A. Why Change? — The Gap

“Something spiritual is starting to stir in this country (Australia).” But, wrote Erica Battle in the Sydney Sun-Herald, “On the last published census 64% of Australians nominated adherence to the Christian faith, yet only about 9% attend church weekly.” Why do so many people sense a spiritual dimension in life but do not seem to carry this over into religious commitment? Do they even perceive a gap between their beliefs and actions? There are two perspectives from which we can answer these questions: the human perspective and the God perspective

The human perspective

This perspective uses the social, cultural and religious dimensions of the human situation in the 21st century. It looks at why groups of people hold the beliefs that they do, and what motivates them to behave in certain ways. To net out these findings (from the western, developed world context):

  • People value their individuality, especially their right to make personal choices, much more highly than membership in any group, sometimes even including their own family.
  • Trust in all groups, including religious denominations has eroded significantly.
  • People get their opinions of religion and church from encounters and conversations with others and the media.

Using these three findings it is easy to see why people can say they are Christian but don’t attend church. They weigh up things in their individual consciences  and see no strong reason for faithful membership in a church. The church itself doesn’t provide information about or influence this choice very strongly.

The God perspective

This perspective views each individual human person’s unique situation. It looks at how each person grows and deals with the stresses of life, trying to find meaning and purpose in their life. Let me ‘play God’ and net out my idea about His perspective:

  • I created a deep hunger for knowing God into each person.
  • I love each person and continually communicate myself to them.
  • During their life, each person develops ther own unique ways to avoid this deep hunger and my love, to live as they wish.
  • But there are moments  when they ask questions they can’t answer — “Where is God?” “What is my purpose in life?”

From this God perspective, the gap between people who call themselves Christians and those who attend church makes sense. It happens because many people don’t find the experience of ‘church’ relevant to helping them answer these important questions. How can that be?  Christian churches claim to be able to authoritatively provide these answers, speaking for God, using the Bible. As a movie character once put it so succinctly: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Why is church attendance at your local church too low?

I have given you my theory for why attendance at most Christian churches is declining.  I point the finger at the churches not at individual Christians. People have always acted the way I described in the God perspective. What has changed is the way churches communicate the answers to important questions that people ask. My challenge to each local church is to develop your own theory about declining church attendance and its root causes — and act on your analysis.  If you come up with the same theory as I have, look closely at all the ways you communicate with people, both inside your church and outside. Christian churches have the content but it’s not being heard. Figure out why. This is one good step toward transforming your local church.

A. Why Change? — Is there an urgent need to transform our local church?

The need to change almost always starts with a threat. Someone can tell you how great the future will be after some change happens  but human beings will inevitably choose to stay in the status quo unless there is some threat or danger or bad experience.

This is especially true when it comes to changes relating to our spiritual life and church. “Many of us get caught in surface living or in the pressures of the practical. We want to escape the costly strangeness of this voyage within.”  [Michael Paul Gallagher in Faith Maps] The promises of Jesus can easily be overlooked by Christians, who feel the daily pressure of living in a complex modern society. We are losing our sense of being a unique people with a vital calling: to announce the Good News that the world is filled with God’s grace. It seems unlikely and even absurd that we are God’s sons and daughters who are meant to transform the world. Most of us don’t even notice that we are losing something crucial to living;  the surrounding secular culture seems quite normal to us and church seems like something that must be fit into our everyday life.

I want to raise the possibility that Christians and local churches face a ‘burning platform.’  The burning platform metaphor originated when the oil drilling platform Piper Alpha in the North Sea caught fire. A worker was trapped by the fire on the edge of the platform. Rather than certain death in the fire, he chose probable death by jumping 100 feet into the freezing sea. He had to risk change because he was faced with a status quo that was completely untenable. We like the worker on the burning oil rig can’t stay where we are because the threat to our life as Christians is too great.

I will quote several authors, from among many, who sense that there is something profoundly wrong with church in general.

