Patience and a planned strategy are key ingredients.

My next church will be one I start myself. I’m tired of fighting with established churches.” That lament by a discouraged pastor sums up a prevailing attitude. The current literature on church growth does little to alleviate the problem. It usually deals either with churches that were founded by the present pastor, or churches that were all but dead and started fresh under the leadership of the current pastor. Their ideas are usually good and obviously work for them, but often they are not accepted by people in established churches used to doing things their way. How do we get these people to change so that their churches can also grow?

Four basic areas of change are necessary if an old, established church is to grow. At least some progress in one area is the prerequisite for moving to the next.

First, there must be change in the focus of the church. A stagnant congregation is almost always self-serving. Little thought is given to reaching out to the community. People whose habits are different from those of the church people are probably viewed nervously as intruders, rather than as opportunities. Members can be shown how important it is to have a concern to win those who are outside the family of God. That focus can begin to infect the people: through Spirit-anointed preaching, the showcasing of those who are having a ministry of outreach, and the personal example of the pastor.

Once progress is seen in the church’s change of focus, organization can be tackled. By design or default, many older churches are so organized that it is almost impossible for new leaders or ideas to emerge. A negative minority often becomes entrenched, courtesy of the machinery of the church government. Gently, but persistently, there must be creative pressure to change that.

Possibilities for such change will vary according to the particular form of church government. In almost any setting, however, change is possible. Forming new committees, rewriting the bylaws, instituting rules of tenure for officers, setting up advisory groups, calling together ad hoc task force groups—all of these are ways to shake up the organization in a positive way.

Patience is the key: change may take months or even years. Pastors who want to improve organizational structure should study the subject. Whether one reads in business literature (Peter Drucker is an excellent author for starters), or in the emerging field of church management (Norman Shawchuck or Lyle Schaller are worth reading), it is possible to learn.

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Having seen movement toward outreach, and having achieved some changes in organization, one can move on next to changes in church leadership. As openings occur, work to put new, positive people into those positions. But remember, one or two key changes that do not disrupt the unity of the body are worth more than a whole new church board with a church split.

Of course, not all church leaders will be convinced. Some will not like the new direction, no matter how patient you are. If an older church is to grow, there must be gracious opportunities for some unhappy people to leave quietly. Others will move to the sidelines because they are not sure they agree with what is happening. Keep loving them—but let them rest. The change of pace may help them; they may even turn to a new area of service in the church that will excite them anew.

The fourth area of change is in style. Wait patiently for the right time to introduce such changes. For example, “body-life” services can be inspiring and helpful, but they can be disastrous if introduced before people are ready. New ideas abound to help an established church start a pattern of ongoing growth, but if they are to work, they must be founded first on new attitudes and leadership.

Can positive change come to an established church? Definitely. Here is what happened in one such church in a small, midwestern town:

In the late 1960s this church was averaging just over 200 in its morning worship service. A new pastor was called: he was the only paid staff member. Several years earlier the congregation had voted against a building program, even though there were some hints of growth. Now the people were again considering building, even though attendance had been slipping and there was not unanimous enthusiasm for the project.

Following the steps outlined above, the new pastor spent the first two or three years setting a new tone through his preaching and example. He spent much time encouraging outreach. While overseas missions had always been strongly emphasized, the people needed that same sense of mission to the growing area in which the church was located.

The first step toward changing the focus of the church came among the leaders. When a congregational vote on the new building barely met the two-thirds majority necessary, the leaders courageously decided to press ahead with the project. The construction of that building became, in itself, an important symbol of the new focus of the church: it was expanding to reach its community for Christ.

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After three years of ministry, the pastor suggested a committee to rewrite the church bylaws. Organizing the church into departments, with new department committees, gave an opportunity to include newer people among the leaders. None of the old leaders had to be let go. The new leaders accelerated the interest in outreach. New staff members were added to expand ministries (youth, nursery school, music, etc.). This worked to reach new people, and in turn it started a positive growth cycle.

After four or five years of this pastor’s ministry, a distinct shift in style took place. Music, for instance, took on a wider range of styles to accommodate the influx of young people, while serious attempts were made to include music to satisfy the tastes of the older members as well. With a spirit of outreach now characterizing the church, such give and take was possible.

The test of change is what happens over a period of years. This church passed that test. Today, even though the pastor has moved to another ministry, that church continues to grow. Recently a second worship service and Sunday school program were added.

Remember: patience is the key. In older churches one cannot introduce change as boldly or dramatically as you can in a new work. But you can follow this suggested sequence.

It is not right to put all our church-growth focus on starting new churches. We must also look at the tremendous potential in already established churches. We need patience and persistence to lead them into change and growth. Over the next decade we may be surprised at what will happen in this way to church life in America.

DONALD GERIGMr. Gerig is the senior pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois.

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