Tag Archives: Liminality

Cultural Analysis and the Dynamics of Leading Change in the Church: A Review

Jackson Watts

In his Symposium presentation “Cultural Analysis and the Dynamics of Leading Change in the Church,” Rev. Dr. Jackson Watts tackles the tough topic of implementing change in a congregation. Noting shifting demographical factors like the graying and shrinking of the evangelical church, Watts draws a correlation between these factors and an inability to change. He then seeks to wed biblical principles of change with socio-cultural concepts to assist church leaders in more effectively leading change in their churches. Such change will require “critical listening, thick description, and pastoral sensitivity” (57).

Watts points out that each church is best understood as a culture. This means that a congregation has its own “unique set of beliefs (spoken and unspoken, practices (symbolic and practical), values (inherited and derived), dispositions (conscious and subconscious), and artifacts (religious and mundane)” that define individual roles and responsibilities in the fulfillment of the institutional mission (59). This means that any change, even a small one, will have significant impact on every aspect of the church’s self-understanding. Because of this, change must always be tethered to the culture and values of the congregation.

Thus, the process for change begins with listening and loving one’s congregation. One must become a part of the culture and be a student of the history, traditions, and relationships present in a church body. All of these factors define meaning and determine value in the organization of relationships gathered together for a common goal. Only after such listening and learning, can one effectively begin the process of leading change. This is the first step of developing a “thick description” (an interpretation of the way relationships, rituals, and rhetoric interact to define a community, 61) whence a leader can cast a vision for change.

Watts then introduces the sociological concept of liminality. Liminality is a reference to a process of transition (usually of individuals but also organizations) from one set of identifiers to another. Similar to a sixteen year old getting his driver’s license, the process of liminality describes the period of the young person being unable to drive, obtaining a permit, receiving instruction, and eventually becoming a licensed driver. Even after such a change, it takes some time for the young driver (and especially his or her parents) to get accustomed to the idea. It is precisely this type of process that a church undergoes when implementing change. Change introduces ambiguity and must be understood as a process that leads to a new reality, thus impacting the culture. People become naturally uncomfortable in the liminal, in-between stage, of change.

A pastoral perspective will remember that congregants in this liminal phase are not simply “selfish, unyielding, rebellious, ignorant, unrepentant traditionalists” (63). Rather they are complex cultural creatures, spiritual beings embodied in time and space (63). This means that our attempts to lead change must always take a “total personality approach.” We must be sensitive to their needs as thinking, feeling, loving, worshiping beings. Watts then mines Forlines’ “total personality approach” of theology for important implications for the process. Such an approach to change will mean that a “one-size-fits-all approach” will never be adequate (65). Each individual and each congregation is unique.

Watts then turns to a discussion of the types of change in a congregation. He sums them up in three categories of 1) addition, 2) alteration, and 3) subtraction (65). Changes 1 and 2 can be difficult because congregations don’t perceive the need. In these cases careful consideration, description, and consensus are paramount. He notes, “as a general rule, the degree of listening, prayer, planning, communications and implementation is proportionate to the extent of the reforms to occur” (67). The final form of change, subtraction, can often be more difficult because even when congregants intellectually understand the need for change, they are often emotionally and experientially connected to previous forms and identity.

With these principles in mind, Watts offers a paradigm for leading change in the local church. Leaders must take the time to see what is going on. Leaders must then investigate why these things are the way they are. Finally, the leader is called to respond. He or she asks the question, “what should be happening?” Applying evaluative judgments to the current culture, changes must always be proposed with sensitivity to the spiritual, social, emotional, and physical needs of individual congregants and the body. Such reflection and care mirror the “ministries of Jesus, Paul, and the apostles” and exemplify the biblical principles of “wisdom, compassion, and courage” (70). May all our attempts to lead change in our congregation be characterized by this pastoral heart. The full presentation can be seen here.