Change in the church is complicated

Life in the Postmodern Shift

February 21, 2018 | Viewpoints | Volume 22 Issue 5
Troy Watson |
Troy Watson

It was my first day on the job as associate pastor. I enthusiastically unlocked the door to my new office and was taken aback by the writing on the wall. Literally. There was a massive white banner hanging on the wall with a warning, handwritten in giant red letters, that read, “We don’t like change!”

It turned out to be a “gift” from the youth group. As ominous as the welcome was, I ended up having a blast working with those young people over the next few years. We shared many hilarious, exciting and meaningful moments. I think back on those years with great fondness.

I never did ask them why they put that banner up or what they meant by it. I didn’t have to. They were simply expressing what most people in the church were thinking and feeling. Sure, their communication style was more direct than how most adults informed me about the unspoken rules, but the message was the same: “We don’t like change around here.”

This church was not unique. In fact, “We don’t like change” could be the official motto of most churches. I’ve heard many pastors from most denominations summarize their church’s attitude towards change the same way: “Sure our church wants change, but not if it means changing.”

The general assumption is that people don’t like change, especially in church. What I’ve discovered is that this is a devilish, destructive and debilitating lie. The truth is, everyone loves change. Even us church folk.

Imagine you get a call from head office offering to double your salary—or pension—immediately. Would you turn down the offer because you don’t like change? Would any church member you know respond by saying, “I’ll talk to my family and create a sub-committee to discern and pray about it for six months, but I’m pretty sure the answer is no. We just don’t handle change well around here.”

Imagine the doctor calls and says the cancer is miraculously gone, so there’s no need for chemotherapy treatments anymore. Would you or anyone you know react disapprovingly because they don’t like when change happens too fast?

This notion that we don’t like change is horse manure. We all love change that works in our interests or fulfills our desires. It’s only the changes that work against our interests and desires that we dislike.

What this means is that when something changes at my church, and I say, “I don’t like change,” what I’m really saying is, “I’m not getting what I want in this situation,” or, “I don’t like it when I don’t get my way,” or, “This isn’t serving my needs,” which almost always means “my preferences.”

It’s important to name the specific changes I don’t like and explain why I don’t like them, at least to myself and to God. Why? Because my resistance to a specific change will reveal what I truly value and desire if I take the time to listen to it.

For instance, it can help me understand why I say I want young people to attend my church but simultaneously resist any attempt to create a more welcoming and accessible worship atmosphere for young people. The reason we do contradictory things like this—and we all do—is because we have many desires, and those desires often oppose and compete with each other.

When we start to be truthful and prayerful about our likes and dislikes, which is where our resistance to change usually stems from, we open ourselves up to the transformative Spirit of Christ. When we do this, we usually experience change within ourselves.

We often need guidance to learn how to prayerfully reflect on our resistance to change, but whenever we do this in a healthy way, individually or as a church community, it can be a tremendous opportunity to:

  • Increase awareness of our hierarchy of desires.
  • Increase awareness of God’s desires.
  • Value God’s desires above our personal preferences.

A positive attitude towards change is not optional for a healthy church. To be blunt, if a church doesn’t like change, it’s in the wrong “business” because the “family business” is change. God established the church to change lives and ultimately the world.

“Change is what we do” should be our official motto. The church is called to be God’s agent of change in the world, and this means being constantly changed ourselves. If we are not consistently being transformed, we are not fully participating in God’s work of renewing all that is wrong in the world, because that includes us.

Troy Watson (@TroyDWatson) is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.

For more on change see “The nature of change.”

Troy Watson

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I certainly agree that people don’t really resist all change. We all go through many changes in our lives willingly, mostly when we see the change as positive.

The one comment I would add is that most resistance to change is based on fear. Even Troy's example of having our salary doubled might be resisted by those consumed with fear. Consider this: “I’m getting double the pay. They are now going to want me to work twice as hard. I’m going to be away from home so much that my wife will likely leave me. My kids will despise me and the stress of work and a broken family will likely give me a heart attack. This raise is going to make me die alone!” Perhaps an exaggeration, but not always that far from how we sometimes perceive change when we don’t know what will happen and we fear the worst.

In our history what fears were expressed during discussions on divorce in the church, women in church leadership or other significant changes? Were we able to discuss our fears openly? How did we discern a change that allowed for God’s will to be lived and the faith community remaining strong? In our current discussion of LGBTQ people in our faith communities, it’s good to have a more open discussion, but I’m not sure we’re talking about our fears. What fears do we have about this? Are these fears related to our own spiritual journey or the journey of others? Are they real fears or have we built them up dramatically like thinking a 100% raise will make us die alone? When we fear, we can either find out as much information as we can to allay our fears or we can simply trust that it won’t be as bad as we thought. If we’re surrounded by a loving faith community, we all listen to the Holy Spirit and we make love for others a priority, we should be able manage any change. May it be so.

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