Moving Your Church Through Growth Barriers (2)
We are creatures of habit and we all tend to gravitate to the comfortable pew in church. At least this has been my tendency. When I was a student at university I always sat in the same general area or desk in the classroom. It was familiar, and most often the same people would sit next to me or around me. The same is in church. It is usually always the same pew, on the left side of the sanctuary, surrounded by the same people – each and every Sunday. Perhaps this is a habit I learned as a child, for that is what we did as a family. Always the same pew. Even today, although I have been away from the church of my youth for more than four decades, if I was to attend a Sunday service I would tend to sit in the same pew. It’s familiar. Comfortable.
Certain places make us feel very relaxed and calm. Certain practices are easy for us. We are comfortable with people we have known for many years. We enjoy being with friends at church. Put us with people we do not know and we suddenly become uncomfortable. Put us in strange settings and we feel dis-ease. We’ll usually do most anything to avoid getting out of our comfort zones.
This is true in life and it is especially true in church environs. We are comfortable singing, praying, and participating in worship in various ways that are familiar practices to us. Introduce some changes to the routines, change the time of Sunday services or the name of the church, and the ecclesiastical volcano erupts. Recently I chatted with a kind and dedicated pastor who got into dark muddy waters when he changed the format of how communion was celebrated. A different formulary was introduced. The ways of distributing the bread and juice/wine were altered. It brought back memories when I was a young pastor of 26 having to deal with the backlash of angry congregants who did not approve the elders deciding to serve grape juice rather than wine at Lord’s Supper. I got the brunt of their irritation. Or what happens when strangers start showing up in church or church practices are intentionally changed to reach out to people who might be a bit different than we are. At times like this we face a choice point. Comfort or discomfort? We choose comfort not just because it is easier but because it is preferable. We like to have things ‘our’ way!
But such choices expose our misplaced values as Christians. Far too often we value our comfort rather than the salvation of the lost and the expansion of the gospel. But churches will not move through growth barriers if people are unwilling to move out of their comfort zone. In fact, this is the greatest-growth restricting behaviour. Real church life actually begins at the end of your comfort zone.
This is why educating people about choice points is so critical if churches are ever going to embrace discomfort. People need to examine their motives – both those who introduce changes into the church and those who resist changes. We don’t introduce new initiatives into church life and ministry just to make people feel uncomfortable. We teach people that there will be some discomfort and uneasiness as changes are introduced so that as a church we can make and grow disciples more effectively. Communication is also critical at this choice point. We need to explain to people why we are making certain changes to church practices. People need to see how these changes are really a working out of a church’s missional vision to mature believers and multiply disciples, reaching the lost for Christ. A good example of this in Scripture is found in Acts 15 when the early Christian church had to deal with the matter of circumcision and the outreach to non-Jews. In the end it was the missional vision of the church that prevailed when James explained: "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (Acts 15:19) Changes in church practices were rooted in their missional vision to reach the lost for Christ. Or as Paul wrote to the church of Corinth: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23)
Further, as we move people out of their comfort zones, we need to use wisdom. In one church I served we were able to move through this growth barrier by introducing changes gradually and intentionally. We would inform the congregation that we would trial some changes for a set period of time and welcome their feedback during this trial period. People were more willing to deal with discomfort if they knew it might not be permanent and that they would be able to give some feedback. Most often, by the end of the trial period there was no more discomfort and people were willing to embrace the changes. We would introduce new songs and altered order of services bit by bit. Most people were willing to experience the discomfort of one or two new songs if the rest of the songs or order of service were familiar.
Church leaders, including pastors, need to welcome, and in fact, solicit feedback and criticism. That feedback and criticism might bring some discomfort to the leaders, but it is through this honest reflection together that people can be guided through the choice point of comfort vs. discomfort. And as churches work through the discomfort and move out of their comfort zones, growth happens. There is growth in spiritual maturity among believers and growth in the number of Christ followers. But all the while, as people experience the discomfort that changes bring, they also encounter the comfort of the unchanging Word of God which reveals Christ, the one who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
 See Hebrews 13:8