Interview with a pastor who transitioned his church (part 2)

What challenges do you face when try to transition a legacy church into a network of simple/organic churches? This post continues the interview with David Havice.

Felicity: You obviously hit some challenges when you transitioned your church. Can you describe them?

David: The normal challenges were there and revolved around three areas: Spiritual concepts , emotional issues, and physical logistics. (I describe these and the process we went through in a small ebooklet “Journey Through Transition” which I will send free to anyone who would like a copy!)

The greater challenge is not the initial transition stage – I would say we did this successfully. It’s the ongoing process of grasping the deeper changes! The main one would be moving from a church-centric vision to a kingdom-centric vision. After 7 years we have grown from 6 house churches to basically two house churches! Some of the people who made the transition with us just weren’t able to continue through what I would call “the rhythms of life”: children, toddlers, etc. Changing needs in the existing body brought about changing ideas on how to best cope with those needs and house church wasn’t always the easiest answer!

We have worked hard at releasing people kindly, when they felt the need to leave! My biggest disappointment is that somehow, we’ve not been able to GRASP the MISSIONAL emphasis and go with it!

Felicity: Do you believe it’s possible to transition successfully? What would make a difference?

I believe its possible – but I don’t think it will ever be easy! Any leader who determines that a legacy church can be transitioned should be ready for heartache and loss – as some people just won’t get it. Again, I think it’s a wineskin issue. There are people who fall through the cracks – they start out with the idea of change, and then can’t fully cope, so rather than going back, they just drop out!

Most of all, a leader who embraces transition for the whole church should be patient, and set for the long haul! Ultimately, what survives all the changes will be totally different than what that leader started with, and even then, there will always be the tendency in those who were a part of the legacy church to “look back”. I believe that is a DNA issue, and I’m not sure how much that can really be changed without a major work by God in the heart of each person.

Felicity: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of transitioning their church?

David: Here are a few pointers.

  1. Make sure God is in it (but even when He is, be prepared for an outcome different from what you expected.
  2. Don’t see it as another way to grow the church – Turn your eyes to the Kingdom and look for how you can have the most impact in reaching people.
  3. Prepare your people for serving others, rather than being served! Help them understand that some of the things they are used to will not necessarily be available any more – the perks and benefits of a traditional programmatic church. It really isn’ t about us, its about Him and His Kingdom!
  4. Build in the MISSIONAL perspective from the outset – not as an idea for those who are most outgoing, but as a necessary framework for each believer!
  5. Help people understand that the church is much more fluid than static and that we don’t have to exist perpetually in the same form!

In the third part of this interview, we’ll look at why David is still committed to simple/organic church principles.

Interview with a pastor who transitioned his church (part 1)

The following is part of an interview with David Havice, a good friend, and pastor of a traditional church who transitioned to a network of simple/organic churches.

Felicity: What made you decide to transition your legacy church into a network of simple/organic churches?

David: We were a small congregation in a town of multiple megachurches as well as seeing “new works” appearing regularly! Tired of the status quo and the competitive spirit among churches, we began to pray, asking the Lord about our niche, and what we should be doing. Ultimately that led us to the whole idea of the house/simple/organic approach, and a basic belief that God was indeed leading us in that direction!

Felicity: What process did you go through? How long did it take?

We started by sharing the ideas, thoughts and information with the leadership structure, first the elders, then the life group leaders. At each level, we gave them time to think, process, research, and ask questions. After this group was “on board” and felt somewhat comfortable with it, we presented it to the whole congregation, through a series of teachings, sharing, and discussion. We actually launched on the first Sunday of January 2006. During the initial phase of transition, we moved things around, both physically in the sanctuary and in their minds as well. We confronted thought processes, old paradigms about what the church is and shared new ideas to stretch their thinking. All in all, there was about a 6 month lead up to the actual launch. We gave people permission to leave if they didn’t feel comfortable, but we did ask them to try it for three months before they decided!

Part 2 of this interview will be posted on Friday!

 

A personal story for Memorial Day: in memory of my father

My father, Peter English, was one of the kindest, gentlest men I’ve ever known.

