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6/13/97 Fear of change, failure cited as barriers to church growth

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–Corporate America has experienced continuous change in the 1990s. Can the same be said about the Christian church?
That question was posed to participants in a series of seminars at Glorieta (N.M.) Baptist Conference Center during the June 9-13 National Sunday School Leadership Conference. Jeff Young, minister of education at North Richland Hills Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas, and David Wills, general administration associate for the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board, led sessions on “Identifying and Breaking Barriers to Growth.”
Young suggested that while many businesses have been transformed in the last decade, many churches have stayed “comfortably” the same. As a result, they’re not reaching the unchurched for Christ.
“We are still answering questions the typical unchurched person is not asking,” Young said.
Why do people resist change? He listed several reasons, including:
— The change isn’t self-initiated. It’s imposed on people without their input or consent.
— Their routine is disrupted.
— It creates a fear of the unknown.
— The purpose of the change is unclear. “Be sure people have a chance to understand why you are going to do something and what the benefits will be,” Young said. “Don’t just tell them, ‘This is what we’re going to do.'”
— People are satisfied with the way things are.
— Traditional thinking. “They think the same thing that worked 10-15 years ago will work today. It won’t.”
Young suggested asking the following questions as part of a “checklist for change:”
— Is this change compatible with the purpose of the organization?
— Is it possible to test this change before making a total commitment to it?
— Does it have both long- and short-range benefits?
— Is the leadership capable of bringing this about?
— Is the timing right?
Related to the last question, Young shared the following comments from author John Maxwell: “The wrong decision at the wrong time equals disaster. The wrong decision at the right time equals a mistake. The right decision at the wrong time equal unacceptance. The right decision at the right time equals success.”
Young urged church leaders to create a “climate of change” in their congregations. While on staff at First Baptist Church, Norfolk, Va., he said leaders did “little things” to create an openness to change, from changing the cover of the worship bulletin to the location of classes.
It’s important to remember that “effective teaching only comes through a changed person,” Young added. He shared the following tips for creating a climate of change:
— Develop a trust with the people.
— Make personal changes before asking for change. (Model change.)
— Understand the history of the church. Good leaders “don’t take the fence down until they know the reason why it was put up,” Young said.
— Place influencers in leadership positions.
— Check the “change in your pocket,” the amount of trust people put in your leadership. A leader’s “change” can be increased, Young said, through compassion, competence and consistency.
“Not all change is improvement, but without change, there can be no improvement,” Young said. He shared a quote from William Hewitt, president of John Deere: “To be a leader you must preserve all through your life the attitude of being receptive to new ideas.”
Fear of failure is another barrier to church growth, Young said, adding leaders, both paid and volunteer, are vulnerable at this point.
“We can’t be afraid to try (new things),” Young said. “A small thinking leadership can hold a church back in drastic ways.”
Wills discussed a third barrier to growth — a “just-the-right-size” mentality among church members.
“People just naturally want a comfortable group,” he said. “Classes don’t want to divide because it breaks up their fellowship, their routine.”
Other causes for this destructive mentality, Wills said, include:
— a lack of understanding of the mission of the church.
— a fear of a loss of identity (“If we get too large, I won’t know everyone.”).
— a fear of a loss of power or control.
So how do you overcome the “right size” mentality? Wills gave the following suggestions:
— Build strong small groups in your church.
— Recognize and build around “stumps.” Wills explained: “Some classes just aren’t going anywhere. Unless God himself gets into that class, they probably aren’t going to do much. Learn to go around them. Don’t let them hold you back.”
— Help classes develop a vision. Ask: “What is this class going to do in light of the Great Commission?”
Wills said he stopped fighting the “dividing thing” with Sunday school classes. “Instead, what we did is ask, ‘How many of you feel led by God to start a new class? Then we had people who were committed to reaching out to new people.”
Among other growth barriers discussed in the Glorieta seminars were:
— Changing demographics. In planning how to respond to this barrier, Wills encouraged leaders to find out how they really are changing by consulting with their association, state convention office, local schools, the city planner or realtors.
— Poor location. This barrier can relate to poor accessibility, congested traffic patterns in the area or a difficult-to-find address. While this is seen as a major barrier by many church leaders, Wills quoted a study by Thom Rainer of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., which found that location was not a factor in conversion growth among the 536 fastest- growing churches in the Southern Baptist Convention.
— The failure to be non-Christian-friendly. “There is a whole world out there that nobody is reaching — secular America,” Young said. Quoting from Christian author George Hunter, he listed the following steps to relational evangelism: 1) begin with active listening; 2) begin where the people are; 3) use a simplistic vernacular, i.e., avoid “churchy” language; 4) practice good dialogue skills; 5) practice the cumulative effect (build a relationship); and 6) utilize creative redundancy, i.e., find innovative ways to share the same message over and over again.
Wills encouraged leaders to find the “party animals” in their church — the people lovers — and have them serve as greeters or workers in the church welcome center. “Churches of acceptance, those are the ones who are reaching non-Christians,” he said.
The National Sunday School Leadership Conference was sponsored by the Baptist Sunday School Board’s Bible teaching-reaching division.

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  • Chip Alford