How to View Change in the Church

Dennis McCallum

In 1992 and 1993 Dwell underwent massive structural change instituted by the elders in response to an array of problems confronting the church. Their task force spent more than six months studying and re-thinking organization of the church before delivering their recommendations. When they rolled out their new plan the church went into an uproar that eventually ended in a large division. Dennis McCallum, then senior pastor, wrote this essay to answer challenges to the new agenda.



Do we "hafta"?

When local churches face large scale change, members often feel upset. Why do we have to change the way we do things? I thought the changes last year were supposed to have so many answers! How many times does this make? How many more of these upheavals will we have to endure? These are some of the feelings that unavoidably come up when major changes in direction are presented to the church.

What is wrong when local leadership keeps finding it necessary to call for new changes when they just got through asking for other changes? The question becomes even more urgent when those leaders have made provable errors in judgment that even they have admitted! It's easy to reach the conclusion that somebody needs to say, "Enough!" before the church is led on another goose-chase.

A biblical and godly response to these issues must include several points.

Problems with the Established Church

Let us consider the criticisms that many of us have raised against the church in the modern West. To distill most of the objectionable features in the traditional evangelical church today, I would suggest that the central problem with the church's way of doing ministry is its refusal to change. So many of us have been mystified by strange and out-of-date practices in the modern church. Ancient music, strange seats, stained glass, a language people can't understand, and robes dating back to Reformation times all scream, "No change!" These features don't seem to do the church any good in accomplishing its mission. They may alienate and confuse the unchurched. Culture rolls forward but in the church the anthem is the same, "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be..."

Unfortunately, in the Liberal church, even the doctrines of the Bible are allowed to change. Even then, they often refuse change in structural and cultural areas. This is the worst-case scenario -- changing things we should never change but holding fast to the things we should be willing to change.

Biblical Example

It is instructive to look at scripture. The book of Acts documents the struggle between the Holy Spirit and humans running the church. Repeatedly, God tried to move out to reach the oceans of lost people outside the church's enclaves. But he was met by hyper-conservative foot-dragging Christian believers who were unwilling to change. Acts 10 and 11 document some of the clearest passages on this unfortunate tendency. Luke goes to great lengths to demonstrate that God practically had to thrash Peter into preaching to Cornelius and his household. Three times Peter answered God's command with the odd and self-contradictory rebuttal, "No, never Lord." What provoked such a spirit of resistance in Peter? God was calling him to change.

Once Peter finally obeyed, his charming greeting to his eager audience was "You know it is not lawful for a Jew to enter a gentile's house." (Acts 10:28) Notice Peter, like most traditionalists, had lost track of what was biblically lawful and what came from his misguided, selfish tradition. The Old Testament never said Jews couldn't enter Gentile homes, and countless Gentiles may have been deprived of biblical witness because of this preposterous tradition.

Nevertheless, he carried out his mission and the entire household was converted. Afterward, the brothers in Jerusalem accused Peter of sin for visiting a Gentile. A long, seven point defense follows in Acts 11, including a complete repetition of his initial vision and citations of scripture and the words of Christ. Luke is again at pains to indicate how difficult this transition was.

Eventually, even these stubborn ones were convinced. "So then," they admitted, "God has granted even the Gentiles repentance leading to life." (Acts 11:18) But it is impossible to mistake the irony of the very next verse, "those who had been scattered... traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cypress, and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews." What a shocking statement! Is it possible that even after such a convincing episode, they still had not changed? Yes! Only a few radicals were nutty enough to preach to Gentiles, and they wound up in the city of Antioch. Soon the center of God's activity shifted from Jerusalem (still mired in the old methods, according to Acts 21) to Antioch because workers there were more willing to change.

Jesus warned that old wineskins become rigid and brittle. They will not flex enough to contain his new wine. He also added the comment, "And no one, after drinking the old wine wants the new, for they say, 'The old is better'." (Luke 5:39)

Application to today

God has a terrible time convincing even his true followers that change is an essential and never-ending need in the church. What is wrong with leaders who call for change all the time? Nothing at all! There will never be a time when substantial and even sweeping changes will not be necessary. When we feel dismayed by leaders perennially calling for change we are subconsciously thinking, "If we made the right decisions in the first place, we wouldn't have to change." But this simply isn't true. No decision is so correct that it removes the need for subsequent change. With culture and church membership constantly changing, what was right one decade will likely be wrong the next decade.

A church that cannot change, even in deep ways, has erected an idol that offends the character of God. Jesus said, "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!" (Mark 7:9) In our fleshly efforts to control our environment - to derive a false sense of security from the sameness of our surroundings - we have put our personal comfort ahead of the needs of lost people. God is not pleased, and he will move on to find another group  willing to change to do his bidding.

Difficulties Caused by Change

But how can we justify a leadership who have called for changes that led to trouble, or were downright mistaken? To this, I answer that change will always lead to errors and problems from time to time. The severity of the problems must be weighed over time when evaluating the wisdom of given leaders. However, anyone who wants an error-proof system is also insisting on a change-proof system. But as soon as we refuse to take chances, we are also refusing to follow God.

As a Christian leader, I have had the experience of leading people off in the wrong direction on a number of occasions. On others, the direction I set was good, but there were attendant problems that I had not anticipated. The realization that people get hurt and time is wasted because I called for the wrong thing is part of the sometimes sickening burden of leadership. However, I will continue to insist on forward movement and change as long as the responsibility of leadership lies upon me. The menace of not changing, even in the face of ineffectiveness is worse than anything we will face as the result of carefully considered change.

Howard Hendricks has written an interesting article called "Good Reasons for Doing Nothing." Among his list of reasons and his answers:
  • The proposal would set a precedent! 
    – But, no one has yet figured out how to change without setting precedents.
  • There is no precedent to guide us! 
    – How anything ever gets started must remain a mystery to all those who use this objection.
  • We haven't proved the old method can't be made to work. Anyway, how do we know whether the new one can? 
    – But there can never be proof that something that doesn't even exist works. Do we have to wait until there is absolutely no hope of using the old method at all? If so, we would have trouble getting anyone to change from the traditional church model.
  • The time is not ripe. Teachers, parents, or the public aren't ready for it. We don't have all the facts. 
    – These and others are the "good reasons" for doing nothing - the one thing we dare not do!

As we move forward into a new way of doing ministry and community, no one is suggesting we shouldn't feel nervous. Certainly, we must be vigilant. But we must also change - and after all the nuisance of this change, no doubt God will call us to change yet again.