Why Is Change So Difficult?

Culture change is the challenge of most local churches and denominational ministries.

A congregation is tired of hearing how cold and uninviting it is to visitors. They want people to come to their church and like it.

Finally they take the plunge and spend $2 million to build a beautiful, spacious fellowship area complete with visitor center and coffee bar. But a year after the dedication, they realize nothing has changed. Visitors still find the congregation cold and uninviting.

Another congregation knows it needs to get serious about evangelism. So they hire a staff member to generate evangelism programs in the church. Two years later, nothing has really changed. They still have no growth from evangelism.


In both cases, these congregations failed to distinguish between a technical challenge and an adaptive challenge.

A technical challenge is straightforward: you have the resources and skills to fix something, so you fix it.

An adaptive challenge is much more difficult. Adaptive challenges go to the culture of an organization: the unspoken ideas, feelings, and values that account for an organization’s behavior. Adaptive challenges involve soul-searching and learning, and then changing who we are and how we live together.

Why is change so difficult? Because most significant change is adaptive. It involves changing a culture and asking soul-searching questions about not just what we are doing but how and why we are doing it. It involves changing us.

The entire Christian Reformed Church—from local congregations to denominational ministries—is facing adaptive challenges. This is no one’s fault. It is simply that massive changes in the world and within our own denomination require change—deep change. The CRC is finding its way.

A sidebar to this article lists 12 key challenges the CRC faces. These are the challenges named by CRC members across the denomination in a listening tour conducted by the Strategic Planning and Adaptive Change Team (SPACT) described in another sidebar.

These challenges generally apply to both congregations and denominational ministries. Notice how many of the challenges are adaptive: reconnecting with local contexts, engaging young people, becoming more multicultural, and so on. They name problems that the church does not yet know how to solve.

Reading the list may feel depressing. But correctly naming and framing the church’s challenges is a big first step toward effectively addressing them.

Denominational Ministries

Not just local churches but also denominational ministries are facing huge adaptive challenges. For starters, denominational ministries are being asked to focus more on helping congregations.

Once upon a time, congregations didn’t ask, “Hey, what have denominational ministry shares done for us lately?” Once upon a time, the CRC thought of ministry shares as ways to extend the ministry of the local congregation around the world.

To be sure, ministry shares still do that. The CRC has first-rate colleges, top-flight mission and relief organizations, skilled specialized ministries, and a fine seminary.

But today, local churches are also crying for help. Many of those cries are embedded in the 12 Key Ministry Challenges. Churches expect denominational ministries not only to continue to extend the local church’s ministry around the world but also to help congregations address what often are life-threatening challenges.

Another major adaptive challenge for denominational ministries is learning to work more effectively with each other. There are many “silos” in denominational ministries, often causing isolation, overlap, and poor communication.

Again, this is no one’s fault. It simply reflects how denominational ministries often evolved: the church identified a need; synod created a ministry to address the need. Each new ministry began with its own mandate and office. Each had its own budget and planning process.

One of the adaptive projects underway right now involves realigning the functions of the CRC’s former publishing agency, Faith Alive, as well as Specialized Ministries, Proservices, Communications, and Home Missions into five streams. (See sidebar for a longer explanation.)

Consider one of these streams: the Justice, Mercy, Inclusion, and Advocacy Group. Before realignment, the following offices worked, in varying degrees, independently of one another:

Many of these ministries are very small in the number of staff they employ and the size of their budgets.

Think of the communication, synergy, and mutual support that can be gained by these offices working more closely with one other. Imagine the mutual learning, sharing of best practices, and efficiencies gained through shared resources and support staff. Imagine a budget where “mine” and “yours” is replaced by “ours” as ministries think about how to maximize the impact of not just their own ministry but all these ministries.

Similar benefits are envisioned for each of the five streams. But this is difficult work. It involves changing a culture. This is classic adaptive change.

Some Practical Suggestions

Adaptive work is difficult. By definition, it’s a journey whose destination is often not clear. Are there any general principles that could help congregations and a denomination that no longer enjoy a clear straight path into the future but find themselves in the midst of adaptive work?

