Three Stubborn Obstacles that Keep Your Congregation Stuck

by | Jun 8, 2021 | 7 comments

Three Stubborn Obstacles that Keep Your Congregation Stuck


There are three stubborn obstacles that keep your congregation stuck. These barriers to renewal reinforce patterns of decline. Not only that, but these barriers also prevent congregations from moving into a growth phase, no matter how much your people say they want to. And no matter how much you might like them to.

Unfortunately, these obstacles don’t always respond well to a direct confrontation.  But there is a way to gently dissolve them so you can start on the road to renewal.

Let’s start by taking a look at these obstacles.

The Three Stubborn Obstacles

  1. Personalities When congregations focus on personalities rather than purpose, they suffer. Soothing the sensitive, coddling the anxious, and pampering the headstrong is a seductive trap because it can become the de facto mission of the church.

Yes, God is love, and yes, Jesus found ways to include the unlovable. But relationship-building never took the place of his mission, or his purpose.  How do we know this? Because along the way, Jesus irritated and angered plenty of people. Including his own family members, and his dearest disciples.

I remember the evening one of the church’s most effective leaders stormed out during a particularly contentious meeting.  I anxiously ran out after him to try to keep him involved. Even as I was doing it, warning bells went off in my head.  I remember thinking: if I react to him every time he gets hot under the collar, then personalities, not purpose, are what’s driving this meeting. Yet, it’s hard to watch people get bent out of shape.

  1. Past  When a church’s best days lay behind them, the congregation is steering into the future with the guidance of the rear-view mirror, not the windshield. That’s a problem. Not only are rear-view mirrors a window into the past, but they are also much smaller than a windshield.  You just can’t see that much looking at a rear-view mirror compared to the windshield.

It used to be churches wanted to go back to the 1950s, then the 1970s, then 1990s.  Now, most of us would be happy to settle for 2019.  There’s nothing wrong with staying connected to the past.  But you can’t live there.

  1. Probable If your decision-making sounds something like this: “Let’s do this ministry because it probably won’t ruffle feathers, or it probably won’t challenge the budget, or it probably won’t upset the Trustees,” then you are in trouble.  Ministry by probability lowers expectations.  And you can’t co-create miracles with Jesus if you don’t raise expectations.  Ministry by probability is the most anti-Gospel obstacle of all.  Jesus didn’t traffic in the realm of the probable. He operated in the realm of the improbable, the impossible even.  Jesus was about miracles.

Why These Obstacles are So Stubborn

What makes these obstacles so stubborn? Why won’t one good sermon series or leadership retreat get these obstacles in line?  Because these stubborn obstacles are expressions of foundational beliefs.  As I have written elsewhere, unshakeable beliefs ripple out and impact the people around you.  That’s true whether these unshakeable beliefs are empowering or disempowering.

My guess is that at the base of these stubborn obstacles is an unshakeable belief such as “Our best days are behind us.  If we ruffle feathers, or upset our systems, we’ll lose our last remaining ties to our glory days. Then where will we be?”

Truth be told, if the congregation is in maintenance mode, then the belief is spot on.  Because when the church got started it operated with a passionate vision or an aspirational dream that called people to something greater than they could imagine.  Once that vision came to pass, and no new equally challenging vision replaced it, the good old days were in fact behind them.

Re-invent the Future

So, how do you lead people past these stubborn barriers and into something life-giving? You have to re-invent the future so that your best days are yet to be.  I call this process DARE to Dream like Jesus. Sign up to receive a copy of your plan here.  Then,  learn more about how to transform these three stubborn obstacles into new visions at How to Create a Culture of Renewal.

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  1. Fran Boldt

    Spot on, Rebekah! I love how you get right to the issue at hand and can put them in the right perspective. That’s the problem, right? Most of us just react instead of really thinking about what is important for our church and its people. Our Growth Group is studying The Jew Named Jesus and have gotten some lively discussions and sharing of different perspectives. We’ve been meeting every week for three years now and have become like family.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Hi Fran, Glad to hear that The Jew Named Jesus is good fodder for lively discussion! You might like to try Dream Like Jesus to keep the discussion going. It fits right in with these three stubborn obstacles.

  2. Charles Schuster

    Rebecca has hit the target as far as the issue of keeping the congregation from getting stuck. The next step, after removing the wheel locks has been accomplished, is helping the congregation move forward.

    That involves nvesting in the task the Christian Church, in general, and United Methodist Church, in particular, is best equipped to do. Every congregation needs a theological identity. Every congregation requires the permission to see itself as a theological environment where people think and let think, where passion for ministry is permitted and supported, and where being present with other people of faith is considered a privilege.

    Our denomination, with all its embroiled controversies, has forgotten that religion is too serious to be taken without humor.

    Rebecca, help us rediscover how to have fun in church again.

    Charles Schuster retired clergy Mountain Shy Conference

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Chuck, you have ALWAYS been such a great reader of the times. Thanks for weighing in. Hope you are well.

  3. Bill White

    Excellent and concise Rebekah. Thank you. Peace

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Thank you Bill.

    • David McCreary

      In my own time as a pastor, I have faced all three of these problems over and over again. More recently, I find myself dealing with issues beyond the internal dynamics of the local church and denominational growth. Still, they affect our ministry.

      1. Secularization. Pastors and churches can no longer count on a favorable image in many communities they serve. In the seventies, Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings were reserved for churches. That is no longer the case. Similar changes in the culture could be pointed out.

      2. Scientific naturalism or materialism. Much of the discussion about God and atheism has metaphysical assumptions rooted in this worldview. Evangelical churches tend to defend faith by disputing either scientific results or challenging well-founded assumptions in evolutionary biology. This leaves our bright young people at a loss for any other alternative to biblical literalism or scientific and non-theistic naturalism. Karl Barth is unavoidable in putting God at the center of any talk about the purpose of the church. We need to go to the roots of this problem by recognizing it as a serious impediment to ministry with highly educated people and others. Do we have anything to say? Are we being heard?

      3. With immigration comes greater religious diversity. Have we taken the initiative to learn about neighbors with different religious beliefs? Have we simply dismissed other religions, claiming a universality for Christianity unsupported by anything but historic claims. In this new situation, we should not discuss religion by inferring people are infidels. A boss I had from Nigeria, who was Christian, told me eighty percent of tribal religions were compatible with Christian faith. Good. Discuss the commonalities, but without a hidden agenda to convert.

      There are probably other issues, but these are the ones I feel need addressing.


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