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How to Know When Your Church is Ready to Transform – Part 1

The statistics are overwhelming. Avoid them if you can.

Recently, I was in an event where a person from the national office of a mainline denomination was telling their recent story.

The decline in number of churches and in-church membership during the last 10 years was striking.

What’s disturbing is that we could replace the name of this denomination with almost any other.

Regardless of polity, theology and culture, nearly every Christian denomination is bleeding membership.

I’m coaching several pastors who are trying to cultivate openness to mission-congruent change in those churches. They are running into the same story.

“We want newcomers here, but don’t ask us to change anything about how we do church.”

It’s the old definition of crazy: Doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

Certainly, pastors and denominational bodies themselves are part of the problem; no one who participates is exempt from responsibility. Assigning blame, thinking that’s a strategy, is misguided.

Sometimes angst and demise of church-as-we-have-known-it grows overwhelming.

But that’s not the end of the story. Though a real and disturbing chapter, that’s only one chapter in this ongoing story.

So, where to from here?

Let’s call in the experts, find the right program, spiff up the church campus, and get new leadership, then we will be fine – so say some.

Being fine, as it were, is actually not our goal. Becoming robust faith communities, gathered around the risen Lord, making disciples who partner with God to transform the world, this is the goal.

It’s not about our comfort, preferences, traditionalism or nostalgia. It’s about living the good news of the gospel in real time and place. So, let’s get on with it.

Many disciples of Jesus are ready. Disciples in churches, pastors, denominational leaders – so many are hungry for an invigorated church experience, longing to be fruitful, growing environments where the harvest is plentiful.

Naturally the question of “How?” comes next.

The vast majority of churches need some level of transformation to live effectively into our present and future.

In my work at Pinnacle Leadership Associates, I regularly engage this discussion, debating what’s needed for a church to transform.

Our collaborative work has led us to five necessary components for effective transformation processes, which form the basis of our Transforming Church Initiatives.

If your church is ready to engage transformation, look for these five signature components in whatever process you engage:

  1. Raised awareness about large-scale societal and cultural changes.

Without this, people in churches believe what we are doing is good enough. They tend to believe persevering with their church as it is, with attention to higher quality, will eventually attract newcomers.

With raised awareness about the realities of our culture, people in churches grow willing to let go of outdated paradigms, recognizing and embracing the need for transformation.

  1. Collective commitment to church-as-it-is-becoming (transformation).

Ever tried to lead a movement on your own? John Kotter, a business guru, is famous for saying that “until three-fourths of your leadership cadre is convinced that business as usual is unacceptable, your change effort will not succeed.”

I agree. Churches need an overt, clear agreement, a covenant if you will, for transformation.

With this, pastors, church staff, lay leaders and congregational participants are able to make sense of the transformational moves of one another. Without collective commitment, expectations of one another go awry.

  1. Clear mission-congruent transformation process.

Visioning can help, as can strategic planning. At the same time, these are typically not transformational in themselves.

When we embrace a clearly articulated transformation process, we are creating an effective holding environment for containing our discomfort with change. A clear process calms our fears while focusing our efforts toward fruitfulness.

  1. Joining a community of practice.

How do we sustain a transformation process? There are multiple answers, yet one is joining a community of practice.

Forming a group of churches who are working the same process pays huge dividends for each church involved.

The benefits are obvious: support, encouragement, accountability, cross-pollination, best practice sharing, mistakes to avoid and so on.

  1. Effective transformation process leadership.

The pastor or pastors must be on board, along with the majority of lay leadership. Some pastors, along with skilled lay leaders, can lead the process themselves.

The majority prefer to participate in a change process with leadership from outside their church, freeing them to lead actively within the process itself.

Remember Jesus teaching disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?

God’s calling for the church is to participate in God’s mission to bring the kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. Our purpose is to make disciples who partner with God toward transforming planet earth.

We want to be faithful to this mission while also relevant enough to our culture that people can discover God through our churches. May we live into church-as-it-is-becoming with courage, hope and great joy.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here. A version of this article first appeared on Pinnacle Leadership Associates’ blog. It is used with permission.

Mark Tidsworth

Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates.