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7 Signs Your Church Will Never Change

church won't 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.

Just because God doesn't change doesn't mean your church shouldn't. Click To Tweet

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 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 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.)

The only thing that changes when YOU won't change is that the problem gets worse. Click To Tweet

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.

There are a thousand reasons innovations won't work, until they work. Click To Tweet

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.

When all of your excitement is about the past, you haven’t got much of a future. Click To Tweet

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.

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

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.

The greatest enemy of your future success is your current success. Click To Tweet

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.

When your church becomes about your personal preferences, you've lost the mission. Click To Tweet

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 talk about in my course, The Church Growth Masterclass, 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.

Don't let the 10% of people who are opposed to change determine the future of the 90% who aren't. Click To Tweet

Want Some Help Leading Change?

Getting a stuck church growing or helping a church that’s reaching new people grow even further can seem daunting.

It doesn’t have to be.

Whether you’re a church that isn’t growing, has plateaued, or whether you wish your church was growing faster than it is, I’d love to help you break through. That’s why I created the Church Growth Masterclass.

The Church Growth Masterclass is everything I wish I knew about church growth when I got into ministry more than 20 years ago.

Naturally, I can’t make a church grow. You can’t make a church grow. Only God can do that.

But I believe you can position your church to grow.

You can knock down the barriers that keep you from growing. You can eliminate the things that keep your church from growing and implement some strategies that will help you reach far more people. That’s what I’d love to help you do in the Church Growth Masterclass.

In the Church Growth Masterclass I’ll show you:

  • The 10 reasons your church isn’t growing
  • Why even committed church-goers aren’t attending as often as before
  • How to tell if your church leaders are getting burned out
  • The 5 keys to your church better impacting millennials.
  • What to do when a church wants to grow … but not change
  • 5 essentials for church growth
  • 5 disruptive church trends to watch—and how to respond
  • How to increase church attendance by increasing engagement.

The Masterclass includes a complete set of videos that you can play with your team, board or staff, PDF workbooks that will help you tackle the issues you’re facing, and bonus materials that will help you navigate the most pressing issues facing churches that want to reach their cities today.

You can learn more and gain instant access to the course today.

What About You?

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?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

33 Comments

  1. Richard korts on July 21, 2019 at 7:54 pm

    Your comment about the telephone is appropriate. Other similar ones include a high level French General in 1923, “airplains are interesting toys, but of no military value” and the director of the US Patent office in 1899, “everything that can be invented, has been invented”.

    This last on “takes the cake”.

  2. Meg Nakano on July 21, 2019 at 9:53 am

    It’s possible that no one will read this, but I’ll have a go anyway. I’ve been the person accused of always being “negative”, and part of your point of “every time you raise a new approach, someone lists three reasons it won’t work.”
    I want to suggest reframing, whether perception, vocabulary, or just what gets put up on the whiteboard during the discussion.
    Any new approach will have aspects that need to be addressed before it can go forward.
    List those 3 reasons as 3 challenges to overcome. All that stands between the new approach succeeding is 3 new ways to overcome those aspects, and those aspects, if real, are problems that can be solved.
    Pray on it. Do the math. Talk to a wider range of people. Crowd-source online. It’s better than getting people mobilzed and THEN finding out some fatal oversight: if you do that a few times, people won’t mobilize for you.

  3. Maria Villari on June 5, 2019 at 10:07 am

    Currently, my church is VERY resistant to change. We have two services, one at 9:15 which is the more traditional service, fellowship hour at 10:15, Sunday School at 11 and Praise worsip at 11. Do you see the issue? We have Sunday School and the Praise Service at the same time. NO matter how many times I have suggested changing the time, advertising, etc. I get, we need more time to discuss it, it has been over 5 years. I am very active in this church and at one time had such a burning passion to serve for Christ has now faded. It is to the point where I go to church because I am obligated and I do not want to participate in any meetings anymore, etc. My pastor asked me to give the message on July 21st and I really want to use this opportunity to talk about how our church is stuck in the past but not sure how to do it. Thoughts? Anyone?

