“The core American idea is not the fortress, it’s the frontier” according to David Brooks in a recent New York Times editorial. He explains that American culture was shaped by the Western expansion in a new land, and an ongoing drive to explore new ideas and opportunities. Brooks’ commentary focuses on the current social and political state of the country. But I believe the frontier versus fortress distinction speaks just as much to the church.
Few churches are started with a fortress mentality. The founding pastor and other core leaders tend to be forward-looking entrepreneurs who are determined to expand into new frontiers, whether that’s geographic, demographic, or psychographic. They charge into their new territory with optimism and energy. They have nothing to lose and much to gain. Their driving question is, “How can we expand our frontier as much as possible?”
But somewhere along the way, the tide shifts. After some success (or maybe a great deal of success), the entrepreneurial leaders may tire or leave in pursuit of new challenges. The leaders that replace them may not have the same mindset. The church no longer says “we have nothing to lose” because they have people and buildings and budgets to worry about. And so the unspoken question that begins to shape decisions is, “How can we protect what we have?” It’s a fortress, not frontier, question.
So if the ethos of your church is more fortress than frontier, what should you do? Shifting back to a frontier mindset is never easy, but here are 4 steps you can take:
- Name it. You can’t address a fortress mentality if people don’t acknowledge that it exists. Some may be genuinely unaware, and others may be fearful of where the conversation could lead. But as Max DePree says, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”
- Get frontier voices at the leadership table. As churches age, they tend to place “faithful” members into leadership role. Faithful often means long-tenured, which in turn may correlate with fortress thinking. I’m not suggesting wholesale replacement of these leaders – that could lead to your replacement as well! But if you don’t have some forward-looking, entrepreneurial people at the decision-making table, you can’t make the shift.
- Try something new. Change is difficult in an established church, so the best frontier strategies often start on the margins. Rather than eliminating or dramatically redesigning a cherished, core program, start something small on the side. With time and attention, a small experiment can grow and begin to influence the broader culture.
- Create a pruning routine. An annual review of all resource allocations can be a good way to engage in conversations about programs that have outlived their utility. When done in a consistent and transparent manner that evaluates all programs, the difficult decisions feel less arbitrary or vindictive.
I think we’ve been circling the wagons for far too long. Do you need to push ahead to a new frontier?
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