By Randy Sawyer

Pastor Joe is excited about his new assignment. This is it, the opportunity he’s been praying for since he left Bible college. The church building is well situated on a prominent thoroughfare. The structure itself is adequate to attract new families. The surrounding neighborhood is bursting with new construction, and the growth potential for the church has never been better. Best of all, the congregation is debt-free, with money on reserve to finance the new pastor’s vision. In fact, he was hired to position the church for ministry in the 21st century. Everybody said so.

For the first several months Joe and his new church family enjoy a wonderful working relationship. The “pastoral honeymoon” has added an air of excitement that results in the addition of several new families. Everything progresses smoothly, and everyone seems thrilled with the direction the ministry is taking—new people, new programs, new life.

Well, almost everyone. Gradually, an undercurrent develops among a few core families. Things are changing too quickly and without their permission. The services don’t have the feel of a family reunion anymore, too many unidentified individuals sitting in their pew spaces. And the standard way of doing things is no longer the way things are done.

The worship event is barely recognizable. Worship choruses replaced traditional hymns. A multimedia presentation replaced the church hymnal. Expository Bible teaching replaced the red hot preaching they all knew as children. “Liberal, that’s what it is,” becomes the mantra of the disenfranchised core group.  Before long, their discomfort with change swells into outward, vocal opposition.

Accusations and threats result, leaving the unsuspecting minister dazed and disillusioned. He quietly, painfully resigns and moves on to the next “great ministry opportunity,” while the former church gets back to business as usual.

Neither the minister nor the congregation is able to survive the pain of change. The pastor focuses on tomorrow, failing to understand today’s connection with the past, while the church longs for yesterday, refusing to consider how effective changes in today’s ministry set the stage for future opportunities.

Stagnation

The church mentioned above (along with 85% of America’s Protestant churches) has plateaued at best and is possibly stagnant. “Stagnation” is not a nice sounding word. It denotes that which is apathetic, infertile, immobile and unhealthy. No one wants to be considered “stagnant,” especially a local church. However, statistics show that a significant number are.

The symptoms of ministry stagnation are easily identifiable. They include:

  • Nostalgia—living on past successes while relying on yesterday’s methods.
  • Program Focus—constantly searching for the program that will revive the work.
  • Personality Dependence—allowing a dominant few to control the direction and atmosphere of the ministry.
  • Resource Deprivation—complaining about the lack of financial or human resources.
  • Statistical Decline—measurable decline in every area of the work.
  • Maintenance Mentality—patching things together.
  • Excuse Orientation—explaining every defeat with a well articulated excuse.

Stages

Every living organism tends towards atrophy. The local church, therefore, is not immune to this inevitable deterioration. Most agree that local churches go through life cycles of 15-20 years, with decline beginning somewhere around the 18th year. The stages are as follows:

Stage # 1 Mission—The Church-Planting Years

Stage # 2 Movement—The Church-Growth Years

Stage # 3 Maintenance—The Church-Ministry Years

Stage # 4 Decline—The Church-Stagnation Years

In order to avoid stagnation, a church must be renewed in each successive generation (every 20 years) or every time there are significant changes in the community of ministry (demographic shifts). The renewal calls not only for spiritual revival, but also for methodology revision. Almost everyone is prejudiced against change to some degree. So how can a pastor and congregation survive the pain of change?

Survival

Surviving the pain of change requires that the changes be made purposefully. The objective should not be change for change sake, nor change for numerical increase. Sadly, some church leaders in today’s multi-cultural society have sold out the Word of God for statistical growth.

Equally tragic is the number of churches that have given away their distinctives in appealing for larger numbers. The purpose for introducing changes must not be growth, but vitality and health. A healthy church is a vital church, and a vital church will be a growing church.

A stagnant church is diseased, and in need of a biblical fitness plan. This includes spiritual nourishment (the Word of God), spiritual exercise (the ministry for God), and spiritual rest (the worship of God).

Surviving the pain of change requires that changes be made appropriately. Changes must always be in keeping with the church’s core values. The core values of any organization are those beliefs that give it a reason for existence in the first place. In the case of the local church, core values are the theological precepts and traditional practices that have served as foundational.

To yield ground on any of the fundamentals of our faith is to downgrade the church to social club status. To give up certain meaningful traditions is to sever a church from its heritage. In finality, we might end up with a crowd, but not necessarily a church.

Surviving the pain of change requires that the changes be made accordingly. Timing is everything, especially when it comes to altering long-held traditions. Too many changes too quickly made always end in mutiny. The wise leader will focus on only one or two significant changes at a time, allowing followers to adjust to the newness while retaining a sense of belonging. In a word, to avoid mutiny, provide continuity.

Surviving the pain of change requires that changes be made corporately. Obviously, not everyone will get on board when changes are suggested. Everyone likes what he or she likes. No one really wants a blended anything, because no one likes a little of what they like.

Cloning has actually been around for a long time in the church. However, if a man is where God wants him to be and if a man is what God wants him to be, then God won’t leave him without fellow laborers for the work. God doesn’t set anyone up for failure. By confiding in key leaders, a pastor can save himself and his family headache and heartache, and keep the ministry on track.

Surviving the pain of change requires that changes be made prayerfully. “Praying in the will of God” will keep us from getting ahead of the congregation, or behind the Lord.

A final word: Good people need time to adjust; good people sometimes say things they later regret. Therefore, changes must also be made compassionately. Try to see things from the perspective of those who have been there a lot longer than you.

After several years as a member of my flock, and after having survived the numerous changes inflicted upon the congregation thus far, a lady said to me, “Brother Randy, when you first came here I didn’t like you. I didn’t want any of the changes you proposed. But now I know you were right and I love you for it.” I’m pretty sure I haven’t always been right, but given time almost anyone can survive the pain of change.

About the Writer: Randy Sawyer is a veteran pastor from North Carolina.