Tiny (Fossil) Steps

Changing a congregation’s culture is exhausting.  But it’s not impossible.

In the 1990s when I was just getting started thinking about What The Church Could Be (and no longer is) I registered for an Easum and Bandy event at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland – the church that Brian and Grace McLaren started in 1982.  I asked my friend and colleague AP what she knew about Easum and Bandy and she told me that the last time she’d taken a group to one of their events, she had to pull the car over on the way home because everybody was crying.

It happened to me too.  I took a group from my church to hear about The Emerging Church and had to pull over to tend to crying parishioners.  One person was kind of drooling.  “We could never do that.”

Culture changes are hard.  And if your congregation is predominantly comprised of people over the age of 60 who have been Christian for at least 40 years, and have been a member of that particular church for at least 20 years, your congregational culture is fossilized.  (This is known as George Bullard‘s 20-40-60 rule.)

Survival mode kicks in. We go to workshops.  We read experts.  We have those awesome Mountaintop Experiences at The Best Conference Ever.  We go home to introduce new ways of doing/thinking/being.  And one of the following happens:

  • Our people immediately offer reasons why We Can’t Do That.
  • Our people roll their eyes.
  • Our people threaten to withhold money.
  • Our people decide we are no longer their pastor and they turn against us.

It’s foolish to believe that we can turn a congregation’s fossilized culture into a festival of creativity in a single day/season/year/decade.  Such fools become frustrated and depressed.  (Note:  I have been one of those fools.)

Tiny steps are required.  Even fossils can take tiny steps if we move them. 

Before introducing The Big New Thing that will overturn 50-150 years of The-Way-We’ve-Always-Done-It, think small.  Think tiny even.

What are some tiny steps that we can make even in the company of fossilized church people?

  • Start every board meeting with a prayer for the church’s transformation.  Are you praying for “young families”?  “More money”?  Ask God to transform your congregation to look more like Jesus.  And then (this is the hard part) go around and ask each person at the table to share a time they’ve observed someone or something looking like Jesus since the last meeting.  If they can’t think of one, let them pass.  But make this a practice at every board meeting.  You might find that people become trained to look for Jesus out there.  A tiny step.
  • Walk the neighborhood two by two.  Ask your board to meet 30 minutes before the next meeting.  Divide them up into teams of two (or three) and send them out in as many directions as you have teams to walk – without speaking – in search of something out in the neighborhood to bring to the meeting to pray about/for: A playground where children play.  A parking space for a disabled person.  A boarded up building.  A mom pushing a baby in a stroller.  Kids playing soccer.  After 15-20 minutes of walking, gather back at the church building and then ask each board member share what they want to pray about based on what they noticed.  (Wild and crazy idea: have each person pray individually, one-by-one, about the things they saw.)  A tiny step.
  • Go on a mission tour of your own church building.  Start in the parking lot and enter through the door where most people enter. What happens in every corner of that building?  (“This is where non-perishable food is left to take to the shelter.”  “Here is where the choir stands during worship.”  “There is where bulletins are folded.”)  Stop and connect each room/corner/entranceway to ministry.  Discuss those corners of the building/yard where it’s hard to make a ministry connection and ask how we might make that connection.  “What can we do to make this classroom, office, hallway, closet about mission and ministry?”  Remind your people that the reason we have church buildings is to use them as tools for ministry.  Pray at the end of your tour that you will embrace sharing your building as a tool for ministry for the sake of God’s love. Then do this again six months later to note if there are any changes. A tiny step.

Even the most rigid leaders can take these simple steps.  The point is to get ourselves out of the way for fresh thinking.  It’s the first step to shifting a culture that can become a 21st Century Church.  We can do it.


4 responses to “Tiny (Fossil) Steps

  1. This is exactly what I needed today, thank you! Reason #5,637 of why I’m thrilled that you are coming to our Presbytery!!!!


  2. I well remember the Easum Bandy circuit – I think I still have their books! So much in this post Jan. Very good reminders. Thanks.


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