Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Painful Realities

Written by: on May 11, 2019

Change is challenging regardless of the context. Change regarding a community or institution that one holds particularly dear and/or one that is believed to be an integral aspect of the Kingdom of God seems so much more painful. From the numerical heights of church attendance in the U.S. of the 1950s there has been a steady decline from that point, and it seems to be unabated. One only has to visit one of the large metropolitan centers, particularly on the Eastern Seaboard to find massive churches that are only a shell of their former selves or have now been transformed into a hip new micro-brewery amidst urban gentrification.

Diane Zemke provides insight into aspects of change occurring in the U.S. church and encourages some opportunities for individual church communities to either end well, or assess what stage they may be in to determine if there are alternatives. In many cases it must be recognized that there are not.

This is not necessarily defeat, though this is a very difficult message to accept. It does not mean that the Church as a whole is in its death throes but possibly suggests that at critical points in the life of a congregation, they failed to recognize the changes occurring around them and anticipate appropriate responses. God is still very much present and active in all of those communities but may be moving in ways that no longer fit the way things had happened in the past.

While there were several premises with which I disagreed the book by Zemke, “Being Smart about Congregational Change” provides sufficient insight and some strong research that is useful for any congregation regardless of how ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ they feel they are and what stage they are convinced they are in at the present. In many ways the text would be better used by those churches who believe they are on the ‘cutting edge’ of contemporary ministry because so did the ones that are now brewing beer at one point in time.

In a leadership context it is likely that any one of those in this course of study may be needed by one or more congregations at several different stages along the life-cycle of a church. It would be wise to have an understanding of these change principles and help those congregations through some self-assessment in order to discern what God might be saying to the congregation as well as how God is moving in the local community.

Change is already upon us, there is no use denying it. The hope is that the US church is willing to respond to those changes in a manner that encourages greater development, growth in critical areas of need and deals with some of the issues of the past. Faith communities will never be perfect this side of eternity but it is even more hurtful to be producing greater harm through an unwillingness to recognize reality.

Personally, I have struggled for the past 15 years at an institution that has not handled change well and I fear now may be doing more harm than good when it comes to the spiritual life of college students. In attempts to maintain tradition and encourage greater appreciation for ‘high church’ worship I fear that what is actually occurring is that unchurched students are being inoculated with the Gospel so that they are unlikely ever to become full of the real thing. Let’s pray that this is an isolated context, but I fear it is not and Zemke’s text suggests that there are many others potentially caught in that trap.

May all of us be wise in our leadership of the Church and encourage the faithful to listen intently and respond faithfully to the dynamic works of God and the love of humanity displayed in a multitude of ways. May we not cling too tightly to traditions for their own sake but at the same time not simply dismiss them because they are deemed out of date. May we recognize the pain that change such as this can cause and never stop pastoring those who are living through it.

About the Author

Dan Kreiss

Former director of the Youth Ministry program at King University in Bristol, TN and Dean of the School of Missions. I have worked in youth ministry my entire life most of that time in New Zealand before becoming faculty at King. I love helping people recognize themselves as children of God and helping them engage with the world in all its diversity. I am particularly passionate about encouraging the church to reflect the diversity found in their surrounding community in regard to age, gender, ethnicity, education, economic status, etc. I am a husband, father of 4, graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, an avid cyclist and fly-fisherman still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

9 responses to “Painful Realities”

  1. Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Dan,
    You have certainly had a front row seat to change – and how, even in a Christian context, harm and wounding happens if not done well. Hopefully the experiences, as painful as they have been, will strengthen your understanding of how to be a strong and impactful change leader. Your perspective and heart say everything!

  2. Jason Turbeville says:

    It is hard to watch something we have grown to love through its end but there is also something beautiful in a good end. I have an acquaintance from seminary whose job it is to help churches go through their end. He will never have a big congregation but he will help many in loving ways. I believe any pastor should have to go through this to help them understand the process is something he has told me many times. Thanks for your faithful service.


  3. Dan,

    I find the idea of bringing closure to a church actually quite refreshing. (Then again, I love going to funerals!!) I think it’s because I appreciate how honest a decision it is for the congregation. Rather than struggling against the reality, those congregations at the end of their life cycle are frankly open to moving on. I also appreciate that for those who bring closure mean they recognize that they aren’t the Saviour. Hopefully they can accept that the One who is at work in our world will always be faithful even though the expression of His faithfulness will look different in every time and season.

  4. Shawn Hart says:

    Dan, I might just encourage that not all traditions are bad either though; in the same manner that I hope our older generations see the potential for new types of ministry; I would hope that the new generation will appreciate the stability that can come through tradition and wisdom.

    Good job.

    • Dan Kreiss says:


      I agree completely as this quote from the end of my blog hopefully makes clear.

      “May we not cling too tightly to traditions for their own sake but at the same time not simply dismiss them because they are deemed out of date.”

  5. Kyle Chalko says:

    Dan, you brought in a lot of different areas we experience change. So much change is already upon us. And yet your right about how much higher education really struggles with change. I heard once that “in higher education, changes happens one funeral at a time”. sad.

  6. Greg says:

    Dan I know you are standing that the edge of the cliff of change. Life, work, ministry….etc… seem to be in a flux for you…Change as you know can be scary, frustrating and exciting all at the same time. I almost wrote about the international church I attend filled with all types of denominations. One of my Dutch friends often says, “I don’t mind change but I want to make sure we have a good reason and not just because we can or other people are too.” I love church tradition but when we worship that tradition that is when have problems. I have seen when a church begins to die or ministry begins to fade people tend to hang on tighter and more rigid that before. I hope that is not the case for the school you have been teaching at.

  7. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thanks, Dan,
    Definitely a book that draws out responses around change, and thank you for bringing your clear thoughts on it to your blog. I was struck by what you wrote, “In attempts to maintain tradition and encourage greater appreciation for ‘highchurch’ worship I fear that what is actually occurring is that unchurched students are being inoculated with the Gospel so that they are unlikely ever to become full of the real thing.”
    I think this idea that “a little bit” of something can inoculate someone to the larger dose or power that is there is a scary thought! I can see the logic of it, but I also wonder if this isn’t sort of how it has always been for the church. Even the admonition in Revelation chapter 3, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth, because you are neither hot nor cold”, seems to indicate that early believers struggled in this way. I don’t mean to get defensive on the point, but I do think that my kids for example, only have a little bit of the gospel at this point in their journey, and that is exactly how it should be. I hope and pray that they will continue the journey guided by the church and its life and witness to get to a point of mature faith. I guess, there are examples on either side of something like this. Plenty of kids in our church youth group don’t have any real faith experience once they go off to college (or, once they graduate into the working world). So, yea, I don’t want to inoculate them, but I do believe there are stages in faith development that may be part of what those working with young people are seeing. Anyway– thanks for your post!

  8. Trisha Welstad says:

    I am interested to hear where you were not so enthusiastic about the text. What critical thinking were you doing that I should consider?

    Also, thanks for sharing your perspective from inside higher education. I am saddened by the lack of willingness to innovate and wish more institutions would take risks toward the health and life of the future. Unfortunately, that is often not the nature of the beast.

    Praying for you in this season of change.

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