  • “[We live in] a culture in which central features of the Christian story are unknown and churches are alien institutions whose rhythms do not normally impinge on most members of society.” Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom
  • “Everywhere in the Western world the Church has suffered a massive loss of ground. It is seldom at the centre of people’s lives. In today’s complexity it is just one of many potential sources of meaning, and perhaps not a very attractive one at that. For huge numbers of the younger generation what the church offers – in terms of teaching, or worship, or spiritual image – rings strange, and sometimes even hollow and dishonest. ” Michael Paul Gallagher in Faith Maps
  • “. . . Traditional churches are emptying, their congregations are graying, the eyes of their fewer and fewer young people are glazing over, and turning elsewhere. ” Scott Cowdell, God’s Next Big Thing
  • “If we are the church, then the church is a fellowship of those who seek journey and lose their way, of the helpless, the anguished and the suffering, of sinners and pilgrims. If we are the church, then the church is a sinful and pilgrim church, and there can be no question of idealizing it.”  Gerald A Arbuckle, Refounding the Church

The first task of Christians in every local church is to read the signs of our times, both in the world and in their own church. Are these authors reflecting the true state of the church? What do you discern? Do you sense an urgency to act and transform yourself and your local church?

Discussing the need  to change with other people in your local church, and learning together with the Pastor how to proceed is a critical task which every Christian needs to prayerfully consider and then undertake.

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A. Why Change? — We have lost our ‘saltiness’!

Culture for human beings is like the water that fish swim in. Water is so necessary for life, and so pervasive, that fish don’t realize that there may be another larger world beyond their ocean or fishbowl. Fish depend on water to live. Likewise, we all assume our culture is life giving because it surrounds us. We learn to breathe it and survive in it because, if we don’t do that, we believe that we will die. We all accept the utter necessity of our particular culture for life, without actually thinking much about that assumption. That is what living in a culture means.

But we Christians are told that we are “not of this world,” and must be “counter-cultural.” “Even religion itself can become enslaved unknowingly to the deceptive values of the culture, and hence the constant need of the prophetic tradition of self-critique.”  What does being ‘counter-cultural’ mean, in practical terms? First of all, it means that we ought to live in constant tension with the conventional culture. To do that, we Christians must create and live in an alternative culture that we strongly believe is essential for life. Resolving the conflicts between the common culture and the alternative culture when we make choices determines how we deal with life. If the common culture is very powerful, and the alternative culture is weak, then we Christians will make choices and live pretty much the same as everyone else. If our alternative culture is strong, we Christians will make different choices than others, and live according to Jesus’ reality.

For most Christians, their local church is the only source of an alternative culture.  And when local churches lose their ‘saltiness’— their radical differences from the common culture  —  then churches become weak influences on the way that Christians make choices and live. But since, in America and Australia we Christians live in societies that have largely marginalized churches, the conventional culture is persuading people, even many Christians, that the  Christian culture’s ‘saltiness’  just doesn’t make sense any more. “You are the salt of the earth.” [Matthew 5:13]  The common culture does throw us a bone: It is OK to retain a semblance of church (so you can feel good about yourself that you ‘really’ are a Christian) but it is definitely not OK to be ‘salty’ and to try to live differently and perhaps even change the common culture and the world.

This in a nutshell, is the cultural argument for why local churches must be transformed, to increase their ‘saltiness’ and their ability to grow a strong alternative culture that can help Christians conflict with the common culture and more strongly bring Jesus’ ideals of reality into the world. Charles Taylor saw this in its largest historical context: “God is gradually educating mankind by transforming it from within. . . We are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee.”  It is up to us, the people in the pews, to see this now and decide to act.

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A. Why Change? — “I’m spiritual but I don’t go to church.”

I don’t know how many people I have talked to that told me they don’t go to church but they are spiritual. In fact many Christians I know take essentially the same stance when they see church as a place to go to (occasionally) and not something that is central in their lives.

I recently read an excellent book called UnChristian that is quite revealing. Click here to visit the author’s website. It describes Christianity and church as people outside our communities perceive us. In a way, this book presents a ‘Voice of the Customer’ for Christians since one of our fundamental purposes is to announce the Good news to people outside the church — and so many people are turned off when we do this. We could say, ‘not our fault’ or point to other Christians who we feel  give the church a bad name. Isn’t that playing the victim and denying our own responsibility for this situation? For me the book UnChristian was a strong wake-up call to look at my own local church and see how we might be responsible for this sorry state of affairs.Essential【中古】
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B. Where Does Our Church Need to Go? — A New Model for Local Churches

In my consulting practice I usually try to get business people to think about what their organization does (driven by its primary purpose) before they think about its structure. This follows the ancient Roman architectral design principle of ‘Form follows Function.’ It is better to design the functions of a building, an organization (or a church) before you decide how to organize the people doing these functions.

