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Change is inevitable. Equally inevitable is the difficulty that is faced by anyone seeking to effect change. Leading change in the life of a church is no different; it is difficult. The question is why. Why is it so difficult to lead change in a church?

After all, if we are all trying to make disciples of those who are far from God, it should follow that we would be willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal. Even if whatever it takes includes barbequing a few of our most sacred cows. It should, but often it does not.

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes once said that a “cord of three strands is not easily broken” (Eccl 4:12). While it is not likely that the Preacher had leading change in mind, there is an application for leadership that can be made. That application helps us to get a handle on why bringing change in the church can be so challenging.

There are three strands that get woven together in the lives of many believers that cause us to be resistant to change in our church world. Those three strands are one’s relationship with Christ, the way in which we worship, and the facility in which we worship. It seems that when these three strands get woven together, they are not easily broken, and they are highly resistant to change.

The first strand is a person’s relationship with Christ. More accurately, it is how one perceives his or her relationship with Christ. Although the Reformation blessed us with the doctrine of salvation through faith alone, for many people, their relationship with Christ is subconsciously tied to something outside of trusting in Christ’s finished work.

For example, some people tie their denominational commitment to their relationship with Christ. When I was a teen I recall hearing a pastor’s wife asked, “Are you a Christian first or a Baptist first?” Her response is etched in my memory: “Well, a Baptist, of course.” For her, she had connected something external (her denomination) to her relationship with Christ. If you asked her if she were saved by “faith alone,” she would have said, “Yes.” Yet, she could not perceive of being a Christian and not being a Baptist.

That is vitally important to remember for those wanting to lead change in churches that have significant denominational loyalty. While each situation will be unique, be alert for the external commitments that are perceived as essential to one’s relationship with Christ.  

The second strand is the way in which a person worships. For years we have heard about the “worship wars” that raged in many churches. The labels could make one’s head spin: traditional worship, modern worship, postmodern worship, emergent worship, contemporary worship, liturgical worship, and on and on it goes.

These battles were often reduced to simplistic ideas such as hymns vs. praise songs or, worse, were marked by hurtful generalizations such as “they just don’t understand worship” or “they are trying to destroy our church.” Here again, the issue is that people often tie together the manner in which they worship with their relationship with Christ. Practically, that means that when someone (usually a young pastor or worship leader) suggests that we add guitars to the organ and piano, it is heard as an attack on the faith of those who love organ- and piano-led worship.

Of course, this goes both ways. Those who have grown up with more modern worship music can, unfortunately, be quite condescending and dismissive to those who love the old hymns of the faith. If you are leading change in a church, be mindful that making changes to our worship style has implications far beyond the songs that are sung by the congregation.

The third strand is the facility in which a person worships. There are many old jokes about churches that split over the color of carpet or on which side of the church the organ should be placed. The sad thing is that they are not jokes. The sentimental connection between our trust in Christ and the physical paraphernalia of worship is often very strong. People can get very protective about the building in which they worship. It really is astounding how often we can connect our faith in Christ to bricks, mortar, sheetrock and paint. Ooops, I almost forgot the carpet and instruments!

When attempting to lead change in the church, it is vital to keep these three strands in mind. For many people, it is this bundle of three strands that defines their faith. So, when leaders begin to tug at one of these strings, it can feel—to the person being asked to change—that the leader is tugging at the very fabric of their faith. While there are no easy answers or strategies that will fit every situation, it is important for church leaders to be mindful of how these three strands interact.

Sometimes simply knowing why people are reacting the way they are helps equip those responding to such criticisms. It is also a good opportunity to reinforce the truth of the gospel, that we are saved by grace through faith alone, and not of ourselves—or our denomination, or worship style, or facility—but it is the gift of God, so that no one can boast (Eph 2:8-9).

Rob Pochek is senior pastor at Raleigh Road Baptist Church in Wilson, N.C. He also is the author of the "Faith, Family, and Freedom" blog. You can follow him on twitter: @pastorrob7

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Roger Steinbrueck

commented on Jan 28, 2014

Three strands that bind... that is a helpful tool in looking at resistance to change. I suggest three alternatives that seem a stronger tie that binds -- family, memories, and buildings. I sense that people cling to these as an anchor in the rushing tide of time and change. They feel afraid they will be lost in the flood. I understand feeling overwhelmed and the need for stability. The problem is, when the rock on which the assembly is built... when its anchor against the storm is not Christ, it will fail. When the only hope is family, memories, and building, there is no hope, only despair. Ours is to proclaim the one hope that is eternal -- our Lord Jesus Christ.

