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Thinking about change

By David Parsons.

Soon after I entered Bristol Baptist College in 1983, I watched an amazing display of laser projected images showing pictures and messages on cloud formations in the sky. This was a public demonstration of the newly developed technology. It attracted great publicity as laser technology was just emerging and had been described as a solution without a problem. It also provoked discussion and some criticism in the college about how development costs could have been better used on 'more worthwhile projects'. It's history now how laser technology has provided great advances in eye surgery and given us CDs, DVDs and blue ray technology, not to mention the ability to guide weapons onto their targets with pinpoint accuracy and facilitate the checkout at the supermarket.

The last few generations have seen the world change for better and worse in ways and at a speed that would have seemed unbelievable a couple of centuries ago. Yet fundamental to all change are those things that never change. Without the predictability of the laws of physics, technological change and scientific discoveries would be near impossible. Even life itself might not be possible. Change has been enabled by things that don't change.

However, if you mention the word 'change' to pastors and church leaders, on the whole they won't think about technology, but about a whole range of other things such as churchmanship, liturgy, buildings, mission, theology, ethics, communication, preaching, worship, youth work, leadership, and pastoral care. They wouldn't really be much different from any other organisation who would also think about change within the parameters of their particular interest and discipline. The difference is the distinctly spiritual nature of the church.

Most of what I'm going to say concerns change in the church, but what I've illustrated from technology highlights the tension that is encountered between continuity and change. We are in the business of change. The great commission (Matthew 28.19) is about changing nothing less than the world, yet when it comes to issues of change within the structures and practices of established churches, we often seem to be fiercely poised between a rut and a revolution. This doesn't have to be the case.

The language of change

The actual word 'change' may be a problem. What should change? Why should it change? How quickly should it change? Who should do the change? How should it change? What will it be when it's changed? Is it necessary to change? What do we do if it doesn't work very well? Change implies achieving a goal or vision so what do we do once we've reached it? Will change achieve a clearly spiritual and Christian end?

These are fair questions. If they're not addressed, they lurk in the background creating anxiety. Notwithstanding that there are always those who always seem to oppose change on principle, these are not necessarily questions that are asked to impede, but are issues to be considered with integrity and respect for those who ask them.

I suggest we avoid actually using the word ‘change’, except to acknowledge what has already taken place within a church or the wider Christian community. Better by far to talk about how we are seeking to make progress – for example, how we might develop our worship; how we might strengthen our pastoral care; to examine where our mission is effective and how much priority it has in church life. Can we realistically sustain a particular activity and find the language to express that we are still working for the Kingdom together even if we have to call time on it.

I often hear church leaders saying that the church must change. I've done this myself. The trouble with saying the church must change is that the word itself doesn't define what must change and doesn't incorporate any reference to those things that don't change. When we talk about change, are we talking about the structure of church services, painting the church hall or the values we hold as followers of Christ? To refer to the need for change requires that we are much more specific. We can reflect on what has changed but if our language is about how we respond to the inevitable changes in society and in the church, we might discover hidden opportunities, unexpected enthusiasm and emerging gifts.

The inevitability of change

One perspective of history is that it is the record of change. An empire rises and falls. A dynasty comes to power to give way to another dynasty. A new continent is discovered and people emigrate to it and a new country is birthed. A new invention changes the way we live. Species of animals become extinct. A medical advance prolongs life. A supermarket challenges the status quo of an area's retail trade. An industrial process reduces a workforce or creates manufacturing opportunities. Our bodies change with age. Children grow up and leave school.

The church, of whatever expression, will inevitably be affected by change. An area experiences a high influx of immigrants and the composition of the congregation will change. A leading musician moves away and there are very few who can step into the gap they leave. The organist has an affair with the vicar and the treasurer embezzles the church funds (it happens). A congregation declines or grows. A new incumbent arrives. Changes in the law can have profound effects on a church for all sorts of reasons. The internet, social media and mobile technology are current examples of how just about every church is being affected by change.

We can't stop change, but we can make godly responses to it and, handled in the right way, exploit it to the glory of God and the growth of the church.

What must never change

There are many things that are really of secondary importance to church, but some things can't be tinkered with. The state of a church building may demand radical action. The times of public worship might be better altered. It might be time to employ a caretaker. Why not have a church outing?

However, without truth, love, justice, mercy, compassion, loyalty, forgiveness, integrity, commitment and Jesus we don't have church. We may choose to express them and practise them in different ways, but they are part of what we are. Baptism, Eucharist, worship, mission, scripture and prayer are not optional extras but may be done differently in different churches. There are other things which approach these qualities. Discipleship, faithfulness, pastoral care and fellowship are integral parts of a healthy church.

In knowing what the heart of our faith is we can better judge what may need to change in response to our current church environment.

The value of appraisal

Unusually I learnt to fly (gliders) before I learnt to drive. During the period of time when I was classed as an early solo pilot my flying was consistently appraised. This type of appraisal raises the standard of pilots and increases the safety of aviation generally. Even experienced airline pilots are regularly (and vigorously) appraised. Appraisal, sometimes called by different names and practised in different ways, is a valuable and basic tool for enabling development and growth in many areas of life. Mentors, personal trainers and human resources are just some of the expressions of appraisal.

