“If something doesn’t change around here, nothing’s going to change.”

Eighty percent of the American clergy—those leading plateaued or declining churches—sing that lament. When push comes to shove they will all tell you, “I want the church to change how they behave in the matter of _______.”

Some pastors fill that blank with “evangelism.” Others name “prayer” or “hospitality” or something else.

Get past the high-minded talk about mission, vision and values, and you soon find that pastors are all looking for the same thing: they want the church to change the way it acts.

The tough question is obvious: How do we change people’s behavior?

I think the easiest answer lies in the interplay of attitudes and behaviors. Let me explain.

Changing behavior: the ABCs

The definition of “attitude” is the summary of our affective, cognitive and behavioral responses to people and things in our world.[1] Affective refers to our feelings; the behavioral component is a mental map of our past, present and future behaviors; and the cognitive is what we believe think about the object of our attitude.

Attitudes have positive and negative “valence,” like the poles of a battery. Over time our attitudes grow. We acquire more information (cognitive), demonstrate consistent responses (behavior) and incorporate social and subjective norms (affective).[2] Through this process, our attitudes acquire positive and negative associations.

For example, how you respond to the panhandler’s request for a handout is determined by your attitudes toward charity, unwanted interruptions, money, possible “divine appointments” and many other things.

If you believe (cognitive) panhandlers are lazy, if you’ve refused beggars in the past (behavioral), and if you are offended by brash strangers (affective), your attitude will be negative. You refuse the request.

If, however, your “tribe” prizes charity to the underprivileged (cognitive: a social norm), if you respect your tribe’s judgment (affective: a subjective norm), and if you’ve given in the past (behavior), your attitude will be positive. You’ll dole out some spare change.

The key to changing behavior is to change attitudes.

To change your church’s behavior in personal evangelism you try preaching and modeling the right way to think (cognitive) about witnessing. The objective here is to develop a new social norm in the congregants’ minds.

Or you could try to change the way they feel (affective) about personal outreach, attempting to replace fear with love for the unbeliever. The objective here is to change the subjective norm in each person’s heart.

But the most effective way to change attitudes is to call for small, incremental changes in behavior. This is highly effective because there is symmetry between attitude and behavior: changing one produces a change in the other!

If I ask Phil to lead a small group, he’s likely to say, “I could never do that!” Phil doesn’t think of himself as a leader (cognitive), he’s afraid of failing in front of a group (affective), and he’s refused such requests in the past (behavior). These ABCs result in a negative attitude.

Instead, I approach Phil, already a member of my group, and say, “Phil, I’m going to be gone three weeks from now. I need you to fill in for me the week I’m gone. This week and next let’s work together to get you ready.” Each of the next two weeks I give Phil some group leadership responsibilities and let the group know Phil will be substituting for me.

Guess what happens?

By changing Phil’s behavior (having him assist for two weeks and lead for one), his attitude changes. His fear (affective) is unrealized, he changes how he sees himself (cognitive), and he experiences success leading the group (behavior).

The next time Phil is recruited to become a small group leader, he is far more likely to respond out of a positive attitude.

Evangelistic behavior produces evangelistic attitude

Attitudes can reliably predict behaviors if the requested behavior specifically matches the attitude.[3] Pastors misstep when they call for specific behaviors based on general attitudes. If you ask people their general attitude about evangelism they’re likely to say, “We’re all for it!”

That won’t reliably predict whether they’ll actually witness to people during the week.

Instead of issuing a general exhortation to evangelism, lead them in evangelism behaviors. Invite 10 people to join you on Saturday to hand out food, clothing, and gospel tracts in that low-income housing project. Show them how to engage in friendly discussions of spiritual matters with receptive people.

Take a church member with you when you call on visitors or have them join you in your monthly jail ministry.

In time, you’ll find that their attitude toward specific evangelistic activities moves from negative to positive because you’ve led them in a change of behavior.

[1] This is the social psychologists’ multi-component model of attitude. See https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/attitudes/.

[2] A social norm is cognitive; it is our understanding what our tribe thinks about people, groups, and things in our world. A subjective norm is affective; it is how we feel about the social norm, which we either agree or disagree with.

[3] Ajzen & Fishbein, 1970, 1977, 2005; Ajzen, 1988.