Change is the point

It always amazes me — but never surprises me — when people object to the need for change within the church. Most often you encounter comments along the lines of, “We are already making so many changes, can’t we slow down a few changes?” It’s as if there’s a change quota that we are in danger of exceeding.

Of course, this is ridiculous. The whole point of the Gospel is change. Let me say that again. Change is the point. God changed choas into creation. On nearly every page of the Old Testament, we read about people who are changed by their encounter with God. Through Jesus Christ, God changes our world, bringing about our salvation. Jesus consistently asked people to change. The Holy Spirit changes hearts and lives. There are no saints of the status quo; nearly every saint is known for change. You get the idea.

Now granted, some things never change. God’s boundless love for us is eternal. The core faith of the church (e.g. “Christ is died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”) remains unchanged from the time of Jesus. We Christians have always gathered around a Holy Table to retell the sacred stories, to offer our prayers, and to feast on Christ’s presence in bread and wine. The message is the same, but the proclamation of it has changed much over 2,000 years.

The institutional church is particularly prone to getting all this wrong. Despite historical certainty which teaches us that change will not kill us, but will in fact make us stronger, we resist. In the present time, we are experiencing a particularly virulent strain of change-o-phobia. If we Anglicans don’t defeat that dreaded affliction, our branch of the Christian witness will wither. I suspect that the very threat which occasions our need for change is what pushes us to whistle past our potential graveyard as we seek to avoid change. In other words, our anxiety provokes us to cling to our present or to a mythical past.

I blame much of this on the I’m-OK-you’re-OK preaching of the last 30 years or so. If we’ve been told we’re OK, then we forget our need of change. That also means we’ve forgotten our need of salvation, by the way.

Finally, the Episcopal Church seems to be waking up. For the first time in the last few years, I was heartened by the reports coming out of an Executive Council meeting. (A couple of years ago, the big news was “We’ve changed the number of committees!” Sigh.)

Our Presiding Bishop is quoted in the ENS story saying, “we have, to some degree, left the culture of fear and entered into a culture of the future.” Wow. I hope she’s right. If we can stop being afraid, we can get more nimble — and try some things. If we’re not afraid, we’ll know that it’s OK to fail sometimes (and we can also admit that the status quo is not only foolish but unchristian).

The President of the House of Deputies also made some remarks that I found spot on.

The Episcopal Church, like most other denominations, is changing too slowly to meet the needs of young people, whose life experiences and values are very different from the generations that preceded them. To draw these young people into the church, we need to embrace change more nimbly and more creatively by undertaking a host of local initiatives and experiments, and then we need to pay attention to what works and do more of it.

I would only add that not the church is also changing too slowly to meet the real needs of all people, not just young people. But her point is right. She goes on to explore some ways we might need to rethink diocesan and churchwide ministry. (She mentions provinces as if they should continue to exist, a notion of which I am skeptical.) Anderson rightly points out that diocesan and churchwide structures and ministries exist to support local ministry. Let’s say that another way. The action happens in congregations. Too often diocesan staff members act as if congregations serve the diocese, and not the other way around.

Perhaps some recent experiments at combining diocesan and congregational ministry will overcome what is too often a pointless divide. Perhaps the financial crisis of many sectors in our church will force a rigorous examination of priorities and mission efficacy. While I am very compassionate toward those who have lost jobs, I think that redirecting resources away from dioceses and from 815 toward congregations is probably a better bet in the long run. (This is especially true if we can harness social media and other communication tools to share resources from one congregation to another.)

So let me say, three cheers for Executive Council. Please keep beating the drum of change. We need to hear that. We also need to see some substantive changes coming soon. Let’s make the next General Convention an opportunity to celebration the changes that are taking place, not merely an opportunity to launch studies or discuss the need for change. Let’s stop trying to minimize change.

It’s time to revel in change: change in our own lives, in our congregations, and in our Church. Change is the point.

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1 Response

  1. Jim Strader says:

    This may be a matter of nuance but I would suggest that the Church, especially The Episcopal Church is in need of transformation, not change. People change jobs. Organizations change leadership. Christ transforms lives and Christ’s apostles and disciples should be agents of transformation, not merely change. Transformation implies that something that no longer works or is outmoded will be allowed to fade away or even die so that God and God’s people may create something new, something life giving, something inspiring, Change for changes sake is akin to coming up with a new denominational evangelism program. Change for transformation’s sake might allow new wine to be served from new wine skins.