5 Strategies for Leading Change in Worship

July 18th, 2011

A friend called me the other day asking for advice on first steps in a new worship position at a local church. We only spoke for a few minutes, but after hanging up, I continued to think about his situation, and what I would do. I remembered five strategic principles for managing change.

#1. Demonstrate, don’t debate.

I woke up to the sound of rushing water late one night. I was a newly minted seminary graduate and my wife and I still lived in a small apartment. Running downstairs, I discovered that a pipe in our rear storage room had frozen and exploded, spraying freezing water everywhere. Water had begun to leak under the dry wall into our kitchen. Although the only solution was to grit my teeth and shut off the water, it made more sense to my cold feet to lay down towels to stop the water that was rapidly covering our kitchen floor.

Trying to implement change through debate is analogous to stopping the flooding by absorbing the water.

As a longtime change advocate for the use of images in worship, I have believed that a proper understanding and presentation of the theological significance of media as a form for communicating God’s truth is essential. But I have also known that polarizing debate won’t change people’s minds as much as it will create enemies. I have discovered time and again that one finely produced, properly executed worship experience is more effective than a lifetime of roundtable discussions at demonstrating the power of the screen when communicating the heart of the Gospel.

Let’s assume that you have experienced a “eureka” moment in worship–maybe at a conference or another church. The moment became a catalyst for change and has helped form a vision that you must implement in your own setting.

While the need has become obvious for you, there is a likelihood that, although you may have fellow converts, there are still hardliners who refuse to give in, for a variety of reasons. Have you ever known people who, once proven that they are wrong, refuse to acquiesce? I have known people who would rather enter into a realm of complete irrationality than acknowledge another ideological possibility. Regardless of what you do, some people will never accept your leadership, whether it is in the realm of media, preaching, or what section of the parking lot to repave. To steal a line from a friend, “Put it up for a vote, and the people will always vote to go back to Egypt.”

As a leader it is your job to both give compassion and love to these people while at the same time holding fast to the mission that you have been given. In Matthew 15, Jesus is confronted with a Gentile woman whose daughter was demon-possessed. Even as he healed her, Jesus was clear that his mission was to the lost sheep of Israel. He could not afford to spend his precious energy on Gentiles, who were to follow with the later mission of the church. Acknowledge that while each member of God’s kingdom is precious, the time you have on this earth is precious as well. Stay positive to them, stay loving, but stay committed to your mission.

None of us want to see this sort of rift occur, however. It does not always work, but one way to avoid a rift is to enlist strategic lay leadership to assist with the vision casting. Key lay leaders can turn a programmed mandate into a grass roots movement. This difference in perception can go a long ways to overcoming negativity.

In addition to strategic lay leadership, it is vital to have key local church staff people on board as well. For example, worship changes will likely not happen without the music leader on board. The problem is that for some people in staffed positions who have been designing effective worship for often quite a long time, there is not a clear mandate to change. It is easy as a change agent to deride their efforts as out of touch or as an obstacle to creating a team-based worship experience. But you first need to respect that these people have been striving to do ministry for a long time.

Many in such local church positions as music minister have assumed, and even been trained in, isolationist models of leadership. For a lone ranger in worship, your primary goal is to demonstrate a new model through the creation of a team environment for every aspect of worship planning, including music, calls to worship, and even the sermon. It is only through jointly prepared worship at every level that truly transforming integrated media worship may occur.

#2. Don’t spend money at first. Show the need.

It is not necessary to spend large sums of money to create change. Money doesn’t follow a budget line item; it follows vision. Whether it be organizations or families, if a project is embraced with enough passion, it is possible to find the money to make it happen. Passion is created through the excellent presentation of possibilities. A set of these experiences will begin to open doors for the money necessary to maintain a consistent presentation for the long haul. Lead with the passion that fires your spirit.

#3. Strategic trumps speedy.

Consider my ministry area of focus, media: If a church has the people and equipment resources to put together a completely media-integrated weekend, first time out of the gate, they are exceedingly rare. A more common scenario for a novice church, and one that is less prone to mistakes, is one in which a minor amount of media is used with excellence. This is more feasible both from a planning standpoint and an excellence standpoint.

One small church pastor in the late 1990s wanted to introduce media in worship. He set up two TVs to a VCR and showed a clip from The Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve. This was innocuous enough that the congregation didn’t feel threatened, it was easy to pull off, and it fit well into the context of that pastor’s sermon. A few examples of this can have the effect of creating enthusiasm not just from the leadership but from the laity. Instead of being a forced mandate, then, changes in worship become mandates from the congregation.

Starting slowly, however, doesn’t suggest approaching implementation idly. Every week that passes into history is another week that the lack of necessary change hinders the ministry of the church. Slow integration is only apropos when it is strategic and not lazy. “Good things come to those who wait… not to those who hesitate.”

#4. Value Excellence.

Even as a first-time experiment, there were problems with the use of the aforementioned Christmas Carol clip. The audio was not wired into the church’s sound system. Instead, they turned up the audio coming from the little TV speakers, which came out distorted in their acoustically inferior worship space. This was especially troublesome since the clip they chose was from a black and white era film that was difficult to both see and hear. Choose media that works within your space! And try it out ahead of time to see what the experience is like in the sanctuary, with respect to video and audio.

In addition, focus on doing well with limited things. This may mean simply using a film clip or one top 40 song, and working on completely integrating it, before you add a number of elements. Also, if for example your new worship service starts in September, use Sunday nights or other, smaller gatherings throughout the summer as an unofficial rehearsal environment. Find times to practice your new service before you go “live.” Get together with your team(s) and plan exactly how you will get into and out of technologically intense moments. Plan at least 3-4 times where your team may actually go through the service in its entirety, without a congregation.

Excellence applies to production values and to lucidity of message. Speak something simply, so that everyone can understand, and use forms that are simply understood. Digital messages that come across muddled due to the lack of excellence are more detrimental than no digital messages at all.

#5. Be consistent.

Another problem with the Christmas Carol example was that the church did little to follow up on the experience. Any introduction of change requires strategic planning in order to lead to a more long-term holistic solution. For example, the pastor should include another film clip within a few weeks, followed by a clip somewhere else in worship within a month. A series of events over the course of time gives the model legitimacy through its varied use. Rather than debating the presence of the communication form as a discipline that needs to be addressed rather than assumed, demonstrate its nature through a consistent presentation. Properly executed, a pattern of use will reveal that digital media and screen use are not simply “toys,” or “entertainment,” but a viable form for the presentation of the Gospel.

After a while you’ll want to set up a “design standard” – a pattern for managing change. This doesn’t mean that you have to make up strict rules for everything, it simply means that your strategic choices should feel like they’re part of the same leadership palette. After a while your style will develop and evolve into something all its own.


Len is Senior Leadership Editor for Abingdon Press. He blogs at LenWilson.us.

Connect with Len: Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn | Google+ | RSS

comments powered by Disqus