How to Turn a Church Around: Jesus Creed Style

How to Turn a Church Around: Jesus Creed Style June 6, 2012

By Trevor Lee (HT: :mic):

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.)

Another Way

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.

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  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    The 75 year and up group is my favorite group to spend time with. They may hate change but they often have more maturity and flexibility to see young people come into the church than those who are younger than them.

  • Delightful, and simply Good News. Thanks for posting this transformation. I’m impressed with the velocity of the changes. A real good report of what is possible when men and women know they’re loved by Jesus.

  • JT

    Very powerful and thought provoking. Discipleship at its best!

  • Awesome story and very inspiring. We’re 11 years into our existence as a congregation. Good reality check to keep LOVE in the air as we go and inspire dedication and give away leadership.

  • This is a great story. Patient vision and love. You can’t beat that. I’ve found that when working with an older congregation, it is really beneficial to just listen and then have a conversation.

  • In my experience, the oldest members are usually not the biggest obstacle to change. It is typically middle-aged people like me. You’ve been around the church and “paid your dues,” and at middle age it is now your turn to “run the show” or the church into the image you prefer. There can be a sense of entitlement. Older adults often have a greater sense of their own mortality and a greater security in their personal identity to the point that they don’t need to make everything be about themselves. The tend to look more for the greater good. Younger adults tend overestimate the possibilities of transforming the church into something approaching idealistic visions they have for the church. A truly multi-generational church is a special thing the keeps generational dynamics from running the church off the rails.

    I’m speaking in broad generalities but I think there is some truth to it.

  • Pat Pope

    A willingness to change, really change, is key. If the people aren’t there, it will be a steep hill to climb. Kudos to Trevor for sticking it out to see the fruit of his efforts.

  • RJS

    For better or worse Michael, I think you are right. And in part because at 50 something one isn’t ready to be put out to pasture quite yet – but change for a young demographic means 50 something is over the hill. Perhaps it is a sense of entitlement, having paid one’s dues … but perhaps it is simply wanting to be involved for another 30 years or so.

  • janie

    I recently started attending a nearby church that seems to be about 45% 55 or over and 45% 30-40’s and the remainder children. I like many things about it but one reason I haven’t committed to it is that there is obviously an age split. I have heard young people complain about the old and older people complain about the young. It isn’t an issue of worship style — but other things. The pastor is a good man (around 40) but he is very gung-ho into “I’m the doctor and this church needs several radical surgeries.” Having watched my parents basically pushed out of the church they’d called home for years by this same attitude, I am very concerned.

    I appreciate your post. It seems to me that a lot of people talk about reaching out to the fringes and the disenfranchised but to them, that means the financially poor only. In a culture that worships youth, beauty, technology and all things new, there are few people as disenfranchised and on the fringes of society as the elderly are. And most very much want to contribute and be relevant.

  • Jane

    Thanks so much for this post, Michael…love really works! And because you loved the people, they gave you permission to mess with things at the church…slowly but surely. Sounds a bit like the way Jesus works with us, doesn’t it?

    Thanks for your faithfulness….and the people, too.

  • RJS

    This is a great post – thanks for reposting it.

  • What a blessing to hear of how love transforms us so the Holy Spirit can do fresh work!

    I’ve seen a pastor come in and do the opposite – drove out the elderly so the wealthier & middle-aged (not yet on fixed incomes) could take over, sell the old church building which they’d built as they planted, and move out of their neighborhood. Heart-breaking stuff that, imho, showed egregious partiality and lost the gospel.

    Thanks be to the Lord for Trevor’s close friend’s wisdom and Trevor’s willingness to hear & heed!

  • Michael–the point about people in their later 70s and up is a great one. The people in our church are definitely more concerned about leaving a legacy than having things their way (at least most of them). Another key for us is that we are starting some new things while we continue doing the core things that have been a part of the ministry in the past. One example is starting Missional Communities (which many of the younger people are a part of) while continuing Sunday School (which most of our older people are a part of).

  • MatthewS

    This is probably the most touching JC post I’ve read, on a personal level. This is so close to where we are. There is such a temptation to slip into thinking about leadership as a statement on your own abilities to dream big and make things happen. This deal of loving them and valuing their stories and gently becoming woven into their lives together – that’s right where we are at.

    I heard an older pastor’s wife say that you will be surprised in ministry: surprised by the folks that hurt you and surprised by the ones who show up to be your friends. One of the pleasant surprises for us right now is how much our “older folks” like to fellowship, how important family is to them, and how well they have loved our family. Being around grandparent-type people can be such a blessing for their perspective and the way they treat you as family.

    wow… I’m going to bottle this post up and take a whiff of it every once in a while!

  • Kelly J.

    Thank you for this story! As a 28-year-old pastor who is 6 months into a somewhat similar journey, I too have been amazed at how, as Trevor says, love entering the picture changes things. Honestly, the older generations have been the easiest to love – I would sit and visit with them all day long if I could. A friend reminded me that though the older generations may seem the most resistant to change, they have also experience more significant changes in their lives than anyone else! They know that I am not here to keep the status quo of stagnancy and inwardness, and though there is uncertainty around what that might look like in the future, they know I love them for who they are and want God to be glorified.

  • Robert

    I think you’re right to take your time. No doubt the ‘guns blazing’ approach can work, but I’ve also seen it fail dismally, since the minister just came in with their own big ideas, didn’t listen, and those ideas didn’t work. Result was a demoralised church. We’re providing our own leadership – not relying on ministers – doing things a little at a time, and it’s beginning to work. I think, anyway!

  • I am experiencing a very similar context in congregational ministry, & I found this post very helpful and encouraging. Trevor thanks so much for sharing your communities’ story. Michael (#6) I find your observations to ring true as well.