Pastoral Theology and Change: Part 3

by Jackson Watts

Change is inherent to the nature of salvation; repentance itself implies real spiritual change. So it should be no surprise that the congregational life of saved persons also must undergo certain changes in its ministry sometimes in order to better foster growth, discipleship, worship, or evangelism. The challenge is to discern the right degree and type of trellises to support the vines, to use Marshall and Payne’s metaphor.[1]

So far we have established two important truisms concerning church change. First, change is often very difficult, frustrating, and sometimes elusive. It can lead to confusion, conflict, and unwanted departures of leaders and/or members. At its worst, it fractures a church, hindering its witness in the community.

Nevertheless, we’ve also established that not all change is the same. Change has many different faces, requiring different levels of reflection and effort to implement. Implicit in this is a conviction that I think most leaders share: Change doesn’t have to be a problem. It can be a healthy, exciting opportunity despite the challenges that come with it. Understanding the different types of change is an important first step for pastors and churches to work through transitions in a way which strengthens Christ’s church.

Change through Reform

The second type of change is innovation. While innovation is usually associated with a new invention, it doesn’t have to be something entirely new. Don’t think of it like the invention of electricity or the telephone. Innovation is more like going from the first light bulb to LED lighting. Light itself wasn’t invented. Rather, a better means to produce and diffuse light was. Moving from a landline phone to a cell phone would be an innovation within the field of electronic communication. Innovation then, as I am describing it, is the reformation of some aspect of the church’s life.

We know about “reformation” due to the tumultuous period known as the Protestant Reformation. Some would argue that the very nature of the faith was altered, or even recovered. But consider what remained: Churches, priests/pastors, the Lord’s Supper, belief in the Triune God, and other core aspects of Christianity.

Without question, much changed with both church teaching and practice! But I use this illustration to show that Christianity as a religion about Jesus Christ didn’t end or begin. However, significant innovations occurred that were thought of as reforms, returning the church to a pre-existing form (historians can debate the best terminology to be used).

Innovation is arguably the most common form of change, and thus most likely to be attempted. Changes within an existing church culture happen organically, in fact. Sometimes background checks on children’s ministry volunteers must be performed to satisfy the expectations of the church’s insurance company. It is a change, but largely accepted as unavoidable. People resign from ministries, and new people step into those leadership roles. Most members accept and understand that these changes happen, even if they don’t prefer them.

However, innovation happens whenever background checks lead to expectations of special training for children’s helpers. Innovation is when the church changes financial disclosure practices under a new treasurer, or when a new youth pastor stops taking students to a particular camp each year and instead goes to a different one. Financial stewardship and student ministry didn’t end. It isn’t a simple matter of addition or subtraction. Yet these ministries have been reformed in some way. To put it another way, the form (structure) of a ministry (substance) has been altered.

Tweaking or Tampering?  

Innovation and reformation are themselves contested terms. Depending on who you’re speaking to, these words summon different reactions. To Silicon Valley investors, innovation has an appealing ring to it. To those struggling to set up their voicemail, it doesn’t sound so good. Similarly, our Catholic friends may have something of a bitter taste in their mouths toward ‘reformation.’ To those with shelves full of Banner of Truth books, it just as well be ‘Gospel’!

This range of responses is also seen in the local church. Saying one is going to “tweak something” seems harmless enough. To others, it is heartless tampering designed to take control. Reform, in other words, doesn’t necessarily signal improvement, even if that is the goal. Healthy reform have growth in faithfulness as its ultimate aim, but it requires more than good intentions.

Thankfully, whenever leaders successfully improve an existing aspect of the ministry through some innovation, members usually appreciate it. In fact, it is quite rewarding whenever skeptics or even critical members become some of the most vocal supporters of a change once it has happened. The challenge is patiently waiting and praying for that reaction.

