Learning to Ride a Backwards Bicycle

What does a riding bicycle with "backwards" handlebars have to do with leading change in the church?


Destin Sandlin, an aerospace engineer and host of the instructional science website Smarter Every Day, set out to learn how to ride a bicycle made by some of his welder friends. What’s different about this bicycle is that when you turn the handlebars, the wheel moves in the opposite direction from normal (for example, if you turn the handlebars to the left, the front wheel moves to the right). Sandlin saw this as a challenge that he could easily overcome. But it took him eight months of practice in his driveway—including a fair number of spills—before he mastered it. His young son was able to learn to ride the backwards bicycle within two weeks—a reflection of how much more flexible young minds are. Sandlin has taken the backwards bicycle around the world and invited all kinds of people to try riding it, and nobody can do it without extensive practice.

Here, see for yourself:

At Faith+Lead, we sometimes show the video of the backwards bicycle to church leaders because it illustrates how hard the change process can feel for people. If you’re used to doing church in one mode your whole life, shifting those habits can feel very strange, like riding a backwards bicycle. It takes time for people to learn new ways, and struggle and failure are a normal part of the process. In some ways, what’s needed is a rewiring of our brains and habits—a deep unlearning as well as a learning of new things. 

How organizations change

Organizations change at the deep cultural level through adopting practices that become habitual. Conceptually, Destin Sandlin could imagine how to ride the backwards bicycle. But concepts are not enough. You have to change behavior if you want your church to change. For Sandlin, that meant going out on his driveway every morning for fifteen minutes a day on the backwards bicycle. For congregations, the key is introducing practices—often on the edges of a community’s life—that begin to take root in the culture. It is not sufficient to try a new practice once or twice; the value comes in repetition over time. Like learning a language or musical instrument, practice provides the space and structure for transformation over time. 

Church leaders sometimes become frustrated because the visions they preach from the pulpit and cast in meetings are not translating into a changed way of life among the people. While preaching and vision casting are essential, they must be accompanied by practices that help people change their behavior in small ways. For instance, many people in congregations we work with aren’t used to talking about their spiritual lives with one another. So we introduce a simple practice of spiritual storytelling in which people are paired up and invited to respond to this prompt: “Share a story of a time when you felt most spiritually alive, energized, and engaged.” They take about 10 minutes each listening to one another. I have done this exercise with hundreds of people from different kinds of churches around the country for years, and there is always tremendous energy in the room. 

For many participants, it can feel like a real stretch. They’ve never been asked this kind of question at church and aren’t practiced at answering it. It can feel a bit like riding a backwards bicycle. They’re used to pastors and other church professionals doing the talking about God, not regular people. Yet the more they try on the practice and get used to it, the more comfortable they become. Over time, people’s connections with one another in the congregation grow. They begin to pay more spiritual attention to their experience of daily life. They even become better at listening to their neighbors’ spiritual stories outside the church.

Behaving our way forward

Leading change is about introducing simple, accessible practices that help people behave their way into new thinking. As a leader, your job is to cultivate an environment in which people can try on these new practices in relative safety. That means reducing the risk level to where people can stretch into discomfort but not be overwhelmed by it. If you’re having people try on a spiritual practice with which they’re not familiar (perhaps like the spiritual storytelling practice named above), putting people into pairs for sharing makes it easier than asking them to speak before a large group, for instance. Acknowledging the discomfort is important, as is giving people permission not to get things right the first time. Beginning with the people most open to trying on new behaviors is more fruitful than trying to convince those who are most resistant. 

Leaders must have a basic level of trust developed with people before they can invite them into the journey of change. When that trust exists, the work of leaders is to create the pathways for people to adopt new behaviors incrementally. I talk about this as “making it easy for people to do hard things.” Many church leaders are intuitive by nature and thrive on abstract ideas; many people in congregations are sensory oriented and need concrete action steps and stories in order to understand the journey. Leading change means cultivating an environment in which people feel empowered to try on new practices without fear of shame and have simple, actionable steps to take to embody a different way of being church. Once you learn to ride the backwards bicycle as a community, you can discern in which direction God is calling you to ride it together.As you think about your ministry context, what might be one simple, actionable practice that you might introduce to help people take a deeper journey into God’s life and love for the world? You can find some examples of practices in the Resources section of Faith+Lead. The spiritual storytelling practice and many others may be found in the Faithful Innovation Leader Companion. Season 3 of the Pivot Podcast also features practices and stories of churches taking a journey of faithful innovation.

  • Dwight Zscheile

    Dwight Zscheile is vice president of innovation and professor of congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary. His latest book is Leading Faithful Innovation: Following God into a Hopeful Future (with Michael Binder and Tessa Pinkstaff, Fortress Press, 2023).

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments