As I walked through the gates, I felt as though I had stepped back in time.

It was my first visit to Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. This 1880’s theme park in the heart of Ozark country was filled with rides, shows, and period craftsmanship that transported me to a different era.

One of the attractions was a log cabin chapel where we could stomp and sing and shout
“Amen!” to our heart’s content. It gave a lively glimpse into how people worshiped a century and a half ago.


In the enthusiasm of the moment, it was easy to forget that our chapel experience, like the rest of Silver Dollar City, was preserved culture, not today’s culture.

This “old time religion” was not a sharing of the Good News that would be readily received in Detroit or Dubai. It just wouldn’t connect. In so many of our churches, newcomers walk through the door and feel like they are stepping back into time.

World renown church consultant Lyle Schaller loved to start a consult with this question: “What year is it here?” Every church lives in some era. To be effective, a church needs to match the present-day culture of its mission field.  

In their book, Comeback Churches, Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson describe it this way,

Most American churches today are well suited for ministry in a different era. All churches are culturally relevant; the question is whether they are relevant to a culture that currently exists in their community or to one that disappeared generations ago.

7 Last Words

Why do churches so often get stuck in some yesteryear?

We know the 7 last words of the church: “We’ve never done it that way before.” I like the corollary Tod Bolsinger added, And we are going to keep doing it the way that is not working, so help us God.  

What makes churches so resistant to change? Why is it so hard for leaders to bring a change that lasts, no matter how obvious and necessary it is for a future with hope?

About Loss

Perhaps for a very simple reason. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky explain it this way:

People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss. You appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime. You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Although you may see with clarity and passion a promising future of progress and gain, people will see with equal passion the losses you are asking them to sustain.

Leaders I’ve known who successfully navigate change engage in these 5 practices.

1. Pray daily and earnestly for God’s guidance

In the heat of the moment, it’s all too easy to lead in the direction we think things ought to go. Worse yet, we may succeed and discover that was not God’s intent at all. Better to be on God’s page from the beginning.

2. Create a guiding coalition

Although our culture lauds solo heroic leaders, a solo approach typically leads to unnecessary failure or messy burnout. Leading change is tough, relentless work. Bringing leaders together in a guiding coalition increases vision and decreases blind spots. “We” is smarter, stronger and more enduring than “me.”

3. Help the congregation grieve their losses

No change can gain traction without helping individuals and the wider body grieve what is no more. As we would do with a family who has lost a loved one, we sit with them, we listen to their stories, we laugh and cry with them, we acknowledge their pain, and we don’t try to paste over it with platitudes. We honor what has been, and we commend it to God. It’s not a one-time event, because grief is not a one-time feeling. Over time, we are helping people to let go – in trust. There is no lasting change without letting go.

4. Focus on who the church is now and the gifts God has given

Leaders make time in individual and group settings to explore the deeply held values of the congregation. They also assess the gifts God has given this body at the present time. The key is to discern how the values and the gifts in the congregation match some of the needs within the mission field.

5. Offer the congregation’s gifts to the community out of love.

Here’s where the rubber hits the road. For any church to once again become relevant, the crucial turn is from inward focus to outward focus. We must meet people where they are, on their terms. But not for our sake. We do it out of Christ’s love for them.

50 Percent

I recently heard a pastor describe how all this worked at her church. Just before she arrived, 50 percent of the congregation left. It was the younger half.

In prayer and conversation with the senior saints who remained, they took responsibility for their current state and intentionally focused on who they were and what gifts God had given them.  

They quickly realized they had wisdom, experience, and lots of grandparent/grandchild love. Early on, they created a Wednesday night meal that was open to the community. After eating together, they offered “stacked” ministries, providing something for every age group.

A Turnaround

By their involvement in the community and genuine invitations, slowly people started to give the church a try. Now, nine years later, the church is larger than it was when the pastor arrived and MUCH younger. Their nursery is full, and three babies are on the way!

Amazingly, the two groups growing the fastest at the church are young adults in their 20’s and people who had given up on church (or never even tried it). Young adults are showing up because so many of them come from broken families and feel isolated. They just love having a place where they don’t have to eat alone. Around a simple table, they find a family of faith that loves them.

By God’s grace, a church that had been museum of past culture is now a movement of life change in its mission field. Glory!

Your church can navigate to a new future, too. Let’s step out of the past and walk into people’s lives with love.  

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Roger Ross

A native of Cambridge, Illinois, Roger has served as a pastor in Texas, the British Channel Island of Guernsey, and Illinois. While in Illinois, he led teams that planted two new churches and served for 10 years as the lead pastor of one of the largest United Methodist Churches in the Midwest. It was his privilege to serve as the Director of Congregational Excellence in the Missouri Conference before coming into his current role with Spiritual Leadership, Inc (SLI).

Roger now comes alongside pastors, non-profit leaders and their leadership teams as an executive coach, specializing in leadership that inspires change. As a side gig, he loves teaching evangelism and church planting as an adjunct professor at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas.

Other passions of his include SCUBA diving in warm blue water, Krispy Kremes, and board games with family and friends. He also has a weakness for golf.

Roger is the author of three books, Meet The Goodpeople: Wesley’s 7 Ways to Share Faith, Come Back: Returning to the Life You Were Made For, and Come Back Participant Guide, all through Abingdon Press.

Now for the best part. Roger is married to Leanne Klein Ross, and they live Bloomington, Illinois. God has blessed them with two adult children, a son-in-law, several tropical fish, and one adorable granddog.