austin stone leadership missional community

Two Ways to Transition Your Church

The Austin Stone didn’t begin as a church committed to missional communities.  Through several years, we have transitioned our church from a traditional community/small group model to our current model of missional communities.  This series of posts will help you understand how we made that transition over time:

Much of this framework is adapted from John Kotter’s model for leading organizational change.  I pray this series will help many of you that are leading churches through a season of transition!


Two Ways to Transition

Generally speaking, if you are considering a transition to missional communities in an existing church, there are two routes you can go – top down or bottom up.  Each has their own pros and cons, which I will unpack here.

The Austin Stone opted to go with the first – top down leadership.  Although we utilized a lot of the principles of bottom up change, we went very quickly to reorienting our entire church around a new paradigm for ministry.  Let’s start with top  down driven transition.

Changing from the Top Down

Typically, most churches are structured with some amount of hierarchy.  Depending on your size, you’ll have different layers represented, but generally the structure is similar.  For the record, I’m not advocating right or wrong, I’m just describing what is most often the case in church organizations.  Churches generally look something like the chart below:

Top Down

On the left side, you see the way leadership most often works, while on the right side you see how information typically flows.  Transitioning with a top down strategy means that the people at the top of the organization see a preferred future, and then begin to architect a transition for the entire structure.

Keys to Success

In order for this kind of strategy to be effective in a transition, the senior leadership must have buy in for the change.  Also, a top down strategy will be very ineffective without a vision and commitment to the transition for the long haul.


The pros of transitioning this way are a larger impact on the organization, and a greater percentage of innovators inside the church being released into ministry.  Quite simply, if you communicate a vision to more people, generally speaking, you’ll have more people adopt it more quickly.

The cons of transitioning this way, however, are that you will often lose people who are committed to your previous vision for ministry.  Also, you may have a high number of people buy into the vision, but often their commitment is shallow and understanding of the vision is limited.  Generally, when situational challenges to implementing the vision  come up, many people will revert back to patterns and practices they previously used.

Changing from the Bottom Up

Transitioning from the bottom up is an alternate strategy.  Generally speaking, you’re starting a new initiative at the ground level with a small number of people.  Words like “pilot” and “experiment” are thrown around, and ultimately you’re hoping that the new initiative will be wildly successful and influence the ascending layers of an organization.  It generally looks something like the chart below:

Bottom Up

In the bottom up transition, you’re starting in the crowd and community, and filtering stories and vision up the communication chain.

Keys to Success

Keys to making this kind of transition work are piloting new initiatives slowly over time and keeping track of your learning along the way. If you have ambitions to influence an entire organization, it is critical to try the new strategy yourself so you have first-hand experience and can answer questions and provide stories to inspire people.


The pros of transitioning a church like this is that there is less risk of alienating people, and you have a lot of time to learn what challenges lie ahead for others who will attempt to change.

The cons of this kind of transition are that it is very slow, and often won’t change the entire organization.  Because of the deliberate under-the-radar approach, it often is difficult to convince a senior leadership team of an organization of the effectiveness of the particular strategy.

What Did The Austin Stone Do?

In our transition, we spent one year in the piloting stage, but planned all along to make a major top down transition because our senior leadership was well bought in and ready for change.  We certainly saw the benefits of making a major transition (lots of people tried missional communities, and great stories came from the transition), but also experienced several of the drawbacks to this approach (unnecessarily offending some people, frustrating people because we didn’t have all the answers, failing to keep pace with necessary support structures, etc)

What Should You Do?

I don’t know each of your circumstances, but in general, I would say you ought to consider the top down approach if:

  • Your senior leadership team is already onboard for a transition
  • The people in your church are generally flexible and willing to change
  • You are convinced that missional communities are the best way to make disciples in your city

I would strongly urge you to consider a bottom up approach if:

  • A senior leader is reticent or not fully vested in the change
  • Your people are very committed to another model of ministry
  • You are looking for a “best-practice” or a new method

The following posts will unpack our strategy for undergoing a top down transition from small groups to missional communities.  What strategies have you employed to architect change?

By Todd Engstrom

Although I was raised in the church and had a knowledge of God, I didn’t embrace Jesus until I heard gospel preached and lived out by some Young Life leaders. God has proven faithful and good to me since that day, even in great suffering and loss. I have learned to treasure Romans 8:28 as a wellspring of hope and truth.

God has blessed me with an amazing wife (Olivia), three sons (Micah, Hudson and Owen) and a daughter (Emmaline). Growing up in the northwest, the thought never crossed my mind that I would have four children who are native Texans. Despite landing in the south, I still watch Notre Dame games with my children every Saturday in hopes they will land at my alma mater.

6 replies on “Two Ways to Transition Your Church”

Todd, thanks for your post. I’ve been digging into your resource page for a while and have really benefited. Thank you!

I am in a position as an associate pastor and elder who is spearheading the transition from small groups to something else. We are a congregation of around 300 near Albany, NY–basically cultural New England. I think missional community is the way to go, especially for this region–not just because it works but because it’s biblical, of course! 🙂 Also, our elders are hungry for renewal, new vision, and transition (and they are giving me the freedom to craft this plan and run with it!). However, I would venture to guess that half our congregation would be accepting and the other half would be pretty reticent–they would be *highly* committed to the more traditional “small group” or “fellowship group” approach. I like the top-down approach–and I think our leadership does, too–but do you have any other thoughts with this kind of situation?

I would probably start slowly…focus on piloting with a few people/groups who seem to be willing to change. Secondly, I’d focus on getting clarity on the rhythms and practices you want to cultivate before you ask people to transition. Especially for those who are reticent to change, a lack of clarity will be a deal breaker. Finally, I’d recognize that not everyone will make the transition, and you still have the responsibility to shepherd and care for them, even if they don’t come on board. In the same way that Christ has been patient and long-suffering with us, be patient and long-suffering with your people who are less than excited!

Todd, I, like James, have been digging into your resource page as well and it’s been an awesome help for me to understand this idea of a missional community. I 22 years old, and am an intern at my church to help cultivate and new ministry for college students/young adults. I currently lead a small group of about 8 people (almost half in college and other half either part-time school or working locally).
Long story short: I’m think I’m totally on board with this mission community idea. I’m very eager to try it out with my small group sometime soon. I’ve brought up the idea to a few people on staff or friends in the church and the response has been varied. It might be because I’m still learning how to communicate the idea to people. Like you said, the unclarity could drive some away.
Basically, I really want to give this a shot. Definitely a bottom-up approach haha! But I really think our small group setup is missing some critical things found in the Word about how the church is meant to have a “missionary” mindset.
Any thought or tips for helping me trying to start up a pilot group?

Try getting in touch with Tyson Joe (tyson at sustinstone dot org)…he’d have some great wisdom for you on getting started…it’s his job to help folks in your demographic get off the ground!

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