Most people find this very hard to do — their natural tendency is to want to know the ‘pecking order’ first. Who is the leader? Who is my boss? Who wields the power? I was part of a team many years ago that invented a way to get people to think in fresh ways about what their organization needs to do, without worrying about its structure. We called this method Value Streams.

Simply put, a Value Stream describes all the work necessary to satisfy the needs of a particular type of customer. For example, if a business has both large corporate customers as well as individual consumers, they would like to design the work for these two types of customers differently because their needs may be very different. You don’t worry about how the work is structured; you worry about what work must be done to meet needs. Value Stream thinking puts a premium on satisfying the needs of customers. [You can also have Value Streams focused on internal ‘customers’ too, such as a People Value Stream that is all the work that must be done to meet the needs of employees.]

I have used Value Stream thinking to create a fresh model of  a local church. This model has the following advantages:

  • It focuses on the needs of diverse people, whom the church is meant to serve.
  • It takes into account the differences between people in different situations, making the church sensitive to their different needs
  • It look at all the activities that a church might do and asks the question, “Who is this particular activity in service of?”
  • It provides a way to assess whether, and to what extent, a church’s current activities are meeting the needs of their key ‘customers.’

The following diagram shows a simple Value Stream model that fits any church.

Here is a brief explanation of the model. In the future, I will publish a more detailed model together witha Guide to the design process required to customize the model to meet the specific needs of any local church.

The Primary ‘Customer-facing’ Value Streams

  • The People ‘outside’ the church — non Christians — are served by the Connecting Value Stream. This might include activites like welcoming, evangelizing, initiation into the church, Baptism, and others. This value Stream responds the the Great Comission of Jesus.
  • The Members of the church — Christians, whether members of the local church or not — are served by the Belonging Value Stream. This might includes activities like liturgy, education, Bible Studies, community-building and others.
  • Poor and Needy people — whether Christian or not — are served by the Serving Value Stream. This might include activities like feeding the poor, clothing the naked, healing, visiting the imprisoned, and other activities by which Christians fulfill the most basic command of Jesus of loving our neighbors.

The Supporting Value Streams

  • The people who do the work in the Conecting and Belonging Value Streams are support by the work of the  Spiritual Value Stream. This might include activities like preparation for ministry, creating or enabling liturgies, coaching, retreats and others.
  • The people who do the work in the Serving Value Stream are supported by the Equipping Value Stream. This might include activities like special training, program creation, collaboration with other agencies and groups and others.

The Enabling Value Streams

  • All the work in the other value Streams is served by the Leadership Value Stream. This might include activities like parish council, recruting and organizing volunteers, transformation and others.
  • The financials and church building are served by the Stewarship & Facilities Value Stream. This includes fund raising and management, build programs and maintenace and others.
  • The professional employees of the church are served by the People Value Stream. This might include hiring, training, and other traditional HR activities.

This model can used used in a variety of ways

  • As a way to assess how effecteively a church’s current activities are linked to the needs of primary customers.
  • As a means to help everyone in a church see where their particular activity fits, and how it supports the overall church community
  • As the starting point for rethinking how a church might better prioritize and apply its resources.

 

 

 

C. How Do We Get There? — Seven steps to transform your local church

The transformation of a local church can be viewed in terms of a logical progression of steps. These steps don’t always follow one another in an orderly fashion. Nevertheless, I will present them as a coherent progression because it is easier to understand. Where there may be alternative paths, I will highlight this possibility and its significance at the appropriate time.

