In our book on church structures, Organizing Love in Church, Stuart Heath and I suggested a church should be marked by various kinds of love, but that in all likelihood these wouldn’t “just happen”. We offered some suggestions on what structures a church could introduce, but not, as it turns out, any thoughts on how to go about introducing them. We had some thoughts on why to change, and what to change, but not so much on how to change. There were reasons for this: we wanted to keep the book short, more is written on how to change churches and most importantly, we had limited experience. And the experience we did have placed us in a twilight where we’d learned things in the past, but hadn’t yet had opportunity to apply them.
One of our suggestions was for churches to create smallish identifiable intergenerational communities. These would be small enough to enable everyone to know everyone (we guessed between 15 and 40 depending on context). Their primary purpose would be to make it possible to love a few Christians well. To do this, they would need to meet for a meal regularly, but less than weekly and to find other ways to get to know each other well enough so they would be better able to love each other.
In response to this suggestion, an old friend asked this great question,
Soo… for those of us who ‘organise love’ in fairly standard, event based churches (but are onboard theoretically with what you’re saying), what would be a typical, realistic pathway to more community based structure/life, that doesn’t run too high a risk of destroying what is already achieving some good, if not the ideal?
If I had been asked this question 20 years ago, I think I would have said, “Change everything!” I had read an article in a business magazine titled ‘Change or Die’. The story, as I recall, recounted how people struggled to make small changes, even when their lives were in imminent danger, but did better when they made wholesale changes. The small changes did not deliver obvious benefits quickly enough for patients to notice, and so they failed to remain motivated, whereas if they changed everything the benefits were quick enough to remain motivated. The article drew implications for business and I drew them for church.
But I think I was wrong, or at least mostly wrong.
There are no doubt circumstances where sweeping changes are necessary:
- If a church is fundamentally toxic, the benefit of a small change will never exceed the cost of change
- If there is an external crisis, or extreme growth, then change will be forced upon you
- When you are starting something new, then in a sense everything is a change.
In all these cases there is a cost to doing nothing. For example, my father, working as a doctor in Tanzania in the 70’s had no access to equipment to test blood type. In normal circumstances, administering a blood transfusion without knowing the blood type of either donor or recipient is madness. But in the cases where inaction meant certain death, then the transfusion was a necessary risk (the risk was mitigated somewhat by the fact almost all Tanzanians have the same blood type.)
There are times when sweeping changes are necessary. But in the ordinary course of events, if the church you belong to is healthy rather than toxic, and if the growth God is granting that church is moderate rather than extreme, then, sweeping changes are less likely to be wise, instead change one or two things at a time.
Of course ‘one or two things at a time’ masks the difficulty involved. For while such a strategy is generally easier and preferable for a church – and certainly less painful for whoever is leading the church – it is never easy. The week-to-week rhythm of typical church life makes it extremely difficult to implement substantial changes, and especially where there are extended timeframes and only incremental benefits.
And, even with incremental changes, there will almost certainly be resistance. As one writer puts it, implementing a change is like giving an organization an immunization: antibodies will be created specifically to target the *exact* change you are proposing. It is almost inconceivable that is can be done without colleagues and friends (inside and outside the organization) providing encouragement and support, including but not limited to asking what your next step is.
But if you are ready to implement some changes, understand it’s one or two things at a time, and have available support, then broadly speaking I think there are three things to do:
Firstly, have some picture of the end result, for example:
“We are going to shift from organizing ourselves around two congregations with some congregation specific Bible Study groups, to small communities whose members may go to different Sunday gatherings and where the focus is on building long term relationships.”
Secondly, develop a list of the elements involved in the change, and place them in a rough order. For example, the move just mentioned is likely to involve:
- Changing the language of Sunday services from ‘congregations’ to ‘gathering’s
- Allowing small groups to accept members from any ‘gathering’
- Shifting small groups to function more like communities, which itself may include
- Increasing their average size and duration
- Reducing the frequency of the main small group meetings so as to allow space for increased informal interaction and the involvement of children.
- Encouraging members of the small community to offer hospitality to each other outside formal meeting times.
- Promoting small groups regularly in public gatherings
- New training for leaders to reflect new responsibilities
- Once small groups are more like communities encouraging them to engage in some mission
- Change the staffing titles to reflect the ‘line of pastoring’ has shifted from ‘congregation’ to ‘small community’.
And then lastly, take one or two things on the list and make the change. Six months later repeat.
There is of course more to it. A change should probably be accompanied by teaching that explains how it helps us obey some aspect of Scripture. In the case of small communities, how they help us have intergenerational relationships, and love one another. Additionally, some new changes will be best piloted by a small group and most things should probably be reviewed.
Perhaps the critical step is recognising that – at the pace of one or two changes every six months or so – there is three to five years of change ahead.
 For a longer discussion on these groups see Organizing Love in Church pp 65-80 & ‘The Church Less Gathered: A discussion of Scripture’s implicit theology of the local people of God’
 Any suggestion to reduce formal events usually attracts controversy. There isn’t space to defend the view here, but I think churches in a typical middle class context are faced with the choice of i) maintaining all their existing midweek structures and not attending to some goods ii) attending to the significant goods by dropping the idea that all the key formal structures need to be weekly iii) pretending, or iv) burning people out.