Another Way to Turn a Church Around
How do you turn around a dying church? There are books that have been written on that topic. There are consultants who have led many churches through the process of gaining new life. I have not written a book and I am not a consultant. I’m not giving an exhaustive answer to that question (I’m not sure there is one) but want to share my own experience with this at my current church–a way of turning things around I haven’t seen often.
A Little History
Mountair Christian Church is almost 90 years old. It has been through ups and downs in its career. When it was planted it was in the suburbs and the surrounding community was made up of young, middle-class white people. Over the years the city has taken over what was once a suburb and the community has changed dramatically (a common story). The people had a desire to reach the community but as years passed had a more and more difficult time figuring out what that looked like.
When I came a little less than three years ago the church was comprised of about 60 people and about 80% of them were over 75 years old. The church was dying. It’s not that they weren’t trying. They had hired a band to come in and play more contemporary music twice a month. They hired me, a “very young guy” in their estimation (I was 31 then). When a young person happened to wander into the church they were smothered by hospitality and welcome as people hoped against hope that they would return. They thought they were ready to change.
The Usual Way
As I’ve learned more about turnaround churches I’ve found the common way to handle a situation like the one that existed three years ago at Mountair is to come in “guns blazing.” Actually the guns start blazing before the pastor is hired (if this is handled ethically). The pastor sits the church leadership down and says, “Look, we all know the church is dying. Reviving it will be difficult. If I’m going to come here you need to commit to doing the following…”
Sometimes this means committing to the recommendations of a consultant. Sometimes it is committing to a new structure or music or a name change. The regular way to turn around a church is to do radical surgery right away.
(The second place finisher in turning a church around is for a pastor to chaplain a dying congregation while planting a new church in the building.)
Before sharing what is happening at Mountair I want to say that I think the usual way can be great. Sometimes radical surgery is the only way to go. I know of many churches where the “guns blazing” approach has worked and they are thriving. So this is not a diatribe against it, just an experience of another way that might also work.
When I came to Mountair I had a close friend tell me to do nothing but love people for a year. I didn’t like that advice much. I saw so many things that needed to change! I don’t like the status quo. But by the grace of God (and my respect for my friend) I heeded his advice (mostly). I spent a year listening to stories, making hospital visits, doing my best in preaching and Bible studies, holding my tongue on many things I knew needed to change. In that year a funny thing happened–I learned to truly love and care about our elderly congregation and they learned to love me as well.
When love enters the picture it changes things. I still knew many things needed to change and that people wouldn’t like many of the changes, but I also knew I didn’t want to hurt people in the process. So we began tackling one thing at a time. To me it felt like we were trying to put out a fire with a thimble of water at a time. To them it felt like I was spraying them with a firehouse. But in the midst of that tension we loved each other.
Another thing I’ve learned along the way is that momentum matters. As we changed something and the world didn’t end people were more willing to talk about changing the next thing. As they saw success happening–even a little at a time–it made them more willing to move into the next challenge. I can’t lie, at times it’s been excruciating taking what to me is such a slow pace, but the thing that has kept me from turning into the proverbial bull in the china shop is my love for the people.
It’s been two years and nine months. In that time we have reformed some unhealthy leadership structures, had elders go from sharing a communion meditation in the service once a quarter to seeing themselves as leaders in the church, moved from a “no” to a “probably” disposition in regard to change, spent $25,000 updating the building so it wouldn’t be a deterrent to reaching the people in our community, began a Missional Community where people are taking the initiative to engage our surrounding community, become a church of 50% long-time members and 50% people from the community, agreed to spend money from savings to hire an Associate Pastor to help us move into the new ministry we’ve been dreaming about, and had the older people give permission for me to run with some new things that will hopefully make Mountair a presence for the gospel in our community for decades to come. It’s seemed slow but a lot has happened in two years and nine months, and we’ve loved each other in the process. (And what I’ve written here is really only a fraction of the story.)
The Right Conditions
I do want to briefly note that part of the reason this approach has worked is the spirit of the elderly people here. They want to see this church reach people. They love every person who walks through the doors. They may not know what “missional” means, but they love Jesus and know they’re supposed to love other people. If this were a church where people didn’t care about God’s mission I don’t think this would have worked. They’ve been willing to change because they love God and they’ve learned to trust me. That trust couldn’t have happened without time.