The seven steps of transformation of a local church

Transformation happens, not as a well-designed, planned program, but as a series of surprising changes – like a child growing. A church may plan a transformation program but it will never proceed according to plan, because the Holy Spirit is involved and a local church is complex. So, when you read the following Steps, think of them as overlapping, iterative and ‘messy,’ meaning never working exactly like you expect. It is best to think of transformation as a continuous learning process, with new understandings raising new questions and the need for more learning. Nonetheless, the work of each of these Steps is necessary so the local church ought to begin its ‘change journey’ by understanding the basics about each Step. This blog is only an introduction; I will be writing a detailed Guide and making it available when it is completed. But remember, there isn’t a ‘cookbook’ for transforming your local church. Real transformation is ‘advanced’ change, and there are no experts in local church transformation, only many students sharing their experiences.

Here, briefly, is the ‘100,000 foot view’ of local church transformation, to give you a perspective of what is involved involved.

Step 1.             Awakening – An individual or a group within a local church reads this Blog or has some other experience, and realizes that their local church needs to be transformed. These individuals are the Change Agents within the local church. They approach the Pastor and obtain his support to do Step 2, the Assessment Phase.

Step 2.             Assessment – A ‘Learning Team’ appointed by the Pastor, which includes the original Change Agents, reviews the church’s current ability to carry out Jesus’ purpose and presents their findings to the Pastor as well as other senior local church leaders.

Step 3.             Sponsorship – The Pastor agrees to be the Sponsor, and appoints and empowers a Transformation Team to design, plan and lead the rollout of the transformation. The original Change Agents ought to be part of this Team, or at a minimum be Advocates.

Step 4.             Design – The Transformation Team designs the future local church’s ‘Value Streams’ to better carry out Jesus’ purpose, and the changes required to build the future church. [There will be a future Blog covering Value Streams, a specific way of thinking about the ‘architecture’ of the functions of a future local church.]

Step 5.             Decision and Enrollment – The Transformation Team receives the Sponsor’s approval to implement the design and enrolls those people in the local church who are both the change leaders as well as the Beneficiaries of the new design.

Step 6.             Implementation – The change leaders, supported by the Transformation Team, do the detailed design and plan the required changes, then implement them, supporting the Beneficiaries of the changes as they make their own change journeys.

Step 7.             Guidance – All during this process, the Pastor and other appointed senior church leaders review and guide the progress of the transformation.

Again, these steps will be detailed in the Guide to be made available later.

The key roles involved in transformation of a local church

There are four key roles that are critical to the successful transformation of a local church. The people involved in these roles need to learn how to do them. It should not be assumed that people in these roles understand what is required of them just because they have read this Blog. This implies the need for an advisor (or teacher or coach) with experience and expertise to also be involved in the transformation process.

Sponsor (Pastor as Servant Leader) – A person who defines the intent of the transformation, allocates resources and enforces consequences of following (or not) the transformation initiative within the local church.

Change Agent (the core of the local church’s Transformation Team) – A person who sees the need for transformation, energizes the local church to change, and designs the changes in the local church required to accomplish the transformation.

Advocate – A person who believes in the transformation and actively persuades others in the local church to support it

Beneficiary – A person who must change in order for the transformation to happen, and who also receives the benefits of the transformation

These roles will be detailed in the future Guide.

Three major risks in transforming a local church, and how they must be mitigated

Lack of clarity – When the Sponsor, Change Agents and Advocates are unclear about the goal and process of transformation, a number of things can happen to endanger the transformational journey. First, the people in the church get mixed messages, which leads to added change resistance. Second, decisions are made more difficult because the choices are unclear. Third, energy is wasted pursuing tangents because the goal and outcomes are indistinct. This risk is mitigated by an early focus on achieving absolute clarity about intent and constant communications about this intent among the key players as well as the entire church – why we need to change; the desired outcomes and what the major steps will be to get there.

Change resistance – This risk is natural in every kind of change but especially in the fundamental changes involved in transformation. Many people may feel as if the church that they know and love is threatened by change, and they try to find ways to slow progress or even completely stop transformation. This risk is mitigated by helping such people adjust to change in small steps.

Poor management – The changes involved in transformation may involve all aspects of a church, many people and multiple tasks, all of which need to play together harmoniously. There needs to be an overall transformation initiative manager to achieve this result and many times that skill is absent in a church. The confusion that can result from poor management can demoralize the Transformation Team and even the whole church. The risk is mitigated by ensuring competent planning and management disciplines are understood and practiced.