Peter English: 1919 – 2003

In World War 2, my father volunteered to serve in the British Army. His regiment was sent to Singapore, where he was captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore and  taken to Burma. He labored on the infamous Railroad of Death, helping to build the bridge over the River Kwai. He watched from a few hundred yards away as the bridge was bombed by the Allies. (If any of you have read the book, Miracle on the River Kwai, my father was with the author through most of that time.)

The torture and atrocities of life in the POW camps were unspeakable–and my father was silent on the topic for most of my growing up years. Yet the war was always present with us–in the nightmares he suffered, in the fact that we never had a Japanese product in the house. His closest friends were always those who had been with him through the war.

I therefore had mixed feelings when Tony and I took our first trip to Japan. What would I think about the race of people who had been responsible for my father’s pain? In one sense it was nothing to do with me–it had all happened to a previous generation. Yet I found myself surprisingly troubled by being there, especially when I saw someone elderly or in uniform.

At the end of our first conference, we had a time for feedback. I mentioned how healing it was for me to have Japanese friends because my father had been in a Japanese POW camp. To my surprise, the Japanese we were with broke down in tears.

“Please give your father a message from us,” they sobbed. “Tell him we are so very, very sorry for the way we treated him.”  These people were far too young to have been in the war.

Also present in the group were two others who had been personally impacted by the war. There was a Korean girl whose parents had been captured by the Japanese and deported to Japan. And then there was a Japanese girl from Hiroshima whose family had been deeply affected by the nuclear bomb that ended the war. If I remember rightly, her grandmother had survived the bombing even though she was quite close to the center of the blast, but never spoke of it until towards the end of her life. The people of Hiroshima live with the constant reminder of “The Bomb.”  They are taught about it from a very young age in their schools; they live with the sickness that has resulted from the radiation.

The group of people we were with then prayed through the situation. With tears, we repented on behalf of our nations for what had happened during the war. We prayed for healing. It was a powerful, Spirit-breathed time of restoration.

I look back on that time of prayer as one of the most healing times in my life.

If I were a pastor…

Imagine the scenario.  I’m the pastor of a traditional church that’s going fairly well. We’ve been running along at 150 members for several years now. I love the church and the people, but recently I’ve been challenged to think about simple/organic church and the impact it can have on missions. As I pray about it, I realize that at heart, I’m a pioneer and that sticking with the status quo doesn’t fit with my character and gifting. I would love to have the freedom to explore simple/organic church further.

Photo credit: Ministerios Cash Luna (Creative Commons)

Here’s what I decide to do:

  • I’ll speak to my leadership team and explain that I’m getting excited about the concept of reaching into our community via simple/organic church.I’ll tell them that I’m an entrepreneur at heart and that “managing” church is very difficult for me. I”ll ask them if they will release me to follow where I sense the Lord is leading me. I’ll make sure they understand that any new groups I start need to be released unconditionally. They aren’t going to feed into the legacy church either in terms of people or finances but will remain a parallel track for the church.
  • If they give me the go ahead, I’ll find a way to transfer leadership, either to a team of people or to an individual with a pastoral heart for the people in the church. (If they don’t give me the go ahead, I have some decisions to make!)
  • I’ll look for other ways to earn income, and work with the church on a way to transition me gradually out of my full-time salary.
  • We’ll explain to the church the changes that are about to happen. This may take some time. We’ll answer their questions, and let them know that I’ll continue to be involved in the church, just not functioning in the way they’ve known in the past. I’ll get them excited and praying about the missional emphasis this will bring.
  • In the meantime, I’ll be studying everything I can on simple/organic church. I will seek the Lord about where he wants me to start. Is there a natural group I have a lot of contact with? Is he going to lead me to some specific people group?

Obviously the above is purely fictional, but I believe it is a way that anyone could go. It would also work if it was not the pastor of a church but a member of the congregation who wants to stay connected with the church while it releases them to follow the Holy Spirit.

What will it take for a second track approach to work?

