Why Change Isn’t The Same as Transformation (And What To Do About It As a Leader)

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So you’ve introduced some change in your church or organization.

But you’re a bit baffled.

Why is there still opposition?

How come more people aren’t bought in?

Why do I think people would go back to the old way if given the chance?

This is a common problem for almost every leader.  You dream about change…about a transformed community.

And you’ve actually introduced change.

So why isn’t it ‘working’ at the deepest level?


Because there’s a big difference between change and transformation.

Once you understand the difference—and 3 principles designed to bring about true transformation—you finally have a shot of seeing the deep change you’ve been hoping to see.

Here’s how it works.

The Difference Between Change and Transformation

As I shared in this post outlining 5 things that won’t make your church grow (despite what you think), change is always the first step toward transformation, but change alone is not transformation.

Here’s why.

Change initially modifies behaviour.

You can change the music, change the dress code, change an approach or change a direction. But change always starts as a new set of behaviours.

For example, if you change your diet to get rid of carbs and sugar, you might start by giving up your old breakfast cereal and making an omelette or mixing up a protein shake. But because it’s behaviour based, you might find yourself longing for your box of cereal. You might even grab the cereal out of habit before realizing what you’ve done, only to put it back in the cupboard (reluctantly).

Transformation modifies values and desires. 

Again, using diet as an example, transformation happens when you no longer want cereal. In fact, you now crave protein. And even on those days when cereal is being served, your heart and your head lead you to go out of the way to make a different choice.

Change modifies behaviours. Transformation modifies values and desires. Click To Tweet

The Litmus Test of Transformation

So how do you know when transformation occurs?

When you no longer want do what you used to do, behave how you use to behave or have what you used to have.

Then you are transformed. No sooner.

The change has been deep enough, long enough and effective enough to change your values and desires.

To use the biblical metaphor, you know transformation has happened when the people no longer want to go back to Egypt. (It’s amazing, isn’t it, how a whole people just set free from slavery wanted to go back even though they were free? They missed the watermelons, cucumbers and even leeks of the old land…and would rather have died slaves than lived free.)

Far too many people in the church today want to go back to Egypt.

Far too many people in the church today want to go back to Egypt. Click To Tweet

That means that change isn’t complete and transformation hasn’t happened.

Transformation happens when your desire to live your new life replaces your desire to live your old life.

Your values have shifted. Your desires have shifted. And you’ve been made new.

3 Ways to Broker Real Transformation

So how do you bring about transformation?

There are three practices I’ve seen to be effective in our context and in many others. Too many leaders stop short of them.

1. Keep going

Almost everyone starts change. Too few finish it.

As soon as opposition arises, leaders get cold feet and compromise. Or they complete round 1 but fail to go to round 2, 3 or 4.

As a result, nobody’s happy, including the leader. The people who desire change haven’t had enough, and the people who don’t want it have had too much.

Seriously, if you have a better vision for a better future, why stop? Keep going.

Don’t let fear do you in.

If you want more, I wrote an entire book on how to handle opposition to change. You can get the kindle version here or order hard copies for you or your team here.

2. Complete the last 10%

Yes I know this sounds like what we just talked about above.

But seriously, complete the change. Finish it.

You will be tempted to leave the last 10% because it’s just too hard.  Don’t. Finish it.

3. Continually explain the why behind the what

If you only focus on what and how, you will always have division.

What you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it are important.

But they are always divisive. Every time you say what, some people will respond with ‘so what’ or propose another ‘what’. Ditto with how. People will always have a different way.

Naturally, you should listen (there may be a better way). But if you expect the day will come where you will unveil a vision and get universal buy in, you will wait forever.

So astute leaders always pepper their conversations and talks with the why behind the what.

What and how divide. But why unites.

Why reminds us why we’re in this in the first place: to reach new people, to create a church our kids and grandkids want to attend. To reach our neigbours. Because we love Jesus.

Leaders who continually explain the why behind the what are much more effective at leading change.

When you remember the why, you change more deeply too. You feel better when you eat well. You like the scale better when you eat well.

Why motivates what (and how).

So…Exactly How Long Does Transformation Take?

Committed, determined, patient leaders are leaders who see the deepest transformation take place.

Change can happen in months or in a year. But transformation—that moment when people no longer want it the way it was—takes time.

How long?

Well, in a church or organizational culture, the change can take years.

Using the definition of transformation as that season when people no longer want things to go back to the way they were:

You might see small changes like a move to two services or adding new team members bring about transformation in 1-2 years, maybe sooner.

Medium scale changes (like a new approach to family ministry or groups) might usher in transformation within 2-3 years.

Wholesale change (like shifting a church from an insider focus to an outsider focus, a major change in music or preaching or the use of technology) might take 5-7 years to usher in true transformation.

But the wait and determined work is worth it. There’s no substitute for seeing a people who no longer want to be the way they were.

It’s so rewarding to hear people say things like:

  • Do you remember when we used to?…(and then they laugh)
  • I can’t imagine being any other way…
  • I’m so thankful we changed…
  • I love seeing what’s happening…I’m so thankful we took the plunge and just did it.

As someone who has helped lead a ton of change over almost two decades, I can tell you how amazing it is to see a group of people transformed. There are few things as rewarding in leadership.

Lead With Confidence and Clarity. Grow Your Church.

As leaders, we tend to see the challenges and roadblocks before other people do.

We've all been there before...

  • You need to refresh your vision for the future but know that change will be an issue for that person.
  • You're overstaffed (or missing a key role) and can't find the right person to fill the role.
  • You aren't reaching enough new people even though you've tried everything that's working for other churches.
  • You can see the issue but aren't confident in what to do about it.

And with another Sunday morning coming up, it'll just have to wait until next week when you have a few minutes to figure it out.

Now ask yourself this:

What would it feel like to have those answers at your fingertips 24/7?

Whether it's reaching new people, improving your preaching, increasing volunteers, refreshing your vision, engaging your staff, or any of the countless challenges we face as church leaders, The Art of Leadership Academy will equip you to lead your church with confidence and clarity.

Between comprehensive church leadership courses, live coaching calls, staff and volunteer training resources, and direct access to an online community of senior-level church leaders, you'll get the exact insights and answers that fuel your church for growth.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.