Change is vital but often time-consuming

“Change” said John F. Kennedy, “is the law of life. And those who look to the past or present are certain to miss the future”. What is true of life in general, is true too of churches. As has often been said, the seven last words of a dying church are: “We have never done it this way”.

Bob Jackson in his recent book What makes churches grow? (Church House Publishing 2015) declares: “Churches making changes grow and those that don’t shrink”. He draws attention to a 2013 survey of Anglican churches in south-west Wales: of the 92 churches who had made no change, attendance was down by 9%; of the 67 churches had had made at least one change, attendance was up 16%. Even more significant was the impact of change upon children: where there was no change, there was a 20% loss of children; where change took place, there was a 60% increase in children. In such circumstances how dare a church resist change? My mind goes to the words of Jesus: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18.6).

Churches need to change – but successful change does not normally take place overnight. Bob Jackson quotes words attributed to Mark Twain: “Habit is habit and not to be thrown out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs one step at a time”. The fact is that churches are a lot like horses: they don’t like to be startled or surprised – for it causes deviant behavior. 

The wise leader needs to recognize that change in church life needs time and patience. In the words of the late Michael Saward: “Generals can act like God; pastors have to act like God incarnate. Creation takes more than six days for them”. Change often needs months of careful preparation and persuasion. Good ideas can often be wrecked and churches split if a pastor forces a church to take a decision before it is truly ready to take that decision. 

Over the years I have been greatly helped by the insights of Everett Rogers and Floyd Shoemaker with regard to the acceptance of change. In their book Communication of Innovations (Free Press, 2nd edition 1971) they showed that there are various rates of adoption and various categories of adopters. Adapted to a church context, we can say:  

  1. Some 2.5% of the church are ‘Innovators’, who are enthusiastic about change and promote its introduction to others.
  2. A further 13.5% are ‘Early Adopters’, who are quick to accept the change, and are then happy to promote its introduction.
  3. A further 34% form the ‘Early Majority’. Many initially had reservations, but have now been persuaded and now persuade others.
  4. A further 34%, the ‘Late Majority’, were initially resistant to the change, but have been gradually won over.
  5. The final 16% are the ‘Laggards’ who now accept the change grudgingly. The dissidents remain in this group even after the change has become tradition!

Obviously there is a good deal of generalisation here. Furthermore, the composition of these groups may vary according to the type of change being considered. And yet it is important for leaders to deal with the underlying dynamics relating to the process of change. If a church is not to be split unnecessarily leaders need to ensure that decisions are not taken at church meeting until the “Late Majority” has come on board. This does not guarantee unanimity – there will always be some die-hard “Laggards“. However, without the “Late Majority” a church risks literally being split in two.

Bringing about change involves a process. Yes, there does come a stage when a decision needs to be taken – and sadly there will always be a few people who will never welcome the change being proposed. There is a difference between consensus and unanimity. There are times when for the sake of the church’s future, dissidents have to leave – but it is never good when half the church leaves! Wise leadership is both tough – and patient. 

For a church to grow change is never an option – but where radical change is on the agenda, care needs to be taken in the process of that change.

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