Why Is It So Difficult to Lead a Church Through Change?

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Change is inevitable.

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 was 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 versus 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 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. Oops, 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 that 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 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

More from Rob Pochek or visit Rob at http://www.robpochek.blogspot.com/

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  • JdutyJr

    Good article to consider – but as to your statement – “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.” I find it to be quite the contrary.
    Those who “prefer” a more modern style tend to be much more accommodating and flexible as to the integration of modern and hymnal. I have found that those who favor a more traditional style are far less flexible, sometimes to the point of some very “Unchristian” behavior, attitudes and comments…

    • Rob Pochek

      Jduty Jr – Thanks for the reply. Based on my own personal anecdotal evidence, I am in agreement with your point. However, my goal is suggesting that the resistance to change can run both ways is intended to cause us all to be a little more open and accepting of those who do worship different than us. Thanks again for your interaction.

    • David Dean

      It’s interesting. People get so caught up in little changes like this. It’s obvious no one thinks about the change Jesus brought. I mean it got Him killed! Those were major changes. From the law to grace? Are we conscious of what that really was? It was 2000 years of Judaism & the Mosaic Law being wiped away over night. From hundreds of laws & going through priests to just having Jesus. Do we understand that? The priests were out of a job altogether. Those were major changes. This little worship style stuff is nothing. It’s a joke by comparison

  • Mark

    No one likes change. Don’t “rock the boat ” is what most of us were taught from an early age. Don’t upset the old people. So then we wonder why no one had the guts to make small changes and the younger generations have disappeared from churches. Look, it takes guts to change, but when older people who are generous donors threaten to reduce the donation if anything changes, then nothing can change. Their friends who tend to be the church leaders are willing to let the younger generations leave to keep the donations of the older generation. Now, I can understand that because it is not smart to “bite the hand that feeds you.” However, since there really can’t be some form of compromise, two services with two completely different sermons might be necessary.

    • amen

      You are correct there. Sadly the bible says a church free of spot or blemish will exist just before the Lords return. How many will refuse change. Well as it was in the days of noah so shall it be at the coming of the Son of man. Many say well noah built the ark God said Noah was a preacher of righteousness.Sometimes I shudder in America seeing churches 1 to 4 hours a week. yet wondering what does God think about that ? It says a great falling away shall take place many will not endure sound doctrine yet how much doctrine can actually be learned 2 or 3 hours a week ?

      • Mark

        How much doctrine needs to be learned? ” Love G-d, love your neighbor as yourself, on these two commands hang all the law and the prophets.”

        Give me someone who follows those two rules any day over someone who knows every aspect of Paul’s missionary journeys and yet is still a scoundrel.

    • Rob Pochek

      Thanks for the reply Mark. The frustration you express at the difficulty of bringing change is the very reason this article was written. Unfortunately it seems that many leaders either choose to do nothing (i.e. don’t rock the boat) or proceed as a bull in a china shop (to turn a phrase). The reality is that bringing about change and securing buy-in from others is a nuanced process that requires much patience, wisdom, and understanding. I wish you the best in your efforts to bring change to your environments. Again, thanks for commenting.

      • Mark

        Basically, politics and diplomacy.

        • Rob Pochek

          Well Mark, that kinda depends on what you mean by “politics and diplomacy.” It puts me in mind of the famous “If By Whiskey” speech by Soggy Sweat. Ultimately, though, leading change in any organization requires the ability to lead people beyond their personal preferences to that which is best for the organization. That does require give-and-take (on non-negotiables) and the wisdom to discern which hills are worth dying on. Best of luck to you.