Talkin’ ‘Bout Change

Preaching about the need for congregations to change and adapt to the changing culture that surrounds them is dangerous work.  On the one hand, it might go in one ear and out the other with no intermediary stoppage, leading a preacher to bouts of  (brace yourself for the Gratuitous Big Word of the Day, which I had to look up to make sure I was using it right) apoplexy.  On the other hand, people might listen and decide that we need to really talk about this.

Which is what happened yesterday, which is kind of cool.  And Dangerous.
Congregations talking about change is nothing new.  One of the many difficulties lies in the fact that, until it’s really too late, there isn’t much active pressure on either a congregation or a pastor to change.  We’re all used to doing things a certain way.  I’m as comfortable with that as anyone, so as a pastor it’s particularly hard to change, even if talking about change is easy.  Talking about change gives the appearance that I actually want change, which means that nobody can blame me down the road if things get rough.  Hey, don’t blame me – I’ve been telling you guys we need to change for years!  
Meaningful change is driven by a purpose or need.  Clearly articulating that need or purpose is the most critical aspect of engaging in change, I suspect.  If you don’t clearly (and honestly) identify the need or purpose for change, then the changes you come up with may not be the changes necessary to satisfy what you really wanted to do.  Cue the response – Hey, don’t blame me – I’ve been telling you guys we need to change for years!  
For congregations, the hidden assumption in most discussions of change is that what we really want most of all is to keep things the way they are.  Ironic, isn’t it?  We know we need to change, because we don’t have enough people here on Sunday mornings to pay the utilities or the mortgage or the pastor.  Evangelism becomes driven not by the genuine desire to share the Gospel with those who may not have heard it or experienced it yet, but rather as a means to keep things the way I like them.  
It’s not bad to like things a certain way and want to keep them away.  It’s deadly not to take this into account quickly in your discussions about change.  
Parishioners aren’t the only ones prone to this.  Pastors have been brought up and trained to perpetuate things being done in a certain way.  As added reinforcement, major denominations tie pension plans and medical insurance plans into membership.  Now if we make any major changes, there’s a personal risk to the pastor.  I might lose my pension.  I might have to find alternate health coverage.  I might have to pick up a side job to make ends meet.  So pastors are naturally shaped to talk about change without identifying the elephants in the room.  All of which leads to the cued response – Hey, don’t blame me – I’ve been telling you guys we need to change for years!  
For congregations with an older demographic the obvious answer is to go after young folks.  For many years and in many places this happened automatically.  Your kids and grandkids and greatgrandkids grew up in the church and moved into positions of leadership vacated by the older generation.  People had more kids on average, so congregations often enjoyed long and healthy lives because of these factors.  It’s natural to assume that this is the solution to a congregation’s issues – bring in young families who will grow the church biologically rather than through evangelism.
National trends and the clarion warnings regarding dramatically reduced church attendance and membership in younger generations reinforces these ideas.  We have to reach the young people – we have to figure out how to get them into the churches!  
I fear that more often than not, it isn’t only because we’re concerned about the eternal salvation of these folks, though I don’t doubt that this plays a role in the urgency.  The other urgency is that these are the people who will continue earning and tithing and supporting the congregation so that things remain mostly as they are.  
The problem is that for many folks under 40 or even 50, membership and attachment mean different things than they used to.  More shocking still, perhaps, is that many of those same folks don’t need a church to fulfill all of their social and relational needs.  They need to hear the Gospel.  They need the Sacraments.  But in terms of social activities?  Maybe they have better options already.  
And maybe this is a good thing.  Maybe this is a very good thing.
Not because Church as we have experienced it for the last 500 years at least (just speaking of Protestant churches) was wrong or bad.  It was and is good – very good!  For many people.  But culture has changed so radically in so short a time, that it isn’t drawing the younger people.  That isn’t an indictment of the Gospel or the Bible or the Christian tradition, it’s just that the central role that the congregation played in people’s lives is less and less important.  
Not that the Gospel or the Bible or Christian fellowship should be or can be less important – these are still central to our identity!  But the need for the traditional trappings of these things becomes more challenging when you don’t have people able (or willing) to maintain these things into the future.  Passing on the church buildings and the quilting clubs is not the same thing as passing on the faith.  
If we can discern these things carefully, I suspect that change becomes immediately more terrifying, but options may appear that just weren’t visible before.  Of course, I could be terribly wrong.  I have grown tired of reading whatever the latest best-selling book on leadership or church transformation is.  Until I hear about something that really seems to be working, I’m going to save my money and my time to try and focus on keeping the Gospel forefront for myself and the people I speak to.  Some people might consider that to be laziness.  I hope it’s not.  Lord knows I’m as good as anyone at painting my faults up as spiritual maturity.  
But I can’t shake the fact that the New Testament isn’t one long evangelism program.  It describes certain people who were evangelists, and it describes other people who weren’t.  And it insists on this terrifying and annoying thing – that the Holy Spirit is actually the one at work bringing people to where God wants them to be.  And where He wants them to be seems to be places where the Word and Sacraments are taken seriously as the most important things.  
And if I happen to be wrong about all of that just remember –  Hey, don’t blame me – I’ve been telling you guys we need to change for years!  

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