Transformation as Cultural Change

The important thing to keep in mind is that transforming your local church is fundamentally about changing its culture. This generally means  ‘freeing’ it from the restraints that it has put on itself in order to ‘co-exist’ with the surrounding culture. Only if you see transformation in this light, will you focus on the right areas that need changing. A key barrier to cultural change is busyness. It is too easy to create activities that serve others but also serve staying in the status quo. Also, Jesus is the true leader of transformation and we always need to reflect and apply Jesus’ Principles before acting. “Who are we following in this area of church activities: the world or Jesus?” Since Jesus’ Principles are transformational, when we faithfully apply them, we will inevitably run into conflicts between the way things are now and the way they ought to be. That gap is an opportunity to transform the church’s culture.

What are some of the key points to keep in mind about cultural change?

  • A church may (and most likely does) have multiple cultures within its congregation. This usually results in clashes within the church that slow its overall transformation but also ensure that many different Beneficiaries, both internal and external, have their needs met.
  • Culture has many subtle yet powerful ways to defend the status quo.
  • Culture changes slowly, especially if there is a ‘paradigm shift’ involved.
  • Changing culture requires Change Agents who are willing to stay out of their personal ‘comfort zone.’

C. How Do We Get There? — Understanding the ‘Journey’ of Transformation

The best way to begin to understand what transforming a local church means is to use the metaphor of a ‘journey.’ There are a number of  journeys in the Bible but I will use the exodus from Egypt to illustrate the major features of a ‘journey of transformation.’ [1]

There are three major parts to the Exodus story: preparation and the decision to make the journey, the actual journey, and arrival in the Promised Land. I will briefly summarize some of the main features of each of these and relate them to transforming a local church.

Preparation and the decision to make the journey

From our perspective, looking back thousands of years with the eyes of faith, Moses is one of God’s heroes, so when we use the exodus journey as a metaphor for transforming a local church, we may become confused. Should we wait for a ‘hero’ to arrive, to lead us? Are we inflating the role of Change Agent, which we must fulfill, so that it requires heroic qualities beyond the reach of ordinary people? I suggest putting ourselves in Moses’ shoes, and seeing him as a reluctant leader and unlikely hero. That is precisely who we are, as we consider being Change Agents in our local church. [2]

The journey of transformation in Exodus begins with Moses’ personal change. He became aware of how badly the Hebrews were treated by the Egyptians, and killed an Egyptian who was beating one of the Israelites. To escape Pharaoh’s vengeance, Moses fled to escape being killed himself. “I can’t stay in this situation anymore” is generally the experience that starts an individual down a path toward finding ways to change the status quo.

Moses created a new life for himself as a shepherd in Midian, but he wasn’t yet a Change Agent. That was God’s work. God chose Moses, to transform the situation of his Chosen People. “God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” [Exodus 2:22] The sequence of events leading to Moses acceptance and performance of his role as Change Agent shows us our own personal path toward becoming ready to transform our local church. There are three steps in this preparation stage:

Encountering God

One day, while he was tending his father-in-laws’ sheep, Moses had an encounter with God. The burning bush got his attention, and he heard God’s voice calling him, “Moses! Moses! And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’” [Exodus 3:4b] God’s call collided with Moses own awareness of the Hebrews situation. Our personal struggles as Christians are the preparation for God’s call to us. Our willingness to listen is how we play our part in His plan to use us to fulfill His purposes. That may include becoming a Change Agent in our local church, if we open ourselves to that possibility.

Overcoming doubts

“So, now go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” [Exodus 3:10] God’s call is very clear and explicit in the Biblical retelling of the Exodus story. But you can also see how difficult it was for Moses to respond to God. “But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh   and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’” [Exodus 3: 11] In the verses that follow, Moses throws up one question and doubt after another, which God answers patiently, “How do I prove that God actually is behind this? What is your name?” “Why should the Israelites listen to me? What if they don’t believe me?” We can easily identify with these questions. Discerning a call from God is difficult, especially when we can so easily be misled by our own ego or give in to our fears. God’s reassurance to Moses was to provide other like-minded people to support him in the journey. God sent Aaron, Moses’ brother with him as a companion on the journey. “I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.” [Exodus 4: 15b] In transforming a local church, a small group of like-minded Change Agents is crucial in discerning the mind of Jesus and having the courage and resilience needed to undertake the difficult journey of transformation.

