How to Introduce Sustainable Change Into a Traditional Rural Church
(In a previous post, we discussed the first steps of How to Introduce Sustainable Change into a Traditional Rural Church. After we have earned the trust of our people, instilled in them a sense of our present and active God, discerned that a proposed change is truly of God and not our mere preference, reflected upon whom would be affected by the change, talked with a wise friend outside the congregation, and thought about how to narrate the change, what comes next?)
7. Seventh, we talk face-to-face, informally, and individually with potential “early adopters.”
We will know who in the congregation might be most agreeable to change that is needed. In conversation with them, we should bring up the possible change, and try to get an early impression or reaction to it from them. All of these conversations should be prayed for in advance. If they respond in any way positively, we should talk further with them at a deeper and more serious level. We narrate the change theologically, in coherence with the church’s tradition, and in explanation of the good that it will bring. We will eventually talk to several of these people, and attempt to establish a potential core group who will look positively on the change: all change always involves a "leading edge" of early pioneers. Allow these pioneers to take some ownership of the change, so that this is no longer “the pastor’s idea.” We should be open to incorporating the core group’s suggested changes or amendments to the change. At this point in the process, we are trying to talk the change through at the less-threatening “gossip” level of conversation, so that it can begin to inhabit the imaginations of people.
8. Eighth, we can try to “float” the change, or something like it, in a sermon or Bible Study lecture, just to plant it in other imaginations.
In a sermon, we can say, “God has me wondering, what if we . . .”. We suggest something to plant it in imaginations. Change is always an act of the imagination first. Notice whose eyes light up, or who nods in response to what you have shared. Talk about this further with them.
9. Ninth, after having talked the possible change through informally with a potential core-group, and after having floated a trial balloon in a sermon or Bible Study, we seek to talk with those who have power in the decision-making structures of the church.
By this stage, we can talk directly with individuals who will have a say in deciding about the change. These conversations should be prayed for in advance. Some will already know by now that you have mentioned the change to a few people. We can tell them why the change is important theologically, for the church, and for its members. We can share with them that there are others who feel the same way. We an answer their questions and respond to their worries. We invite them to help us to think through what is the best way for the change to happen, and involve them in the process. In these ways, the change is well talked-through in informal channels long before it is formally discussed. As we do so, we are mindful that those with authority in the church are not always the chairs of committees.
10. Tenth, After we have talked the change through with enough people, allowed it to inhabit their imaginations for a time, and spoken with some of the people in positions of authority to get their input, we will hopefully have developed enough of a consensus to talk openly about the possible change, and to put it on the agenda of a decision-making meeting.
It is important here to be transparent, honest, and to overcommunicate about the proposed change, what it might mean, and how it may impact the church: as well as when it will be discussed at a meeting. Everyone should know exactly what is going on. The point is to be straightforward, so that people do not feel the change is being ram-rodded through or passed in secret.
11. Expect and accept criticism without fear.
Listen to it, let the critics be heard, but do not take it personally. Do not be afraid of criticism or conflict: receive it, listen to it, and, if necessary, let go any angry reactions you might have to it through prayer. Talk to the colleague whose advice you have sought earlier. Do not overestimate the size or power of the dissenters. Focus on the “yeses,” while showing great respect and attention to those who might disagree. Perhaps even invite them along in the discussion, giving them some ownership in the process.
12. At the decision-making meeting, be prepared to give your best presentation of the change and how it will be undertaken.
Pray for this meeting. Again, justify the change theologically, from the tradition of the church, and from the perspective of how it will benefit the church and the membership, as well as perhaps others. Share the five P's: the Purpose, Picture, Plan, Past, and Part to Play. Show that you have humbly heard the critics’ perspectives by charitably articulating them, but gently respond to each concern. Be honest and transparent about the challenges of the change. Try to have anticipated any and all questions that may be asked.
13. Consider introducing change gradually, or on a trial-basis. Patience is a virtue.
People are often more open to change if they know it is made on a provisional basis, if it is slowly introduced, or if it has been talked about for a long time before-hand. One reason people oppose change in the rural church is that it has been their experience that if a change is introduced, it will be here to stay forever: so what if the change does not go well? It is thus good to be clear that any change will be re-evaluated for its effectiveness to the initial vision. It is also good to introduce that change slowly.
One rural church had a core group who discerned that the church needed a projector and screen in worship. The core group talked the proposed change over several months before bringing the issue to the Board. They articulated clearly how the screen would help them connect a younger generation to God in worship, and how it might help some of the elderly to see the words of hymns more clearly. When the board approved the proposal, and after the projector and screen arrived, it was left in the open on display in the pastors’ office for several weeks. Afterwards, it sat for several more weeks at the back of the sanctuary. People became more comfortable with the screen’s physical presence. When the screen was installed, it was not even used at first, in order to give people time to get acquainted to seeing it. On the first Sunday it was used, it was used only for one hymn. Slowly, over time, the congregation accepted and embraced the change as something God was doing in their midst.
14. Acknowledge the grief and anxiety and loss that people feel during times of change, and speak an encouraging word.
Help your people to narrate the first difficult steps of change as “growing pains,” or the pain of childbirth, where something new is being born. Acknowledge their anxieties and sense of loss, but remind them that better days are ahead.
15. Evaluate the change down the road.
A few months down the road, take time to discuss and evaluate the change. How has it worked? What has worked well? What has been a greater challenge than expected? Nearly always, the change will need to itself be changed, in a never-ending process of refinement. Often, however, leaders are simply so happy to have accomplished the change that they never return to this all-important step.
Faithful and sustainable change is introduced by God into the rural church in through leaders who have the courage to be agents of change, and who care little for who gets the credit for the change itself.
All who would be agents of congregational sanctification would do well to follow the advice of Rev. John Perkins:
“Go to the people
Live among them.
Learn from them.
Start with what they know
Build on what they have:
But of the best leaders
When their task is done
The people will remark
‘We have done it ourselves.’
These are just a few of my thoughts. What are your thoughts on how to best introduce lasting change into a traditional church? What do you resonate with? What have I left out? What was the last change you were led by God to serve as a catalyst for within your church?