Helping Your Small Church Embrace Positive Changes

To strengthen or revitalize a church, you often have to change how that church does certain things. Changes involve the adoption and implementation of new ideas. Ideas for potential changes in a church can come from anywhere: the pastor, a member of the church’s board or council, a long-time attendee, or even a first-time visitor.

Regardless of its source or its apparent merits, every new idea will be met with some resistance. That’s because most people, in general, are resistant to change. An idea will need a champion who can persuade the majority of the congregation that the church should support the new idea and the changes that it entails. The church’s governing body can and should endorse the initiative, but the champion must be an individual. It does not have to be the pastor, but often it is.

The job of the champion is to persuade the majority of the church members to support the idea and its implementation in the church. The challenge is to convert resistors – those who resist the idea, at least initially – to adopters.

The Adoption Bell Curve
Not everyone in your church will respond in the same way to a new idea. The response of an individual member of your church will fall into one of five categories, and can be visualized with the following bell curve:

Let’s look at the five categories of respondents:

  • These are the dreamers and visionaries in your church. They regularly talk about the future of the church rather than the past but are not generally acknowledged as leaders or policy makers. Many have the spiritual gift of faith (I Cor. 12:9).
  • Early Adopters. These members know a good idea when they see it. Their opinions are generally respected by others, and they are influential in moving the church forward in new directions. They often receive credit for ideas that really were not theirs. Many have the spiritual gift of wisdom (I Cor. 12:8).
  • Middle Adopters. These represent the majority of your congregation. They tend to react to the ideas of others rather than generate their own. While these people generally are reasonable in their analysis of a new idea, they are more inclined toward maintaining the status quo and more easily influenced by those opposing change than those supporting it.
  • Late Adopters. These are the last in a church to endorse a new idea. In congregational and committee meetings, these people often speak against and vote against proposed changes and new ideas. They may never verbally acknowledge acceptance of a new idea, but they will eventually go along if the majority agrees to support it.
  • Never Adopters. New ideas are seldom, if ever, accepted by this group. Their commitment is to the status quo or the past. They often sow discord after change is adopted, and they eventually will leave if they don’t get a following.

Implications of the Bell Curve
Based on the above bell curve, here are several things to remember when you introduce a new idea into your church:

  • Not everyone will be happy. Innovators are on a collision course with Never Adopters. Early Adopters are frustrated by the lack of vision of Late Adopters, and Middle Adopters may encourage this disagreement to buy time for an adequate consideration of both sides.
  • You should encourage discussion. Shortly after a new idea is introduced, you should allow the expression of differing opinions. If people are not allowed to express their opinions early, then you can be assured that they will express them later, at a less appropriate time
  • Some members will leave. Don’t think that avoiding controversy or even managing it will avoid the loss of disenchanted members. David DeSelm, in the video A Church for the 21st Century, observes that “you’re going to lose people even if you don’t change.” He’s right. If you introduce change, some folks from the right side of the bell curve will leave. If you don’t, some visionaries from the left side will leave. The question is: which dissatisfied members would you rather lose, the Never Adopters or the Innovators? If it is any consolation, neither group will drop out of church life when they leave your congregation. The visionaries go to more innovative churches, the stalwarts to more traditional ones. The question is, who would you rather keep?
  • The battle is for the Middle Adopters. You won’t need to work very hard (if at all) to convince your Innovators and Early Adopters of the value of the new idea, assuming it’s a good one. The Late Adopters will not be convinced before the new idea actually becomes successful. But if you can convince the majority of Middle Adopters to support the initiative, then you are on your way.
  • Middle Adopters are more easily swayed by Late Adopters than Early Adopters. Most Middle Adopters, while good and reasonable people, prefer the known to the unknown; the present certainty to the future’s uncertainty. This does not mean Middle Adopters are closed to reason, or cannot catch the excitement of a new vision. They’re just normal people, with normal fears of the unknown. As Aubrey Malphurs observes, the majority of these people “… tend to vote for the status quo unless they are given a good reason to change, or are assured that change will not result in a loss of quality. (Pouring New Wine Into Old Wineskins; Baker Books)

Facing the Challenge
The last two points are your challenge:

  • You need to win the majority of Middle Adopters.
  • These folks are more inclined to stay with the status quo than to embrace change.

So how do you win them over? You must make your Early Adopters more persuasive than your Late Adopters. Generally, Early Adopters are well respected in the church. The words are given serious consideration and their leadership often is followed. Here is the approach that I recommend:

  1. Make a list of your Early Adopters.
  2. Solicit their active support.
  3. Ask them to endorse the new idea not just in formal meetings but also, more importantly, in informal discussions. Explain that it is often conversations in the halls and on the telephone that influence other members (especially Middle Adopters) more than anything else.
  4. Make it clear that their support may make the difference between success and failure.

