Q: Why is it so hard to change things in a congregation? Why don’t the changes stick?

A: Let me begin to answer your question by asking one: Have you ever visited a congregation where you were told to take a brightly colored mug at the fellowship hour so that members would know you were visiting and could make you feel welcome? What was your experience?

Occasionally this works and members provide visitors with a warm and inviting welcome. More often than not, though, the multicolored-mug-toting visitors report that they are avoided like the plague!

I offer this example to illustrate that change within congregations is much more complex than we want to acknowledge. Surface changes, like providing a special mug for visitors, do not typically bring about what is hoped for—unless there are accompanying changes at a deeper level.

One large urban congregation I once worked with wanted to be the “friendliest congregation” in their large city. Indeed, the congregation had more visitors in a few months than some congregations receive in a full year! In spite of this, the congregation showed only a moderate membership increase year after year. In exploring some of their patterns of interaction with visitors to the congregation on Sundays, it became clear that even with their special mugs, other things inhibited their growth.

This was an urban congregation that drew its members from a wide geographical area, most of whom did not want to travel to the congregation during the week. Consequently, most of the church’s meetings and programs were held right after worship on Sunday mornings. When I asked members to describe a typical Sunday morning, they told me this was a time to say hello to a few of their friends, make photocopies of meeting minutes, and rush off to committee meetings or programs. They immediately realized that this left their visitors, mugs and all, standing around watching the active members scurry about.

After making an agreement to not start any meetings until a half an hour after the worship service, church members agreed to use that half hour to “be present” to their visitors. We practiced various ways of interacting with visitors and with being a welcoming presence using some intentional conversations and listening practices.

A few weeks later I received a phone call from one of the congregation’s leaders. “You’ll never believe what happened,” he said. “Last week I followed through on our agreement to engage with visitors intentionally during the first half hour.”

“Great!” I said. “What happened?”

“The moderator and I approached this small group of visitors who were holding the multi-colored mugs. We used the questions that we had practiced and listened to them. Then, after a few minutes, one of the visitors said, ‘This is the friendliest church my wife and I have ever attended.’”

This congregation began to become what it wanted to be—“the friendliest church in the city”—by stopping their ineffective behaviors and intentionally adopting practices that were more in line with their goals. Likewise, change in any congregation requires discontinuing what doesn’t work and committing to new practices tailored to the changes being sought.

This story also illustrates another point about change. The members in this story not only made intentional changes in what they did, they also changed their way of being with visitors on Sunday mornings. In our prior discussions, they had realized that their “work” as a congregation was not limited to rushing off to participate in committee meetings. It also involved being a welcoming presence to their visitors. We had reflected upon the biblical passage, “Show hospitality to strangers, because you may be entertaining angels unawares.” They realized that their visitors may indeed be “angels” whose messages to them would never be received if they did not practice hospitality.

Change is complex. It is multifaceted, and we can never achieve the desired results if we focus on only one level of change. It requires discontinuing what doesn’t move toward the desired change, intentionally engaging in practices that embody the change, and shifting how we understand some aspect of congregational life. In fact, changing how we think about a particular area of congregational life may bring about more sustained change—and create more transformative action over time—than just doing new things.

One approach to change that I have used often with congregations, Appreciative Inquiry, is designed not only to get a congregation to do new things but to also think differently about themselves, to ask different questions of each other, to look at the kinds of stories that the members of the congregation tell each other, to find generative images of the future that shift the focus from merely problem-solving to what the congregation wants to be and to become—in essence, to create new possibilities. Research shows that such approaches bring about more selforganizing or improvisational processes of change than are typical of more planned approaches to organizational change.