Change does happen in churches. I fear it is less consistently appraised in a fully objective manner, if it's appraised at all. There are churches which engage with appraisal and ministers who welcome it for their personal development but they are the exception. At its best, appraisal seeks to discern and evaluate where we are and to strengthen the positive aspects of a person or organisation and eliminate or reduce the negatives. Regular and consistent appraisal should be the practice of every church that is concerned about its effectiveness. Appraisal gives insight into trends in churches and into church life in general, and can sift the good from the bad and the shallow from the substantial.

The lessons of history

I look back at my days in college and am thankful we studied church history. I would argue that church history is as important as theology and inseparable from it. I wonder though, do we continue to study church history after college as continuously as we ought to study theology? The church in China provides a fascinating example of how history repeats itself if the lessons of history aren't learnt. Many missionaries left China when it was invaded by the Japanese. When they returned after the end of WWII, they were delighted to find the church had actually grown and thrived.

I find it slightly amusing and more or less expected when people give me odd looks when I tell them that I used to be active in hang gliding, but very sad when I get the same looks and gasps of astonishment when I suggest that every Christian should have at least one good book giving an overview of the history of the church.

The reality of church life is that there can be ungodly and invidious pressure on church leaders to keep up with the latest trends and fashions of the big churches. Success is evaluated by the size of church and the subtlety of the pressures on church leaders to emulate the successful and seemingly thriving churches is immense.Very often the success of the big church is because it has adopted a popular trend or fashion, but a study of church history can steady the nerves of church leaders and allow them to evaluate their roles and responses more appropriately. Every church is a unique creation of the Holy Spirit and he is a Spirit of unlimited creativity. Only man tries to make things all the same.

“If it 'ain’t broke, don't fix it”.

I've heard this said many times and the reality is that there's quite a lot of truth in it. This is a phrase to be applied situationally. To illustrate this let's look at two common practical aspects of church life.

First, the church garden. If you have someone who enjoys looking after the church garden and makes a reasonable job of it, why would you want to change the arrangement as long as they're willing and able to do it? It's not impossible to make alternative arrangements, but the potential for hurt and expense would probably achieve nothing.

Second, the perennial flat church roof. It might not leak, but sooner or later flat roofs leak. There are two types of flat roofs, those that are leaking and those that will leak. A sensible fabric committee will budget to change the roofing arrangement before the roof leaks.

Those illustrations are simple and the responses more or less obvious and in most instances are dealt with almost under the radar of congregations. At the other extreme, controversy over worship has probably created more conflict, hurt and movement than any other aspect of church life. I wonder if I'm right or wrong to suggest that about half the time when we think about change we are thinking about our regular public worship? Contemporary worship or traditional? Old hymns or new or a mix of both? Loud music or quiet? Organ or guitars? Worship leader or minister? Ecstatic or contemplative? Hymn books or OHP? Liturgical or unstructured? Need I go on?

That may over state the case, but many in church leadership will recognise elements of issues they will have encountered at some point. Many will have felt torn between competing voices seeking change in some form. In the most extreme instances, some members of a congregation will make it very clear they have only remained in attendance while waiting to see what the new incumbent will do.

Looking ahead

Ministry is about God's call to servanthood. Issues about worship in particular and other aspects of church life in general make us targets for manipulation. God called us to be his ministers and he didn't call us to be clones of other ministers, nor to minister in the way that other churches are ministered to. He called us as the people that we are. Within each one of us is a unique combination of education, experiences, giftings, understandings and personalities that God has combined to make us effective in the ministries to which he has called us.

At the same time we may be made conscious that other churches are (or seem to be) doing better than ours. This can all too easily tempt us to emulate how they function. At worst, it can blind us to the strengths of our own church. There may be people in our congregations who can only flourish and grow when they belong to a church such as ours. The words of C S Lewis are worth a mention, “Jesus said feed my sheep, not try experiments on my rats”.

Churches change amazingly when we hold to three priorities.

Love the people. It's humbling what people will allow us to do when they are secure in the knowledge that we love them. It's notable what they will forgive in us for the same reason. People change when they are loved. It's long term and often far from easy, but isn't it at the heart of our faith anyway? Love is the foundation and first step of mission.

Preach the word. If preaching is a priority, we will give time to preparation and not allow anything to squeeze it out. Good preaching and teaching are faith building and strengthen, comfort and challenge congregations. Never underestimate the intelligence of a congregation.

Live the life. Congregations are very astute. They quickly discern our character. In Genesis we read about Joseph who as a young man was somewhat arrogant and bumptious which got him into heaps of trouble with his brothers. Perhaps it was his misfortunes that partially developed his character, but through his integrity and giftings, he eventually found himself in a position where his influence changed the course of history. It was his character that changed history because he could easily have avenged himself on both his brothers and Potiphar's wife, but instead he chose to do the Godly things he did. Character creates change.

In conclusion

If we are convinced that change is essential to the health of our church, the way we initiate and guide it is crucial. Take note however: what we are together is more important than what we do. God loves the most awkward of church members and Christ died for them. Change is the means to an end, not a credential of our ministry. Change must glorify God and build up the precious people whose spiritual welfare he entrusts to us. Are we sure that short term benefits don't undermine long term gains? Sometimes lots of little changes amount to big change over a period of time.

Finally and hopefully, it hardly needs saying that all change should be bathed in prayer? Change within the church, whatever it concerns is ultimately about the spiritual journey people are on and prayer is the indispensable companion and guide on the journey.

David Parsons

Retired Baptist Minister

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You are reading Thinking about change by David Parsons, part of Issue 61 of Ministry Today, published in August 2014.

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