Monday, July 16, 2012

Overwhelmed by change

When I'm talking to both pastors and lay leaders one of topics that frequently comes up is the rapid rate of change that is occurring in our society.  They understand there have been some major shifts in how people view the church, denominations, and the Gospel, and, quite frankly, they're not sure what to do about it.  It's been fascinating in recent months to hear so many of these leaders questioning how they and their churches can respond to such rapid changes.  We sometimes think that churches resist change just because they don't like it, but I've come to believe that some of that resistance is due to their confusion about how best to respond.  Smaller churches, especially, can quickly feel overwhelmed by the changes they see occurring around them.  Since they are concerned that any response they might make to the rapid changes occurring in our churches would only make matters worse, they opt to not make those changes.

Unfortunately, we should not expect to see the rate of change slow down any time soon.  In fact, I believe it will only intensify putting even greater demands on our churches.  To make the problem even worse, many of these changes will be adaptive in nature which means that the old methods of responding to them will not be effective.  The need to come up with adaptive solutions for these changes is likely to contribute to higher levels of stress for church leaders.

What are some examples of adaptive changes that many of our churches face?  I often hear church leaders complain about the poor attendance for their Sunday school program.  If that happened in the past church leaders would make technical changes such as changing the curriculum that was being used to encourage more people to attend.  Or, the church might have held contests to see who could bring in the highest number of guests.  But, there are many reasons why a church's Sunday school attendance is in decline that these technical fixes cannot address.

Perhaps the attendance is lower because some of the children and youth in the Sunday school department live in single parent homes, and they are with a different parent every other week.  Three children spending the weekend with their father in a community thirty miles from the church could have a big impact on the Sunday school attendance in a smaller church.  Also, when one drives around most communities today one will find a number of athletic events for young people occurring on Sunday mornings.  The church's attendance numbers can easily been impacted if a number of the children are involved in summer sports programs.  Again, a technical fix is unlikely to address this change in our society. An adaptive change might be to offer a Sunday school class on Sunday evening or to develop an entirely different discipleship ministry in the church that would be accessible to more people.

I'm hearing that many churches are struggling with Vacation Bible School attendance.  In the past they might have addressed that with a more aggressive door-to-door campaign in neighborhoods they wanted to reach.  But, there are some causes for this attendance problem that technical fixes can not change.  More schools are going to a year-long school format now, and families are forced to schedule vacations during the brief periods when their children are out of school.  The increase in both parents working not only makes it more difficult for their children to attend VBS, but it often results in a problem of finding sufficient workers.  These are the realities churches face, and if they want to have a successful VBS they will have to adapt to those realities.  Perhaps they offer a one weekend condensed VBS, or they have it one evening a week for four weeks rather than trying to do a week long event.

Dozens of other changes and challenges could be listed that will require adaptive changes and have the potential to overwhelm churches.  Don't let yourself become overwhelmed.  Check out what other churches have done to address these challenges.  Remain flexible.  Which is more important, that you have a successful Sunday school program or that you continue to do it as you always have?  Brainstorm a number of options and settle on one that seems to produce the best results.  After you implement that solution be sure to evaluate it to measure the results it did produce.  You may want to try another option the next time.  The secret is to adapt to the realities of today's society and you will be much less likely to be overwhelmed by the changes you will face.

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