Decision to make the journey

The final step in preparation is taking the first irrevocable step on the journey, which involves a firm decision to leave the status quo. In Moses case, he first asked Jethro his father-in-law for permission to leave Midian. “Let me go back to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive.” [Exodus 4:18] He met Aaron and then all the elders of the people of Israel and, with Aaron’s help, convinced them that God wanted them to leave Egypt. In the case of a local church, this decision step involves convincing and aligning the Pastor and important people in the local church about God’s desire that the whole church begin the journey of transformation. This can be a difficult and discouraging process. “The Israelites did not listen (to Moses) because of their discouragement and cruel bondage.” [Exodus 6: 9] But God was insistent, even though Moses was discouraged. “Moses said to the Lord, ‘If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?’” [Exodus 6:12] And God kept on saying to Moses, “I am the Lord. Tell Pharaoh king of Egypt everything I tell you.” [Exodus 6:29] That is the choice that Change Agents must make: to focus on their own internal self-doubts or to focus on God’s insistent urgings to make the journey of transformation that God desires.

The actual journey

The actual Exodus journey seems to begin after the Pharaoh relented and let the Hebrews go. Before that happened however, there were the plagues, culminating in the ‘Passover’ when God killed the firstborn of every Egyptian but spared the Hebrews who had showed their faithfulness in smearing blood from a sacrificed lamb on their doorposts. Were the plagues and Passover part of the journey? Yes, because every significant change journey can only begin with an ‘ending’ stage. The Hebrews had to experience something that would make them leave their usual surroundings behind and end their familiar life, even slavery, to set off into a barren desert toward an unknown destination. That didn’t just depend on Moses and Aaron’s persuasion but on God’s clearly demonstrated support for their journey. The plagues and Passover were unmistakable evidence of this and bound the Israelite community together in a common purpose: to make a dangerous journey to find the Promised Land.

How can we relate the plagues and Passover to what we can expect from God in transforming a local church? God doesn’t always signal his support so dramatically. Elijah experienced God’s support for his mission and journey as a ‘gentle whisper.’ [1 Kings 19: 12b] The question is, should Change Agents expect some sign of God’s support for their mission of transforming a local church? Or should they depend on their own powers of enrollment and persuasion to unify their community at the beginning of the journey of transformation? As I ponder this, I believe that Change Agents should not depend on their own talents and resources. God will send signs of His support but they may be surprisingly ordinary ‘whispers’ not dramatic plagues. This highlights the strong need for prayer and discernment at the beginning of the change journey, when ‘endings’ and leaving the familiar behind will be required. Combine this with the requirement that the whole church community must make the journey, not just a few ‘early adopters,’ and the ending and setting off stage may be quite protracted, as the community waits and discerns God’s support for the journey.

The Israelites’ journey also started with great drama. Pharaoh let them go, then changed his mind and descended on the helpless Hebrews with his entire army. They wailed in fear, “What have you done to us? . . . It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” [Exodus 14: 11-12] We all know the story of what happened next, and probably have an image of Charlton Heston stretching out his hands and parting the waters for the Hebrews, and then stretching out his hands again and bringing the waters on top of Pharaoh’s army to drown them all. What can this mean for our journey?

This is a story of learning to trust, in God’s promises and in our own decision to set off on a journey of transformation. If we unpack the story in Exodus, Pharaoh’s change of heart can be seen as a loss of comfortable assumptions about transforming church and a collision with the harsh realities of opposition and discouragement. In the exodus story God told Moses what was going to happen, in advance, and Moses reassured the people.  I heard another story years ago that helped me understand this same situation.

I was leading a Change Team in a large Insurance company a number of years ago, and one of the executives described the ‘change journey’ like this.

“I was flying across America a few years ago on a brilliantly clear day. We were at 39.000 feet as we approached the Rocky Mountains, and I happened to notice some small towns in eastern Colorado. If you have ever been there, you know that the eastern third of Colorado is all barren, dry plains, with few trees and very little water. As I looked at these small towns I wondered why anybody would ever settle in a place like that. Then a reason occurred to me.

