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Changing a church can be more challenging than starting one

Changing a church can be more challenging than starting one

WACO—Jimmy Dorrell knows the challenges in building a multi-racial, multi-cultural congregation that meets under an overpass, where university professors and homeless people worship together. 

But Dorrell, pastor of Church Under the Bridge in Waco, recognizes it can be even more difficult for an established church to make the changes necessary to reflect the socio-economic and cultural population of its community.

Churches in neighborhoods or communities in transition may recognize they no longer are thriving, but members may be reluctant to take the steps required to allow the Spirit of God to transform them, he said.

Churches in affluent suburbs may be cut off from the poor and marginalized, but their members suffer loss from lack of contact with the poor. The poor understand some things about the kingdom of God firsthand that others need to learn, he insisted. Those lessons are learned only if upper-middle-class Christians intentionally develop relationships with the poor.

Change demands courage

“There is a real fear of the poor” as the gap between the impoverished and the affluent in America widens, Dorrell said in an interview.

Members must be courageous in addressing difficult issues about racial prejudice and poverty if they expect change to occur, he noted.

“You have to be intentional about the hard stuff,” he said. “You’ve got to want it bad enough to stay with the process.”

But when congregations are willing to ask tough questions about their own fears and prejudices and be open to surrendering positions of authority for the sake of God’s kingdom, transformation can occur, he insisted.

“God does his best stuff when we get outside of our comfort zones,” he said.

In his book, Dead Church Walking, Dorrell identifies eight principles of change: 

  • Change always includes choice. Lasting change cannot be forced on a congregation. Churches must consider alternatives and agree about the process—not be coerced or manipulated. “The unique members of each church must choose how to navigate the rough waters of change and transformation,” he writes.
  • Change is built on reality. Churches must recognize they may have to do new things rather than just try to improve the quality of the things they always have done that no longer work in changing environment. “One of the hardest parts of the process of change is being willing to admit the facts, rather than clinging to what we wish was happening or what used to happen,” Dorrell writes.
  • Change is built on purpose. The church needs to examine its reason for being and explore how to live out its calling in the current context.
  • Change pushes the church into visible presence in the community. The church must engage with the community as it is, both through word and deed. Otherwise, the community outside the four walls of the church building will see the church as self-absorbed, self-centered and disconnected from the people around it.
  • Change requires trusted leadership. Acknowledged leaders who are respected by the congregation must take key roles in fostering healthy dialogue and guiding the church to make hard decisions.
  • Change always includes risk. Even though the status quo may be dysfunctional and ineffective, at least it is familiar. Change involves venturing into unfamiliar territory. “Risk brings out our fears, and fears can immobilize us,” Dorrell writes.
  • Change requires constant renewal. Change demands high levels of energy and creativity, and it takes time. Church members may get frustrated along the way, and their frustration can lead to division.
  • Change requires commitment. Change is uncomfortable, and it becomes tempting to exit the process before lasting change occurs. “Change means commitment over an extended time, commitment to decisions that are made as a group, and a commitment to Christ as the head of the church,” Dorrell writes.
       
 
 
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