Navigating the church system (3 of 5): Why churches change slowly

It’s ironic that churches are all about promoting change in people’s lives, but change in its own ministry is often met with great resistance. The church strives for changing lives, but rarely for changing ministry. This often frustrates youth workers to no end because we’re typically young, arrogant, full of new ideas, adventurous and willing to take risks if for no other reason than to get a good adrenaline rush.

Youth ministry, more than any other area of ministry, continually changes. The faces in our youth groups change, the teenagers themselves are in a constant state of physical and emotional change, youth culture changes month to month, and often we spend a considerable amount of time thinking of ways to make this week’s youth meeting different from the last. It’s no wonder that youth ministries are naturally used to change, but we have to remember that youth ministry is unique from the rest of the church in this regard. Change is never neutral for the church. We cannot promote change without expecting some side affects.

Why do churches change so slowly?

  • Churches view themselves as guardians of tradition. They see a lot of change around them and most of it is negative. Unfortunately, they become guardians of cultural traditions, not Biblical or doctrinal traditions. Whenever churches have a history that they appreciate, there is an emotional bond to hold on to that.
  • We operate like “family” in church. When we’re hired, we sometimes feel like an outsider for a while because there’s a system in place that is unfamiliar to us. It takes some time to learn the system, just like we’d expect if we joined a new family. Families are weird sometimes.
  • We have a fuzzy bottom line. Many churches are wrestling with big questions, like, “What does success look like?” The church’s vision is often weak, it’s sense of identity is unclear and it’s direction is stagnant. When they hire a new youth pastor, they do so with a certain set of criteria, but what criteria will they use in two years to say, “We’re really glad our new youth pastor is here.” The same criteria or something different? The bottom line is fuzzy.
  • Church members are tired. “Church system people” are tired of change. Most people in their 50s and older are scared and tired of change. They want church, unlike their workplace, to feel stable. Youth pastors often don’t have enough track record to compel these people to invite change. When we say to someone, “I have a new idea,” we have to realize two things. First, change will require work from them and most people are already tired. Secondly, when we suggest change, it will require more work for us. We can only make it through the change if we believe that the short-term pain will be worth it in the end.
  • Few pastors consider themselves gifted leaders. Interesting, but true. Pastors see themselves as caregivers, teachers, and relational ministers, not always as leaders. Thus, some pastors lack the courage and desire to implement change in the first place. They feel quite comfortable doing what they love and are best at — loving people.
  • We have an intergenerational church. Some youth pastors become so frustrated that we leave the church, call ourselves church planters and start our own church thinking that we can finally build the church of our dreams without the older people who resist our ideas for change. What we fail to realize is that if the church actually lasts, in 20 years it’ll be intergenerational again. The church was meant to be intergenerational! We need to embrace the diversity and learn to work with our brothers and sisters in Christ rather than canning them in order to build an institution of our own ideologies. If we don’t like the diversity here, we’ll hate heaven!

Church people are guardians of tradition. If we inadvertently communicate that their old way is bad and that our new way is good, the resistance will skyrocket. Don’t do that! We need to be careful how we approach change. Both the process and communication are huge. As youth workers, we tend to be driven by the results, not the process. We’re excited and motivated to rush for the end result, but if we ever want to see that end result, we have to be willing to progress slowly down the path that will take us there, always communicating and expressing value and appreciation for the old idea while embracing the new. Remember, we’re not leaders if no one is following, so go slow.

Read the rest of this series:
Navigating the church system (1 of 5): Youth workers need help!
Navigating the church system (2 of 5): Leadership tensions
Navigating the church system (4 of 5): Understanding the adoption curve
Navigating the church system (5 of 5): Common mistakes by youth pastors

The above material is based on Tiger McLuen’s seminar, “Surviving as a youth worker in an imperfect church.” Used and edited with permission. Thanks, Tiger!

Posted on January 30, 2008

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