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7 Signs Your Church Will Never Change

There’s a very good chance you’re trying to change something in your church or organization.

There’s even a decent chance some of you are trying to change everything. I’ve been there.

Just because God never changes doesn’t mean your church shouldn’t.

In fact, the most effective churches change constantly. Effective churches never change the mission or the message (those are eternal).

But they always change the methods to make sure the mission stays alive and the message gets heard.

And that means change.

Change is at the heart of leadership because a leader’s job is to take people from where they are to where they need to be. You can’t do that without ushering in change.

And yet, trying to engineer change can be one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do as a leader.

How do you know when your church is simply so resistant to change that it isn’t going to budge? How do you know the problem is so deep that radical intervention is required?

Here are 7 signs your church is never going to change.

church won't change

1. You keep having the same conversation over and over (and over) again

Ever have that feeling like no meeting is ever a new meeting—that you’re talking about the same issues month after month, year after year?

Far too many church leaders have that feeling, actually.

Without getting into specifics, I worked a report on church growth 15 years ago for a church group experiencing decline. Last year, I saw the same group of people table an almost identical report addressing the exact same issue. By all accounts, they had made no progress on the issue despite studying it for a decade and a half.

The only thing that changed, of course, is that now the problem is far worse than it was before. The attendance decline they were experiencing has morphed into a free fall.

Talking about about an issue—even talking passionately about an issue—and doing nothing about it is a complete waste of time.

Awareness doesn’t solve problems.

Discussion doesn’t solve problems.

Insight doesn’t solve problems.

Action does.

In my latest book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow, I devote an entire chapter to how to lead your board through a productive conversation that leads to actual change. (You can download a sample chapter for free here.)

2. Every time someone raises a new idea, someone lists 3 reasons it won’t work

Of course the reason you have the same conversation again and again is because every time you raise a new approach, someone lists three reasons it won’t work.

You know what won’t work for you long term?

Coming up with reasons why it won’t work.

There are a thousand reasons innovations won’t work. Until they work.

In 1876, cash-strapped Alexander Bell offered to sell his new invention, the telephone, to Western Union for $100,000.

They rejected it. This, by all accounts, was their report:

We do not see that this device will be ever capable of sending recognizable speech over a distance of several miles. Hubbard and Bell want to install one of their telephone devices in every city. The idea is idiotic on the face of it. Furthermore, why would any person want to use this ungainly and impractical device when he can send a messenger to the telegraph office and have a clear written message sent to any large city in the United States?…Ignoring the obvious limitations of his device, which is hardly more than a toy. This device is inherently of no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase.

Take that to your next board meeting.

3. Fondness for the past exceeds passion for the future

A sure sign that people will never change is a deep love for the past that eclipses any enthusiasm for the future.

How do you know this might be you?

It’s simple: monitor your language. When most of your stories (and even your verb tenses) are in the past tense, it’s a sign you’re looking backward, not forward.

If all of your cultural references (songs, movies, shows) are rooted decades in the past, it’s a sign you’ve lost touch with the present and the future.

When your fondness for what you used to do is greater than your passion for what you’re going to do, you’re in trouble.

Bottom line? When all of your excitement is about the past, you haven’t got much of a future.

4. Small things always become things

As a leader, you’d love to solve some big issues.

But the challenge when you lead a group that won’t change is that you never reach any big things because the small things always become big things.

You know what I’m talking about.

The debate on whether you should have carpet or hardwood lasted six months. And then they decided on carpet. Which itself then became the two month discussion on what colour the carpet should be. Which then became the four month debate on who should install it.

You know what you should do when you face a leadership stalemate like that?

Break in one night and install it yourself.

I’m kind of only half kidding.

Or call an audible and say something as direct as “Hey, we’ve been talking about this for FOUR months. We have to stop and move on to make progress. Why are we stuck like this?”

When small things always become big things, you’ll never tackle any truly big issues.

5. People are still complaining about the last thing you changed

You know you’re leading people who don’t want to change when they’re still complaining about the last thing you changed.

And that was five years ago.

I don’t know what else to say about this except…that was FIVE YEARS ago.

Really? Stop already.

6. “We’ve never done it that way before” has become a theme song

It’s easy to get smug and think “only super traditional churches fall into traps like this.”

But not really.

Successful, growing churches struggle with this tension too.

Why? Because effectiveness, once experienced, is something most leaders don’t want to jeopardize.

As leaders, you become so afraid of breaking what’s working that you resist change.

Even success creates barriers to innovation. The greatest enemy of your future success is your current success.

7. Your leaders don’t bring unchurched friends with them

A sure sign that people have given up on change is that no one in leadership is actually investing in people who don’t currently attend church.

When you’re not praying for, investing in or hanging out with unchurched people, your leadership conversations become about personal preferences, not biblical principles.

And when your church becomes all about your personal preferences you lose the mission.

What To Do?

If this is you, what do you do?

