Cross Creek: Facing the Challenge of Change

By Kent E. Fillinger

Leading a 68-year-old, multigenerational church in a small Southern town presents a unique set of challenges. Cross Creek Christian Church, located in rural Georgia, takes pride in its history, and its members often find comfort in maintaining the status quo. On the other hand, senior minister Rick Evans is committed to gently challenging people to move beyond their comfort zones to help the church be more effective in reaching its community for Christ.

Prior to coming to Cross Creek in 2002, Rick served as a senior minister at a small church for six years. He also spent time as a student minister in two other churches. Rick focused on establishing positive relationships with the church members and those in the community in his first few years at Cross Creek. His extroverted personality served him well as he connected with people.

Cross Creek grew for three straight years, but was stagnant last year. The average worship attendance was 357 in 2011, and the church still has plenty of room to grow in its worship center, which seats 371. The church offers two Sunday morning worship services, but only one style of worship. The church had 552 in attendance for Easter, but only 329 for its Christmas Eve services.

The number of baptisms did not increase in 2011; Cross Creek baptized 22 people during the year. When Rick divided the church’s general fund giving by the number of baptisms, he learned the church spent $29,600 per baptism. Based on all of these factors, Rick described the church as being static or sluggish in terms of momentum over the last year.

Giving at Cross Creek fell below its budget last year; the church received $606,000 in offerings, representing a 4 percent decline in giving. Ministry spending remained the same as the year before. Cross Creek dedicated 46 percent of its budget to staffing last year. One positive note: Cross Creek’s debt load of $815,000 was not a deterrent to the potential for growth or ministry development.

 

Learning About Innovation

Rick decided last year at age 47 to enroll in an online master’s degree program in an effort to grow personally, and in hopes of being better equipped to navigate Cross Creek through some needed changes. In one of his ministry leadership courses, Rick learned about Everett Rogers’s innovation life cycle, which was an eye-opening experience for him.

Rick learned there are five stages of the innovation life cycle: innovation, adoption, routinization, tradition, and disruption. He discovered every church or organization begins with a visionary who births the organization. Cross Creek was founded by a visionary church planter during World War II; its original name was First Christian Church. The town adopted the idea of a church focused on the principles of the Restoration Movement and its emphasis on New Testament Christianity. Before long, what was viewed as innovative in the early days of the church eventually was seen as mainstream in terms of its ministry approach and teaching. This reality expresses the concept of the routinization stage.

The next stage in the innovation life cycle is tradition. One quote Rick read in his graduate studies leapt off the page. Steve Moore said, “When widely held assumptions about how we do something go unchallenged for more than one generation of leadership they become traditions.” Suddenly, Rick better understood the challenge of leading change at Cross Creek. Moore continued, “The problem with traditions is not inherently a lack of effectiveness, it is the blind spots they produce in leaders that make underlying assumptions invisible and thereby unchallenged.”

It was in this moment of reflection that Rick remembered something Bob Russell said years before at a Southeast Christian Church Leadership Conference: “Methods are many, principles are few. Methods always change, principles never do.” After this, Rick started looking for opportunities to remind others at Cross Creek of this maxim in hopes of moving them beyond their traditions and unchallenged assumptions.

 

Leading Change

A common challenge in a medium-size church is distinguishing between essential doctrine (“thus saith the Lord”) and personal preference. Rick realizes some people believe some things are etched in stone when, in reality, they are only written in sand.

Regardless, Rick is working to lead Cross Creek’s elders, staff, and members to embrace new ministry methods in an effort to be more effective as a church.

Rick learned that, while an organization predictably moves through the first four stages, the fifth stage—disruption—is far less predictable. Rick is trying to nudge Cross Creek into the disruption phase.

In order to disrupt the status quo in a constructive way, Rick last fall introduced some changes to the Sunday worship experience and to some of the church’s ministries. Some in the church responded with skepticism and rejected the new ideas, saying they would not work at Cross Creek. But before long, it was evident the changes were producing positive results as new people started attending. In response, a small faction in the church said the only reason these methods had worked was because Rick and the elders compromised the truth by introducing them.

Fortunately, the credibility of the minister and the elders quelled the accusations, but some people rationalized that even though these initial changes were successful, this simply was an exception and not something that was reproducible in other ministries of the church. Buoyed by the successful implementation of these changes, Rick and the elders gained confidence to introduce even more changes to their ministry methods this year.

A positive last year at Cross Creek was that 14 percent of its budget was invested in local and global outreach ministries. Increased involvement in the local community and the local school system has broadened people’s awareness of the community’s needs and pushed people to be more engaged in making a difference. Outreach efforts included clothing and food giveaways, cleanup projects at the area schools, and holding worship services in a local park one weekend.

Cross Creek uses a combination of classes and small groups as its primary means of spiritual formation. While adult Bible classes have been a standard in the church for many years, Rick still hopes to see more people involved in small group Bible studies. Rick intends to emphasize small groups through a sermon series this fall and he is currently working to recruit leaders to start new small groups. He is hoping to involve more people in ministry as the church continues to make strategic ministry changes for future growth.

 

Kent E. Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and associate director of projects and partnerships with CMF International.

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