Moving Your Church Through Growth Barriers (4)
Balance in a church, just as it is in life, is a healthy condition! You might know of situations in life when you are pulled in opposing directions. It is not healthy. In one of the churches I served, soon after I arrived on the scene, I spoke with an elderly man who had a lifetime of history in this church. We were looking at the photos of all the previous pastors hanging on the wall in the church entrance. The photos were staggered, with each alternate photo hanging a bit lower than the previous. As he looked at the photos he said, “The first pastor built the church, the next one tore it down, followed by one built it up again, and the next tearing it down again….” And the pattern repeated until my arrival, and I noticed that my photo would eventually end up on the upper row, with all the builders. While this might have given me a sense of relief, this was all premature. Time would only tell how people might summarise my years of pastoring that church. But it drove home a clear picture of this church; it was out of balance. Over the years the leadership in that church were pulled in opposing directions, and the net result was that this church was not moving in a healthy way forward.
We often see two viewpoints in a church that might seem to pull in opposing directions: the progressive position and conservative position. The progressive position wants the church to grow in quantity and quality. It wants to see movement forward. It doesn’t ask a lot of questions. It simply springs into action. The conservative position, on the other hand, doesn’t want to do anything that hasn’t been fully considered. They love committees where matters can be discussed at length.
A living and lively tension between the progressive and conservative positions can be productive. Both conservative and progressive viewpoints have a place in the church. Progressives can lead some churches prematurely into activities that failed and disappointed people. And people are hesitant to try new things because of previous failures. Conservatives have wisely held the church back from folly – making foolish decisions and actions. Unfortunately, conservatives also can prevent the church from realising a brighter future. There is a need to take risks, try new things, and implement novel initiatives if a church is ever going to break through growth barriers. Any church that as thriving and growing will testify how they took ministry risks. They tried things that might never have been down before. They even risked failure and implemented ministries that simply did not work. But taking these risks eventually resulted in particular initiatives that bore much gospel fruit.
In Canada, where I grew up and pastored churches for 25 years, we had a political party known as the Progressive Conservatives, referred to as the PC Party. Whether or not as a political party the PCs kept both viewpoints in a healthy balance, I like to suggest that this is the balance we need to maintain if a church is to move through growth barriers. Progress through the growth barriers will not happen without taking some risks. Church leaders need to encourage people’s faith to take risks for God and the church. We need the progressive viewpoint. But we also need to carefully consider what our future plans are. This is where conservatives can be invaluable. Both viewpoints need to be considered. And that is why communication is critical. More heartache springs from poor communication than from a busload of problem people! This is not an overnight strategy, but something that will progress over months and years. Group discussions will be essential to congregational learning. Lay leaders are the best people positioned to teach these concepts to the people and lead the discussions. Both progressives and conservatives should be invited to give input and feedback. All of this is ongoing. The goal is to develop a growth-encouraging congregational culture. Conservatives need to be persuaded that the pain of staying the same is worse than the pain of changing. And progressives need to move forward at a pace that will take conservatives with them.
In the church I served, referenced above, to help the congregation move through growth barriers we had many of these group discussions. We invited people to come to what we called ‘town-hall’ meetings. At first we had a lot of resistance. Church members wanted congregational meetings where they could vote on decisions. But at these ‘town-hall’ meetings no decisions were being made. We simply wanted people to listen to one another. It took more meetings than we first envisioned, but eventually the congregation as a whole realised that the pain of remaining the same was worse than the pain of changing. A seven year plan took over ten years to be implemented but we broke through the growth barriers. We might have lost a few people at either extreme, both progressive and conservative, but the vast majority of the church began to foster a growth-encouraging culture. And when I left this congregation they continued to have these ‘town-hall’ type meetings as they considered God’s ongoing purposes for them. And the church continues to see significant growth in gospel impact in the community, congregational health, and numerical growth.