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How to Reshape a Church

I wish you could have been with me yesterday. It was my privilege to sit down for a couple of hours with a younger pastor serving in an associate role at a revitalization church. Since the conversation included recurring elements of my coaching work with pastors, I decided to recap our conversation in three blog posts.

This first post will recap a part of our conversation about how to really reshape a church in need of revitalization. In the next post, we will look briefly at the true nature of small church ministry; a matter I entirely misunderstood over the course of nearly two pastorates in small churches. Last, we’ll consider the conundrum of being an “internal candidate” for a pastoral position.

Like most of us would, the young man I spoke with yesterday has definite and good ideas about a future shape he would like the church he serves to take. Over the course of a couple of conversations with him though it seemed clear to me though that the best path to take to get there might not occur to him.

I am a science nerd. I received an undergraduate degree in Marine Science (Go Chants!) and though I have done ministry continuously since being an undergraduate, I remain a voracious reader at a lay level in a wide range of the hard and social sciences. That reading sometimes helps provide analogies for the work I do with churches as in this case.

The picture above is a picture taken through a microscope at the beginning stages of an attempt at somatic nuclear transfer using mouse cells. Ethical issues aside, it is a vital metaphor for how to really reshape a church.

Every church has spiritual DNA. That DNA produces the shape of its ministry. Don’t skip over that too quickly. Inevitably, inexorably, even maddeningly, every church’s DNA produces a shape.

Thankfully my oldest son got his body shape DNA from his mother. “Husky” was the label on the rack my mother and I found ourselves at when I was a kid for as long as I can remember. While I can weigh less than I do now if I’m super diligent in my eating and exercising, I will never have the body shape of my ripped, rock climbing, training for a triathlon oldest son because he has the DNA for it and I do not.

As I coach pastors day in and day out, we find ourselves in many conversations about how they wish the “shape” of their church was different. Their ideas are rarely bad. And frustratingly they also rarely come to fruition. That’s especially true in the revitalization church where the DNA is locked away seemingly in a cast iron safe.

Look again at the image above. That is a mouse egg cell being held in place by a suction pipette on the right and being pierced by a very fine glass needle on the left. It’s a process so delicate it must be performed using a microscope.

In the image, the gelatinous ring around the darker material is a kind of hard shell protective shell ensuring safe journey from ovary to uterus and providing a fitness test for sperm seeking to fertilize the egg. Church DNA likewise has a hard shell around it. Very hard actually.

Imagine with me that the hard shell in the image was steel. How do you think that glass pipette would hold up against it? Poorly to say the least.

This is the challenge present in church revitalization. Reshaping is desperately needed. But shape comes from DNA and the church’s DNA is covered in what feels like an impervious shell. This is why so many church transformation efforts fail.

It is also why a partial DNA transfer is what every renewal church needs. Revitalization teacher Harry Reeder encourages would be revitalizers to look for things in a church’s past to celebrate and build on. There is good DNA there to (as I put it) “click on”, call people back to, and even build on to bring some level of transformation to a church.

But the harder work is attempting to recognize the DNA which was bad from the start or has mutated since producing the wide range of church dysfunctions we see throughout the New Testament. If the church is to survive the process, this unhealthy DNA must be carefully, kindly, and slowly extracted (as in the image). When replaced with healthy Biblical church DNA the church will inevitably produce a God-honoring shape.

My seminary pastor used to talk about how many church change efforts were like “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”. Sure the chairs were in different places making the appearance of “change” while all the while the ship was going down. This is a way to conceptualize the difference between working merely on the shape of a church instead of on its DNA.

A prescient reader will be asking at this point, “How do you work on a church’s DNA?” Let me give you a few thoughts though that is the subject of whole books.

First, recognize the role of the devil. Satan viciously works to mutate church DNA. You are in a spiritual battle which may be invisible to the church people you are trying to lead. This should inform your approach.

Second, because this is a spiritual battle, prayer is the most formidable weapon. When we truly pray we open our own hard shell and ask God to work in us deeply transforming us. When a whole church of people do that (especially when they pray by name for specific, local, non-family non-Christians they know and are seeking to bring the gospel to), amazing things can happen.

Third, seek for the development of a Kingdom urgency. In particular, pray for, preach about, teach concerning, love towards, lead in the direction of, and model a personal calling to the fulfillment of the Great Commission in the community in which the congregation is situated. Everyone is a missionary according to Jesus; it is the reason the Holy Spirit came in power (Acts 1:8).

Urgency is the first thing among first things to seek to be developed. Long before John Kotter wrote his immensely helpful book Leading Change, the Old Testament prophets, incarnated Jesus, the New Testament epistle writers, and resurrected Jesus (in Revelation) all sought to induce urgency to change in God’s people. But that call to change was rooted as a response to God and in particular to God’s rich gospel. As briefly as I can, we’ll finish up with why that’s important. 

Fourth, root it all in the gospel. The Apostle Paul saw the many ways Satan wrecked churches and learned his wiles (2 Cor 2:11, Eph 6:11) so he could help God’s people stand against them. What was Paul’s approach? The Gospel.

For Paul, the solution to every church DNA problem (which remember produces every church shape problem) relates back to the rich, multilayered, deep river of the gospel. It seems there are three options Paul saw in churches related to the gospel.

  1. People in a church can have the gospel wrong (Galatians).

  2. People in a church can misunderstand aspects of the gospel (Romans 6:6, “... Do you now know?”)

  3. People can fail to know how to apply the gospel (everywhere but think of Peter in Galatians or the Ephesians who couldn’t apply “one Father” to seek for “one people of God”).

Your job as a pastor is to be learning the gospel for yourself in such a way that it is life-giving and transformative. When that is the case, you can and should seek to see that take place in every realm of your ministry.

God changes churches as the Holy Spirit produces gospel-realization and gospel-gratitude in the lives of His people. Those grateful people find themselves willing to look at the entirety of their lives differently including the shape of church ministry. Then healthy church DNA produces healthy church shape transformation.

May God bless you as you seek that.

P.S. If coaching in church change would be helpful to you, feel free to reach out using our Contact Page.


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