When God moves but the church wants to stay
Any change in church culture will meet resistance. The guardians of the status quo are usually also those who have a high level of trust given them by the congregation. What’s more, they have probably earned it by serving sacrificially for a long time. Be wise in the battles you choose.
My full-time ministry life has been within congregationally governed, mainstream denominations. Like every stream of Christian church, they are full of genuine and sacrificial people who love God. Often these congregations are very democratic in nature, and conservative in belief and practice. As such they will tend to resist a move away from established practice even more than other situations.
So, what happens when God begins to powerfully change lives and fuel the fruit of renewal?
Even the word “renewal” is enough to set some people into a spin. Suddenly the heresy-hunter articles go viral, and video of crazy manifestations are dug up from some Haitian voodoo ceremony. Leadership sanity is questioned, and the true message is lost in the midst of damage control.
More than once I have wondered if it is all worth it. That is until I look into the eyes of those who are forever changed because they have met with God in a profound and powerful way. Believers everywhere should be encouraged to meet with God more deeply and powerfully – but too often, and too cheaply, evidence of extremism is used as an excuse to run the other way.
Real threats to introducing credible renewal:
- Historical theology and praxis of the church. People who attend a certain church do so because they agree with or accommodate the culture that is already there. To change that without consultation or mandate is dangerous (see temporary) leadership.
- No endorsement from culture-guardians and key influencers. Older church leaders seldom endorse change if it counters their historic preference. Until the trusted core morphs to become advocates of the change – tension will continue.
- Memory: The “I remember when …” stories of past hurt need to be heard. Errors of history that are ignored are destined to return.
- Denominational tradition. Some have grown up with a constant (unexplained) mantra of “We don’t do that, and we don’t go there”. Be prepared to go back to the very basics of the Gospels and Acts to establish the valid partnership we have with God’s Spirit.
- Valid concerns that are dismissed. Be slow to “drink the cool-aid” from every speaker or book. Most of us have cracks in our theology and practice, and we shouldn’t run away from scrutiny, or endorse personalities without condition.
- Misinformation and fear. Clarity is key in the renewal conversation. Challenge myths and correct inadequate theology that limits God.
Before engaging in the long journey of transitioning a church culture, think hard about whether it is your journey to take. Culture shift seldom takes less than five years, and may never quite occur if key stakeholders oppose it. At times, the wiser option is to restart ministry in another setting that is asking for renewal.
Giving yourself the best chance at navigating healthy change:
If God is calling you to transition a church into renewal, then here are some factors that have worked well for me in the process:
- Define “first prize” as a church. What is it exactly you are trying to achieve. Is it transformed hearts; miracles; evangelism; gifts of the Spirit or something else. What is the reason that makes the journey so worthwhile for you?
- Find the kernel of truth in every argument. Listen to opposition, they may have a point! And the process of dialogue increases buy-in. Don’t worry, scripture and God tend to prove themselves right, but we can always improve the way things are said and done.
- Use embracing (cultural) language and practice. Work incredibly hard at using your own language for renewal, rather than loaded or unclear terms from another setting. Use solid theological principles to explain beliefs and practices. Reinforce that there are no haves and have-nots, but that everyone is on a journey with God in their own way.
- Communicate a lot! Continually clarify the vision, and uphold godly and humble values that bring peace and faith to hearts. Give testimony constantly to what God is doing.
- Become expert at creating safe environments for God to work. Train anointed and humble ministers, create opportunities to pray for people, and make use of groups and retreats to facilitate different dynamics where people can engage God in new ways.
- Be prepared to stay low and go slow. People and trust grow slowly. Tipping points of significant momentum come, but evolution is more common than revolution.
God makes a way where there is no way. Many times I have seen Him transform entire churches where leaders and people unite in their desire for more of Him. Trust in Him to work in people’s lives, it is God’s journey they are on after all.