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Welcoming Life: The Turnaround Church

May 17, 2021 | Dr. Derry Long

Christmas is a big deal at our home, and I come by it honestly. My Grandma Alspach was poor—a single mother raising four children—but she loved Christmas and her yearly gifts to me were hand-made Christmas tree ornaments that we still have. My parents were equally enthusiastic.

As you know, Christmas comes with traditions. One of ours is that we open gifts on Christmas Eve.

Then our son Nathan married Laura, a spectacular daughter-in-law. We love her. But different families have different traditions and her family opened gifts on—you guessed it—Christmas morning.

This scenario represents just one of the types of choices faced by a turnaround church. Every church has its way of doing things and, in a group, the addition of each person requires an adjustment by somebody.

The question is, what are we willing to change for the sake of a new person coming into the group?

Addressing decline for the sake of Christ’s calling

There is a recognized but unattended difficulty in the American church. In any given year, about 80% of the churches are static or in decline, and of the remaining 20% that are growing about 80% of them are growing because Christians are moving around. Only 4-5% are growing because new people are choosing to become believers in Christ. And further, every year a smaller percentage of the general population is part of any local fellowship.

In no enterprise would this be considered good news.

To dispel some myths, these churches that are static or in decline are comprised of many wonderful people and many of them would say that they want their church to grow. I believe them. Sure there are some saboteurs and late adopters, but that is true anywhere, so we shouldn’t overreact. And just because a church is not at a robust level of vitality doesn’t mean good people are not doing good things. For all of its faults, I applaud the church of my youth, for they brought me the gospel. And my grandmother’s church, though static, cared for her as a single mother and later as an elderly widow.

But our mandate comes from the Scriptures. We aren’t free to make it up. And a vibrant church that loves its community and introduces others to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is part of our calling.

So what are good people, who want their church to thrive, to do, if there has been a decline in vitality and growth?

Why not be pleased to add to our church families?

Let’s stop for a moment. You might be saying this is not about numbers. True, but as I write this, I am getting ready for a “double sleep over” with three of our grandchildren, ages 7, 5, and 3. And I am glad they have been added to our tribe.

We have two grandchildren in China. Their parents work, and when I see the pictures they send home, I know my life is so much richer because they are part of it. So why not be pleased to add people to our church family?

Back to what to do. One thing is clear. If we keep doing what we are doing we will get the same result. If we are unhappy with that result, what do we do? If we want to turn things around, here are some thoughts.

Skills for the turnaround pastor/leader

An effective pastor/leader in a turnaround church needs to have four traits. First, tenacity, for it often takes 5-7 years to change a culture. The best scenario is that the leader should love the people into a fresh approach. And we seldom can bring change without some tension.

Second, the pastor/leader needs to be relationally wise. For example, every organization has a small number of influencers — people other people watch to see what they think. The leader needs to persuade the majority of influencers.

Third, the pastor/leader must be able to articulate a compelling and positive picture of the future. And fourth, turning a church around involves skills that can be learned. The pastor/leaders needs to learn them.

Carrying out an effective turnaround

Perhaps we have a pastor/leader with those capacities. Then there are four organizational steps:

1. Agree on reality. The leader and people need to explore to see if they understand the situation. What is really going on? What is the preferred future? Do people agree? Do we know what we must add and what we must let go of?

2. Increase relationality. No one wants to be forced. If there needs to be change, invite people to a point of transaction where they willingly give up something they like for a better future. Many people will give permission, even for things they don’t care for, if they are treated with respect in the process.

A pastor shared the story of an older member who came to church in the midst of change and saw what had been done to the entrance, the seating, the stained-glass windows. She thought, “What have they done to my church?” But at the end of the service three people made a public declaration of their decision to follow Jesus. She said to herself, “Well, if this is what it takes, to get that, okay.”

3. Define success. What is our preferred future? Help people see and understand it. Don’t assume. What is obvious to me is obvious to me.

4. Create visible and achievable steps. Many people resist change because no one helps them see the steps of how to get to the preferred future. The changes seem disconnected and unnecessary. For example, one pastor wanted his leaders to understand what it was like to be an unknown visitor in a church so he invited the leaders to go to a different church every Sunday for a few months. They began to understand what made them feel welcome, and what hospitality looked and felt like. It was a game changer.

5. Then, celebrate. Help people feel the joy of sacrifice for something noble and worthwhile.

Welcoming change and new life

Back to Laura. These days we still open gifts Christmas Eve. But Nathan and Laura hold some presents back and on Christmas Day they open some gifts, often with her parents who drive up from Iowa.

We are not part of that. We don’t need to be. We celebrate it. They are building their own traditions. And we get the honor of having Laura as part of our family. So, good.

There is nothing like new life. Everyone is better for it.

Join Dr. Derry Long July 12–16, 2021, for an advanced leadership course on “Leading a Turnaround Church!”

Dr. Long will walk students through the process of identifying a church’s weaknesses and strengths, problem areas, and growth potential. Once the assessment process is detailed, the course will address various leadership approaches to building a vision: equipping leadership, assessing progress, and adjusting trajectories as needed.

Dr. Derry Long

Professor of Christian Leadership

Dr. Derry Long has served in ministry for over 45 years in many roles – pastor, church planter, pastoral coach, regional overseer, and […]

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