Is your church ready to change?

Yulee Lee, PhD Tyler Greenway, PhD | Feb 5, 2021

Several years ago, when I (Yulee) was on staff as a youth pastor, my senior pastor asked me to lead our church through a major change. Our hope was to build on the existing strengths of our church and focus on core values.

Sounds like a dream, right? It was, until it wasn’t.

Everyone was excited about the idea of change until the process rubbed against the comforts of what had become routine. For example, one day I told our executive pastor I would be sending her a bulletin insert to invite people to meetings about our change process. To my surprise, our executive pastor, who had been so excited about the change vision, told me to wait 6 months before any new communication about the change process could enter into the bulletin rotation!

Why? Because she had already pre-planned announcements 6 months in advance and didn’t want to disrupt that flow. At this moment, I knew my church was not as ready for change as I thought. What I learned is that leading change can often result in surprises when we least expect them.

Change can catch us off guard because it jolts us to feel, think, or act differently.

All of us experience change. Sometimes we are ready for it—but as 2020 revealed, oftentimes we are not as ready as we think we are. How can we minimize this discomfort and move beyond managing change to begin seeing it as an opportunity to learn and grow? Our research at the Fuller Youth Institute has found that it begins with a crucial first step: evaluation.

The importance of evaluation

Evaluation may not seem like a top priority, and it may not be something we typically look forward to. But evaluation—particularly evaluation that investigates your church’s openness to change—can be one of the more important parts of your ministry for two important reasons: Evaluation helps you (1) avoid blind spots and (2) identify next steps.

1. Avoid blind spots

To some degree, we all have blind spots, but evaluation improves our perspective. One example of a blind spot is the difference we observe between leaders and attendees when administering our Growing Young Assessment. We often find that leaders believe their church is less open to change than those who sit in the pews. This is an important blind spot. Evaluation can reveal to leaders that their church may be more ready for change than they anticipate.

2. Identify next steps

Evaluation also helps us identify next steps. In our Growing Young Assessment, we ask participants to rate several statements about each of the six core commitments described in Growing Young. Sometimes leaders learn that their young people would like to serve their neighbors better. Other times leaders learn that young people would appreciate more empathy. These insights can help churches make practical, informed decisions when introducing change.

Evaluating openness to change

In our Growing Young Assessment we evaluate openness to change using three questions. We ask:

  • how open key leaders are to change,
  • how open the majority of people in the church are to change, and
  • how open people are to change for the sake of their youth ministry.

We’ve analyzed the data from 36,857 surveys and found a few themes related to openness to change. Across all respondents, participants tend to rate their church lowest on questions that ask how open the majority of attendees are to change. This finding is interesting when we consider that the majority of participants who are regular or occasional attendees tend to express more openness to change than leaders.

Change often involves people exercising power.[1] If key leaders are less open to change than others, you may get stuck as these leaders exercise power to slow down or stop the change. If this scenario sounds familiar, try the following:

  1. Communicate your intent: Research tells us that those who lead change are often misunderstood.[2] Consistently communicating your intent can help key leaders understand that you are for them and not against them. Be transparent about your motives and the convictions God has placed on your heart.
  2. Look through the window: Leaders can be a window into the condition of the organization as a whole because they often create the culture.[3] As you talk with your key leaders, try to discern what their language (both verbal and nonverbal) and emotions reveal about your church. Put on your problem-solving hat and listen for both new possibilities and connections to the change you’re trying to manage.

Moving beyond constraints

Church leaders aren’t the only ones who hesitate when it comes to making changes. Our assessment compares results across a variety of demographic variables to highlight some fascinating findings when we look at the data across churches:

  • Females tend to believe their church is more open to change than males.
  • Participants who identify as White or Multiracial tend to consider their church more open to change than others. One exception to this are Hispanic or Latino participants who tend to rate the question assessing the majority of people’s openness to change the highest.
  • People from rural areas tend to rate the question assessing the majority of people's openness to change lower than people from urban areas.
  • Younger and older participants tend to believe their church is more open to change than middle-aged adults.
  • The longer people are involved in their church, the less open they believe their church is to change.
  • People from larger churches are more likely to believe their church is open to change than people from smaller churches.

