Why is transition so hard? Death Valley!

Why is transitioning a church so difficult? Because when existing Christians get involved in simple/organic church life they have to go through a process that our friend Wolfgang Simson calls “Death Valley.” And it’s usually a slow and painful journey. Jesus told us in the parable of the wineskins that those who have tasted the old wine will say,  “The old wine is better.” Until the Lord changes people’s DNA, they are more likely to return to what they have known.

So what is Death Valley?

It’s as though someone on the mountain top of legacy church can see the mountain top of simple/organic church in the distance, and they assume that they can go straight from one mountain top to the other. What they don’t realize is that is a valley between the two–Death Valley.

Old traditions die hard. I remember one awesome family leaving us because the mother couldn’t handle not dressing her children in their Sunday best to come to church! In order to experience the liberty that simple church represents, people who have been Christians for any length of time have to die to some of the very good things that legacy church represents.

  • Professionally led worship–in simple church you are lucky to have an out-of-tune guitar.
  • Well prepared talks–there’s no pastor who can spend hours preparing a stimulating sermon. Everyone takes part in an interactive discussion.
  • Children and teens ministry–you can’t just drop your kids off at Sunday School to have an hour free from distractions.
  • Someone else to make all the decisions–in simple/organic church, everyone is involved.
Dying to these things is not quick. It’s a process… a painful process.
Some people get part way through the process and find it too hard. They feel guilty on Sunday mornings when they don’t have to get up for church. They miss the exuberant worship and praise.
They go back to their legacy church.
But for those who press through to simple/organic, it is worth it for
  • The sense of community–people are very involved in each other’s lives
  • Everyone can participate–not just a few in  leadership.
  • The Holy Spirit is in charge of the times together (unless you are doing “Honey, I shrunk the church!”
  • Freedom from religious expectations and traditions
  • The sense of being on mission with God, reaching out to a world that doesn’t know him
  • The excitement of giving birth to daughter and granddaughter churches

Interview with a pastor: why he’s committed to simple/organic principles

Even though David Havice has faced challenges in transitioning his legacy church to a network of simple/organic churches, he is still committed to simple/organic church. Here’s the conclusion of my interview with him. You can view the first two parts of the interview here and here.

Felicity: I know with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, if you were to do it again, you might tackle it differently. What would you do? 

David: I think if I were getting ready to do it again, I would just resign as pastor of the legacy church, help find a new pastor, and then move to a new area to start from scratch, with an eye to reaching unchurched and unbelieving people. Jesus wants the old wine and the new wine to be preserved!

Felicity: In spite of all the challenges, you are still committed to simple/organic principles. Why?

David: There are several reasons.

  1. I see it as the best way to share the real life of what the church is to be about! Openness, transparency, shared life, prayer support, love and acceptance. Some of our people had been in traditional church together for years, but when they started participating In house church, they were amazed at what they found out about one another!
  2. I see it as the best way to get rid of “religious” mindsets and habits. People are able to be more real, more themselves and to be accepted that way, rather than trying to fit the “church mold” – the prevailing idea that congregations have of what their “ideal congregant” should be like! Its amazing to me that God created each individual uniquely different and then we as the church, often try to make everyone alike!
  3. It provides a way for everyone to participate, not spectate!
  4. I also believe that the house/simple/organic church movement is a bit prophetic in nature, and may very well be God’s preparation for a time yet to come, in which legacy churches would not be allowed. (That may sound like heresy here in America, but it has happened in other places!)
  5. Nodya (my wife) and I just love the simplicity of it! Being able to “wait” on the Holy Spirit to lead a meeting, not feeling the pressure of the clock and the program! Seeing the “light” come on in someone’s eyes as they get it! IT HAS REVOLUTIONIZED OUR LIVES!

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!

Photo credit: Balaji.B (Creative Commons)

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?