Over the course of his entire career, NBA legend Larry Bird hit 649 3-pointers. Famous for being one of the most deadly long range shooters in the game, he was reported to have shown up to the 3-point contest and asked "Which one of you is coming in second?" For perspective, the 2016-17 Houston Rockets hit 1,181 3-pointers, breaking the 15-16 Warriors record of 1,077. The style, nature, pace, flow, and analysis of the game has completely changed. Bird's season high was 90 made 3-pointers, which would put him 8th just on the Rockets.
What can we take from an obscure basketball stat for churches and leadership? I believe the biggest takeaway is that growth and change are linked together. Churches that find themselves on the slow tick towards death are churches that aren't growing. They're also churches that are unwilling to embrace change. Not the superficial changes we usually think of, like music style or branding. But the philosophical, deeply-rooted change that affects a church's DNA.
I sat in a crowded room interviewing for a student ministry position when a question came from the back "What are you going to do to get our youth group back to the way it was?" My response was simple: "I'm not." What that person, and later I learned the entire church, wanted was to recapture the magic in the bottle that had happened 10-20 years before. They wanted to relive those glory days. But those days were long gone. The people who were part of that had moved on, the community had changed, the leadership had changed. But by trying to relive the glory days (including singing the exact same songs they had for 20 years) they couldn't see why their efforts weren't working.
Whenever there's growth, change will happen - You can't escape it, if you bring new people in they're going to have new backgrounds, new experiences, new baggage, new ideas, new gift sets, etc. One thing we're often too guilty of in churches is demanding that new members acquiesce to who we are, rather than adopt them into a family dynamic. When you start seeing young families attending, there will be an increased emphasis on next generation ministry. New leadership will bring their personalities and giftedness into their position. Most visible is the music ministry - It never ceases to amaze me that churches are aghast when worship leaders do things different than the previous guy, especially if there's an age gap between them.
Change is a two-way street - The other day I tried getting a shirt on one of my kids that they loved (and had picked out). When my wife came in she saw that the shirt was way too small. Rather than adjust to his growth, I tried making it work. A lot of churches, and leaders, do this when they fail to adapt to the rhythms of a local congregation. Leaders who try to replicate whatever they did in a previous assignment are no different than a toddler who tries to hammer the square peg into the round hole. Every context is different. So the nature of change has to work both ways. A leader has to be willing to embrace making adjustments and changes just as much as a congregation should. After a few weeks I had a church member approach me and ask why I didn't preach from the Bible. I was floored and said "Well I do, I keep it and all my notes on my iPad." Lovingly, he shared that it gave a bad impression, so the next week I made sure to have a Bible (and my iPad) on the platform. Something small like that made a big impression and was a big deal.
Superficial change is like painting a haunted house - Adding a new service, changing the name, rebranding the website, bringing in a new leader (I was once told by a church I know that the answer to all their problems was an extrovert in an associate role) are all good things. But they're not a silver bullet. Dumping all your resources into a new worship service when your facilities are falling apart isn't going to attract and retain new people. Adopting a cool name or a splashy website isn't going to fix a church's inward focus. I believe these kinds of visible changes are important (side note: your website is your front door, is it updated? What about your social media presence?), but they won't fix anything. They're means, not an end.
Lasting changes are slow and intentional - Lasting changes are those that outlast you, and hopefully extend several years. And the way to get there is to work slowly and work intentionally. Nothing meaningful ever happens overnight. It's a slow, daily, plodding process. It involves sharing the vision, rallying leadership, building support, and soaking everything in prayer. If you're familiar with John Kotter's Leading Change, you may have found it transferable but lacking something for ministry. That's why I love Them Rainer's Who Moved My Pulpit? I felt like it took the principles from Kotter and applied them specifically to ministry. The driving question behind any change is "Why?" If the change is rooted in a desire to advance the mission, magnify the Gospel, impact the community, remove distractions/barriers in worship, those are good reasons. But if it's about preference, style, something is annoying, you might want to tread slowly if at all.
Growth & change happen when you have an external focus - One of my favorite writers is Carey Nieuwhof, who challenged his readers with the question "Are we focusing more on who we want to reach or who we want to keep?" As we see our communities growing more disengaged with the Gospel or with the local church, we can either turn our focus inside or we can see ourselves as a beacon of light, of hope, of peace, of joy. If we focus inside, we'll build a nice community for ourselves by ourselves. But if we focus outside, we'll see stories of rescue, salvation, relationship repair, and more.
I like the sound of that.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.