    • Sharon Stanbridge on June 5, 2019 at 7:37 pm

      My husband says that you need to remember that a church is a business. And therefore the use of time, space, and personnel ie. your pastor/vicor/head of the church/paid employees are on a particular time and roster. So therefore change will be very difficult.

      My suggestion….. Jesus said For where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there in the midst of them. So forget the institution and find out what it really means to be a follower of God. You don’t need the church with all its traditions and other non-christian junk thrown in. Believe me.. there’s a lot of junk in the church.

    • Meg Nakano on July 21, 2019 at 10:12 am

      Hi, Maria… I hope you were able to give a good message.. From what you say, is Sunday School a study session that includes adults? Could you do a pilot segment where you study Praise worship practices? (It’s an oldie, but Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline” has a chapter on Worship that could get you started on ideas for study, in addition to a ‘field trip’ to observe and participate..) Is the Sunday School for children, and the problem is the teachers can’t attend your Praise Worship service? Would you have a rotating duty roster where each of the teachers could attend half of the time? Could the older children have roles in the Praise service? Do the children have their own Praise Service in Sunday school? … Sometimes churches resist change because of some reason they aren’t able to explain, like they want a church service where they don’t have to think about children, so they put them into Sunday School, or the schedule conflict is being used to keep different factions away from each other.
      We had resistance to changing our service time from 10 am to 10:30.. but discovered the objections came from people who used the 30 min to get nearby parking spaces in the parking lot we share with another church whose service starts at 10:30. When we solved the parking problem perception, everyone liked the new starting time.

  4. Tricia Corman on June 18, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    Carey, thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m the new kid on the block as the communications director in a church that’s quadrupled in size since moving to a new building a few years ago. Helping to move the ministry teams into new, innovative ways to communicate has been a hair-raising experience. Getting everyone to start thinking like a “big church” has been challenging and you hit the nail on the head in this post. Thank you for all you do – and for reminding me that I’m not alone in the struggle.

  5. Tim Hendrix on June 16, 2018 at 12:30 pm

    We needed an upstairs bathroom for the nursery and for many of the elderly who couldn’t make it down the narrow steps to the basement bathroom. But there was one influential person who kept raising objections. It was incredibly frustrating to me. Once from the pulpit I proclaimed we are going to build that bathroom, and if you don’t like it you can either fire me or go to a church whose bathrooms you do like. Everybody laughed and saw the ridiculousness of this and we built the bathroom which then everybody raved about. Except for that influential person who kept his thoughts to himself.

  6. mark johnson on June 16, 2018 at 5:30 am

    From reading some of the comments, it’s easy to see why many churches don’t change. I love the last (which is usually the most important) point, that if your organization won’t change, YOU can change. Yes, everything ought to be driven by the Spirit, yes some trends don’t last, yes lifting up Jesus is the most important. But then again, some of those can easily be the “someone lists 3 reasons why it won’t work.” If we’re honest enough we’d all admit that nothing we do will ever be spiritual enough. But the most spiritual man to ever walk the face of the planet led with action and change. Jesus didn’t sit on a hillside asking the Spirit to change the world. He recruited and called able people to follow Him. He spoke Life and change into places that were dead and dry. And ultimately, when the world couldn’t change on its own, He gave Himself up as a sacrifice so that it could. Do you want to be a super spiritual leader? Then do that.

  7. Mike Routt on May 9, 2018 at 12:39 pm

    Thanks for your post, Carey! For me, one critical element for leading change is perseverance. From personal experience, I have tried to balance being tough-minded and tender-hearted (not always easy!). In 2002, I came to a church in statistical decline since 1982. In the past, the church was one of the leading churches in our denomination in the west. In 16 years of leading this church family to transition from the 20th to the 21st century, we have lost 40% of our active membership. BUT we have a very healthy 21st century DNA, are currently meeting in a transitional facility, and plan to re-locate to our 35 acre campus in one of the fastest growing areas in our state. The pain has been great. The loss has been substantial. But GOD has changed us and positioned us for an amazing future of ministry impact. The greatest change has occurred in my personal life – through the leadership mistakes I have made and the books I have read. Leading Change by John Kotter and Change or Die by Alan Deutschman were two game-changing books for me.

