In 1986 country singer Ronnie Milsap scored a number one hit with the song “Lost in the Fifties Tonight.” That kind of describes the way things were In 1980 when I began my ministry in the church I would serve for the next 37 years. When we arrived, the church was very traditional. With an emphasis on very and traditional.
I want to hasten to say that I loved the church and the people. Through the decades of my time there we went through a number of changes, but early on it was definitely a challenge.
As an example, in the early 1980’s, small groups were hardly a new idea. Many churches had introduced them into their regular weekly program, usually replacing the traditional Wednesday night prayer meeting. But when we tried to start small groups in our church, we found that a significant number of people were unhappy that they were no longer meeting in the auditorium. We found that out by taking a survey asking people to identify what they wanted to see take place on Wednesday night.
To be honest, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that the location of a church meeting trumped what happened in that meeting, but that’s the way it was. However, after a couple of years the demographics of the church changed, several dozen younger couples had become members, and we were able to start a small group ministry with a minimum of upset. In fact, the only complaint I heard was from one older man who was concerned that meeting in homes might create a moral dilemma. He posed this question to my brother-in-law, who was one of our group leaders: “What if you are sitting on the sofa and you inadvertently sit too close to – and maybe even touch – someone of the opposite sex who is not your wife?” True story. Hardly an argument against having small groups in homes, but I did appreciate his heart.
If you are a young man involved in an older church, it is likely that you will bump up against the anti-change crowd. How are you going to handle them? A few suggestions:
First, make sure that you have a good reason for the change you want to take place. Just because other churches are doing it (and with success) doesn’t mean it’s right for your church. Adults who are in their 60’s and older have seen an enormous amount of change in their churches, and many of them feel that they’ve lost aspects of church life that were meaningful to them. Before you introduce something new – especially when it involves replacing what the church has known for a long time – make sure the change is really going to benefit your congregation.
Second, do some research. You shouldn’t even attempt change without having the support of your leaders. If they’re hesitant, put it on the back burner and try again another time. You might also talk to other pastors who initiated the same changes or, more importantly, talk about the proposed changes with a couple of people in your congregation who are level-headed and able to keep things in confidence. Make sure you don’t just talk to one age group, and consider the counsel you receive from the people you talk to.
Third, take your time. You don’t have to change overnight. The changes you want to see take place might be able to happen incrementally rather than all at once. This is especially true when you are making changes that are more drastic. We were eventually able to remake our entire Wednesday night program, but it was something that we took four years to accomplish. If we had imposed all the changes at once, it would have been a fiasco.
Fourth, remember that you can’t please everyone. When I came to the aforementioned church, adult Sunday School classes were lacking. I was tasked with transitioning to elective classes instead of age-group or gender-based classes. And everyone was cooperative except for the senior women’s class. I actually had one dear old saint ask me, “Why do you hate us old ladies so much?” We ended up just letting them do their thing. Especially after I started getting death threats. Just kidding.
I’m aware of several situations in which well-meaning pastors tried to institute change without the appropriate support, without doing due diligence in terms of assessing how a particular change would affect their church, or by instituting changes too soon. In each case it led to upset, some of it significant enough that it led to an early end to their ministry in that church. You don’t need that.
If you are in your first year or two in a church, make building a relationship with your people your priority. People will follow you if they know you love them. But it takes time to build that kind of relationship. But if you have that relationship, they will more willingly trust you as you lead them to do things differently. Even if they haven’t done it that way before.