This is a year of change. There will be a new President and perhaps a new party in the White House beginning in 2009. In the next few months we will elect a new leader of the free world. Whether he or she is able to do the job is yet to be seen. There will be changes–in the White House, in Congress, in cabinet positions. Washington is already gearing up for a change.
But how much will really change. The wheels of government grind slowly. Every politician I can remember has promised change. Few have actually brought change. Most Governors, Senators and Presidents at the end of the day haven’t fulfilled many of their promises to bring fresh air, a fresh face and a fresh perspective to the situation. Normally we get the same stuff with just the pictures changing on the walls.
All the candidates for the White House are promising change. I was reading an article in NEWSWEEK, February 18, 2008, by Richard Wolffe, Karen Breslau and Even Thomas. In this article they pointed out that every President in recent memory has promised change. Think about it.
Today, the front-runners and potential nominees all make promises to change things in Washington. In reality, most of them are Washington insiders and have made their living by being insiders and by going with the flow.
The writers of the article noted, “…change rarely has much to do with campaign promises, and everything to do with unexpected events, from Pearl Harbor to 9/11.”
So it goes with the church. No matter how much preaching we do about the need to change, churches across America are dying. I like the slogan that Youth for Christ used for years, “Anchored to the rock, geared to the times.” We need to get back to that!
We have churches set in stone with little stomach for change. If you don’t believe that, just stop printing the order of service in the average church and see how many scream and holler. Vance Havner says people start crying like babies when a new preacher starts to make changes. They don’t like him because “he changed my formula.”
We don’t need change for the sake of change. Change can be good or bad. Let me give you a few thoughts here.
1) What’s your motive for change. Do you just want to do things differently than your predecessor? I’ve heard of pastors who start trying to tear down everything their predecessor did so they can “leave their own mark on the church.” If the predecessor didn’t believe the Word, change things. If he liked red carpet and you like green, get over it.
2) Are you willing to stay to see the change happen? If you aren’t going to commit to the church long term, don’t make changes. Do your job, preach the Word but don’t upset the apple cart. If you tend to think in two-year or three-year ministry assignments, leave things alone. You only make it harder for the next guy who may in fact want to settle down there.
3) Timing is everything. They need to trust you before you ask them to trust the changes you are making. They need time to see your heart, to hear your vision. Plant seeds. Don’t get the backhoe out and start uprooting the Cedars of Lebanon.
4) If change means new buildings, be ready to stay and pay them off. Don’t leave the guy behind you with debt. Own up to your decisions. Don’t make the next guy clean up your mess.
5) Get wisdom from leaders. Don’t just listen to people who agree with you. In a former church I had a meeting every week with about twelve men, all in their 60s to 80s. At the time I was in my 30s. Some of them were pastor killers. I decided it was better to look them in the face and hear what they had to say than stand around waiting for them to stab me in the back. Believe it or not, sometimes they gave me wise advice. They were leaders because they had influence. You better know who has influence in your church or you’ll be influenced by them to pack your bags before you are ready.
6) Make sure the change is more about substance than style. Don’t die on the style hill. Styles change. Styles come and go. If you do change something stylistically, do it tastefully and slowly. If you’ve got a church with a pipe organ, don’t sell it and bring in a rock and roll guitar player.
7) Be patient. Move slowly. I’m not telling you not to move at all. You can read my book, Prepare for Rain, and see we’ve made many changes here. Some I would have moved on with more caution and some I might not do again. Some, I didn’t do soon enough. Let’s say you need to change a staff member. Hire slow and fire fast. You are not filling a slot, you are calling a minister. If he’s not following your leadership, the longer you wait the more it costs you. Pray it through and act when you need to. You’re going to get fall-out, so make sure it’s worth it.
8) When it comes to programming, don’t get caught up in changing names without changing content. If the program is lousy, kill it. If the horse is dead, dismount. If you just want to put a new label on an old program, forget about it. An ineffective program is ineffective no matter what you call it. Pastors and staff can be the worst about wanting to change a program rather than working to make the current program more effective. If churches changed the name of something every time a new staff member came, they would get dizzy. The staff member moves on and the church is stuck paying for all the changes only to find the new staff member wants to change the name again.
9) If you have to change a program, state the need and give it time to soak in. Let it marinate in people’s hearts for a while. Don’t expect instant buy-in. It took me three years of saying we needed to be a multi-generational church before I heard the first person say it back to me. Drop it into a sermon here and there. Don’t brow beat them with it. Don’t call for a vote. Just make suggestions. It’s best when they come to the right conclusion because you’ve asked them to pray with you about something. It beats beating it into them and the church resisting it–or you.
10) Change is coming. In fact, it’s here. We are not serving in the good ole days. We are serving in an ever-changing world. Politics is changing. Nations that existed fifty years ago no longer exist or have changed their names. Technology has changed the way we live. The media has impacted people’s attention spans and how we do church.
All that being said, make change positive not negative. Keep the change in line with the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. Make sure the hill is worth dying on. Vance Havner said, “A bulldog can whip a skunk, but it’s not worth it.”
In Jeremiah 6:16 we read, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.'” The Message paraphrases it this way, “Go stand at the crossroads and look around. Ask for directions to the old road, the tried and true road. Then take it. Discover the right route for your souls.”
There are some things that shouldn’t change. Truth never changes. Nothing important has changed. The cross is still the cross. John 3:16 is still John 3:16. The Spirit still enables. Prayer is still the key. In fact, if we can’t do the basics well, why are we trying to change the secondary and incidental?
If something is true, it’s because it has stood the test of time. Study the Word, not the winds of the times. Seek the Lord, not the newest leadership seminar. Pray to the Lord, don’t look for the newest program in a magazine “guaranteed to double your attendance in 48 hours.” Humble yourself. Seek God’s timing. Don’t make promises like a politician; they can’t be trusted. If you try to be a politician, your people won’t trust you.
What America needs is also what the church needs–aprophet for our time that will call us back to what matters. If you get your people praying, they will change what needs to be changed. If you try to convince them in your flesh or with an impressive brochure or Power Point, they might point you toward the door. It’s still true, “ALL is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down.”
Michael C. Catt, copyright 2008
Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.