    • Simon Kaminwa on June 16, 2018 at 2:11 pm

      Change or die, this is amazing. I’m in a new set up church in Kenya, I really find this mind intriguing, and yes. I choose and accept the change, to be the change.!… Once I was involved in a team that was supposed to ride for 800 kms and almost aborted the mission,but I firmly stood and said,”I’ve invested quality and precious time and energy in this, if you all wish to withdraw, I’m signed in alone,yes I can why should I not? Needles to say, the journey kicked off almost immediately! I refused to be silenced! Change is me,change is now!

  8. JessieDavena on May 2, 2018 at 7:10 am

    The problem with my church is that they are desperate for change, but are going about it the wrong way.
    Jesus needs to be lifted up, and He will draw all people to Himself. My church is being inundated with a false gospel and are trying to get grants to become a community centre, to teach music, art etc, and an exercise that involves practices from other religions.
    Even a change of name has been pushed on us.
    It is a church known for helping people, yet it is still not growing.

    To him who is faithful, more shall be given.

  9. John Harris on March 6, 2018 at 2:00 pm

    If you’re going to have spies at my church, just tell me…

  10. […] Change can be hard in the church. (For example, here are 7 signs your church will never change). […]

  11. Reader on December 5, 2017 at 6:37 am

    When the Pastor has non Christian friends and a life outside his/her vocation, then sermons and innovation will better connect with everyone, and they will come naturally.
    I have yet to meet a lead Pastor who is genuinely living both within and beyond the Christian bubble. Even the best, most passionate, qualified. creative, integrity lfilled eaders struggle to genuinely engage in culture beyond what they read on line or in books….and as the spouse of same said leader I say this with a respectful tone, but as an urgent critique to myself and all
    Ministry leaders.
    Find a way to live the life you are encouraging your congreagationanto live! Do something with your schedule that puts you in places where connection and community are forged through shared experience so friendship with those unlike ourself can grow.

  12. Bob on November 10, 2017 at 3:28 pm

    Please permit me to be really spiritual. Trends that come on the scene may or may not be good for the church. I was a staff pastor in a fairly large church. A trend came along for cell groups. The pastor was caught up so much that after checking out the success in other churches decided to proceed with the switch. This church was established as a program base church and the change eventually did not work as projected. Now for the spiritual part make NO changes without the direction of the Holy Spirit. Where God guides He provides. I can speak by experience. I was in the midst of the change and it did not work. Pray, pray,pray. I have check their website and the number of groups are about the same when I was a pastor for around 12 groups.

  13. MJFerg on September 9, 2017 at 11:56 am

    One thing that might help with change is linking it to the past. As in , This church has always been a frontrunner in ……. and in order for this to still be our future then we need to move in …. direction or risk losing our …….Often we want to build on our past of great outreach, education, and worship but we forget that means to let go, adapt and grow. We hang on to things of the past when we merely need to hang on to the passion and values we want to keep.

  14. […] Instead, church leaders will talk about how hard it is to change and how slow the pace of change is. Other they bemoan the reality that their church will never change (here are 7 signs that’s likely the case at your church). […]

  15. Links of the Week (12-19-15) - Rookie Preacher on December 19, 2015 at 5:05 am

    […] 7 Signs Your Church Will Never Change – by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  16. […] 7 Signs Your Church Will Never Change by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  17. Bill Cripe on December 17, 2015 at 10:47 am

    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…

  18. Todd Miechiels on December 16, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    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.

    Peace
    Todd

  19. How Ya Livin’? | Church World Leadership on December 16, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    […] Carey Nieuwhof’s 7 Signs […]

  20. Danielle Chaffee Krivda on December 16, 2015 at 10:20 am

    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!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 16, 2015 at 11:46 am

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

  21. Don W on December 15, 2015 at 3:31 pm

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

  22. Zachary Verbracken on December 15, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    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.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 15, 2015 at 2:34 pm

      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. 🙂

  23. Rob Sellitto on December 15, 2015 at 11:21 am

    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.

  24. stjones911 on December 14, 2015 at 7:35 pm

    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?

  25. Peter Steigerwald on December 14, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    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.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 14, 2015 at 7:02 pm

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

    • aPEON on January 16, 2016 at 2:38 am

      “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’.

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