Thursday, March 12, 2009

Momentum and the speed at which it can be switched

When I read the big-name church leadership or church transitioning books, one thing that seems to stick out in my mind is the concept of momentum. You know, the concept borrowed from Newtonian physics (there called inertia: “a body in motion tends to stay in motion”) that insists once an organizational structure gets moving down a path it is almost certain to stay on that path. The leadership books then pick up on that and counsel that if you put the church on the right path, it will not only stay on that path but also pick up steam and speed and begin to grow. Something like a snowball rolling down a mountain. They make it sound so easy.
I had a recurring dream as a kid. Well, more of a nightmare, actually, because (for some reason I’ve never understood) it was intense and frightening. That dream was always the same: A dark and shadowy background with me on a rocky ledge. I would push a huge, heavy, tar-like ball. Constantly rolling it slowly over and over and over. My hands would stick into it and threaten to trap me in it. My body would strain against the ball unceasingly but I would accomplish almost nothing. (As an aside: if you’ve seen the movie “The Incredibles” and recall the part where Mr. Incredible is captured by the guns shooting the black, viscous, expanding goo, then you can almost understand my dream. I very nearly freaked out when I saw that.) My dream was the opposite of momentum.
Every church has some form of momentum. But I am recognizing more and more that each church has its own natural speed of momentum, as well. That speed has very little to do with size, a fair bit to do with structure, and a lot to do with the church’s own culture. Simply put, some churches can switch momentum fairly quickly. My friend David likes to brag that his church can “turn on a dime and still give nine cents change”. There’s a church that can speedily switch their momentum and head in a new direction quite quickly! Other churches, like my own, are just as able to switch, but the process is slower, and so every step becomes more obvious to leadership and the congregation as a whole and yes, like my dream, that process can be frightening.
To any pastor, the practicalities of this should be obvious: Genuine change only comes at the maximum speed allowed by the individual church’s culture. Try to make broad, sweeping, fast changes in a slow-momentum church and the church will by its nature not respond to those changes. It will reject them. Not because the changes are bad or unnecessary—in fact, oftentimes the church recognizes the need for the change!—but simply because the culture of the church is not equipped to handle change at that speed. In contrast, implement a five-year plan of slow change in a fast-momentum church, and they will get bored and—you guessed it—reject the change.

One more word for the especially inquisitive and insightful: You’re now asking, “Yes, but can’t I change the culture of the church to switch momentum at a different, more healthy, rate?” The answer is, of course, yes. Even church culture can be shaped and influenced and, over time, the rate at which momentum is switched can be changed. The caveat, however, is that changing the church culture is a slow and deliberate process. I personally think that a good rule of thumb would be to take your church’s normal rate switching momentum and cut it at least in half, probably more.

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