Here are three suggestions:

1. Be hopeful. Remember that adaptive work, while murky and often painful, is the way to new life. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Like Jesus, organizations go through death and resurrection. Adaptive work is the way to new life.

2. Pray. Expect God to work and reveal new things in these searching times. Too often the church functionally operates as though it doesn’t need God but can do just fine with its latest management techniques and problem-solving skills. The church on its knees before God is in a position where it will finally look to God to act.

3. Focus on the mission. The irony of the gospel is that when churches try to save their life, they lose it; but when churches are willing to lose their life for Christ’s sake, they find it. The goal of adaptive work in the church is not institutional survival. It is rediscovering our mission, our true identity. Churches that focus on their own institutional survival die. Churches that lose their life for God’s sake find life, even though that life may look very different from past institutional forms.

Key Ministry Challenges*

Here are the key ministry challenges named by the Strategic Planning and Adaptive Change Team (SPACT):

  1. Many congregations are not sure how to connect or reconnect with the local contexts in which they minister.
  2. Congregations ministering in their local contexts need to be a key focus of denominational ministry.
  3. Many in the younger generations are increasingly disconnected from the CRC and are exiting.
  4. The rate of progress of the denomination becoming a multicultural church is insufficient, both internally and in relation to our changing North American context.
  5. Something is missing within our denominational life in regard to discipleship, spirituality, and being Spirit-led.
  6. The direction and overall focus of the CRC are no longer clear; our sense of a shared identity is no longer self-evident.
  7. The present operation and sustainability of our centralized ministry delivery system are now in question.
  8. We are not sure how to move into a new financial paradigm.
  9. Many congregations, classes, and denominational ministries are not sure how to deal with the continuous process of change.
  10. The structure, purposes, ministry, and leadership of classes are no longer working like they once did; many classes are under stress.
  11. Lay leadership is under-emphasized and clergy formation processes are inadequate for engaging the challenges before the denomination.
  12. We presently lack any ongoing process of convening and listening with CRC members, congregations, and classes.

*Note: These challenges will continue to be refined and developed.

—Duane Kelderman


Three Task Forces

Three denominational task forces are currently addressing denominational change at a cultural, adaptive level:

  • The Task Force to Review Structure and Culture was appointed by Synod 2011 to assess the current denominational structure and culture. This task force was appointed with the awareness that rapid changes in the church and society require the church to look seriously at not just the content but the form of its ministries.
  • The Strategic Planning and Adaptive Change Team (SPACT) was appointed by the Board of Trustees in 2012 to design and implement a “fundamental reframe” of the denominational ministry plan. The 12 Key Ministry Challenges identified (see sidebar) are the result of conversations between SPACT members and key leadership groups and stakeholders throughout the denomination. There is a deep conviction that the plans and strategies carried out at a denominational level need to be more closely connected with classes and churches—and vice versa. SPACT will recommend a comprehensive strategic plan for the denomination to the Board of Trustees in 2014.
  • The Denominational Ministry Realignment Project was created by the senior administration to realign the work of all smaller denominational ministries and Home Missions, as well as the functions of the CRC’s former publishing agency, Faith Alive, into collaborative work groups in one of five ministry streams: (1) Justice, Mercy, Inclusion and Advocacy; (2) Leadership Development; (3) Worship and Proclamation; (4) Starting and Strengthening Churches; and (5) Discipleship and Faith Formation. This project addresses the need

—for convergence of like functions that have been scattered and isolated in various offices and agencies.
—to weaken and dismantle internal barriers to collaboration, thus encouraging new creative groupings and innovation.
—to frame and structure denominational ministries in ways that serve and build up the local church.

