I have only been at my current church for about 5 months, but in that time the congregation has noticeably grown. We’ve seen an increase in giving and attendance (two of the most common indicators of vitality, but certainly not the only ones). We’ve also seen an increase in willingness to serve, and interest in small groups and Bible studies. In general, I’ve been told that there is a great atmosphere in the worship service, and a lot of excitement about things.
The growth is exciting and it creates some momentum. The growth is also the result of implementing some changes in the worship service and church system. Early on, I moved the pulpit out of the sanctuary, because I wasn’t really using it anyway (I’m a pacer). Then we moved the altar rails out of the sanctuary to open the area up. Recently, we’ve replaced some chairs with some tables to continue creating a more “open” or “cozy” atmosphere. And each of these changes have been met positively. I’m aware that I’m able to get away with some of these changes because the church is growing. The hope is that the changes continue to generate excitement, energy, and momentum towards growth.
But I am also aware that there is a bittersweet element to the last five months. To me, the altar rails were things that separated the congregation from me while I preached, and I wanted the openness. To someone else, those rails were where they met Christ. And there is sorrow in seeing them leave, even if it seems to have produced growth and fruit. And this had reminded me of one important lesson that I, as a church leader in an established church, need to be reminded of.
Change, whether good or bad, brings grief with it.
And this is because change means saying goodbye to things.
I’ve been gifted with the ability to see a fairly clear picture of the potential future of churches. I see ideas and possibilities almost everywhere. I can see a pretty clear picture of my current church having 150 in worship on a weekend in the next few years (that would be up from 60/week when I arrived). And everyone is generally excited about that prospect.
But it also means that things cannot remain the way they have been. We would need at least two different worship services, which means more people need to help out on Sunday morning, which could mean that people have to stop helping out in others areas. It may mean that Sunday school has to change, and the lay out of the sanctuary has to continue to change. The traditional worship service may need to become a contemporary one in order to help this growth.
One of the biggest problems I as a leader face isn’t handling failure, but rather handling success. Success (in this case growth) hides some of the pain that people are going through. I have no doubt that my congregation would be thrilled to see that 150 people are worshipping on a Sunday, and they largely won’t care if it’s with guitars and drums, or choirs and organs. They want to see people come to know Christ.
But it’s tough to emotionally prepare for the grief that comes with growing. The church is happy to see growth and new energy, but it in some instances, the growth has come from saying goodbye to things that were critical to their faith and important to them.
Church leaders needs to make sure that we don’t neglect the pain and grief that comes in the face of success and growth. The congregation may be excited to see dozens of new people each week, but it is hard for them to see things change. Not because they’re old, stuck in the mud curmudgeons.
It’s hard because the things that pointed them to Christ are being changed. Even for the right reasons, that’s difficult.