Three stubborn obstacles that keep your congregation stuck

June 16th, 2021

There are three stubborn obstacles that keep your congregation stuck. These barriers to renewal reinforce patterns of decline. Not only that, but these barriers also prevent congregations from moving into a growth phase, no matter how much your people say they want to. And no matter how much you might like them to.

Unfortunately, these obstacles don’t always respond well to a direct confrontation.  But there is a way to gently dissolve them so you can start on the road to renewal.

Let’s start by taking a look at these obstacles.

The Three Stubborn Obstacles

  1. Personalities When congregations focus on personalities rather than purpose, they suffer. Soothing the sensitive, coddling the anxious, and pampering the headstrong is a seductive trap because it can become the de facto mission of the church.

Yes, God is love, and yes, Jesus found ways to include the unlovable. But relationship-building never took the place of his mission, or his purpose.  How do we know this? Because along the way, Jesus irritated and angered plenty of people. Including his own family members, and his dearest disciples.

I remember the evening one of the church’s most effective leaders stormed out during a particularly contentious meeting.  I anxiously ran out after him to try to keep him involved. Even as I was doing it, warning bells went off in my head.  I remember thinking: if I react to him every time he gets hot under the collar, then personalities, not purpose, are what’s driving this meeting. Yet, it’s hard to watch people get bent out of shape.

  1. Past  When a church’s best days lay behind them, the congregation is steering into the future with the guidance of the rear-view mirror, not the windshield. That’s a problem. Not only are rear-view mirrors a window into the past, but they are also much smaller than a windshield.  You just can’t see that much looking at a rear-view mirror compared to the windshield.

It used to be churches wanted to go back to the 1950s, then the 1970s, then 1990s.  Now, most of us would be happy to settle for 2019.  There’s nothing wrong with staying connected to the past.  But you can’t live there.

  1. Probable If your decision-making sounds something like this: “Let’s do this ministry because it probably won’t ruffle feathers, or it probably won’t challenge the budget, or it probably won’t upset the Trustees,” then you are in trouble.  Ministry by probability lowers expectations.  And you can’t co-create miracles with Jesus if you don’t raise expectations.  Ministry by probability is the most anti-Gospel obstacle of all.  Jesus didn’t traffic in the realm of the probable. He operated in the realm of the improbable, the impossible even.  Jesus was about miracles.

Why These Obstacles are So Stubborn

What makes these obstacles so stubborn? Why won’t one good sermon series or leadership retreat get these obstacles in line?  Because these stubborn obstacles are expressions of foundational beliefs.  As I have written elsewhere, unshakeable beliefs ripple out and impact the people around you.  That’s true whether these unshakeable beliefs are empowering or disempowering.

My guess is that at the base of these stubborn obstacles is an unshakeable belief such as “Our best days are behind us.  If we ruffle feathers, or upset our systems, we’ll lose our last remaining ties to our glory days. Then where will we be?”

Truth be told, if the congregation is in maintenance mode, then the belief is spot on.  Because when the church got started it operated with a passionate vision or an aspirational dream that called people to something greater than they could imagine.  Once that vision came to pass, and no new equally challenging vision replaced it, the good old days were in fact behind them.

Reinvent the Future

So, how do you lead people past these stubborn barriers and into something life-giving? You have to re-invent the future so that your best days are yet to be.  I call this process DARE to Dream like Jesus. Sign up to receive a copy of your plan here.  Then,  learn more about how to transform these three stubborn obstacles into new visions at How to Create a Culture of Renewal.

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