Why Churches Get Stuck in the Past (and how to prevent it)

“Because we’ve always done it that way.”

These are the words that can often guide our event and service planning. In most cases we don’t think about it in these terms. We just plan the event or service in the same way we did last week, last month, or last year.

  • We have cookies and punch in the gym after service because we always have cookies and punch in the gym.
  • The students are going on a mission trip with this organization because they always go with that organization.
  • We have three songs before the teaching because we always have three songs before the teaching.

Habits and routines like this are immensely helpful. They allow us to find a template that works and repeat it over and over again so that we don’t have to recreate the wheel every week, month, or year. They also create a predictable experience for people participating in those events. And some habits work great for months, years, and even decades.

The problem is that over time, routines that aren’t critically examined, tweaked, and innovated upon are at risk of losing their effectiveness at achieving their original goals.

effective habits

What may have worked 3 or 5 years ago might no longer be the best approach.

  • Only 5% of the congregation is staying for cookies and punch (and it’s always the same people). Is this still an effective means for helping people connect?
  • The mission trip students go on is no longer generating as much interest as it once did. Would a different experience, location, or organization be helpful in encouraging more students to serve and learn the importance of giving of their time?
  • Our congregation seems to struggle to engage in worship and the songs we do seem more like a formality than truly praising God. Is there a better way to structure this?

If our template for how we plan and execute a certain event is no longer achieving the goal we wanted it to, we can become at-risk of doing something not because “it works” but rather “because we’ve always done it that way”. Effectiveness, not tradition, should determine our habits.

Effectiveness, not tradition, should determine our habits.

So, how do we keep things fresh? How do we keep moving forward? I have a few ideas:

Ask Around

For me, getting unstuck is always related to new and fresh ideas. One of the ways I get new ideas is by asking other ministry leaders one simple question:

What’s one idea that’s really worked for you this year?

Not every idea that is shared is a good one and not every idea that worked in church X will work in your context. However, some of the best practices in our ministry came from innovations from other churches.


If you need to get unstuck, consider setting up a few lunch or coffee meeting with ministry leaders in your area and ask them this one simple question.


Often, when a church becomes stale, it is because the leaders of that church have lost touch with their passions. When this happens, it’s time for the leaders to return to their passions or mine for new ones. Here are three questions to help you rediscover your passions:

  1. What breaks your heart?
  2. What keeps you up at night?
  3. If resources were not an issue what would you do?

Spending an afternoon pouring over these questions can help remind you what you are passionate about. Perhaps you will discover that what’s keeping you up at night is a missing demographic in your congregation. Or perhaps it’s breaking your heart that there isn’t a vibrant student ministry in your church. Or maybe, there is a school or neighborhood in your city that, if resources weren’t an issue, you would love for your congregation to partner with.

Rediscovered passions are fuel for vision and a compelling vision has the power to lead a church out of a season of being stuck.

Invite New Voices

Another way to get unstuck is into invite new voices to the table. Recently, our church staff took part in a three-day strategic planning event. The team that was invited to this event included several staff members who were new to this level of strategic conversation in our church. The results of this experience were phenomenal and one of the reasons was fresh voices.

Inviting new voices to the table gave us fresh perspectives. These fresh perspectives led to new and exciting initiatives that we simply wouldn’t have thought of without new voices at the table.

If you feel that your church is stuck, perhaps it’s time to invite a few new voices to speak into strategic conversations. At the least, you could ask other members of your staff to answer the three questions I listed above. Their answers might lead you to a new idea that could get your church unstuck.

Help Your Congregation Get Unstuck

The last way to get unstuck is to help the people in your congregation get unstuck. This involves understanding what is happening in your congregation, specifically, where people are struggling.

Here’s the idea: If we, as leaders, can motivate and empower our people to move toward health and spiritual growth, then it makes sense that our churches, as a whole, would begin to grow and impact our communities. So, where are your people stuck?

After doing some research a few years ago, here are a few areas in which we discovered our people were, or are, stuck:

  • Marriages are in trouble
  • Men are struggling with pornography
  • People are undisciplined with their money
  • Adults aren’t living in community (small groups)

Our thinking went like this: If we can motivate and empower our people in each of these areas then the people in our congregation will grow. And, in our experience, a congregation that is growing quickly becomes unstuck because when peoples’ hearts are alive to God… God moves.

So, what do your people need? Where are they struggling? How can your church specifically meet the needs and struggles of your congregation? Creating strategies and programs in these areas of need could very quickly get you unstuck.

Making This Happen

The next time you’re planning an event, service, or trip and you’re about to set it up the same way it was done last time, I’d encourage you to examine if it’s achieving the goals you’re hoping it will. And if you sense there’s room for improvement, I hope this gives you some great steps for thinking through how to make those improvements that bring you closer to your goals.

We all get stuck from time to time. Every fad eventually fades and most church strategies eventually need to be refreshed. How do you get unstuck? I think it comes down to asking around, dreaming, inviting new voices to the table and helping your congregation in the areas they are struggling.

I’d love to hear of any ways you’ve discovered to help get your church unstuck. Tell us about your experiences in the comments.

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