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Long-term commitment by pastor called crucial in church change

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Affecting change in a church requires a slow pace — four to six years in some cases — and a long-term commitment from the staff, said pastors Hal Mayer and Dan Southerland of Fort Lauderdale’s Flamingo Road Baptist Church, a church that has transitioned from 300 to more than 2,500 in attendance and established 21 missions/grandmissions to bring attendance to over 7,500 in 22 congregations.

Sharing insights on how to transition churches during New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s annual Layne Lectures Nov. 7-8, Mayer told students, staff and faculty, “You must go slow. You will kill a church if you are transitioning too quickly.”

The average transition takes four years, some as long as six years, Mayer said.

Countering the concern that some may feel they don’t have time to wait several years, Southerland said, “If you don’t have time to transition a church over four to five years, then do not lead that church. It is immoral to lead change and then leave the church.”

Because he knew it would take time to change the church’s dynamics, Southerland made a 20-year commitment to Flamingo Road after seeking God for more than six months in prayer. Lamenting that most staff people do not stay long enough to affect change, Southerland said, “When you first come to a church, especially right out of seminary, most of your members are older than you are, and they have all been there longer than you have. But if you stay at a church long enough, you get to a place where you are older than they are and have been there longer than they have been.”

When he started at FRC, Southerland said, he was 33 years old. At that time, the median age of the congregation was 51 years old. Eleven years later, the median age is 33 years old, and he has been there longer than 90 percent of the congregation.

“That’s called power and authority to lead change,” Southerland said. “You don’t get that by moving from church to church. You get that by going somewhere and staying where you are.”

Flamingo Road has made significant transitions in its ministry, most notably its change from a traditional program-driven, committee/deacon-driven church to a contemporary purpose-driven, staff-led church.

“If you were to look up the word traditional in the dictionary, you would have seen a picture of our church,” Mayer said, noting that the church’s worship style is now very contemporary in an effort to reach its target audience of younger Fort Lauderdale residents.

“It’s not that contemporary is better than traditional,” he stressed. “You just have to choose the style of music that fits your purpose, your target and your strategy.”

Southerland underscored this point by sharing what he has learned from recent travels to South America. He recounted how 80 to 100 years ago, missionaries, bringing organs on horseback, required the indigenous people to learn sacred music that was coming from America, instead of using their native music.

However, he said, missionaries now have turned the people there loose to go back to the music of their souls. Consequently, their worship has just jumped off the charts because the music now matches their target and their hearts. “God does not value the style of music,” Southerland said. “He values the heart in the music, the worship in the music.”

Mayer also noted about the church’s transition to a purpose-driven approach: “The purpose-driven [mentality] fundamentally changes the way you do business. It’s not about rearranging the furniture or the outside, or getting a praise band, or using a screen. … It’s the basic philosophy behind your ministry.”

Southerland said the church had 19 committees and a board of deacons before transitioning but now has a team of pastoral staff members who transitioned from doing all the ministry to being equippers of lay ministers who do the ministry.

Other notable changes include a change in schedule — the church now has five different worship services to accommodate the varying schedules of its target audience — and a change in discipleship — from a traditional Sunday school approach to a strategic small group approach.

Combining the best of Sunday school with the best of cell groups, Southerland explained that though the church still uses the schedule and the age-graded plan of the Sunday school program, they use the cell group relationship-building interactive model.

“We shoot lecturers in our church,” he quipped, before more seriously saying, “We encourage people to get involved in the study of God’s Word.”

Flamingo Road is also intentionally mission-focused. It was important not only to reach people in the community and assimilate them into the church, but also to start other churches, Mayer explained. The church has started 21 mission churches within the last 10 years, 16 of which are within driving distance of their church and five of which are in other countries, including Cuba, Peru and Colombia.

“We believe it is not a matter of growing a mega-church or starting missions. It is not ‘either/or.’ That’s the wrong question,” Mayer said. “The decision is that we’re going to reach everybody we can with our church, and we’re going to continue to start new churches because we know that new churches reach people for Christ.”

The past 11 years of transitioning has taught Flamingo Road key lessons on how to change from a church that was actually designed to meet the needs of mature Christians to one designed to reach the lost.

Over the years, they have learned the following seven keys for successfully transitioning churches:

Key 1: Every church should continually be in transition.

“If you are following a creative, active God, then you are in the creative process of transitioning all the time,” Southerland said. Likewise, Mayer added, “If we don’t transition, then we don’t know what business we are in.

“If we think that we are in the business of doing Sunday school at 9 in the morning and worship services at 11 and we are locked into that, then we are going to miss the next generation,” Mayer continued. “That is not the business we are in. The message is the business that we are in.”

Key 2: Every church leader should be continually in transition.

“The difficulty in most churches today is that the leader won’t transition. It takes a crisis or a catalytic leader to bring about change,” Southerland said. He shared how Marian, an elderly leader in the church, came to him after he taught a lesson about why they use contemporary music at FRC. With tears running down her face, she told him, “I don’t like the music. It’s too loud, it’s too obnoxious, and I miss the hymns. But if this music will help this church reach my grandkids for Christ, then I will support you all the way.” Three months later, they won her grandson and his entire family to Christ. “Mrs. Marian modeled as an 85-year-old lady the choice of purpose over preference,” Southerland said. “She was a church leader willing to be in transition.”

Key 3: Two main keys to successful transition are preparation and pace.

Concerning preparation, Mayer said, “It’s a disservice to the kingdom of God if the local politician better understands the community than we do. We have to use a methodology that translates the message to that community.” He cited Flamingo Road’s membership covenant, which clearly relays that if someone is living in an immoral lifestyle [living with someone outside of marriage or in homosexuality] then the church will not baptize him or her. “We raise the bar [for membership] but at the right place,” he said. Up to that point, visitors are lovingly taught what the Bible says. “Doctrine matters,” Southerland said, “but so does the attitude behind the doctrine. You’ve got to do the preparation before reaching out to people.”

Concerning pace, Southerland said, “The goal is not to kill a church, but to bring it to life in a fresh new way.”

Key 4: Create a climate of change in the church.

Pastors who go to conferences and come back to implement change without a climate of change will fail, Mayer said. “Lead one change at a time, very slowly and carefully. Then when you have completed that one change, then you begin on the new one.”

Southerland continued, “You can’t change a dozen things at a time. [But] by the fourth or fifth slow change, you have created a climate for change.”

Key 5: Most staff people do not stay long enough to effect change.

A commitment of time is necessary, Mayer said, noting that most pastors are not viewed as true leaders until their seventh year in a pastorate.

Key 6: The key elements in any transition are purpose, target and strategy.

Mayer explained, “Purpose is what you are about. ‘What is it God has called us to do?’ Target is ‘Who are we going after with this?’ Strategy is ‘How we are going to do it?'” Southerland explained that most churches start with programming, which is strategy, but the focus first must be on what God has called the church to do, then the strategy can be developed.

He added: “There are four different groups in our communities: lost people who are not in church; Christians who are not in church; baby Christians in your community; and mature Christians in your community. Which one of those groups is your target?” He said that most churches will say it is the lost, but if one examines their programming, the group that they are most designed for is mature Christians.

Key 7: Transition is more of a process than about a final product.

“It’s not about a destination. Life is about a journey,” Mayer said. “Don’t wait to do ministry until after you get out of seminary.”

“As long as we are on this earth, it is about change,” Southerland said. “As long as we are leading God’s church, it is going to be about change.”

    About the Author

  • Shannon Baker

    Shannon Baker is director of communications for the Baptist Resource Network of Pennsylvania/South Jersey and editor of the Network’s weekly newsletter, BRN United.

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