Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

April 17, 2005


How to change your church without killing it


          Last Wednesday our church hosted a conference on the theme, “How to Change Your Church without Killing It.” Some 200 people attended, including about 60 pastors.

          It was one of those fast-paced 9 to 5 days with a chicken sandwich for lunch. Gene Appel spoke convincingly out of his personal experience and research. Now a pastor on staff at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, Appel shared what he learned while “changing” a 400-member church to one that now packs in 8,000 on Sundays.

          Appel is an impressive young man with a good sense of humor and a warm heart. His squeaky voice gets your attention immediately. He likened it to that of Barney Fife, allowed us to laugh about it, and moved on. A smart move by a man who is comfortable with himself.

          The more he spoke, the more I felt willing to listen. He was not a hotshot expert talking down to us. His spirit was disarming. His willingness to be vulnerable helped us all, especially the pastors, identify with him. When he listed common mistakes pastors make in trying to change churches, he admitted that he had made them all.

          None of us had to be convinced that change is necessary. You would have to be blind not to realize the need for churches to change the way they are doing business. Startling it is to realize that 2700 churches in North America closed their doors last year, never to open again.

          Twenty years ago Ken Callahan made me aware of the absolute necessity of changing the way churches operate. His words linger in my memory: “A church that continues to do what it has always done will soon be out of business.” My own experience confirmed the truth of his warning.

          However, realizing the need for change is one thing; actually changing a church is quite another. People resist change. We glamorize the past and want things to stay the way they have always been. Most of the church “fights” of my own ministry had to do with resistance to change.

          Like most pastors I learned the hard way, in the school of hard knocks. Pastors are poorly trained, if at all, in the skills of change. As a result, more than a few pastors have killed churches trying to change them.

          Appel insists that change is a gradual process; it should never be forced upon people. He cited more than one example of “crash and burn” situations where churches were destroyed by overly zealous and foolish leaders.

          Even gradual change can produce conflict, confusion, and crisis in a church. That is why “Key Influencers” must be identified and encouraged to champion the desired changes. The process of healthy change may require several years of patient yet persistent work.

          One important ingredient in the process is that people need to understand “why” change is needed. So it is crucial that the “problem” be explained clearly. People should have the opportunity to “see” the problem before they can be expected to embrace the change.

          Appel offered a good formula that church leaders can use to assess their church’s readiness for change, and the pace at which it might be implemented. His plan is sound, reasonable, and tested. Teams from several churches felt comfortable applying the formula to changes they are pondering.

          I am an old man but I see the need for constantly changing, not the gospel but the methods we use in proclaiming the gospel. Appel compared the gospel to the picture in a frame. The picture remains the same but the frame may be changed, updated, and improved.

          Church music is the focus of much change, and sometimes conflict in our time. The wag who said the music department is the war department in the church expressed a truth many of us can affirm. In recent years the use of scriptural choruses has emerged, displacing many of the “good old gospel songs.”

          Years ago churches that had a piano lived for the day when they could buy and use an organ. Organ music was the instrument of choice. That day, like it or not, is gone. The organ is being displaced by praise bands that may use a keyboard and a dozen other instruments. Visual imagery is also popular now, making church much more appealing to younger people. The music is somewhat reflective of our culture’s “pop” music. To many older people, such music is simply loud, fast, and difficult to understand. Yet the young people love it.

           My present church has 900 people in worship on Sunday and there is no organ on the property. There are two popular services featuring contemporary music provided by the praise band.  The service with the least attendance, at 11:00 o’clock, uses a piano and two or three brass instruments; we call it a “blended” service since it retains a few features that were popular in “traditional” worship.

          Change is inevitable. The challenge is to implement it so that the church is improved, not killed. To fail to change is suicide, so those who prefer to drop anchor and hold on to the past are in fact helping to kill what they claim to love. If change can make the church more effective, let us weigh anchor and bring it on!  + + + +