“I imagined that some poor farmers in Missouri, a thousand miles to the east, had heard about California and decided that the farm that they struggled to make successful wasn’t worth the effort. So they talked to some of their neighbors, who basically felt the same way and they all decided to go to California. They sold their farms, bought covered wagons and set off for the ‘promised land’ in California.  After traveling without any particular difficulty for a month or so, suddenly they saw the Rocky Mountains in the distance, on the horizon. Every day the mountains grew in size until, one day they seemed to fill the horizon with an impenetrable barrier.

“The farmers had a map someone had given them, and it showed a trail through the Rockies but it also showed that the journey to California would be all mountains and desert from now on, as soon as they entered the mountains. It all seemed too hard, almost impossible, so they just gave up their dream about a new life in California and settled right where they were, in those desolate plains of eastern Colorado.”

That business executive told his story to illustrate the importance of understanding the barriers and risks of the change journey – and the vital need of having guides on the journey who understand what will happen, who can help the community get past these barriers. That is the vital role that Change Agents must fulfill in transforming local churches. That is what Moses did for the Israelites, reassuring them that God had promised to be with them and was actively working on their behalf. “But Moses said, ‘Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. . . The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’” [Exodus 14: 13-14]

Arrival in the Promised Land

When does the journey of transformation end? Do we really ever arrive at a new church? Indeed, perhaps we never fully arrive until the final coming of Jesus. We always remain a ‘pilgrim church.’ So, how can we understand ‘arriving’ as a result of transforming church? The Israelites journeyed in the desert forty years before they entered Canaan. Arrival was a process that happened to them both before and after they reached the political border of the physical land that was given to them. This process can be seen as a ‘continuous arrival in the Promised Land’ in God’s time, according to his plan. We can expect the same ‘continuous arrival at new church’ on our own journey of transformation. How does this process of ‘continuous arrival in the Promised Land’ work?

As the Israelites were about to enter Canaan, Moses looked back over their forty years in the desert. [3] He reminded them of everything the Lord had done for them, in spite of their continued grumbling and losses of faith. He reminded them that they hadn’t trusted God before they fought the Amorites. “You grumbled in your tents and said, ‘The Lord hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.” [Deuteronomy 1:27] And, indeed, because they were hardhearted and did not trust in God, the Amorites “chased you like a swarm of bees and beat you down from Seir all the way to Hormah.” [Deuteronomy 1:44] Moses told them this story before he retold their encounter with the Law, which established how they were to live in the Promised Land. “Walk in all the ways that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.” [Deuteronomy 5:33] What do these two stories say about ‘continuous arrival’ in a journey of transformation?

God promised to give a homeland to the Hebrews, and led them through transformational experiences to prepare them to live in this land as he wishes them to live. He fed them with Manna when they were starving and provided water from the rock. He clearly showed them that when they trusted him, he did great works in their behalf – but when they didn’t trust him, they were like any other people and could be defeated. He gave Moses very explicit instructions in the Law, which described life in his kingdom. “If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers.” [Deuteronomy 7:12] Seen from this perspective ‘continuous arrival’ means gradual growth of a community into God’s people. In the journey that a local church makes, we should expect the same type of gradual growth, as well as times of forgetting and backsliding. The Change Agents must create the desire in the community to continue the journey no matter what happens in the short term.

Viewing the full sweep of the history of the Israelites from our current day perspective, you can easily see that they and their descendents are still ‘arriving’ in the Promised Land, and not yet fully there in the 4000 years since Abraham. And we Christians are just the same as them, ‘continuously arriving’ in God’s promised kingdom of the New Covenant but not yet there. While we may feel that we have learned a great deal from our transformational journey over 2000 years, we are still in the arrival process, with all its human foibles and need for divine forgiveness. Change Agents need to understand that whatever accomplishments may be achieved by the local church as it tries to more closely follow the mind of Jesus, the journey will continue. This awareness of the local church’s role in ‘Salvation History’ as well as learning to be mindful of its practical consequences in the life of the church is one of the important steps in the journey of transformation.