Three things.

First, as a leader, call the situation for what it is.

Maybe start by personally owning your resistance to change. We all resist it, and your resistance might be born out of fear.

Or maybe, out of frustration, you’ve just decided your church will never change. In which case, if you believe that as a leader, it won’t.

So confess that, and own it.

Second, repeat the process for your leaders. Share your fear of change and your attitude with your leaders and apologize. Then ask your leaders to talk about their fear of change.

Have an honest conversation. Perhaps it will lead to a place where your leaders look in the mirror and say “Houston, we have a problem. And it’s us.”

That would be a breakthrough moment.

And finally, just realize that—contrary to the title of this post—change IS possible because not everyone is actually opposed to change. We just feel like change is impossible and everyone is opposed.

As I wrote about in my book, Leading Change Without Losing It, rarely are more than 10% of people opposed to change at any given moment.  It’s just that the opponents are loud, and we often confuse loud with large.

If you doubt that everyone is deeply opposed to change, write down the names of the vocal opponents on a sheet of paper. Chances are you will have trouble identifying more than 10-20% of your congregation by name.

Don’t let the 10% of people who are opposed to change determine the future of the 90% who aren’t.

Maybe that will give you the courage you need to lead the change you need to make.

It’s never as hopeless as you think. And even your died in the wool traditional church can change. As I outlined here, I led three very traditional churches through the process.

What are you learning about change?

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  • Bill Cripe

    Sometimes, church leaders don’t really see just how many changes HAVE been made and are compelled to keep pursuing more changes as THE solution to more fundamental issues. Trying to see things from the vantage point of the committed, integrated, typically non-whining congregant can be eye-opening. And sometimes change isn’t the issue as much as the rate or implementation of a change. At the end of the day, push back to changes pertaining to the “wrappings” of the gift rather than the gift itself as alluded to above, are a basic failure of the change agent to focus believers on the “real” purpose of the church’s existence which is not personal comfort but outreach! (Note–for context of my comments: I am 62, been at my church for 25 years; have taken the church through 3 expansions of current facilities, 1 move out of the facility and then back in again during a 4th expansion, and then a wholesale move to another property all together all to facilitate growth.) The most important thing I wrote above is keeping people focused on the real purpose of church; it does wonders for squawking…

  • Todd Miechiels

    Carey thanks for another great post. As a layperson with a heart for serving pastors, innovation, or at least a willingness to be courageous enough to try and innovate is so rare. When I find one who is willing to risk the past for a preferred future, especially one that is led by the Spirit, it is incredibly inspiring and magnetic.


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  • Danielle Chaffee Krivda

    This is us! All 7 points we experience regularly. This post is amazing. I just got your book, I can’t read it fast enough!! Thank you for this post…I plan to share with our leadership. I agree with Zachary below, these posts are rock solid, straight to the point, realistic approaches to issues we all face, and offer solutions that are practical and obtainable. Thank you!

    • Danielle…thank you so much! Really appreciate the encouragement.

  • I love your focus on keeping the church on God’s mission. Great post as usual.

  • Zachary Verbracken

    I love how portable these posts are. What I mean by that is… these posts, and even your podcasts and books… are resources that a pastor can walk into a staff meeting or a board meeting with and use it as a conversation starter… And I know you’ve been intentional to create resources where that is possible.

    These are great conversations that churches need to be having. Awesome post.

    • Thanks Zach. That’s my goal. Ideas that never make it past a leaders head only ever see a fraction of their potential. Let me know how we can make them even more portable. 2016 is a year of growth for me and the team. 🙂

  • I really appreciate this post Carey. As always you share some great wisdom. I greatly appreciate how you encourage so many to keep going even in the midst of discouragement. Not giving up is definitely a key ingredient to progress, thanks for the reminders.

  • stjones911

    Addressing the wrong problem won’t solve any problems either. Any church that is focusing on its own growth is addressing the wrong problem. I can find no Biblical warrant for wasting effort and resources on church growth. There is, however, a specific commission to grow the Church Universal. If your church reaches 100 unchurched people for Christ and they all join other churches, has your church failed? If your church does that every year until all the members die and the church closes, did it fail?

  • Peter Steigerwald

    I’d just like to encourage any leaders wondering if the pain caused by pushing for change is worth the struggle. Even if the organization never changes, you may change people along the way. My life changed course through experiencing my pastor’s commitment, even though the changes failed at the organizational level. Gospel focused change will have fruit, even if the path and the outcome isn’t the one we most desire.

    • Peter…this is one of my favourite comments ever. Thank you. You’ve encouraged thousands of leaders with this!

    • aPEON

      “Even if the organization never changes, you may change people along the way.” Is that not the essence of the ‘Great Commission”, as you go along in life, “make disciples”?

      These discussions seem to always push the truth of what ‘The Church’ is into the background.

      ‘The Church’ is=People, change [disciple] people, and you ‘change ‘The Church’.