"Change is the only constant in life." — Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher
It is true in life and it is true for churches.
Every church needs to ask two questions: Why do some churches thrive in times of growth and change while others struggle just to survive? Why do some congregations resist change at all costs while others seek it out?
Successfully changing churches leave clues as to what they are doing right. We found at least five.
Embrace change as a God thing.
"Lots of people in the church wish for peace and calm all the time," said the Rev. Jacqui King, director of leadership for congregational vitality at Discipleship Ministries in Nashville, Tennessee. "They don't want the experience that Jesus and the disciples had on the water. But just as the disciples discovered, there they were in the boat with Jesus, and there's a storm. Jesus had to show them it's all part of the journey."
Providence United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, has seen nothing but change. Its eight years of astounding growth — a six-fold increase to a weekly average today of 1,400 — was not due to some fortunate location (the cement of its first building is barely dry.) Rather, Providence is an expert at embracing change — adapting to the needs of the community and focusing on connecting with disaffected and hurting seekers who are hungry for change.
Dan Lins, Providence's director of operations, spoke proudly of the church's commitment to a welcoming spirit. "Jesus was always surrounding himself with the disconnected folks like the woman at the well and Zacchaeus. Our goal is to be like Jesus and welcome people Jesus would want to be with.
"For the first seven and a half years we had a transient existence, meeting in schools, hotels and a movie theater. We worked hard to be a welcoming church. Today we're amazed at how far we have come, but we can't take the credit. We know it had to be God who did this."
Keep an eye on the vision.
Before the Rev. Hazeline Jackson arrived at Ashford United Methodist Church in Houston as the new pastor, she spent five days alone fasting and praying, seeking God's will for the church and for her pastorate.
"By the time I got to Ashford," she said, "God had already laid out a vision for the church. I walked in already believing in these people even when they didn't believe in themselves. The first thing I did was to get an active prayer ministry going, because nothing happens without prayer."
Jackson's former career in sales taught her the importance of having and holding a vision. "The church was in a slump, and some were resistant to change. But when we prayed together and began to share a vision of what this church could become, it all turned around."
Members also shared their concerns with Jackson in a series of home meetings. "That's when I realized so many of them didn't know their gifts," she said. "My job was to help point out those gifts, and so we began with what we had and moved forward from there."
Before long, congregants were investing both time and dollars. They started to live by faith with a vision of possibilities. With a new vision clearly in their sights, members began door-to-door canvassing of the neighborhood, listening and learning about the needs of the community. Soon their program was vibrating with energy — new expanded worship services, a bi-annual supply drive for schoolteachers, a child enrichment center and a new Ashford welcome center.
Value spiritual gifts; put them to use.
For several years, Westchester United Methodist Church in the Bronx borough of New York was winding down. Its predominantly white congregation was slowly dying out while the neighborhood demographics were shifting to a predominantly African-American population. It was time for the church either to evolve or grow silent. As everyone in the neighborhood now knows — the church did not choose silence.
The Rev. Gordon A.R. Edwards, pastor of Westchester, recognized the membership included several young people of Caribbean descent. They had a passion for the steel drum music popular in the Caribbean culture. What Edwards encouraged as an occasional steel drum performance in worship grew into a regular rhythm-filled, spirit-led music ministry.
Over time, the music has redefined the entire culture of the church. Today two steel drum groups draw in neighborhood young people and their families. Worshippers now sing "The Lord's Prayer" to steel drums. A new minister of music, steeped in the gospel tradition, is introducing the congregation to gospel hymns converted to reggae and calypso beats. Giving has increased, attendance has tripled and next year God is "doing a new thing" at Westchester — building a new sanctuary.
"Next year we will demolish Westchester's old building and begin our new building plan," Edwards said. "Two years from now this church will look very, very different."
It isn't about being different just to be different. Rather, it is about listening to the needs of both members and the community and creating a space for each person to share their unique gifts, trusting God to shape and enrich the church's ministry.
Seek service, not security
Every year the members of Providence Church hold a Sunday service called "Worship without Walls." They gather only long enough to pray, pack their tools, and head out into the community where they worship by serving in 80 community service ministries — from installing handicap access ramps to caring for animals at a local shelter.
"We take Romans 12:1 seriously," said Lins. "We ‘offer ourselves as a living sacrifice,' and it reminds us to keep the main thing the main thing."
Know it's all about relationships
Relationships forged face-to-face (not just friended on Facebook) matter most to successfully changing churches. Ashford and Providence both emphasize home-based small groups to help forge loving, supportive, abiding relationships. At Providence, more than 50 groups of 12-20 meet weekly in the spirit of Acts 2 — breaking bread, praying and studying together. "That's where community happens," said Lins, "You walk through life together and get to know each other as families. At every gathering we read our vision aloud to remind ourselves of why we're here."
King agrees that a church knowing why it exists is key. "One of the first things I learned at seminary was from our dean who told our class, ‘As you begin your ministry, you are entering a moving stream. You didn't create the stream. You didn't make the stream. The stream was already flowing. So now, you have a couple of decisions even before you take your first step. You have to figure out which way the stream is going. Then ask yourself if God is asking you to go with the stream or against the stream?'
"Sometimes we need to be in the flow, and sometimes we need to swim against it," she continued. "But the stream is flowing and it's constantly changing. And, yes, we are called to be part of it."
Successfully changing churches know that change, like a stream — or a storm at sea— is not an interruption of God's plan; it's part of God's plan.
Vince Isner is a writer, media producer and founder of PowerTools for Fathers, who lives in Franklin, Tennessee.ˀ
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, September–October 2016.