Rob Pochek

commented on Jan 28, 2014

Very true. And, your three may be better than mine! Iron sharpens iron. ;-). I would add that, in a culture in which "everything" seems to change, the world of the church is the place where many decide to "make their stand." They cannot fight city hall. They cannot fight their bank selling their mortgage. They cannot stop their favorite restaurant or store from closing. But, in an institution that is congregational-led (if that is your church's polity), the church is the one place that a stand can be made. Good insight Roger. Blessings.

Chris Surber

commented on Jan 28, 2014

Chiefly because we are in the unique situation in this country of meeting change as desperately as we are so strongly reluctant to it. We want growth without change we want depth without life transformation we want God in ways opposed to the radical Jesus following that we find in the scripture. These are Parelist times for church leaders we need the Holy Spirit Power in these days as in all days.

Rob Pochek

commented on Jan 28, 2014

Absolutely and well said.

Troy Heald

commented on Jan 28, 2014

Amazing article and very helpful. Being one who is coming into a church that is facing some changes that they know need to occur to become effective in the place where God has placed. Thank you.

Rob Pochek

commented on Jan 28, 2014

Thanks Troy. Best wishes. Happy to help you any way I can.

Timothy Smith

commented on Jan 28, 2014

This article is enlightening and one to which i can relate as when i became the pastor of the church in which i grew up, the older folks were a little upset because we started having communion in the mornings and as a result even a minister stayed away. traditionally it was done in the night and they took it for gospel.

Rob Pochek

commented on Jan 28, 2014

Thanks Timothy. The "tradition" seems to present itself most often in anything related to the worship service. In one church I served we moved the offering from the middle of the service to the end. It took some doing to convince a deacon (or two) that there was not an "order of worship" in the Bible. ;-). Keep up the good work.

Jeff Strite

commented on Jan 28, 2014

At our medium sized congregation (about 150 in attendance) we've dealt with change by having a strong Eldership that works in tandem with me and sees growth as its main purpose. When the occasional person becomes disgruntled, the Eldership sits down with them and they talk it through. Change takes place, but the congregation is seen as a partner in the process. Music is a similar issue. Our 2nd service worship leader introduces many new songs... but those songs are introduced only once a month a most and are repeatedly used over the next few months so that the congregation becomes acquainted with them and eventually sees them as part of their worship experience. Old hymns are also used, but less than half the time in the 2nd service (but always used in the 1st service)

Rob Pochek

commented on Jan 28, 2014

Hey Jeff! It sounds like you are leading well through change. You are exactly right that the congregation must see themselves as partners in the process. No doubt about it. Keep up the good work.

Jillian Brown

commented on Jan 29, 2014

2 things stood out for me. 1. The music- I grew up with the traditional hymns and will always love them, however, I have long ago accepted those are by and large gone from the church of today. I am ok with that except for the fact there hasn't been a song in the last 15 years that has a message strong enough that I find myself singing it outside of church in times when I need encouragement etc. The hymns had a message that never changed. The message is lost in the noise of todays music most of the time for me. Why do we need power point? Mostly because the message isn't in the heart. Will I leave a church because of the music? No. Do I miss the message, Yes. 2. Family ties. Family ties are not nearly as relevant anymore because family as we usually knew it years ago doesn't even exist. Many attendees come from broken homes, homes where step-parent's and step-children are the norm, homes where faith has not been passed down in the family through generations. Church attendance was not optional back in the days I was a youth. Now it is 1 of 15 options for most things youth are involved in, and often times not even on the table for parent's, much less the youth. Bottom line for me is all change must include the core truth of how much we need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and teaching/discipling through the Word of God. all else is secondary. 50 years from now much of what we see church as today will not be in place. The Word of God will stand forever. Are we the church giving people the Word? Maybe it is because I am a teacher, but that is the standard I want to be judged by.

Rob Pochek

commented on Jan 29, 2014

Thanks for commenting Jillian.

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