath excuses and reasons is fear.

  • Scott S

    Great article. I believe Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. That is what it seems many churches are doing today. Change will invite us to get out of our comfort zones and begin trusting in the Holy Spirit guide us through the change of course in our churches.

    • Disk

      I agree . . . Growth requires doing something different, but at the same time, the church must be careful to not leave their current, “older”, members behind, in the dust, feeling left out or discarded or unimportant

      • Yes…that’s true. But self-centred older members not open to change leave the mission and thousands of unreached people behind when they resist change.

  • TomFaggart

    When growth becomes a by product of your programming you will discover it ceases to be such a problem.

  • Joe

    It’s a little depressing just how often you see exactly that “I want to lose weight and eat this bacon cheeseburger” logic. How many times have we heard the twin statements of “we need to reach [X demographic]” and “if they want to come here, they need to be willing to do things our way” (often coming from the same mouth)? If “they” were already interested in coming, we wouldn’t be complaining about how we need to reach them.

    • True Joe…maybe it’s time to point out the logical fallacy in their reasoning. In love, but also in truth.

      • Joe

        Indeed. It can just be a little difficult, finding the right words to speak the truth in love.

  • Andrew

    It is a rare thing that we walk into a church that is dying and get everyone on board with change. There are different levels of understanding of what that means. For one its radical change, for others it will be the pastor giving more evangelical sermons. The I want change but not with the things that I like syndrome is a tough nut to crack and some never do.

    • BestINotSay

      Completely agree. I know of a church that argues and fights over moving the communion table or pulpit a few inches… And just FORGET trying to hang anything unapproved by the good-taste committee on any wall… you are just begging for trouble.

  • What do I think? I think you’ve been tapping my phone, that’s what I think.

  • Craig Barth

    Sometimes framing the change in terms of the Great Commission is helpful. Would one speak to a group of French speaking people speaking Chinese? Be mindful and respectful to the older stalwarts who usually are the $ holders, that the Church is “theirs”, but also it is their responsibility to God and to their Church’s history to be change agents to transform the Church for future members/worshippers.
    .

    • Mark

      And the standard response is, when you get to be our age, you can make the decisions provided you donate. This is one of the reasons that churches are being abandoned by the younger people.

      It is one thing to be respectful to old stalwarts, it is another thing to allow them to steamroll everything and consider no one else.

  • Doc Nola

    Thanks for the timely post. I have a called meeting with the elders tonight on this very topic. God bless you. And if you have time, say a prayer for Westside.

    • Hey Doc…read this late but I hope the meeting went well. Praying for you now.

      • Doc Nola

        Thank you. It did go well; I was prepared to use your analogies but found it unnecessary at this time. I was encouraged as were they; together we identified some areas for minor changes now and some others to work on down the road. Of course, you and I both know the talk and the walk are two different things. But for now, all of us seem energetic and optimistic. Thanks for your praying and for sharing the gifts God gave you.

  • Great post! Another great book to read is “Why Nobody Wants To Go To Church Anymore”

    • Thanks Rochelle. Hadn’t heard of that book. Appreciate it!

  • Brent Brewer

    In every church there are competing missions. It is helpful to identify those, and find ways among your teams to overwhelm those secondary goals. The problem arises when team members or key leaders see those secondary issues as primary. In order to move the organization forward, there needs to be a single vision with complete buy in.