Saturday, June 7, 2014

Young Fundamentalism: Change - Necessary but Balanced in Approach

Okay, let's start with the obvious: change is hard. No one likes changing the things with which they are comfortable. Of course, there are lots of things we would like to change. There are things that we don't like about our bodies, our circumstances, the weather, etc. Our gripes our endless, aren't they? But our traditions and ways of thinking are so ingrained in us that to think of changing those areas is a challenge to who we are as people at a core level. For example, I like Raisin Bran. (Shout out to Kelloggs, they can pay me later :-) The point is, don't mess with my breakfast cereal. I don't want knock off brands or Cheerios. I want my cereal; the one that I am used to eating. Change it, and I'll get cranky! When it comes to the church, people are just that simple. The basic thought process is, "I like it. I'm used to it. Don't change it or I'm going to be upset."

The departure of many of the millennial generation from the churches of today begs the questions of if we should change, what we should change, and how and when.  For the purpose of today's discussion, I am not going to deal with if we should change things (because it is apparent to me that change is necessary), nor am I going to deal with what should be changed (that is the department of the individual local church). I do think, however, that it is important for both the traditionalists and those who are calling for a new tack in our way of thinking to understand some things regarding change.

Change is Inevitable

Change is simply a part of life. We call them stages, cycles, or phases, but in the end, it all is summed up in the word "change". The thing we lack in the church is the study of history. If we understood our own history in relation to the history of society at large, we would see that the church has gone through cycles,stages, and phases throughout the centuries in direct relation to (and sometimes reaction to) what was happening in the culture of the day. God is the only one who doesn't change. However, He has several times throughout history reconfigured how He dealt with mankind based upon the circumstance (rebellion or obedience) of man. This is best understood in what we call "dispensations". For example, God dealt with Adam before the fall differently than He dealt with Israel, or later, the church. If God can adjust His sails to best approach the needs and attitude of society, we should as well. Why? Because change is inevitable.

Change can be a good thing!

You want your baby to change. If that infant stayed the same he/she would never grow up, never learn to speak, read, write, drive a car, or get a job. You want your Christian life to change. You want to sin less, love Jesus more, and follow His Word more closely. You want your marriage to change. You want to grow more in love with your husband or wife. Why is it then that in the church we have the idea that change is bad and that we must meet change at the door of the church with swords drawn for battle? Do you like the pews you sit in? They are a change! Jesus didn't have pews; He had the hillside of Galilee. But ironically, if we told our churches that we were meeting at the seashore from now on they would decry this "newfangled change". Change is a part of the human existence, and change in the right direction is very healthy.

So, how do we deal with change in the church?

First: Understand the Who of Change

The talk about keeping or regaining the millennials in the church or of how to reach contemporary society with the gospel has put the emphasis for change in the wrong place. We do not change in order to keep people coming to church. Why? Church isn't about us (our wants and desires); it is about God and His wants and desires. We do not change in order to reach the lost. Why? It is not about the lost; it is about God. Change always has to be about what God wants not about what we want our church "experience" to be like or about what we think will be effective in reaching contemporary culture. (Having said this, it is my contention that if we get back to the Bible in an authentic way, we will find both the latitude that God allows for us to minister to one another in the church and a plan that is effective in reaching out to the lost regardless of culture. This is discussed further in my recent book Before the Box: Freeing the Church to Emulate First-Century Christianity.) So, change cannot be human focused, it must be God centered, focused, and directed. We must want the changes that God wants. In order to do this, we must get closer to Him and further from our own reactionary desires. In doing so, we are saved from the natural knee jerk reactions and dramatic pendulum swing effect that we see in so many churches today.

Second: Understand Why Things Are the Way They Are

To cry out for change without first understanding why things are the way they are and how they came to be is immature and harmful. A friend of mine the other day was complaining about a rock in his backyard that he had to keep mowing around. He griped about the fact that the guy that owned the place before him hadn't moved the rock. So, armed with a shovel, pick, and pry bar he decided he was going to move it. Come to find out it wasn't a rock but the top of a BOULDER. It wasn't moving. The reason the former owner didn't move it is because it couldn't be moved. There are some things like this in the church. There are some aspects of church that cannot and should not be moved. However, there are other things that more closely resemble the stacks of books that I pile around the house. My wife is right. They can and should be moved. So when we think about change we must consider not only the what, but the why. A favourite Wiersbe quotation of mine is, "Don't take down a fence until you know why they put it up." It is good advice.

Third: Understand Who Change Affects and How

It is easy to call out for change. It seems to be the "in thing" to do at the moment. But if one is going to call for change, they cannot do so with a complete disregard for those whom the desired change affects. In the church there must be a love and mutual submission that guides any implementation of change. That does not mean that we avoid change, but it does mean that change should be enacted with some finesse, tact, diplomacy, and love. This implementation with understanding will cause us to think carefully especially about the feelings of others and timelines for introduction of change in the church. Very often we have to plant the seeds of the idea of change and let others come to the same conclusions that we have in their own time. Sometimes it has to be "their idea" in order for a smooth transition to a new stage or phase in the church.

Fourth: Understand the Process of Change

Change is a process. You didn't become an adult overnight; it took time and many thousands of minute changes to bring such a dramatic change. We have to understand the process. Change begins with a catalyst, a need for change. Most times it is some sort of crisis. In this case the crisis is the departure of the millennials from the church and the difficulty that the church is facing in introducing those of contemporary culture to the gospel. Having a catalyst, however, is only the beginning. From this point, the stages of the process are as follows:

  • Identification of the problem
  • Idea for a solution
  • Resistance to the idea
  • Enough pain or difficulty to try the idea
  • Implementation of the idea
  • Time
  • Tweaking the through trial and error
  • New Status Quo

Fifth: Understand Resistance

One must be careful in pushing for change that they understand why people are resistant to change. This can only be accomplished through loving and respectful dialogue, and time spent together. The truth is that regardless of your thoughts on change, we are all in this together. So then, time spent sniping and griping at those who "won't change" or "want change" is wasted time. It is important for us not only to understand the position and truly hear out the passion of those who are resistant to change but to also dig into the reasons for their resistance. It is those underlying reasons that will either convict us not to change or convince us of the legitimacy of change.

Sixth: Be Biblically Sound and Culturally Savvy

In our day, we have two extremes of action; action that is based on feeling, and action that is based on tradition. We must avoid these extremes. While both feeling and tradition are essential parts of the human experience and church life, they cannot be in the driver's seat. Thinking (Biblical thinking) must win out. We must be people who contextually interpret and consistently apply the Word of God with a keen understanding of those to whom we are ministering (church people) and understanding of those whom we wish to reach with the gospel (contemporary lost). Jesus told His followers to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). This was Jesus telling them how to approach those people in culture of their day. Jesus was culturally astute and adapted His approach to the mindset of others. But is not just about culture. If it was, we could easily advocate license to sin in order to reach the lost. On the other hand, Biblically sound theology without real world application to contemporary society is truth that is hidden under a bushel basket. Light that the lost see as irrelevant, unloving, or unhelpful is light that is hidden. There was a time when society was enough like the church (morally speaking) that we could just assume that if an approach was relevant for the Christian, it would be relevant to the lost man. Times have changed, and in a Biblically sound and culturally savvy way, so must we.

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