Technical Change vs. Cultural Change: A Key Reason Why Established Churches Resist Change

I pastor an established church.  By that, I mean that I am the lead pastor of a church founded in 1960–an old church in Colorado terms.  In fact, every church in which I’ve pastored or served on staff has been labeled an established church:

  • Pleasureville Baptist Church, Pleasureville, KY, where I served as Minister of Music.  Founded: 1877.
  • First Baptist Church, Clewiston, FL, where I served as Worship and Youth Pastor.  Founded: 1938.
  • Cox’s Creek Baptist Church, Cox’s Creek, KY, where I served as Music and Youth Minister.  Founded: 1785.
  • English Baptist Church, where I served as lead pastor (weekends only).  Founded: 1912.
  • Boone’s Creek Baptist Church, Lexington, KY.  Lead Pastor.  Founded: 1785.

First of all, yes, I served at two churches that were founded months apart in 1785–230 years ago.

Secondly, the newest church where I’ve served is the one where I currently serve–and it’s 55 years old.

Needless to say, the older the church, the more of a culture has developed in those particular churches, and with that the more unwritten rules you have.  So, when a new pastor comes in, he looks at the Bible and looks at the by-laws and believes he has a good grasp of the warp and woof of that church.

This is why change on any level is difficult in any church. Pastors believe they have the culture figured out, when in reality the pastor received a Masters-level education every week regarding the culture of their church.

And those classes are mandatory.

I picked up a book a read last year by Sam Rainer III called Obstacles in the Established Church: How Leaders Overcome Them (get this book now).  This short book deals with the obstacles of criticism (“I Love You Pastor, But…”),  comfort (“We can’t do that!”), expectations (“Why didn’t you visit me?”), etc.  Yet, chapter 2 is pertinent to this discussion: change (“We’ve never done it that way before!”).

In this chapter, he gives four reasons why established churches resist change.  Let me pass along reason #2: leaders do not properly recognize the difference between a technical change and a cultural change.  An excerpt:

When many people say they want change, they often mean technical changes.  Technical problems require a specific expertise. For many, pastors are seen as the hired expert on hand to work through technical problems.  People desiring technical changes ask these types of questions: Can you make sure my curriculum is in my room? Can you see that the church is not so hot in the summer? Why haven’t I received my newsletter? These questions involve small technical changes, but often people desire large technical changes too, like a new building (19).

How helpful is this going into a new pastorate or a new church!  However, Rainer rightly notes that “few people understand that lasting change is culture, not technical.  Cultural problems are not solved by just a technical expert, but rather these changes involve a general acceptance of everyone” (19).  And this, sports fans, is where the resistance comes.

You see, leaders identify cultural changes.  They won’t just go with the status quo.  Churches develop the unwritten rulebook written with invisible ink over the generations until everyone abides by them and find comfort in them–almost to the point where the personal preferences become tests of faith and trump all else.

What does Rainer recommend?  I love his honesty:

I wanted them to change, but rather than doing the hard work of dealing with the culture in the church, I decided to force-feed technical changes.  Most technical changes are relatively easy compared with the harder work of leading cultural change (21).

Whether you are a new to pastoring, new to the church, or have served in your church for years and years, Rainer gives some very helpful advice here on understanding the different types of changes.  When people say they want change, you as a pastor and they as a church may see two different angles of what changes means.

But as a shepherd of God’s people, you are called to work diligently to understand this.  And I’m not saying this as a expert who has it all figured out (a laughable concept), but I write this as a reminder mostly to myself.  Lead with the Great Commission and Great Commandment always as your grid and guide, but also lead with patience and understand as best as possible where your people are and what their particular grid and guide is.

May God put us all on the same Great Commission/Great Commandment page.  Now that will help us lead with joy!


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