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.

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