Ray Evans reviews a book on change which suggests organisations and churches will always need to be on a journey of change if they are to see growth and maturity.
Many are familiar with the bell-shaped ‘curve of life’ which describes the seeding, growth, maturing, decline, and death of living things. This metaphor is also used widely as a description of church growth and life.1
But it’s been pointed out that the smooth growth curve is, in fact, more a series of steps. As a church reaches a certain size it faces the temptation of settling for a plateau – whereas a gospel-shaped decision can set it on a path to increased growth.
Such a decision in a small church may be, for example, to hire a pastor. In a medium-sized church it could be the decision to plant another church. In larger churches it may mean going to multiple services, or developing a larger staff. Such decisions don’t automatically lead to growth, but the Lord often blesses these risky, faith-filled gospel decisions and the churches who take them.
Again, of course, growth cannot and must not be reduced to the numbers attending, the size of the staff, or the amount of money given. These metrics are part of what it means to grow, just like a height chart shows a child growing up, even though that concept is a lot richer than something measured in feet and inches.
A new resource
To the process of gospel-shaped decisions comes a new set of tools or ideas to help us lead and navigate change. Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez’s book, Illuminate is a description of the journey people in organisations, companies, clubs, and indeed churches might go on as they seek to go ‘onwards and upwards’.2 It is well worth a read and some thoughtful consideration and you can download a helpful summary of the book here.
The thesis is that the growth curve is actually broken down into multiple smaller journeys which combine into the ‘epic tale’ of the life of that group of people. Each mini journey, or story, can be characterised using five categories.
Let’s take them one stage at a time.
This is stage one. It happens when a group peers into the darkness of an unknown future and begins to aspire to something better, a preferred future ‘of what could be’.
The leader’s role is to illuminate this. They are ‘the torchbearers’ who shine with their knowledge, insights, hopes, and convictions, so that the group is enabled to share the dream. The authors wisely point out that leaders don’t impose what they want on the group, but lead a corporate embracing of what might be.
Stage two shows that to go up, you have to step out, and down, to get going at all. That is, you have to leave a place of safety and stability in order to risk change. Most people find this very hard to do. It is a critical step, and they suggest many ways leaders can help people take this step of embracing the unknown, the uncertain, and the new.
They describe four parts of a ‘toolkit’ that the torchbearer-leaders can employ at each stage of the journey. They mention speeches, stories, ceremonies, and symbols.
In a Christian environment we are used to this at a big step such as believer’s baptism. Usually there is a speech - preaching on conversion for example. Then there is the story - someone shares their testimony of how they became a believer. Then there is the ceremony - public confession of faith and the drama of immersion in water in the Tri-une name. Finally, there may be a symbol - a formal welcome by a leader into the membership of the church.
These four ‘tools’ help a new convert to take this public leap and reinforce its significance (of course, they do far more than that, but that is what they also do.)
At each stage of the journey there will be a need to both ‘confirm the committed’, and ‘challenge the resistant’. Fear and an unwillingness to change are common objections, and a wise leadership will think carefully about how to help at this juncture. Empathy goes a huge way to help people on the challenging Journey. Needless to say, bullying, sarcasm, disdain, or authoritative superiority do not.
The next stage they describe will be very familiar to any reader of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. No sooner do we commit to step out in faith than opposition abounds, be it the Slough of Despond, Apollyon the fierce tempter, Vanity Fair, or Giant Despair. All kinds of events, setbacks and discouragements face all those who want to go forwards. Good leadership knows when the ‘Fight stage’ might be taking its toll, and so breathes in fresh courage to those who fear they may have made a mistake.
If leaders don’t speak such words they need to remember that along the journey their people meet a wide variety of others such as Mr Pliable, Judge Hategood, and Mr Worldly-Wiseman who will speak words that will do them great harm.
Mini-victories need celebrating. It may be, for example, raising half the funds for a new building, the first convert from a new housing estate, the appointment of a new pastor. They help those in the fight to keep going. Which leads to stage four in the scheme.
Now it is the slog; ‘the long, dull, monotonous years’, to quote Screwtape.3 That devil pointed out that it is hard for us creatures to persevere, and it is.
We know from our own mundane experience this is so. If you have ever decorated an old house you know that after a tremendous amount of hard work scraping off the old wallpaper, filling in holes, repairing the rotten wood, sanding down the sound wood, the room looks… a mess, and you feel exhausted. To keep going to completion is so hard, especially that last 10% of effort (the gloss coat on the main door). It is so fiddly and can go wrong so easily just at the last task. You often ponder whether it was worth the effort!
So it is in so much of change in church life. It can feel ‘uphill all the way’. Setbacks, doubts, criticism, slowness of the growth of fruit. All this may get you to question what the Lord is doing. But this experience of ‘climb’ is normal for projects in general, as well as churches in particular.
The authors point out that leaders must model perseverance and step in to help at this key stage where keeping going matters. They suggest some great ideas for the kinds of speeches that need to be given, the stories that should be told, the ceremonies that can be held, and the symbols which can be embraced. They argue that there may be several re-iterated steps of ‘fight and climb’ in any one journey.
Leaders need to master the art of pouring in the right emotional fuel for this is such a common experience. Returning to Bunyan, remember how in the Interpreter’s house there was a picture of a fire with Satan constantly pouring water on it. Yet he fire kept alight. The reason why? Because the Lord was ceaselessly pouring in the oil of his grace into the human heart to enable it to keep going.
This is the final stage where all the efforts pay off. It is a time for rejoicing. Remember how Paul and Barnabas on their return to Antioch reported to the church all that the Lord had done in the missionary journey (Acts 14:26, 27). This will be the time when the church knows a time or peace and growth in numbers (Acts 9:31). It is a time of praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done.
You will see something similar at a wedding when, after a possibly lengthy courtship journey with questions about ‘true love’, the couple commit publicly and joyfully at last. You might see this at the completion of a building project, or the establishment of a new church, or at the retirement thanksgiving for a long-term church worker.
You certainly want to take time at the funeral of a believer to give thanks and praise to God. They have completed the epic journey the Lord had called them to begin, and by his grace they have run the course and have arrived safely in the Lord’s presence - just as he promised they would.
And then? Well apart from the last example, it will be another cycle of Dream, Leap, Fight, Climb and Arrive again. Why don’t you take time as a leadership team to discuss which stage of your church journey you might be in? Go on to talk in more detail about what aspects of Speech, Story, Ceremony, or Symbol you need to employ to help those on the journey right now.
And to do that well it might be worth you getting a copy of the book for yourself, digesting its contents, and learning from the wisdom it contains.
1. Aubrey Malphurs, Advanced Strategic Planning (Baker, 2005), pp7-19; Gary L. McIntosh, Taking Your Church to the Next Level (Baker, 2009); Philip Jensen, Growing Gospel Churches (South East Gospel Partnership Conference, 3 Feb, 2007)
2. Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez, Illuminate (Portfolio Penguin, 2016)
3. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Geoffrey Bles, 1943 this edition), p143.