On Making Big Changes in Churches

People are not fundamentally rational beings. We are emotional first. Rational, second. I know we like to think we are more rational than emotional. We just aren’t when it comes to church. I also know our feelings often feel quite rational. It just isn’t the reality.

I was first challenged with this idea by Edwin Friedman–the greatest observer of human behavior in the church I know of. It was ratified recently by Seth Godin on his blog. Godin writes:

A statement of fact is insufficient and often not even necessary to persuade someone of your point of view…

Politicians, non-profits and most of all, amateur marketers believe that all they need to do to win the day is to recite a fact. You’re playing Monopoly and you say, “I’ll trade you Illinois for Connecticut.” The other person refuses, which is absurd. I mean, Illinois costs WAY more than Connecticut. It’s a fact. There’s no room for discussion here. You are right and they are wrong. But they still have the property you want, and you lose. Because all you had was a fact.

On the other hand, the story wins the day every time. When the youngest son, losing the game, offers to trade his mom Baltic for Boardwalk, she says yes in a heartbeat. Because it feels right, not because it is right.

Have you ever wondered why the 2-month sermon series on letting women take an increased role in the assemblies doesn’t make a huge difference in the reaction of the church to your adding it? They have a negative reaction because it feels wrong, not simply because they think it’s wrong. They’ve spent their entire lives worshiping in a particular way based on a set of theological presuppositions. Many people wear church like old baseball mitts–they like what feels right to them. They care about what they “know” is right as well, just not as much. If you can help the change feel right, not just be the right idea, you have a much better change of making a quicker change with minimal carnage.

Not even your brilliant sermon series is likely to change it 🙂

If this is so, perhaps change processes are better engaged and carried through at the emotional, rather than rational level. This, of course, doesn’t mean we don’t think through what we’re doing or make rational arguments for the change. It simply means we understand the persuasion we seek is more like convincing mom she’s better off moving into your house instead of living by herself in the middle of nowhere in failing health at age 96. It’s less like one chemist debating another on the optimal formula for gasoline.

This applies whether you are adding campuses, changing the church name, releasing a staff member, or radically altering the style of worship.

Make no mistake, it is about reason. But, not foremost.

Recognizing the church as an emotional system above a rational thought system will equip you far better to make large-scale changes.

All of this assumes you are making a good and necessary change. Church folk are not just good at resisting change. They are good as recognizing hair-brained ideas. So, make sure the change is a good one. Then, recognize the emotionality of the change, and give it a 70% stake against 30% for the rational side of the change. It won’t make the change easy. But, it’ll work a lot better than otherwise.

Agree or disagree?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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