Which is More Difficult? Starting a New Church or Revitalizing an Existing Church?

I completely understand that most people either already have an answer to this question (and feel strongly about it), or they will be angry I even asked the question. The query has been around for a while, especially since the rise of the new congregational development in mainline churches. Many feel that time, money, and energy is best spent in starting a new congregation, not in trying to revitalize an existing congregation. But that was not the question. Whatever your initial opinion on the matter, let me approach the question from the discipline of organizational theory and see if your assumptions/experiences are affirmed or challenged. At its core, the question is about culture, and more specifically, culture formation.

New congregations do not have a culture until some kind of common history is built among the initial members. Once that common story, or history, is proven to be stable enough to share with others through learning experiences (discipleship plans, methodologies, or organizational thoughts), then the new group will “develop assumptions about itself, its environment, how to do things to survive and grow.” (Edgar Shein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Kindle location 2488-94). This developmental step is the formation of a culture by its very definition. In this culture formation, the founders are critical to the new congregations. If they are strong leaders with high levels of self-confidence and a lot of self-determination (which is what we look for in new church planters), then they will not have a problem imposing their worldviews on those who make up the new congregation. This is not a problem at all unless something the founder does or decides is unworkable, the congregation fails, or it breaks up. The members will clearly understand the direction and they will be able to keep a clear identity as long as the founder’s participation and leadership in the congregation continues. Again, a strong founder is vital. As long as they continue to stay at the head of the congregation, and as long as their decisions are deemed ‘workable’ (keeping the congregation from failing and staying connected to their defined identity), then the new congregation will continue, and more than likely be successful. Their culture will be unified – what the founder and the founder’s key leaders teach.

On the the other side are congregations that are at a different stages of their culture development. A congregation in its mid-life, maturity, and declining stage has drastically different dynamics and cultures than young, emerging congregations. Attempting to shape culture in these congregations requires a completely different type of leadership. Ask any pastor if they will go into a new established church and say, “Okay everyone, here’s how we are going to do everything.” You see, once the founders depart, new leaders rise up. Those in the original ‘founder’s circle’ usually continue to attempt to influence based on the emergent culture, but new voices are now heard. New eyes bring new goals. New leaders may see things the founders did not see. Founders are vital to emerging churches, but that doesn’t mean they are perfect. In subsequent generations, there are competing cultures at work with competing goals. This is why new pastors in established churches find charter members, newer members, and disconnected members who all have their idea of how things should be done. The culture of older congregations is more complex. There are groups and sub-groups (i.e., Sunday school classes?). Subcultures grow and develop. They have different viewpoints. Differing viewpoints bring conflict. Conflicts and challenges are more complex. And, in turn, the answers to those problems, more complex. As the subcultures increase, “it becomes increasingly difficult to coordinate their activities.” (Shein, Kindle 3144-50) This causes the need for more layers of control (committees, hierarchy, etc.). As the subcultures grow, they differentiate themselves more and more. Thus, you arrive at your new church with older adult Sunday school insisting that the new pastor needs to nip this new contemporary worship service in the bud! And the new members of the contemporary worship service insist that they need the older adults Sunday school room for their fellowship cafe.

Different congregations require different leadership needs. They also need different strategies for how to go about managing and changing the culture.

  • · In new, emerging churches the new culture is strongly adhered to because the culture creators (founders) are present. These systems usually have a model, a strong belief in its effectiveness, and will not deliberately deviate from the model unless something from the outside threatens their survival. These systems, while growing rapidly, change slowly and deliberately.
  • · In mid-life, mature, or declining congregations the threats come from outside and inside. Internal power struggles, loss of vision, divisions, lack of energy, and economic stress are all internal factors that threaten the congregation. The leaders in this stage have more sub-cultures to wrestle with. A more complex style of leadership is required to both identify the culture and sub-cultures, and to be able to manage positive change by carefully managing the amount of anxieties to introduce (to motivate change) and psychological safety to promote (to keep from losing identity). This, in my opinion, is a more complex style of leadership and is more difficult to master.

I will readily admit that starting a new congregation is extremely hard work. I, for one, do not wish to do it. I will also readily lift up the need for new congregational development – it is central to our mission and we must engage in birthing new churches. My thoughts are in no way trying to demean new church development – rather my thoughts are attempting to help us lift up revitalization.

I want us to recapture the beauty, importance, and intricacy of leadership in existing congregations. From an organizational perspective (you did hear me say from an organizational perspective, didn’t you?), revitalizing an existing congregation is more difficult than starting a new congregation in that it requires a broader range of leadership capabilities.

Mid-life, mature, and declining United Methodist Churches make up the overwhelming majority of our churches. We need to develop and train the next generation to understand the complexities of leading the cultures within existing churches.

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