by Jackson Watts
What’s in a change? We never truly know until we enter into the crucible which is change.
As I explained in my previous post, church leaders (especially pastors) face numerous challenges in the course of leading God’s flock. Among them is the difficult task of helping implement change. This change operates both on the level of personal spiritual sanctification, as well as the structural aspects of the church’s congregational life which are intended to foster spiritual renewal and progress. We might say that changes in the organism (individual believers’ lives) are inextricably connected to organizational changes (the programs, policies, and procedures of the church’s ministry).
Pastors, especially by virtue of their role as overseers or bishops (episkopoi), must wisely work together with other leaders and mature members to discern which changes will best accomplish the church’s mission.
However, many of us intuitively know that not all change is the same, though some may tend to associate all change with discomfort and hurt feelings. Part of why this is so often the case is because there has been a failure to consider the nature of specific changes. In other words, church change isn’t a monolithic category.
I would suggest that there are at least three main forms of change a church can experience. Each is difficult in its own way, but each is also sometimes necessary. Here we will consider the first of these three unique types of change.
The first type of change is when something new is introduced to the church’s life—what I call “incorporation.” This is the resourcing of the church’s ministry because a new practice or custom, artifact or object, or value or belief is introduced to improve or strengthen the church. Sometimes the newness is associated with a pastor’s particular background or experience elsewhere, or perhaps an emerging trend among associated churches. The perception is that the pastor is “bringing this newness” or that all the other churches are doing this now. Regardless of the source, usually a pastor or group of leaders presents the idea, hoping to persuade members of its value, and then implement it as smoothly as possible.
The main obstacle with this type of change is that the newness in question seems like an unwanted intrusion on a church’s existing life. For members who aren’t in the habit of self-examination, there is usually an implicit assumption that everything is already fine. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” epitomizes this sentiment. Therefore, the default position is to reject anything new on this basis without further reflection.
Any number of other sensibilities can be attached to this reticence toward change. Members may be fearful of how something they deeply value may be negatively impacted by the intrusion of the new. New programs, practices or tools have a tendency to displace older programs, practices or tools that may be deeply cherished.
Another common reason towards resisting the new is that many churches have had a checkered history when it comes to implementing new things. More than likely, the frustrated pastor is unaware that some of the congregational resistance to change has been conditioned to be that way by prior, unsuccessful changes. If crossing Jordan posed its difficulties for the Israelites after they had the Red Sea crossing in their rearview mirror, then it’s no surprise that sometimes church members—especially those desiring peace—don’t want to retread old ground whenever things weren’t successful before.
In this way, our experiences tend to be hermeneutical in nature. If a church leader has had success with a particular change in a previous ministry situation, it conditions him to think that it could go well and work smoothly in other contexts equally well. Likewise, if people have had unpleasant experiences with various forms of “newness,” this will shape their perception and expectations concerning the impending change.
Expectations and Ends
An equally problematic pattern with incorporation can be when churches want to adopt anything and everything new simply because it is new. In this, the church reveals its captivity to the myth that whatever is new is inherently good, and whatever is old is inherently bad. Another aspect of this is the belief that this new thing will deliver to the church something needed or sought after, whether converts, improved finances, or any number of other positive things. In this respect, the modern notion of ‘technique’ (especially in its commercialized American form) is simply applied to ministry. If the right technique is applied, then this will engender the desired result.
Many people will recognize that the first reaction above by some lay members is problematic in that it out-of-hand rejects anything without careful spiritual reflection. But the second mindset is also problematic because it also lacks a certain level of essential biblical evaluation. Rejecting something new for the wrong reasons is, in the long run, just as detrimental as promoting or accepting something new for the wrong reasons.
Pastors must work diligently to make a reasoned case, from Scriptural principles, for why certain new additions to the church’s life should be pursued. Additionally, they must develop an understanding of the context into which such new changes are being proposed. This will not only help them gauge the reactions they will receive, but the likelihood of success even if the changes are adopted.
A second thing they must do is closely evaluate which problem they are trying to solve, or area of ministry they are trying to improve by such a change. What is the end, in other words, of this effort? What are we realistically expecting to happen as a result of this change? Will the evaluation of the change’s effectiveness continue even after its adoption? How, if at all, will the church tweak the change or even reverse course if things are not successful?
These questions demand more time, attention, and reflection than we sometimes want to give, even if we are well-intentioned throughout the process. But they are the reasonable extensions of any case for incorporating something new into an existing church ministry.
We must come to appreciate the unique ministry setting in which God has placed us. Certainly the principles of Scripture are truthful, valid, and beneficial in any place where God’s people are. Yet these can never be hastily abandoned in the name of cultural relevance, or even in a misplaced desire to give the illusion that the church is making progress simply because they are doing something new and different.
There are also no doubt trans-cultural principles that shape pastoral ministry in any context. However, one of these principles is, in fact, that all ministry is local! This means that the pastor must be an anthropologist and historian, in addition to being a theologian. They must be students of the people they are called to love and serve. They must explore the history which has shaped the church throughout the years, making it the unique congregation that it is. The church’s history itself is constituted not by random events that simply happened to the church; its history is the sum total of the decisions (good and bad), gifts, victories, defeats, and dreams of the people. An awareness of such history will facilitate pastors in all types of change, especially with incorporation.
 More on these three ‘traditions’ will be shared in a later post.