Every week it seems someone is blogging about the obstacles the 21st century church faces—the rise of the “nones,” the decline in frequency of attendance, budget creep, culture wars, etc. These challenges are consistent across America’s faith families. You may find yourself in a changing neighborhood or singing a sad song for lack of leadership. Like others you may be struggling to reach a younger generation or striving to motivate a fresh corps of volunteers.

Today’s church requires leadership that sees beyond the boundaries of limitation.

In a recent blog on church revitalization, Amy Butler, pastor of the Riverside Church, reminded congregational leaders to “make it our priority to perpetually reframe the narrative from scarcity to abundance…When congregations speak in narratives of decline and death, desperation and fear, we are crippling our ability to think in new ways and take action toward the next expression of our lives together.”

Well said. And it needs to be said again and again. We need a fresh narrative to move us beyond the boundaries that confine us. What I find most interesting, especially in my work with churches, is how often we set our own artificial limitations without even knowing it.

Too many churches today are stuck in muck of “we’ve always done it that way.”

  • A ministry staff that is based on decades old programming.
  • A budget document that has been tweaked, cut, and adjusted but never aligned to a fresh vision to meet present needs.
  • An allocation of resources (money, time) that goes to propping up ineffective strategies, shutting down creativity.
  • An aging leadership group (deacons, elders, staff…) that bemoans the lack of young adults without inviting their voices into the discussion.

These kinds of limitations prematurely shut down possibilities and restrict vision.

You may be familiar with the “nine-dot puzzle.” If you have paper and a pen near you, you might try it right now. Make a grid of three rows of three dots each and try to connect all the dots by drawing only four straight lines that are connected (without lifting pen from paper).

If you are anything like me, the first time you try this puzzle you will try several different ways to connect all the dots, not be successful, and then begin to wonder whether the test is really to see how long people will keep trying a seemingly impossible task! The key to solving the nine-dot puzzle is to refuse to see the outer line of dots as a boundary. This allows you draw above and beyond the rows and connect all the dots quite easily.

What is interesting is how few people think of this answer. Why? By design we are trained to see patterns, and part of seeing patterns is detecting boundaries. Much of the time, this is really valuable. But when you are trying to solve problems or see possibilities it is counter-productive, shutting down creativity and innovation.

To move beyond self-imposed boundaries in today’s church we need:

Leaders who listen. They are in tune with the Spirit, in touch with the community in which they serve. Churches today have no choice today but to turn their attention and resources outward. There is no excuse for not knowing your context. Who is my neighbor? What problems do they face? What gifts can we bring to bear?

Leaders who collaborate. Stay open to new ideas, new ways of doing things. Ideas don’t always come from experts. Sometimes the greatest innovations come from unexpected voices. Bring new voices to the table of decision-making and problem solving inside the church. One younger member suggested that perhaps in every area of decline that we face “we should take everything we do and either scrap it or completely re-brand it.” Collaborate with outside groups (complementary non-profits, universities, and think tanks) often brings new perspectives and ideas to the innovation process. This is no time for the church to go it alone. We should be moving beyond our walls partnering with others who share common goals.

Leaders who embrace failure. Knock failure off its pedestal. Commit to a culture of trial and error. Innovation always comes by way of reiteration. It’s OK if this doesn’t work this time. Many of the greatest innovations were unintended results and, oftentimes, created by accident. Breakthroughs such as the discovery of penicillin or the power of microwaves were the unintended results.

Healthy churches and organizations today think outside the box, boldly crossing boundaries that otherwise keep us stagnant. Healthy leaders promote this culture of innovation and creativity in the face of such challenge.

Bill Owen
Dr. Bill Owen is a Congregational Consultant and Coach for CHC after a 32-year pastorate at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Cross Plains, TN, just north of Nashville. Bill is an experienced, certified leadership coach. He also works as a cognitive coach among educators, particularly secondary school teachers with a focus on innovation and personalized learning. He brings these skills and experiences to his work with and love for congregations and ministry staff development. He is a consultant for CHC and the coordinator for CHC-Southcentral.