In the past week, I have come across two (small) denominations who are revising their views on church planting. Rather than planning on traditional church planting with the expense of buildings and trained staff, both denominations are looking at a simple/organic approach to missions. They are encouraging their existing churches to plant out daughter simple/organic churches and any other church planting that goes on will likely be with simple/organic churches.
Photo credit: the real Kam75 (Creative Commons)
So I emailed a friend of mine (who for various reasons has asked not to be named) to tell me about his experience of transitioning a legacy church into a network of simple/organic churches. I also asked him to comment on running a second track–that is, of having a separate and parallel group with a missional emphasis that runs alongside a legacy church. Here are his thoughts as to the viability of doing so: 
  1. If the leadership team fully understands that the church is not the end, but the Kingdom, and is open to a variety of ministry situations that are not necessarily alike, or even traditional in nature 
  2.  If that leadership team is willing to give up control and simply see what God can do with believers who have a different mentality than the existing status quo
  3. If the senior leader sees the house church approach as being just as viable as the traditional approach and has a “releasing mentality” rather than a “containing mentality”
  4. If equal time and resources are given to the “house church ministry arm,” not seeing it as a fad approach for those weird people who don’t want to fit into a mold, but that it is “just as important as anything else in the church.”   (I remember from many years ago, that one church I was in enjoyed great success in a lot of areas.  But the truth was that if a ministry idea didn’t fit with the Senior Pastor, it never got off the ground.)
  5. If there is an expansion of the vision that  put the house church ministry on equal footing with every other ministry — so that even those who don’t want to participate can encourage and affirm those who do.   Its the whole idea of not thinking that “my way” is the only way.   Jesus said, “If they’re not against us, they’re for us!  

In another way of saying it, its moving from a church centric vision, to a kingdom centric vision!


In addition:
The framework of the existing church could be very helpful to those who do want to start house churches or be a part of them. All of the legal aspects would be covered by the existing church structure, releasing those who were  participating in the house churches to do so without some of the difficult issues which can arise in the whole area of administration. 
Again, I do think that this could be a viable alternative to transitioning the whole church. it would actually be like a two track church approach, (kind of like the many churches today who say they have a traditional service and a contemporary service!)    The key issue, I believe, is based upon the vision for the whole entity.  And it would have to come from the senior leader, if it was going to have any chance of success!   

An alternative to transitioning

Transitioning a legacy church to a network of simple/organic churches is not an easy route. There may be compelling reasons to take it, such as the fact that your church can no longer afford to keep its building. But if there are no compelling practical reasons, there are alternatives.

Photo Credit: rburtzel (Creative Commons)

It would be very easy to start a second, missional/simple/organic track that runs parallel to the legacy church.

Here are some of the factors to consider:

  1. The leadership would need to be fully supportive.
  2. The missional/organic group would probably be just a small group of people that were fully committed to the new vision and that was commissioned by the church to explore these areas.
  3. The new group will need to be trained in simple/organic principles. Simple church is not like a home group or a home Bible study. There are aspects that are similar, but it’s a totally different way of thinking. There are many books and resources available, and many people available to help train groups who would like to move this way.
  4. The group would need to be totally and unconditionally released. Since the people most likely to be interested in the new vision are likely to be some of the most committed in the church (either that, or they’ll be the people thought of as rebels!) the cost needs to be assessed, both in terms of finances and time. This factor is key. If the parent church leadership insists on staying in control, it will inhibit and eventually kill a missional track. Are you willing to lose your best people to this vision. (Hint: you can never outgive God!)
  5. Any new believers will probably never come to the parent legacy church. This is not a way of growing your church. It’s about the Kingdom. Are you willing to make an impact for the Kingdom even if your own church never sees any of the fruit.

What other important considerations can you think of?

One sad fact of transition you need to know

It’s a sad fact, but one that you need to face up front.

 

You will lose people.

When you transition from a legacy church to a network of simple churches, not everyone will come with you. For many, the legacy church has been their whole life, and when you suggest a paradigm shift as major as the one this entails, you are rocking their spiritual world. They’d rather find somewhere else where they feel safe and that meets their needs. Jesus said, “They will say the old wine is better.”

What should your reaction be?

I hear many stories where people say they feel betrayed, hurt and angry when others leave, or for those who are leaving, they feel rejected and ostracized.

Don’t let it be that way!

If people want to leave, don’t let them slip out the back door. Ask people to let you know if they want to go so you can bless them. Throw a party! Yes, if you legacy church has done anything right, you’ll have tears, but let it be a time of spiritual growth. Honor them. Let them know its good that the Lord is leading them that way. Have a group of people gather round and prophesy  over them and pray for them. Send them out from your legacy church with the blessing and good wishes of everyone concerned. Help them find another legacy church if that is what they want. Write a letter of commendation to their new pastor. Do everything within your  power to make their leaving something they will look back on as a time when the Lord was leading and blessing them. Ask them to pray for you and bless you.

