People are all for change – we just typically want everybody else to change but ourselves. Just say the word “change” in a church and you will get responses from some guy going apoplectic about not changing ‘on his watch’ to another person lamenting loudly over the lack of change within the congregation, to every response in-between. Peter Steinke, a respected church consultant who deftly applies systems-theory to congregations, has made the most basic of observations: “Change is a magnet for emotional reactions.”
Every church leader has inevitably run into an emotional buzzsaw when attempting some sort of change, whether minor or major. When people feel they are losing control or not getting what they want from a proposed change, they might try and throw a monkey wrench in the whole deal through some means of sabotage. Yes, it does happen in churches. People do not always play well or fair. There are individual parishioners who will go to almost any length to have things their way or keep an existing system entrenched. As a result, some pastors and leaders wither under the pressure, afraid of the emotional reactivity that might result from implementing some sort of change. But when we take up the mantle of leadership, like Nehemiah of old, we regulate ourselves to staying on task even when the naysayers and saboteurs look for a way to frustrate the vision (Nehemiah 6:1-15).
It must be kept in mind that every healthy living organism will grow, change, and reproduce. Churches that never change are unhealthy. At the least, they are just plain ineffective at ministry; at the worst, they become stagnant pools dispensing spiritual death. But good outcomes can and do happen as leaders take courage to address issues and implement change without abandoning the goal. The Apostle Paul stated the goal like this: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8-11).
Sometimes, we as church leaders do not immediately think like Paul. We desire a successful ministry, full of resurrection power, but neglect the bald reality that there must be suffering. You cannot have a resurrection without having a death. Paul embraced suffering and death as the means of attaining new life. It would be sage for us all to reflect on this and how it applies to our ministries. Change is typically a slow, often painful process, of dying to self and old ways and re-awakening to a new spiritual life of knowing Jesus Christ. In order to truly know Christ, we will experience difficulty. Our congregations are going to know Christ not by always having their way and/or never having to endure the hardship of change. No, they are going to know Christ through sharing in his sufferings.
Resistance to change will come. Bank on it. Plan for it. Anticipate it. It will happen. I have to admit that I am no expert in this area. I have made more mistakes and flubbed more ideas and attempts at ministry than you can possibly imagine. From the school of hard knocks, here is what I have learned: it takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to move an existing congregation to a new way of seeing and living; and, there needs to be a biblical goal in order to stay the course and realize transformation. I believe the best goal is to help people know Christ better, and introduce people who don’t know him to a new relationship with Jesus. All our strategic plans need to keep on track toward this grand pursuit of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.
So, what will you do to help move such a goal forward? How will you work together with others to achieve knowing Christ? In what ways will you deal with the inevitable resistance to change? What things do you need to put to death in order to realize new life? Where do faith, hope, and love fit into your plans for growth and change? Let’s all pray for one another, so that we come to maturity in Christ together, knowing Jesus better and living and loving like him in all things. So may it be. Amen.