Naturally, leaders and lay members alike recognize that there is not just a range of feelings about changing certain features of the ministry. There is also a spectrum when it comes to the scope of the change. A church may have preaching in its worship service each week. But if in a week’s time, the pulpit has been replaced with a new one and the pastor has lost his necktie, this will likely be considered a significant innovation (fairly or unfairly!).

As a general rule, the degree of reflection, prayer, planning, communication, and implementation is proportionate to the extent of the reforms about to occur.[2] Bigger changes equal more preparation, in essence.

Innovation is not entirely unlike incorporation (change type #1). However, pastors usually learn that innovation and reform is most often easier to implement than actually introducing something new. With innovation, churches at least have the concept, structures, or other “raw materials” already in place. Being prepared to accept reforms then becomes the critical issue.

Leadership Insight

Why innovate? It has often been said that change for change-sake isn’t very healthy. People say this because they generally need to see a need for improvement in order to embrace change.

Ultimately, innovation is grounded in the conviction that God is calling his people to a deeper level of faithfulness. If the culture of a church is permeated by beliefs such as, “We are perfect,” “We are fine,” or “Everything is going well,” then any form of change will prove nearly impossible. However, whenever there is a growing sense that the church is imperfect or ineffective—as a whole, or in several areas—there is a greater openness for reform.

How does this awareness of imperfection or ineffectiveness occur? The primary means by which the church increases in awareness of the need for reform is 1) Preaching/teaching the doctrines of sin and sanctification, and 2) Regular observation and evaluation of the church’s ministry effectiveness.

The first of these is accomplished from the pulpit, the podium, the Sunday School classroom, and numerous other venues where believers intentionally meet for instruction. By learning that we are sinners as well as saints, they will be better able to connect the dots between their hearts and the ministry structures around them. In other words, if Christians still sometimes sin in thought, word, or deed—including inside the church—then this means that sometimes our ministries need sanctifying, so to speak.

Furthermore, the laws of physics tell us that things wear out: people, programs, buildings, etc. Sometimes a fresh coat of paint, new carpet, new chairs, and other tools are unavoidable if we are paying attention to this decaying world. Understanding the extent of the Fall helps us to see that every manmade thing won’t last.

When we take into account both the fallenness of our own natures, as well as the world itself, we know innovation will occasionally be needed as we address the flaws in our ministries. Naturally, this always begins with the heart, mind, and soul. But is an error to overlook the body, and thus the church’s material life. We are embodied souls who worship in places (e.g. buildings), in well-ordered ways (e.g. worship service times, order of services), with carefully-designed tools (e.g. curriculum). These trellises serve the vine best whenever innovation and reform is occasionally undertaken.

The second way to create a church culture that thinks in terms of improvement is to regularly inform members of the patterns of growth and decline of spiritual vitality over time. Church attendance is a valuable metric, but a very limited by itself. Church leaders must find biblical and practical means of observing, recording, and reporting how God is at work in the congregation. Some of these are easier to measure than others, but by developing multiple means of assessment of the church as a whole, and then specific areas of ministry, the congregation will be better positioned to understand what potential reforms may be needed.[3]

As a rule, this will be much more effective than saying, “We need to mix things up,” or “The church down the street is doing this, so let’s try it, too.” Members who are growing in maturity are doing so because they understand sin and sanctification, and they care deeply about the unfolding life of the church. It works it reverse as well: members being taught about sin and sanctification and who are helped to better see the ministry for what it is will grow in maturity. Such members become advocates of and partners in reform, not opponents.

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[1] Cf. Colin Marshall & Tony Payne’s The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mindset that Changes Everything. See a brief summary of their proposal here.

[2] This is why my illustration about the Protestant Reformation is intentional. Some would argue that we see the whole gamut of changes in this event: incorporation, innovation, and interruption (see forthcoming Part 4). This illustrates another facet of my argument, which is that once you begin ‘innovating’ or generally changing many things, at some point you begin having several different types of change all at once, which is more apt to lead to conflict than multiple changes of a single type in a single area of ministry.

[3] The concerns about the proper use of numbers or data are well-expressed in Kevin Hester’s recent post.

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