Change your church without losing your people

by | Jun 8, 2020

Every good story has a controlling idea. A controlling idea is the theme of the story that carries from beginning to end, no matter how many times the narrative shifts. 

Have you seen the movie Crash from 2004? Set in Los Angelas, it follows the lives of seemingly unconnected local citizens as their lives collide and weave together stories of race, loss, and redemption. 

The movie jumps around from character to character who appear completely unconnected, but never loses your attention. Why? A controlling idea!  

The movie opens when Don Cheadle’s character saying something about how as people, we’re so desperate for human contact that we’re willing to crash into each other just to feel something.

That theme runs throughout the movie and keeps your attention even as the narrative shifts and changes.

Our churches could learn a LOT from elements of storytelling. That will be a running theme (controlling idea? Maybe.) of this blog.


The Church Story is Shifting

Something that has been pestering me over the last year or two is the thought that it is time to change the narrative of the Church. It’s time to tell a new church story. The old story has played out to the point that churches across the board are in decline. Our communities’ respect for us is dwindling. In some cases, simply having the title of “Pastor” is enough to prevent someone from trusting you. 

Over the last few months, the Coronavirus pandemic changed everything and the murder of George Floyd prompted the country to erupt in demanding real change. It is clear that now is the time for a new church story.  

The world will never be the same after this and neither should the church.


We desire to stay the same

Even with everything going on around us, it’s clear that many in the Church are clinging to the old story. People are grasping to a bygone history to feel comfortable and bring order to our very unordered current reality.

The desire to cling to the past in what might be the biggest narrative shift in generations might just be the thing that causes many of our churches to finally close their doors.

The key to our churches reemerging post-COVID and post-George Floyd could be creating a new and stronger narrative for the church.


Change your church without losing your people

Confusion is how you lose people in your church. When your people feel like you’ve completely uprooted the church and changed everything, they get confused and overwhelmed. Anxiety about whether they still fit the church creeps in and they might begin wondering if they should step back as the church changes.

If you maintain the controlling idea of your church, you can massively change how your church goes about implementing that controlling idea without causing confusion and anxiety in your people.

First, you have to determine what your controlling idea or theme is before you can decide how to change the narrative around it.


What is your church’s controlling idea?

The easy answer to this question is, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This is the official mission statement of the global United Methodist Church and basically the mission of every church.

I believe the correct response is more contextual. 

Every church wants to make disciples of Jesus Christ, but what has defined your congregation for the last several years or decades? What principles or practices have guided how you implement that mission? 

That is where your controlling idea or theme lies.

Here are a few examples of possible controlling ideas

  • A longterm focus on your immediate surrounding community.
  • A commitment to mission work. Your church WORKS.
  • You care for children (children’s min, preschool on site, etc).
  • You have always believed youth are the future.

All of these and more might be examples of a church’s controlling idea. You can shift everything about HOW your church performs these without completely starting over.

When everyone in your congregation is clear about what your controlling idea or theme is, you can shift the narrative around it without losing their attention or pushing them into confusion.


How to shift your church narrative

Say your controlling idea has been you are a church that serves your local community well. You can still be a church that serves the local community and shift the narrative.

For example:

It’s possible that the murder of George Floyd and the protests surrounding it has made you realize your involvement in the local community is overly white-centric. You realize you need to change and diversify your ministries.

You might be tempted to jump in and say, “We’re going to pull back on A, B, and C, missions and ministries so we can place our focus on speaking up for and reaching out to persons of color in our community.” 

Abruptly stopping ministries your church people care about in favor of more diverse ministry will freak some people out. Even if they agree with the premise, they might not initially understand what you’re doing and could start to feel disconnected and confused.

Instead, talk about the rich history of WHY your church is involved in certain ministries. What basic principles and Biblical convictions first led you to those missions and ministries? Talk about the difference you have made within that focus area. Then, talk about how new convictions are leading the church to continue that work in a new context.

Establish a controlling idea.

Framing the story this way helps your people understand the basic theme of their church story isn’t changing, you are merely shifting how that story is lived out.

When you can establish the tie that binds the old and the new (your controlling idea or theme) you can show that the church isn’t abruptly changing but simply evolving within its current boundaries.


How will you change the narrative of your church?

The narrative of our culture is changing right before our eyes. If our churches fail to adapt and shift our own narratives, we’ll find ourselves on the outside looking in. 

How will you work to change the narrative of your church while maintaining the important controlling idea you have had all these years?

Leave a comment! I want to hear your church story.

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