A new idea will not be adopted automatically on its merits. To maximize your chances for success with vital changes in your church, enlist the active support of your Early Adopters to counter the natural resistance that many of your members have to change.

Are Your Church Facilities an Obstacle to Growth?

Check out the interior of national chain stores (grocery, pharmacy, clothing, restaurants, etc.) in your community. On average, retail businesses remodel their facilities every 4-7 years, and with good reason. There’s something about “new”. New additives to toothpaste. New vitamin potency in cereal. New styles in cars. New versions of software. “New” attracts. By contrast, most churches renovate their facilities every 25-40 years; some go even longer without a significant makeover.

Facilities can have an effect on a church’s corporate self-esteem. The effect is similar to the way your house or apartment subtly influences your own self-esteem. If you live with junk in the backyard, unwashed dishes in the sink, dirty clothes on the floor, rooms in need of paint, etc., then these things affect your self-image, whether you know it or not.

The design and architecture of your church actually has a more important influence on your visitors than it does on your regular attendees. Why? The longer a person attends your church, the less he/she is able to see the building through the eyes of a newcomer. Long-time attendees don’t notice the rain marks in the ceiling, the chipped paint on the wall, the hole in the carpet. And, for long-time attendees, those things don’t really matter, anyway, because they are coming for the people, the relationships, the fellowship, the spiritual growth…not the facilities.

How visitors feel about your church, however, will be influenced heavily by their first impressions. As the old saying goes, you don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression. And one of the first impressions visitors have of your church is its building; first the outside, then the inside. Visitors don’t need to be professional architects to sense that the ceiling is too low, the halls too narrow, the windows outdated, or the color schemes from a different generation. Marshal McLuhan once said, “the medium is the message.” Your building is the medium. If the medium is outdated, the message will appear outdated.

Think of it this way: When your home is messy, do you want company dropping in unannounced? Probably not. When you are expecting guests, you probably pick up your clothes, clean the kitchen, and put on your home’s best face. Why not have the same attitude about your church facility and the guests who are coming to visit God’s house?

While nice facilities won’t cause your church to grow, poor facilities can prevent it from growing. If your church building has not had a significant makeover in 15 years or more, then your building is probably a growth-restricting obstacle.

Seeing through an Outsider’s Eyes

An outsider’s perspective is quite valuable. Invite a friend or neighbor who has never been on your church campus to walk through the facility with you. The “visit” need not be on Sunday. First, drive by and around the church. Then park and walk toward, and eventually into, the building. Ask the person(s) to “free-flow” about their impressions, sharing what catches their attention, what they like, what they don’t like, what they aren’t sure about. Either take notes or use a recorder to document their comments. Tell them not to worry about hurt feelings—you want their honest first impressions.

Conduct this exercise at least three times with three different people. That way you won’t put all your “eggs” into one person’s “basket”. See if different people notice the same things. Finally, compile your notes into categories and review them. You don’t need to make every suggested change. But you do need to know how visitors and newcomers see your facilities.

A Christian architect recently told me that, the more an interior of a church (i.e., decor, restrooms, lights, paint, doors, classrooms) looks like the facilities people are in during the week, the more likely the facility will present a positive first impression. Conversely, the more out-of-date that facilities appear, the more negative are their first impressions. When a visitor enters a church building that is 50+ years old—and it looks it—he/she is subconsciously wondering: Is the message of this church as outdated as its building?

A Helpful Checklist

Here’s a starting checklist to evaluate your facilities. Grade each item on a 1-7 scale 
(1 = “poor”, 7 = “excellent”). Perhaps have different people share in this exercise and then compare notes; it’s a great conversation starter!

Building

  • Ease in finding the location
  • First impressions from the outside
  • First impressions of the inside upon entering
  • Impressions after walking around

Parking

  • Appearance
  • Adequacy of spaces
  • Proximity to entrance

Signs

  • Directions from parking area to appropriate building entrance
  • Where to get information
  • Directions to the sanctuary/worship center
  • Directions to the restrooms
  • Directions to the nursery

Nursery

  • First impressions upon entering
  • Confidence in security
  • Confidence in nursery staff
  • Impressions upon leaving nursery

Classrooms

  • First impressions upon entering
  • Adequate furniture for age level
  • Room décor

Sanctuary/Worship Center

  • First impressions upon entering
  • Visibility of platform
  • Sound/acoustics
  • Ease in finding a seat
  • Seat comfort
  • Lighting

Restrooms

  • First impressions upon entering
  • Adequate number to accommodate everyone in 15 minutes
  • Cleanliness

The story of the paraplegic who was brought to Jesus (see Mark 2:1-5) presents us with several pointed questions: “Are our facilities keeping people from Jesus?” And, if so, “Are we willing to tear up our roof (and, perhaps other parts of our building) in order to let them be healed?”