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Stop Trying to Fix Your Church

What do you do when your car, a kitchen appliance, your computer or some other item breaks down? You take it to a service technician or mechanic who follows a common sense approach: diagnose the problem, identify the broken part, replace or fix the part and get you on your way.

The “Machine Approach”

The machine approach to changing things so that they work well assumes that:

•Everything is made up of parts.

•We can control the parts and how they work.

•The way to keep things working is to watch carefully for failures, deficits, gaps, and other problems – and fix what causes the trouble.

The machine approach to change makes sense for our world of electronic and mechanical devices. But, it doesn’t work well when it is applied to organizations – such as congregations. People don’t function like the parts of a machine. Human systems don’t function like mechanical systems. Personalities and other human factors disrupt “repair” jobs.  Congregations can become demoralized by a constant focus on problems and deficits.

Despite its frequent ineffectiveness, the machine model has been the dominant approach to “fixing” congregations that are “broken.” You can observe the machine approach in action when conversations among church members focus on problems, deficits, who or what is wrong, and what action needs to be taken to fix a problem. Members may insist that the church replace a leader, go back to the old worship service or hymnal, start a particular program, or address some other “cause” of the congregation’s problems.

Church consultants frequently start their work with an assessment of the weaknesses and deficits in a congregation. The consultant then works with staff and members to figure out what is causing the deficit and fix it – just like a technician or mechanic. Unfortunately, deficit conversations run a high risk of stirring up blaming, low morale and resistance. It is very difficult to create transformational change or growth with the machine approach. Sometimes, it even makes things worse.

The “Organic” Approach: Church as the Living Body of Christ

So, what’s the alternative? A more effective model for working with your church is an organic model. An organic model imitates the way natural living things function, rather than the way machines operate. Congregations are much more like a living body than a machine.  Paul told the Christians at Corinth:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 

(I Corinthians 12:27)

Assumptions of the “Organic” Approach

How a leader goes about nurturing and growing a living body is different in many ways from how a technician fixes a machine. The organic model for change assumes that:

•The way to keep a church growing and thriving is to highlight and value what gives life to the congregation – its core values, strengths, assets, and successes.  

•It is easier to create change in a church by amplifying its positive qualities than by fixing its negative qualities.

•Congregations move in the direction of the members’ most desired future. Just as plants grow toward light, the collective image and shared discourse about future possibilities will guide members’ behavior and the future of the congregation.

The “Organic” Church in Action

You can observe the organic approach in action when conversations among church members focus on what they value about the church, about its successes, its sources of strength and future possibilities. Discernment and strategic planning are a regular, congregation-wide process in these churches. Members know their gifts and use them to fulfill the mission and vision of the congregation. 

Implications of Your Church’s DNA for the Life and Ministry of the Congregation

Healthy Church DNA® views the church through the lens of this organic metaphor – as a living body given breath by the Spirit. Some of the ways this metaphor connects to the living church include:

•Genes are a collection of plans for an organism, but not all the plans are expressed at the same time. Instead, genes are expressed over time in the same way that humans develop and churches go through an organizational life cycle. 

•Just as there is core DNA among similar species, there is core DNA among churches. What the church is and can become is found in its God-given DNA.

•While humans share the same core DNA, each of us is different in many ways. In the same manner, all churches share a core DNA, but each congregation has its uniqueness. God has endowed every congregation with a special set of gifts, its collective potential.

•DNA responds to signals from outside the cell. What is supposed to develop may be delayed, expedited or changed depending on external factors. In the same manner that cells adapt to external stimuli, congregations adapt to their unique settings. And, as most have witnessed, if they do not adapt to changing environments, they usually decline or die.

•Living things need nurture to survive. Crops require fertile soil and water. The church’s DNA is led to fruition under similar circumstances. A congregation must identify and nurture its unique genetic potential to become all God intended it to be. 

•The development of an organism requires a balance between cell growth and cell death. That is, some cells must die at a specific time for the organism to move to complete growth. Likewise, churches must shed some of their programs, ministries and organizational patterns to free up energy for new ministries and new ways of working together.

•Most human characteristics are the result of the influence of multiple genes. Genes are related to one another. Not all genes are needed at the same time and in the same strength. Which genes are important for a given church depends on its place in the church life cycle and its community or ministry context.

We are the body of Christ with all the promise that this metaphor suggests. How are you growing the body of your community of faith?

If you would like to learn more about how to grow the Body of Christ, contact us:

Glen Rediehs, M.Div., Ph.D.

1001 East W. T. Harris Blvd.

Suite P-317

Charlotte, NC  28213



Larry Webb, Th.M., Rel.D.

14013 Zephermoor Lane

Winter Garden, FL  34787


© 2010 by Glen Rediehs

Glen Rediehs, M.Div., Ph.D. founded his own company in 1980. He has provided training and consulting to businesses, governmental agencies and churches. He has been a parish pastor, provided psychotherapy and taught in college and university Psychology departments for over twenty years. Dr. Rediehs specializes in appreciative and strength-based approaches to organizational change.

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