Change in Churches – What is Healthy?

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There is a fine line we walk when we talk about change. The line is between relevance to a lost and dying world and being pleasing to the God who has made us our own. When people try to swing too hard in either direction the results are often disastrous. Those who seek to please outsiders may lose their identity and distinctiveness and the very reason why outsiders come (to find something new, different, and life changing). Those who want to get behind closed doors and study their Bible and worship God with little concern for those outside the church become and end to themselves and will fail to accomplish several of their major objectives as the people of God.

Ronald Heifetz, who I have mentioned several times before, talks about how to produce healthy and growing change in an organization. He says that all growing organizations need to experience productive tension in order for change to take place. If a group of people has zero tension they will have zero change/healthy growth. If they have too much tension people will bail out on you and will have zero change/healthy growth. You have to find the change sweetspot where people feel challenged to try to do things better without pushing them so hard that they want out.That is why one size does not fit all in ministry because not all churches can accept change at the same pace. You cannot necessarily take a ministry that has been thriving at one church and map it directly onto another church because congregations experience change and rates of change differently. You probably get those emails, “10 Ways to Guarantee Church Growth in 3 Months or Less.” Delete. Change does not work the same in all places and is not accepted as quickly everywhere.

We also have doctrinal concerns when it comes to change. We don’t want to change things that are core to the gospel. When making decisions and casting a vision for a congregation the leadership must determine which things are gospel and which things are opinion and tradition. Some lines don’t have to be drawn in the sand. It is okay to have a difference of opinion on some things. But what we cannot miss as a church is to live out the mission of Jesus Christ. If we are not doing what we are here to do and being who we are here to be then it really doesn’t matter if we cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s because we become Pharisees.

Change is important and inevitable. Change is essential to the health and growth of any group of people. I am not necessarily talking about radical changes in the way we do worship or the way we do the Lord’s Supper or anything like that. But I do think it is important to realize why we do the things we do and understand which things are non-negotiables and which things are flexible. Change also needs to be about identity and practice. We often think of change as being about what we do and how we do it. But there is another component that must be taken into consideration – who we are. Are we the people God wants us to be? Is our identity as the people of God producing the kind of impact on the world that He desires us to have? If not there are some changes in our approach and underlying assumptions that need to be made and at a rate that people will be able to tolerate without jumping ship.

Change has been a dangerous word in our churches. Many see anyone who pushes any kind of change as a “Change agent” who is to be shunned and spoken against. I think that is warranted in some extreme instances where people push for change with little regard for what God thinks about it but that doesn’t make all change bad. Isn’t repentance a change? Scripture is full of “change agents” and we owe a debt of gratitude to those who saw that there was a better way and who pushed with all their might for a better, more God-centered vision of the church/Christianity.

0 Responses

  1. I believe the biggest challenge comes from the fact that “church” is usually spken of as a 3rd person institution which defines the boundaries for mission. I am becoming more and more convinced that in scripture it was the other way around. Mission sets the boundaries for how we are to live as church. Thus when we understand what the mission of God is and how we are to participate in that mission, we are church. Some of the teachings we accept as rules for church (e.g., 1 Corinthians 11-14) which define the practice of certain assembly matters seem to be there as a correction to problems that were destroying the mission of God. This raises the question as to whether the prescribe corrections were for the entire church throughout all of history or limited to just the Corinthian congregation.

    Great post!


  2. Matt, I just did a presentation on this based from Romans 12.1-8 (with PowerPoint) here in Ithaca and will present this same presentation in a class format in Minnesota this weekend.

    I received really good feedback with some positive but constructive criticism on how I might “tighten” the message as well as “soften the impact” of the paradigm shift I am hoping to jump start.

    One thing I can say having grown up in a small northern congregation and having served in one as a preacher, this 3rd party construct that defines for us what church is to be (which has been defined mostly by larger southern churches) is strangling the small church.

    I will try to contribute to the upcoming post but that will be such a chor:-).


  3. I think you’re preaching to the choir on this one. But I love hearing it. The real challenge is trying to figure out how to frame those ideas & communicate them in a way that will be palatable to stubborn, tradition-minded ears. I like your point about repentance being change…

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