You won’t experience the sadness of broken relationships.

 

How do you transition from legacy church to a network of simple churches?

The answer is: slowly!

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I know several legacy churches that have successfully made the transition to a network of simple/organic churches. When I’ve asked their leaders about the process, they have always told me that its been a lengthy one–a couple of years to complete.

Usually they have taken about a year of preparation to teach the principles of simple/organic church covering questions like these:

  • What is church?
  • What happens in a simple/organic meeting?
  • How will it differ from what we know now?
  • Luke 10 principles

They take plenty of time to dialog and answer people’s concerns. They bring in others who are more experienced in the journey.

Then the transition begins. Things are no longer led from the front in the same way. They split up into small groups for interactive Bible study instead of having a sermon. They break into pairs to pray. They encourage people in the congregation to participate in the worship time by suggesting songs, praying, prophesying, reading a verse of Scripture. The object is to get everyone to take part where before, they would have been spectating.

Finally comes the time when one week a month, there is no church in the main building but everyone meets in homes. After a few months like this, it happens twice a month, and finally, they just get together occasionally as one large group.

Are there problems with this? Of course.

Do any of you have experience in a church transition? What was it like?

10 hurdles to overcome in making the transition from legacy to simple church

If the Lord shows you that you are to make the transition from legacy to a network of simple/organic churches, there are a number of obstacles to overcome. (This post assumes you are in a position of church leadership.)

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  1. Many people in your church do not share your vision for the transition. It’s not what they signed up for. As the parable of the wineskins says, “they think the old was better.”
  2. People are scared they will lose the friendships and sense of community  that’s been created over the years.
  3. People are used to a professional standard of church: a worship band, well-prepared sermon etc.
  4. There is no Sunday school program in simple/organic church. People enjoy the freedom to drop their kids off for an hour or so and having some thinking/spiritual time for themselves.
  5. People like decisions being made for them. They don’t want to carry the personal responsibility entailed in simple/organic church.
  6. There are no trained leaders.
  7. How can you prevent heresy?
  8. There is no vision for outreach.
  9. Some of the people who are keen for the transition are the ones disgruntled with the status quo. They will take a negative attitude with them.
  10. The financial welfare of your family depends on the church paying you a salary. You aren’t trained for any other job. What will happen to you?

These are all very valid concerns. It’s worth thinking through the potential problems before embarking on the transition.

What other hurdles can you think of that will need to be overcome?

 

Why transition from legacy to simple church?

Transitioning from a legacy church to a network of simple/organic churches generally involves letting go of the building, and may result in the paid staff finding other means of income. Of course, many hybrid forms are also possible.

Here are some of the reasons why a church might consider transitioning:

  1. Finances are tight; they’ve already had to fire some of their part or full-time staff. The building payments are beyond their reach. It’s either transition into something else, letting the building go, or close the doors permanently and let people fend for themselves. They know that there’s little finance involved in meeting in homes so they decide to try it. In these challenging economic times, this is becoming more and more common.
  2. Simple/organic is one of the new buzz-words.Many  churches are moving towards the organic end of  a continuum. They want to be on the so-called “cutting edge” of what God is doing. So they change the name of their home groups to home churches, and empower their leaders to baptize and give communion. They may or may not expect everyone to turn up on Sunday too. In a complete transition, the Sunday service will at least become sporadic.
  3. God is speaking to them as a church. He’s telling them that it’s time to transition–either wholly or in part. He’s challenging them that this is a way to reach out to their communities and make a difference.

Obviously the third reason is the best, but God could easily use a combination of two of these things. For example, a church might realize that their financial resources are dwindling and it’s only a question of time before they have to let the senior pastor go, but as they seek the Lord about the situation, he reveals to them some of the principles behind simple/organic church. Another example: some of the church members start reading some books on simple/organic church that convict them about reaching out into their neighborhoods, and again, as the church seeks the Lord, he reveals to them a plan for transitioning.

What other reasons might a church consider the transition?