How to Guide Your Church Through Tough Transitions

Transitioning from a small gathering to a mid-sized missional community can be challenging, but it doesn't need to be crazy.

Bob Hopkins started Anglican Church Planting Initiatives in the UK, and has been working to plant and equip mid-sized missional communities for over 20 years (they call them Clusters). I recently listened to this 17-minute interview (part of a series—Part 1Part 2) where he talks about some of the common challenges and pitfalls that churches face when seeking to transition to a missional community structure. I’ll echo and expand on some of what he said in that interview (which is worth checking out, by the way).

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Prayer and communication are keys to making any kind of change. The process ought to be bathed in prayer, the vision and values need to be communicated over and over, and a path needs to be staked out for moving people through the change.

Once those essentials are in place, perhaps the core challenge starts with leadership. Most pastors are used to being providers to their church, and most of what they provide (sermons) happens during the Sunday event. Thus, most of the energy and money of the church goes toward maintaining an engaging, high-quality Sunday event.

In order to move toward a mid-sized missional community model, most pastors and leadership teams will need to radically change the way they operate, spending way more of their time equipping and discipling missional community leaders instead of investing most of their energy into the Sunday event. This can be extremely challenging for leaders who have been deeply socialized and invested in an inherited model of church. Leadership has to be firmly committed to the change or it will never “take” in the long run.

Another challenge is helping people loosen their grip on traditional structures that they are used to and enjoy. Bob talks about “breaking the Sunday service model of church” that involves “certain specialist people doing stuff to the rest of us and us being spectators rather than participants.” People may try to emulate a Sunday service in their missional communities. Other people may be loathe to give up the small group Bible study structure they are used to. People don’t embrace change at the same pace, and will need to be cared for and listened to and loved as the transition happens.

Ultimately, I believe in mid-sized missional communities because I think they offer the best way for the church to thrive in the future. This isn’t about change for change’s sake, or embracing the latest “fad” in the church. This is about seeing more of God’s kingdom come in our neighborhoods and relational networks, and realizing, in the words of Alan Hirsch, that “the problems of the church cannot be resolved with the same kind of thinking that created those problems in the first place.”

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Ben Sternke
Ben is a husband of one, a father of four, and is currently planting a network of missional communities in Fort Wayne, Indiana.