By Dr. Terry Rials
May 13, 2015
I recently asked a group of friends at a pastors’ luncheon this question, “If you could go back to 1960, and remain at your present age, would you?”
Not a single person would do it; neither would I for that matter. Several of my friends pride themselves in their traditional ways too – still none of them would go back. We reflect with fondness to the good ‘ol days, but in reality, in many ways, they weren’t so good. I’m not that old, but I remember when there were just four channels on the television; I even remember my family’s first color set. I remember using a party telephone line (and I’m still convinced that our nosey neighbors were listening to our conversations). I certainly wouldn’t go back to those days. Would you? My great-grandparents used to drive their Model-A to town once a month for supplies. They would stop to patch their own flat tires on the side of the road and stop again later to refill the radiator with water. Today, we can make the same trip by automobile in under an hour with air conditioning and without stopping. I wouldn’t go back to those days, would you? We can certainly look with fondness at our religious past, especially in those times of God’s movement in our land.
Instead of wanting to go back, what if we decided to go forward? I am speaking about the direction of change. Modern Christianity has been known to ridicule the Amish for their resistance to change, thinking they are stuck in the past. To set the record straight, the Amish only resist change that threatens their simple, hard-working manner of living. I know a good number of Baptists who resist change with the same ferocity. Some people are stuck in the past, but some people are stuck in the present. Churches design complex ministries to meet needs that no longer exist by the time those ministries are initiated. Think of it this way – when you shoot at moving targets, you have to lead the targets in order to hit them. We can neither stay here, nor can we go back, we must press on. Paul had it correct when he declared, “…one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13 NASB). Where are the future thinkers in the church today? Where are our dreamers? They are not hard to find because they are some our most effective Christian leaders today. Many of them have figured this out!
The pace of change is something else the church will have to address. Things are changing and changing so quickly that people can hardly keep up. The youth in our culture handle the pace of change much easier than the older generation. Two-year-olds can work a computer mouse and fly with an iPad, while these can bewilder some adults! Perhaps nowhere is the pace of change more noticeable than in the family. One hundred years ago, a father could sit down with son and generally tell him what his life would be like in the future. Today, a father cannot tell his son what to expect in the next ten years. It’s impossible to accurately predict the future. For example, in the 1883 World’s Fair, a group of futurists attempted to predict what the world would look like 100 years in the future. They predicted that in the year 1993, there would be a telephone in every city in America! About the only solid prediction about the future of the church is that things are going to change and change a lot, even if the Lord returns!
We are seeing a grave resistance to change in the church. It is not surprising that we are resistant to change because we have fond memories and emotional attachments to wonderful times in our church life. All of us are used to our ways of doing things. We are accustomed to how things work and where our responsibilities lay. In their fascinating book, Flight of the Buffalo, James Belasco and Ralph Stayer look at a new business model where ownership and leadership of business transfers to the employees. They say, “Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have—and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up." Church leaders often ask me what they have to do in order to experience revitalization in their churches. I remind them that it isn’t what they do that is important; it is what they are willing to give up. In my opinion, the frustration of always having to learn new things is the chief complaint about change, but actually disciples are called to be learners, life-long learners. We should always be willing to learn something new!
The church needs to find a new motivation to change. It has been said that people change for two reasons, they have learned much or they have been hurt much. Put another way, change only occurs when we learn the consequences of our failure to change, or when we have had enough of the pain of staying the same. I do not enjoy visits to the dentist, but recently I had a problem that was so painful that I anxious to get to his office for treatment. The pain was excruciating and I wanted something to change. I totally understand why Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway was willing to remove his tooth with an ice skate! Look around you – the church is hurting; some 90% of churches are plateaued and declining. It is time to get motivated and change. I still encounter church leaders who are skeptical of even having a website for their church, a technology in its third decade of existence! I’m convinced we’ll not reach millennials without embracing the digital age because that’s how they communicate. Have you ever wondered why there are no stage coach dealerships in your town? It is because there is no demand for their product. Kodak declared bankruptcy after 128 years of operation. They once set the pace of innovation in industry, but they died because they were stuck in the 35mm film business in a digital world and refused to change. Successful businesses know that they must change to keep up with an ever-changing marketplace. They also know that they have to change faster than their competition. In case you haven’t noticed, the world is in competition with the church for the attention, time, and affection of you and your family. We had better embrace the change. Why can’t we beat the world to the punch?
Someone once told me that the greatest leaders in history were those who saw inevitable change coming and embraced that change quickly and capitalized on that change when it arrived. There are certain theological and moral limits to that concept for Christian leaders, to be sure, but the sentiment of that thought should resonate with us. I am willing to embrace the inevitable change coming to the church. I’m ready to help address the lostness of the first post-Christian era in American history. I ready to face the impending persecution that is coming to the New Testament church by the hostile forces of religion and culture (I think). I know this will be difficult with an ever-shrinking and aging population with fewer churches and fewer resources. The church had better embrace change because change is coming, of this I am certain.
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