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.’

Transformation needs a realistic assessment

How much does our local church need to change? Are we already doing our ‘utmost for his highest’ according to Oswald Chambers’ famous yardstick? How do we measure ourselves, and against what standards?

I offer the following standard as a starting point for discussing and answering the question how much do we actually need to change? Christians should break Jesus’ mission into three fundamental areas of focus of a church’s activities – Welcoming, Belonging and Serving. These three areas can be directly tied to Jesus’ own life and teaching so we can be confident that they are truly transformational activities. They can also be measured, which allows us to objectively assess how much we actually need to change.

  • Welcoming: Our attitude toward strangers and what we do to invite them to experience Jesus’ kingdom.
  • Belonging: What we do to grow the maturity of Christians, especially in regard to strengthening them in Jesus’ alternative cultural reality.
  • Serving: What we do to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc, following Jesus’ first Principle of the Preferential Option for the Poor.

Each church most likely will have on-going activities in each of these three areas. The question is not only how well we are doing these, but also what are we not doing? That is why I included “strangers” under Welcoming, Jesus’ “alternative cultural reality” under Belonging, and “preferential Option for the Poor” under Serving. We need to measure ourselves using the mind of Jesus and our measurement ‘yardstick’ must have some ‘bite’ to it. Looking at other options for these three areas, and applying Jesus’ Principles to decide whether they ought to be done is a good way to answer the question how much do we actually need to change.

 

Applying Jesus’ Principles to decisions

Imagine that Jesus is sitting in your Parish Council meeting. Eleven people are discussing some decision that needs to be made, e.g., should we construct a quiet room in the church so parents can attend services but their babies won’t disturb the rest of us? This room will cost a significant amount of money. Jesus sits silently and listens to the discussion, which winds on and on. The hour is getting late. Finally Jesus speaks. He doesn’t say what the decision ought to be; he just lays out the pros and cons from his way of thinking. He leaves the decision up to the rest of us.

Jesus is showing us how his mind works in this specific situation. If he does this for enough different issues, over time we begin to get a sense of the ‘mind of Jesus’ when it comes to the ordinary life of our parish. We can infer certain common principles about how Jesus thinks about the pros and cons of the everyday issues in our local church. Eventually, Jesus doesn’t have to speak up in the Parish Council at all because we understand and apply his principles to our choices. He may occasionally nod, “Yes, you’ve got it right” or shake his head, “That’s not quite the way that I think about this situation.” We gradually become comfortable that we are making the choices that Jesus desires. When that happens, the local church is thinking and making choices with ‘the mind of Jesus.’ There are no guarantees that we are 100% right all the time, but in prayer, before and after serious decisions, we sense whether Jesus is nodding ‘Yes’ or shaking his head ‘No.’ We are doing the process of Principle Based Decision Making based on common principles that we have tested with Jesus.

When Christians accept Jesus as their leader, in practical terms they believe that they can understand Jesus’ plan and his guidance on how to ‘execute’ it. Otherwise, saying Jesus is our leader would be just an empty statement, because Christians would have no practical way of following him. A usual way that all Christians use to understand what Jesus wants of them is by using the Bible. From reading, discussing and praying about relevant passages in the Bible, Christians understand Jesus’ teachings and his way of life, especially how he made practical choices.

Life in modern society is complex. We are faced with many practical choices each day, e.g., How to use our time, how to use our money, how to relate to people, how to relate to political and legal systems, etc. Part of becoming a mature Christian is learning what the mind of Jesus is about our choices in life and how to follow his example and teachings. This is a life-long undertaking. All of us miss the mark sometimes; nonetheless, we know in our hearts that following Jesus as our leader means that we must take his guidance and plan seriously.

When it comes to the choices that a local church makes, following Jesus’ leadership is even more important because the choices that a church makes affect many people. There are many ways that different churches try to guard against making the wrong choices. In this regard, most churches are conservative and avoid making abrupt or sweeping changes. But when transformation seems called for, we obviously need to understand the mind of Jesus.

I am advocating Principle Based Decision-making as an appropriate way for local churches to make difficult, perhaps controversial choices and, at the same time, be respectful of the mechanisms that are in place to guard against the risks of wrong choices. Obviously, how this process is implemented will vary from church to church. Nonetheless, by applying the principles I provide, which overtly bring the mind of Jesus into every serious choice, churches will take a fresh look at how they are living out the plan and guidance of their leader. That is an important step towards transforming the local church. [Click here to download a pdf of a starter set of Principles and Process for Christian Decisionmaking]

Jesus was focused on helping people find the freedom that God intended, and healing whatever ills they were suffering from. He wanted to shock the local church into paying attention to God’s priorities, which weren’t following rules but feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the imprisoned, healing the sick, etc. This would require changing how people thought about the structure of society and the church’s role in society. Jesus knew that this would transform everything in his disciple’s lives.

Each local church needs to decide how to transform itself and engage in actions that further Jesus’ mission. This requires that we know how Jesus would decide and act if he were present with us in the various situations we face, so that we can decide and act like him. This, in turn, requires we agree on a set of principles that will guide us as we make choices, as individuals, as small groups and ultimately as a whole local church.


[1] There are many other ways as well, which are not universally practiced across all churches, such as tradition, authoritative teaching, discernment in prayer, and others. Because this book is for all Christians, I will only use the Bible as my source for understanding his mind and purposes.