Being aware that various groups respond to change differently can help leaders better negotiate the change terrain and prepare for potential roadblocks or detours. Perhaps some of these findings resonate with experiences you’ve had at your own church. When it comes to change, you can make the most out of your unique context in the following ways:

  1. Recruit change champions: Knowing who is open to change is gold because leaders cannot lead change alone. Research recommends recruiting a team of people who can help you both diffuse the vision for change and manage change.[4] Recruit those who are open to change and you’ll multiply buy-in around the change you’re working toward.
  2. Leverage your constraints: Detailed data can reveal where constraints exist, but thankfully, some research finds these constraints can make us more innovative.[5] Ask yourself a “What If” question to think beyond the boundary that’s been revealed. For example, “What if our church was not limited by our size or other demographics? What change could we possibly pursue?” Your creativity can move you beyond your constraints.

What to do next

Does this research pique your interest in evaluating your own congregation? As leaders, our individual perspective is limited. That’s why an evaluation tool can offer multiple vantage points that both deepen and broaden your vision, and can keep your eyes open to people who might require extra care and conversation.

Here are four steps to try as you introduce change that can breathe life into your church:

  1. Take our Growing Young Assessment to evaluate openness to change in your congregation. Your results will give you key insights for action.
  2. Schedule a conversation with your team to talk through your Growing Young Assessment results. What commitments can your church make to lead change with and for young people?
  3. Read Growing Young together with your team. Together, you’ll explore strategies and practical steps that your church can implement to start engaging 15- to 29-year-olds and growing spiritually, emotionally, missionally, and numerically.
  4. Join a Growing Young Cohort and let FYI walk hand-in-hand with your team as our Growing Young research helps inform and transform your ministry.
Tweet this: Sometimes we discover that our ministries are not as ready for change as we think they are. Here are four steps to try as you introduce change that can breathe life into your church.

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[1] Boonstra, Jaap and Kilian M. Bennebroek Gravenhorst.1998. Power Dynamics and Organizational Change: A Comparison of Perspectives. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. 7, no. 2: 97-120.

[2] Rogers, Everett. 2003. Diffusion of Innovations (5th edition). New York, NY: Free Press.

[3] Heifetz, Ronald and Marty Linsky. 2017. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

[4] Kotter, John. 2012. Leading Change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[5] Dyer, Jeff, Gregersen, Hal, and Clayton M. Christensen. 2011. The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Yulee Lee, PhD

Yulee Lee is the Senior Director of Staff and Partnerships at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), where she oversees the leadership development of staff, develops team culture and office systems, helps build strategic partnerships, and facilitates trainings. Yulee, originally from South Korea, grew up in Salt Lake City skiing and snowboarding on the mountains. She holds a BA in Political Science from Tufts University, a MA in Public Policy from the University of Chicago, and a PhD in Educational Studies with a concentration in Organizational Leadership from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She has served the local church for 12+ years in the areas of revitalization and innovation, worked in government on the local and national levels, and directed strategy for service learning in higher education while also teaching on the topics of organizational and change leadership. Ultimately, Yulee is passionate about collaborating for change in systems to reflect greater human dignity and flourishing for the vulnerable. In her free time, Yulee finds her happy place in any medium where she can nurture her creative and artistic sides. Yulee and her family reside in Chicago, IL.


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Tyler Greenway, PhD

Tyler Greenway serves as the Research Director at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and supports various research activities including literature review, grant writing, study design, data collection and management, statistical analysis, and presenting and publishing results. He holds an MDiv from Calvin Theological Seminary and an MA and PhD in Psychological Science from Fuller Theological Seminary. On a good day, he also brews a mean cup of coffee for the office. Tyler and his wife live in Grand Rapids, MI with their son and daughters.


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