—Duane Kelderman


Technical Problems vs. Adaptive Challenges

Technical Problems Adaptive Challenges
1. Easy to identify. 1. Difficult to identify (easy to deny)
2. Often lend themselves to easy solutions. 2. Requires changes in values, beliefs, relationships, and approaches
3. Often can be “fixed” by an expert. 3. People with the problem must do the hard work.
4. Solutions can be implemented quickly. 4.  Progress requires experiments, trial and error, and collaborative learning.
1. Add a fellowship hall to be more visitor-friendly. 1. Challenge behaviors and attitudes that subtly exclude the “outsider.”
2. Create a new members class for new believers. 2. Seek to develop a culture of discipleship for all members.

About the Author

Duane Kelderman is interim pastor at Faith Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Mich. He is a convener of the realignment project described in this article.

See comments (5)


This is an excellent article.  I now belong to another denomination than the CRC, but can see very easily how this analysis is also relevant to my church.  We have fallen into the same technical problem thinking: if we just had more greeters, more people roaming around at coffee time with church literature, if we just positioned the welcome sign and literature rack in another place....and on and on it goes.  My church has an adaptive challenge and it is rooted largely in its middle class, well-educated, "we do things well here", "we're all doing quite well, thanks", "we have a lot to offer you" culture.  Of course, none if this is intentional in terms of excluding people; after all, we are highly committed to social justice and contribute significantly to community organizations.  But we need to be more honest that beneath this polished veneer, we all experience brokenness and therefore all need to feel unconditional love.  We need to use our knowledge and experience of unconditional Love as the starting point for addressing our adaptive challenges, for examining how our cultures may in fact be turning away the stranger and/or how our cultures may in fact be communicating a set of conditions for loving one another. We need to be intentional in asking others what we can do to meet their needs, rather than assume we do meet them. There are other parallels.  In terms of structural review and realignment, my denomination, the United Chuch of Canada, is now going through a massive re-thinking, a comprehensive review of its overall structure and the roles and responsibilities of the various levels in it.  We are calling "fishing on the other side (of the boat)", an ambitious title to say the least!  I look forward to hearing more about the CRC experience in the Banner.  I expect that we could learn from each other's experiences.  Even though we don't necessarily share doctrinal positions, we do all seek to share the experience and meaning of having God's unconditional love in our lives.

It seems to me that the greatest challenge facing the CRCNA is to find whatever needs to be found to make the decision to decentralize the denomination, which necessarily means that the denomination should contract where in the past couple of decades it has so rapidly expanded.  The denomination level should not be lobbying for its members in Washington DC.  It should not be telling its members which pending congressional bills should be supported or opposed.  It should not be adopting UN resolutions, or resolutions about climate science.  It should not be creating one-size-fits-all rules for how local churches should accommodate the cultural context they find themselves in (all local cultural contexts are quite different).  It should not be dictating how local churches accomodate racial and ethnic differences (again, all of those depending on cultural contexts which are unique to various local churches).

Note how many above listed agencies/departments,

    Office of Social Justice
    Office of Restorative Justice
    Disability Concerns
    Safe Church
    Race Relations
    Centre for Public Dialogue
    Canadian Justice Communications Coordinator
    Aboriginal Ministry Committee (Canada)
    Home Missions Ethnic Ministry directors

relate somewhat or heavily to the political.  These days, even World Missions has more to do with global politics than missions (missionaries now have to raise their own support but World Missions will happily fund "Hope Equals" trips to the middle east so that non-missionaries can contemplate the nature of Israel's wrongs against the Palestinians).

In my own local church, our challenge is to keep families who think they found a great church home from leaving once they start finding out what the Banner and our denominational agencies say the CRCNA is all about.  They're great with our creeds and confessions, and ecstatic to find a church where the Scripture is taken seriously without being simplistic, but then they get to reading what the folks in GR says our church should be or become and wonder just what they've walked into. 

Ironically, these folks that we lose are from the different ethnicities and cultures than SPACT suggests it wants CRC churches to attract.  We do attract them in my church, but our denomination's push to transform itself makes it hard for us to keep them. 

Perhaps denominational "downsizing" is the one sacred cow that the SPACT will not consider eligible for sacrifice.

