The following post is a rough draft of a section in the book 21st Century Strategies for Church Growth that I’m in the midst of writing. Your feedback is appreciated.
If you’re with me so far, then I’m guessing you’re pretty serious about growing your church. One might think that everyone in the church would be gung-ho about growing their church, or at least they’d be supportive. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The core values of many church members, and many churches for that matter, are (1) personal comfort, and (2) status quo.
In other words, “I like what I like” and “Don’t change anything!” But there’s one guarantee about launching a successful church growth initiative. There’s gotta be change, and most of the time there’s going to be a lot of it. And those changes will almost certainly stir up opposition and give rise to serious conflict. Implementing the first and second strategies will ameliorate some of it, but you can rest assured there will be resistance … and it’s going to be loud resistance. In fact, in most churches the opposition will be so loud that church members will conclude that the vast majority of the congregation is opposed to the changes. But nothing could be further from the truth. Rarely are there more than a handful of antagonists whipping up the opposition. The problem in most churches is that between two and five people get sideways about one change or another, or worse, they get upset that there’s even talk of change. Although rarely is there an organized effort to scuttle the change, their discontent gets voiced on the telephone, in emails, in the worship center, in Sunday school, in small groups, at church events, at non-church events, and muttered audibly whenever someone is near enough to hear them. Some who hear will take up the banner without exploring what’s being proposed or what may be at stake. Others will hear the complaint in venue after venue until they’re convinced there’s a growing groundswell of conflict. And in no time at all, changes that would prepare the church for growth flounder and ultimately fall by the wayside. I’ve yet to encounter an established church that has managed to avoid this on its own accord.
How is it that such a small minority can so effectively obstruct the future growth of the church? There are two reasons.
First, the majority are unaware they’re the majority and so they fall for the misconception that there’s a significant movement against the changes.
But there’s a second reason that’s much more insidious. The majority are almost always silent because they believe it wouldn’t be nice (Christian) to oppose and confront the antagonists. And so they suffer in an uncomfortable semi-silence, speaking about the opposition in hushed tones at home or only with their closest friends. We’ll address this issue fully in Chapter 1. With all that going against you, you should be wondering what you’re getting into. To say it’s not a pretty picture would be an understatement. However, all is not lost. You can begin to stack the odds in favor of faithful, effective, and sustainable church growth by empowering the majority by building alliances within the congregation.
Too often, even well laid plans go awry because adequate alliances haven’t been cultivated. Pastors regularly think that just because something is biblically mandated and morally right and it makes good sense that the congregation will line up behind it. I regularly have to talk pastors down from the edge because they don’t understand why their good idea that would guarantee the church’s growth died on the boardroom floor. They tell me they did their homework, they developed excellent handouts complete with charts and action plans, and they meticulously and energetically cast the vision during their pastor’s report. All that before they asked the board to sign off on it. Except that the board erupted with a discussion that quickly went south and within a few minutes it was clear there was no way the vision was going to float, let alone sail through. The good idea, the vision, the hope for future growth was dead in the water.
The savvy pastor knows the value of alliance building … and if you’re going to be successful in leading a church growth initiative, you’ll need to get busy building them as well. In general, alliances are built through relationships, not persuasiveness – that comes later. Trust and respect are the foundations they’re built on, so if you haven’t been intentional in relationship building, it’s unlikely you’ll build any alliances overnight. In other words, begin your alliance building well before you need any alliances.
Bill Easum, my senior business partner with 21st Century Strategies, regularly tells the story of his alliance building at Colonial Hills, the church he grew from under fifty to over 2,000. On his first Sunday, he cast a vision of a church of thousands that would change the community. He closed that message with an invitation for anyone who wanted to explore that vision to join him at his home that evening. Twelve people showed up and Bill cultivated those relationships for a year. This group became his core alliance and when the time came for changes, his core stood with him.
When I was a student pastor, I led a very small church in a very rural community in north Florida. The church had a voracious appetite for chewing up young pastors and I seemed to be the next entrée. During the first few meetings I spent my time listening carefully and watching the body language of the moderator and the board members. Between that and doing some member visitation, it became clear who the antagonists were. They were easy to spot. However, I also figured out who ran the show behind the scenes and where the real power lay. Over the next few months I nurtured the relationships with the power brokers. I shared my vision. We discussed possibilities. And in the end, I was able to navigate through the crocodiles and lead the changes necessary to start a growth initiative.
Although effective alliances often have the ability to overpower the church’s antagonists, that’s not why they’re your greatest asset when launching a church growth initiative (though there’s nothing wrong with having an ace in your pocket if and when you need it). Perhaps the biggest benefit of strong alliances is their visibility. When your alliances step up in support of the changes necessary for a church’s growth, they carry the subtext that you’re not the only one speaking in favor of transforming your community. The otherwise silent majority are assured that they’re not alone in wanting what’s best for the church. And the antagonists are put on notice that this time their personal preferences and objections will be questioned, scrutinized, and exposed, and if they’re found wanting, they will be waylaid.
So, pastor, take some time to evaluate your current ministry. Have you built the alliances you’ll have to count on when the chips are down? If not, it probably isn’t too late to get started. On the other hand, if you have built effective alliances, it’s nearly time to rally the troops.
Question: How do you build effective alliances in your congregation? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.