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Growing Pains: What happened when one congregation introduced major changes

In 1990 the congregation of Southern Heights Christian Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan (a thirty-year-old, largely white-collar congregation) had reached an important point in its history. By the members' own admission, the congregation had "stalled" for a number of years and needed to clarify its direction and begin moving forward. Some questioned whether it was good stewardship to continue paying the bills for a less-than-effective ninety-family congregation. Upon arriving as pastor I learned that fifteen or more families had discussed plans to leave shortly if things didn't "turn around".

So we got to work. By December 1991, we had completed a congregational vision-setting process through which we affirmed what we believed to be God's call to reshape our ministry around our desire to reach "the people we live and work with." Although our terminology was different, we chose to become a mission-shaped church. The vision and ministry plans needed to fulfill this mission were finally approved unanimously by our council and affirmed by 86 percent of the congregation.

Our strategy specified that our primary outreach would take place through bringing guests to our morning worship services, which were to be seeker-sensitive. By this we meant that we were going to offer genuine worship services that included all the traditional elements of Reformed worship—but we would present them in a way that avoided many of the "stylistic roadblocks that can sometimes deter seekers." Our starting point was to incorporate some contemporary elements into our essentially traditional worship style. While we had no plans to abandon our use of organ accompaniment and traditional hymns, we wanted to supplement them with the use of contemporary instruments and songs. We planned to build our overall ministry into and out of these Sunday morning services.

That was an important decision. Since then many things have changed, often at great expense. Southern Heights Church today is a congregation with a very clear focus and a deep, genuine sense of passion about its ministry in the Kalamazoo area. You can sense it immediately upon walking in our doors.

Southern Heights Church is also a church that has struggled and often bled. While we have experienced unprecedented growth, especially from our unchurched or under-churched friends, this growth was preceded by unprecedented attrition. During the transition, both our front and back doors seemed to have swung wide open. While we had been striving to slowly crack open the rusty hinges on our fra door, the back-door exodus that resulted caught our congregation by surprise.

So What Happened?

The easy explanation is that our ministry strategy far exceeded the comfort zone of our congregation— the rate of change exceeded the congregation's capacity to adapt. While there may be an element of truth to that explanation (time will tell), the situation was more complex than that. The following observations about the dynamics of our transition process may help other congregations who are facing similar situations and dynamics.

1. Our attempts to share a vision brought out our inability to function on the basis of consensus.

Soon after we began making changes, it became clear that there was significant dissonance between our new ministry plans and a handful of our most prominent members. The ministry plans had been adopted by the congregation, and yet it was difficult for these leaders to become followers of a congregational consensus.

Shortly after I arrived in Kalamazoo, a wise person from another congregation described our church as "a group of thoroughbreds with their tails tied together." Over time I saw the wisdom of that picture but I added another analogy of my own. Our congregation seemed to me to be like a group of friends who want to go to the beach and so climb into a van together. However, in southwest Michigan there are several beaches to choose from, and the group has not discussed exactly which beach they will visit— Grand Haven? Saugatuck? Holland? As a result, each time the van approaches a corner, the tension grows—this isn't the way to Grand Haven, is it?

Finally, the driver simply pulls over to give people a chance to clarify where they really want to go. But once that discussion begins, it is very difficult for people to come up with a plan that they can really live with. After all, I didn't get on this van to go to Holland, did I? And it's a sad fact that sometimes it's easier to sit motionless alongside the road (or to get out of the van and start walking) than it is to actually change our hopes and dreams for an afternoon at the beach. So too with a congregation: sometimes it's easier to live without a clear ministry than to settle for a ministry you don't feel at home in.

The point that became clear, I believe, is that our congregation simply didn't have the fellowship capacity to own a consensus-based ministry together. That's not to say we were a congregation of bad people; actually our congregation was marked by many stellar examples of personal devotion and passion for ministry. The problem was not with the people but with assumptions that had developed among them over the years: unwritten rules and assumptions that don't draw attention until deliberate change is needed. And so, while the congregation had done a fine job of maintaining status quo ministry, our history of submerged conflict made it easier and less painful to sit idling by the side of the road than to actually begin moving toward any of a number of good destinations. As a result, we experienced a great deal of not only healthy, open conflict, but also dissension and slander. It was a difficult time, to say the least.

2. Our struggles were not primarily over worship issues.

While much of our discussion seemed to focus on the changes that were gradually happening in our worship services, our underlying problems were not "worship struggles." That may be because some of the most vocal critics left our congregation very early in our transition, while our worship was still quite traditional. In addition, while most of these people tended to appreciate more conservative worship styles, they would tell you they were not dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists. In fact, at this point, our true traditionalists were still quite content. And in general the "changes" we made in that first year were simply repeats of steps we'd taken in special services throughout the previous year.

The underlying struggle, I believe, was the sense of ecclesiastical claustrophobia that can come when a relatively autonomous group of leaders suddenly allow an outside influence (a vision) to shape the way they do ministry. Some of the discomfort may have come from the content of the vision, but most seemed to come from the concept of having a vision. It was like having your own company bought out by a conglomerate, who then made the decisions you used to make.

In fact, as we look back, it seems that worship was probably the bone on which we cut the teeth of our vision: were we really ready to begin thinking in terms of a mission-shaped church, or were our own preferences still going to be our driving force?

3. It's very difficult for Christians to express their discomfort with a mission-shaped vision.

Expressing doubts about mission efforts is like criticizing motherhood and apple pie. Because we as leaders couldn't provide the freedom to say, "Boy, I still have a long way to grow in my concern for outsiders, " many found ways to vent their discomfort by criticizing details: "The concept is good, but the implementation is flawed."

4. Despite all these struggles, the God who led us to this ministry transition helped us through.

Despite a major exodus, during which our worship attendance dipped 20-25 percent, our numbers have now climbed to 60 percent above what they were when we first began implementing our vision four years ago. And even more exciting, many of the people who have joined were unchurched or under-churched. Although we have had our financial struggles, God has provided from resources within the congregation.

A New Culture

The bottom line is that we have changed the culture in our congregation: our attitudes and assumptions. In fact, we needed to. Those cultural changes that were the real points of contention are now some of the greatest strengths of our congregation's ministry.

I see this cultural change in a number of ways:

  • "Outsiders" who attend our services are now being treated almost as heroes, rather than as objects of condescension or awkward tolerance.
  • In worship, our people always used to sit in the back half of the sanctuary, leaving the front six to ten rows open. Today the sanctuary fills from the front; it's the back rows that are empty.
  • Three of our current elders accepted their nominations on the spot, a rare thing for us.
  • Three long-term older members have said that after all their years of membership, they finally feel like they belong.
  • Leadership is no longer limited to a few.

In other words, there are a lot of people around Southern Heights who are now reaching out to the friends and neighbors with a passion that they had simply not experienced before. Some of this excitement is probably due to demographics: the exodus and growth has left us a far more like-minded group than before. But far more of our vitality is a result of struggling dearly over the question of why we continue to pay the bills to keep our doors open.

Should this process be repeated in other established churches? That's a tough call to make. Our ministry now is thriving, yet the pain and struggle were substantial—sort of an ecclesiastical bone-marrow transplant. Some say that most established churches are incapable of the cultural shift needed to truly be a mission-shaped church, or that it's simply not fair to lead people through such a painful process. But it's a serious thing to suggest that only new churches have the potential for the kind of front-line evangelism needed in the late twentieth century. That can't be right.

In our case we were simply responding to an undeniable call from God. I hope that our struggles can shed light on some of the dynamics of cultural change, and can help prepare and assist other congregations who feel a similar call from God.