Alyce: Good to know you are a United Church of Canada member.  That explains why you and I disagree on so much. :-)

I'm fascinated by your indication that your church is also 'soul searching' but even more so by your statement, "all need to feel unconditional love," which in context suggests that is a need that the UCC does not sufficiently fill.  My perception is that the UCC requires very little by way of "conditions" to acceptance in the church.  I'm at a loss in imagining how my more "unconditional" the UCC can be to those who would consider affiliating with the church.  I'd like to hear your comment on that.

I'll be honest.  I would be more than thoroughly disappointed to see the CRCNA move (or continue to move) in the direction of where the UCC is.  At the same time, I quite realize that is has been moving in that direction, and probably will continue to do so if those at the denominational level continue to have more sway with the "direction of the CRCNA" than its local congregations.  Of course you probably know that John Suk, the CRCNA's former Banner editor, left the CRCNA for the UCC.  I suspect he would have preferred not to leave, but rather for the CRCNA to have become more like the UCC.  And I suspect (in fact would say it is obvious) that many, especially at the CRCNA denominational level, share John Suk's concerns and views.

Still, I'd like to know more about why, given the its seemingly complete departure from being a "confessional church," or having real "conditions" for membership and affiliation, the UCC finds it necessary to rethink its whole approach to being an institutional church (to start "fishing on the other side (of the boat)" as you say).

Unregenerate man can no more find a Bible believing church then a theif can find a police station. Until we get that, its all smoke and mirrors. Disneyland! 

"This is the verdict: light has come into world, but men loved darkness instead of light bcause their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed." (John 3:19,20)

It's been said. "As the pulpit goes so goes the pew. As the pew goes, so goes the nation." 

What can replace repentance, popularity?

To the church in Sardis  "Remember; therfore what you have received and heard. obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a theif, and you will not know at what time I will come to you."  ( Revelation 3:3)

The message of the Gospel has not changed. Law (10 Commandments), Holy Gods wrath, judgment and hell against all sin- (transgressors of the law). And God's mercy and grace through repentnce and faith in Jesus alone. If this is the churches message from the pulpit, where can we go wrong? 



Hi Doug and others reading these comments,

There appears to be a strong feeling within the UCC that the current institutional model or structure may be holding us back, that individual congregations need to have more flexibility and latitude in the administration of their own affairs and, more importantly, in engaging and working with others in their communities in a way that works best for them and their community. Right now, the UCC has a rather cumbersome, multi-layered structure: congregation - presbytery - conference - general council, which has given rise to a multiplicity of processes to be navigated and an excess of oversight requirements in a number of areas, but, oddly enough, insufficient support for some very important things.  I will be the first to admit that when I first heard of the comprehensive review, I rolled my eyes, but I am encouraged by the boldness of the proposal (trust me when I say that for the UCC, this is bold).  I hope that it will lead us to realize that what we face are not merely technical problems. (If you are interested, here is the link to the UCC proposal: http://www.united-church.ca/files/general-council/gc41/comp-review/crtg_fishing.pdf)

My comment above, however, pertained more to my own congregation than to the UCC, and was not so much about requirements for formal membership than it was about how the reality of how hospitable we are to those who may not fit in with our church culture.  For example, last Sunday in my church, a child was baptized and it appeared that the family of the child was not very acquainted with church protocol, judging from their behavior.  I know that a number of the regular church goers were disconcerted and even disapproving of them, despite the fact that the family was not badly behaved or, in my view, disrespectful.  The reality is that we are not as open, inclusive and welcoming as we profess to be. We tend to want to keep certain groups of people or individuals at arm's length; e.g. it’s great if we can help them through some charity but this does not mean we would embrace them wholeheartedly as part of our faith community, especially if they don’t follow the (unwritten) codes built into our church culture.  For me, this speaks to one of the biggest challenges of living a Christian life: loving others as ourselves.  As one who was raised in a CRC wherein almost all folks were of Dutch heritage, I understand the premium placed on living a neat, orderly and tidy life.  Similarly, the UCC is highly successful as steering internal matters up into neat, orderly and tidy processes.  But I think the reality on the ground is that following Jesus can often be a messy business.