“Our desire to feel like we belong is so powerful that we will go to great lengths, do irrational things, and often spend money to get that feeling.”
-Simon Sinek, ‘Start with Why’
Churches everywhere struggle with the idea of creating or injecting new life into their congregations and communities (commonly called ‘revitalization’). There are a multitude of reasons churches struggle to ‘revitalize’. One of the biggest barriers to adding new life to a church is actually one of the churches intrinsic strengths; a sense of belonging.
The above quote highlights the deep desire that we as human beings have to ‘belong’ somewhere. That desire to belong is why groups, clubs, gangs, and organizations form. We all want a place to “fit in”. And every group has it’s own culture to determine who ‘fits in’. For example, there are organizations where the only criteria to ‘fit in’ is wearing a red hat.
The challenge with revitalizing a church is that to add new life means that you are inviting people who haven’t ‘fit in’ before into the culture. For example, let’s say for decades you only had to wear a red hat to belong to the church (it’s clearly more complicated than this). Over time, the church loses attendance. It turns out that people in the community like wearing green, yellow, and blue hats, so they don’t fit in at the church. (If you change ‘hats’ for any number of things like worship style, service projects, or theology, you can see this principle more clearly).
Church leaders, including those within the congregation are all for inviting people with green, yellow, or blue hats into church. After all, God loves the people who wear green, yellow, and blue hats too, so we should help them ‘belong’.
But it creates tension with the red hat wearing crowd, who for decades were taught that to belong there, you had to wear a red hat. They can begin to feel like they don’t belong to their own church. This, in turn creates frustration, anger, and hurt feelings.
How can you deal with these tensions?
Ask ‘Why?’ – Why are the ‘red hats’ so important? There may be a really valid reason for whatever the ‘what’ is (worship style, projects, etc.). Or maybe there was at one time. If you give the ‘red hat’ crowd a chance to explain why it matters, you give them a chance to voice their concerns. You may or may not agree or change your mind, but you allow them to voice their thoughts.
Know Your ‘Why?’ – You might feel like it’s obvious. You might intuitively know why something needs to change. Others don’t. People will buy into a big enough ‘why’, but only if you can give them one. Why is adding a new worship style more important than not? Why is it better to stop supporting a mission/service project than continue?
Understand the ‘BTS’ – The change you’re proposing may seem small (a redesigned bulletin, new prayer card, decor change, etc), but it could mean something bigger to others. Behind the scenes (BTS), that bulletin helped them feel like they belonged, and now you’re taking that away. The old decor helped the red hat crowd know they ‘belonged’, and now it’s not there.
It’s worth noting that the ‘red hat’ crowd may not know that’s why they’re frustrated. They may not realize that the prayer card helped them feel like they belonged. They just got used to it. There’s usually more at work behind the scenes than we church leader give credit to.
Revitalizing a church (or community) is difficult work. When you say that you’re ‘adding new life’ to a church, you’re implying that the ‘red hat crowd’ belong to a dying church, which is a hard thing to hear.
But the work of revitalizing needs to happen in order to create room for the next generations of Christian disciples.
Remember, I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.