Thursday, July 07, 2022

The Change Is Gonna Do Us Good

Where is Kodak these days? Remember that company? It used to have its name on most of the cameras and film that you saw around. Kodak was an empire, an institution. Now where is it?

And how about Blockbuster Video? Seen any of those stores around lately? They used to be on every corner.

Laura Ashley clothing? Napster music service?

Hmmm. Something in common: all were massively successful operations at one time, but all failed at one common task: management of change. The world was changing, but in one way or another each of these companies had become inflexible. Procedures which had worked for them for a long time and which had made them very successful under different social conditions were just too hard to abandon.

Eventually, captain and crew went down with the ship.

Change came. They didn’t react. It continued. They still didn’t react. And when they finally did, they reacted too slowly, adjusted too little, and stayed in their well-worn grooves too long. Then it was too late.

Maybe they thought they were different. Maybe they thought change could only ever be temporary, and a name like theirs was bound to endure. But they were simply wrong.

We’re Different, Though

Thank the Lord that cannot happen to the church.

Well, it cannot happen to the church universal, anyway. But the troubling thought is that it’s actually no kind of guarantee it cannot happen to the local church. The Lord will always have a church — but that doesn’t mean it will always include yours or mine. The Head of the Church promises to “remove the candlestick” of any church that fails significantly to honor his name. And this fact puts us on the alert that the local church is never safe to take its status for granted. Instead, we need to examine ourselves to see where we stand.

What? Change?

Now, the very idea of change alarms some people. They think it’s the opposite of faithfulness. They think it is a synonym for modernization, compromise, or losing one’s way. And sometimes they’re quite right. They correctly point out that the Lord never changes nor does his truth. And those things are also true.

But we change. Times change. Our societies change. Our circumstances change. And the challenges of being a Christian change in each new generation. And if the older generations, in their passing through, do not convey truth to the coming generations, then it takes only a few years and the entire legacy of learned truth is lost.

But faithfulness takes more than passing on the wisdom of previous generations: it means equipping the younger generation to triumph in their own circumstances and in the face of the historical challenges particular to their own experiences. Truth stands forever; but it stands in the form of nothing more than quaint theory if it is not applied afresh. It must become practice — new, insightful practice — in each generation.

Do I really need to make a case for that? You’d think not. But it’s amazing how wedded we can become to our traditions, forms and personal experiences. We think everything in our age that has proved relevant and useful to us ought to be relevant and useful forever. But some of it is, and much of it isn’t. And in our inclination to defend our own cherished habits and patterns, we must be careful we do not deny younger people the freedom to discover truth in their day.

Managing Change

As the old saying goes, “Change is inevitable, except from vending machines.” Change comes, whether we like it or not. And given that fact, it can come in one of two ways: it can come managed or it can come unmanaged. But it will come.

When change happens but no one responds, a “Kodak” situation ensues. The local church goes on operating as though there were no reason to change. It observes the same ceremonies, keeps the same routines, employs the same language, sings the same hymns, and preaches the same old messages. Outside the doors, though, society is shifting and moving. New challenges are appearing. Cultural demographics are morphing. New realities of work and leisure are emerging. Political dynamics are altering. New technologies are being invented, new entertainments are being generated, new patterns of socialization are forming … and the same people who walk in the front doors of the chapel on Sunday live amid these new realities every day.

When they go to meet with the church, however, they find an increasing distance between their real-life experience and their spiritual activities. More and more, they can see no connection between the world they know on a daily basis and the increasingly foreign and archaic patterns of their congregations. As this gap widens, frustration sets in. After all, is not faith supposed to be lived out? Does the Bible offer the ordinary person no help in living in such complicated and frightening circumstances? Indeed, they may wonder if their “religion” could even survive the cold winds of the world at all.

Christian Re-Enactors

Increasingly, they disconnect their real lives from their faith beliefs. Churches turn into museums of quaint religiosity, and the people in them become re-enactors — you know, those strange folks who think it’s fun to dress up like Napoleon or General Grant and reproduce the battles of yore in some farmer’s field. Like them, the Christians become re-enactors of 19th century English faith, using the language, customs and attitudes of their forebears; and on Monday, they turn back into Joe and Jane average-Christian, and behave entirely differently.

But change still comes. Even if local churches persist in the old ways, change comes. Eventually the disconnect between daily life and “Christian” life becomes so great that ordinary Christians simply cannot go on. No one understands the hymns anymore. The preaching doesn’t seem to reach anyone. Worship becomes aimless and meandering. And faith starts to look intolerably implausible.

Unmanaged Change

At some point, 19th century faith will have to become 21st century faith. And when the crisis point is reached, the danger is that change will come in wholesale and uncontested. In a very short time, everything is being modernized, and none of it in a reflective or scripturally-discerning way. The church goes from singing “Thou Art the Everlasting Word” to “Holy Spirit, Fall On Me” in no time at all. And there isn’t anyone in the congregation who knows enough about the doctrine of the Spirit — or who has the nerve to speak up if he does — to realize that for Christians to sing as though the Spirit were not a permanent resident of the Christian is bad doctrine and wildly inappropriate practice.

This is what is called unprincipled change: and it is the inevitable result when a local church refuses to address itself to the process of discerning and applying the Word to new circumstances. Everything ends up changing all at once and changes in an uncontrolled way. After that, it’s anyone’s guess where that church will end up.

Principled and Unprincipled Change

The alternative to unprincipled change is, of course, principled change. We cannot manage change by ignoring it; but we can make judicious, reasoned, scripturally-discerning and Spirit-led judgments about what changes are to be accepted and what is to be resisted.

Change can become “chance” with the alteration of one letter. Likewise, change in the church can become an opportunity for reinvigoration of the faith. The difference is this: is the change coming in an ongoing, monitored, intentional way, at the initiation of godly leaders determined to respond to new challenges under God, or is it just coming suddenly, because we’ve put it off so long we’ve now got a crisis?

We need to think about it this way: if we are going to remain in good standing with the Head of the Church, it is inevitable that from time to time we’re going to need to make changes. Churches that don’t change soon fall from faithfulness to apathy, and from purity to corruption, failing to “do the deeds they did at first”, and “leaving their first love” for something else. We don’t want to be like that.

Managed Change

What determines whether change becomes helpful or destructive is often not the change itself, but the management of that change.

In other words, it’s not whether you change; it’s how.

You can change and improve things or change and destroy things: but refusal to change, as Kodak and others have discovered, is a guarantee of death. On the other hand, I don’t propose to tell you WHAT to change, but HOW to change. What changes need to be made, I’m quite happy to leave up to you. I don’t know what kind of local church you’re in … how strong scripturally, how devoted practically, how forward-looking or backward-longing, or what you might need to change next: all that I leave entirely up to you.

Next Wednesday I’ll lay out a few principles for how to make change happen without blowing everything up.

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