The final irony in Deuteronomy is that Moses could not enter the Promised Land. He “broke faith with (the Lord) in the presence the Israelites . . . and did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites. Therefore, you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel.” [Deuteronomy 32: 51-52] This is a clear warning to Change Agents and leaders in local churches. There are risks in the transformational journey, and those who lead the church need to be aware of them and take them seriously. These risks should not discourage the community from undertaking the journey. In God’s Plan, churches cannot opt out of making the journey. To me, these risks once again emphasize the need for prayer. Only by trusting that God is going before the church, to prepare the way and the Promised Land, can we find the courage to be Change Agents and leaders of this journey.

Lessons from Exodus for the church’s journey of transformation

I will not cover the practical details of how to help a local church make a journey of transformation in this Blog. I am currently writing A Guide to Transforming Your Local Church which will be available on this website when it is completed. The process I will  describe in that Guide is based on the experiences of many experts in organizational change. Equally important, I have amplified that organizational change process to take into account the lessons of the holy journey of transformation that each church is being called to make, as exemplified in Exodus.

Briefly, here are a few lessons that we can learn from Exodus about each local church’s journey of transformation.

Lesson 1. The change journey of a local church is difficult.

Exodus does not describe a ‘change project,’ or finding practical everyday solutions to help the Hebrews live better and serve God in the land of Egypt. It describes an incredible adventure, of leaving, being pursued, almost starving, facing countless enemies and finally arriving after many years of wandering in a vast wasteland. Understanding this, preparation for the journey is vital, especially of the church’s leaders.

Lesson 2. The change journey needs dedicated people – Change Agents — who can see where the church must go and help the church’s leaders see the path and guide them through the steps.

The Hebrews would never have left Egypt unless God had sent Moses to them. They were trapped in slavery and surrounded by a formidable barrier, the vast desert. They didn’t know where to go or how to get there. Local churches need Change Agents who, with God’s help, can persuade the church’s leaders that the journey must be made, and then support them and the entire community as the journey progresses.

Lesson 3. The change journey needs leaders who are strongly committed to help the entire church community make this difficult journey

God led the Hebrews using a few people, the leaders and elders. They were the essential intermediaries who, with Moses help, saw what God was doing on the journey and communicated this to the Hebrews. Transforming a local church is not a ‘one person job,’ for a charismatic leader or anyone else. It requires that a number of people in the church fulfill leadership roles in the journey.

Lesson 4. The ones who actually have to change – the entire community, including leaders and Change Agents – need to be supported every step of the journey.

The Hebrews constantly struggled on the journey. If they could have gone back to Egypt, they would have. They lost trust in God and even worshipped a Golden Calf. Yet, God chose the entire community as his people, not just a few people that were ‘good enough’ to make the journey.  Helping people change their long established habits is one of the key challenges that Change Agents and leaders must deal with when transforming a local church.

Lesson 5. The leaders and Change Agents need to anticipate the risks of the change journey and put plans in place to lessen or eliminate those risks proactively.

God knew what the Hebrews faced before they did, and prepared ways to help them get past these risks. The Lord told Moses what he should do, to help the people find Manna or defeat their enemies. In the same way, Change Agents and leaders need to depend on God to help them past the difficulties they will surely face. Some of these risks are common on any change journey, such as change resistance. Some are unique to the challenge that the church faces in the 21st century. Prayerful awareness and preparation are an essential undertaking for leaders and Change Agents.


[1] I will use the terms journey of transformation and change journey interchangeably. While all changes may not be transformational, transforming a local church is generally concerned with making numerous changes, some small and some large.

[2] There is a mythic dimension to undertaking a journey of transformation, which Joseph Campbell described in his classic Hero with a Thousand Faces. He described this mythic journey as ‘a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” In this sense, the Change Agents I describe in this book are heros, because they intend to leave the everyday common world of church and, with Jesus’ help, successfully help their fellow Christians find the ‘boons’ of a new way of being church. However, I will not expand or emphacize this heroic aspect of transformation. Jesus never saw himself as a hero and neither should we. See Philippians 2: 6-11.

[3] This retrospective look is contained in the Book of Deuteronomy.