Seward United Methodist Church
Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Transforming Church- Reinvention

Numbers 13:25-33 and 2nd Corinthians 5:14-21

 The time has come to talk about one of the most frightening words in the English language.  Or at least one of the most frightening words in the Church.  And that word, of course, is change.  I know, scary!

 Not surprisingly, across the five areas of church health that we have been talking about over these past five weeks, American churches have consistently scored the lowest in their ability to change.  As the author of Transforming Church points out, American churches have a high degree of inertia.

 It’s been a few years since I was in high school physics class, and probably for you as well, but just to refresh our memories, we are talking about Isaac Newton’s first law:  An object at rest tends to stay at rest, and an object in motion tends to stay in motion, unless they are acted on by an outside force.  When we apply the law of inertia to the church, it is the tendency of a church either to stay where it is or to keep going in the direction it is already going.  The opposite of inertia is reinvention, which is defined as the ability of a church to change.  

 And of course at this point, many people laugh and say, “Churches can change!?”  Well, often it’s not that the people of the church are unwilling to change.  Rather it is the fear of what will be lost if change happens.  We church folks often have a rather disproportionate level of anxiety about change.  Maybe it’s because the church has been such a consistent part of Western society over the centuries that it tends to attract folks who are not inclined to change.  

 We are especially anxious about change if we feel that change is being imposed on us.  Several times in my career as a pastor, I’ve run into high levels of anxiety about “the Conference” coming in and forcing change on churches.  Several times I’ve had folks who were very worried that the Conference was going to come in and force a church to close or force it to merge with another church, or even that they would come in and take the church’s money.  None of those can even happen.  By our church Discipline, no one can force a congregation to close its doors or to merge with another church or to surrender its money.  But the anxiety of change being imposed is there.

 Fear often lead to paralysis.  When we are afraid, we get that deer in the headlights look and we just stay put.  And inertia, moving in a straight line, tends to lead

to complacency.  “Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing!  Everything will be fine if we just keep going!”  

 Churches tend to be the most resistant to change when things seem to be “going well.”  Maybe we’re not so different from the Israelites we heard about earlier while they were at Kadesh.  They were free from slavery.  They had been living unmolested for a year in the wilderness.  They were enjoying manna and quail every day.  And then God says, “Go on into the Promised Land.”  That means change!  Change that presented all kinds of new challenges and threats, “giants” and walled cities in the Promised Land.

 And the majority report comes back:  “We can’t do it.  It’s impossible!  Those people are too strong for us!”  The majority seldom chooses the risky way forward. They tend to choose the safe way.  But God doesn’t call his people to be safe.  God calls his people to trust him and to believe that by his power we can overcome any challenge or obstacle ahead of us.  

 Those who have looked into it have found that in the life of a church, or really for that matter, any organization, there is a rather predictable life cycle.  There’s even a name for it:  The Sigmoid Curve.  Don’t ask me where the name comes from.  First, there is a “birth,” the development of an idea.  Then there is growth.  After growth comes maturity.  And after maturity, decline.  In order for a church to avoid decline, when they are in that maturity phase, after they have experienced “success” and growth, they must choose reinvention.  They must choose to go back to the drawing board and reinvent themselves to stave off decline.  The problem is that the resistance to change is at its strongest at the point of maturity. That’s when people are most likely to say, “Why should we change a thing?  Things are going well.  Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing.”  

 I think most churches experience this at some point in their lives.  Things “go well” for a time.  The church grows.  As it grows, many people say, “We’re not going to change anything.  Everything is going well.  Don’t change a thing.”  And when that happens, it’s pretty much inevitable that a decline is going to follow.  St. Augustine said, “Habit, if is not resisted, soon becomes necessity.”  The “habits” that led to success become necessity.  Change becomes a dirty word.  The church stagnates.  And then decline happens.  

 Let’s talk about the realities of change.

 First, change is inevitable.  As some have said, the only thing that stays the same is change.  We can’t avoid change.  Even if we refuse to change, it happens anyway!  So it’s better to choose good change than allow bad change to happen by accident!  

 Second, change is necessary.  Without change, we can’t continue to be relevant to a changing world.  We have to be relevant.  If we are not relevant, how can we speak the truth to a world that needs to hear the truth? 

 And finally, change is painful.  Change is never easy.  Change always involves some kind of loss.  And change is typically a messy affair.  People get upset when change happens.  This is the reality that causes most churches to resist it so intensely. “We don’t want people to get upset.”  But if change is inevitable and change is necessary, painful or not, we should choose to make good changes.  

 We don’t want to change just for the sake of change.  That’s not productive.  We want to choose to make healthy changes, changes that help us to stay vital and relevant.  That’s the idea of reinvention.  Reinvention doesn’t mean just turning everything on its head for the sake of change.  Reinvention means going back to who we are to stay relevant and to continue to make a difference in the world.  Reinvention means changing so as to stay true to one’s identity, that is, their code.  Healthy churches are constantly going back to their code, to their essential identity and rediscovering it so that it can be applied in new and meaningful ways.  

 And I would argue that when we do this, we are following the example of God himself.  Does God change who he is?  No, he is eternal and unchanging, as the Bible teaches us.  But if God is eternal and unchanging, how can he say things like Isaiah 43:19:  “Behold, I am doing a new thing?”  If God is unchanging, how can he do something new?  

 The answer is that God doesn’t change who he is, but he does relate to the world in new ways, so that he can continue to be relevant.  As 2nd Corinthians 5 says, “Christ did not die so that everything would just stay the same!”  He died to bring a fundamental change in the world.  How God had related to the world in the Old Testament was no longer relevant to a changing world, so God did something new.  

 It’s the same for the church.  We shouldn’t change who we are.  But we should apply who we are in new ways.  Often, to preserve the church’s identity, it is necessary to eliminate outdated expressions of its identity that have ceased to be relevant and

have become empty symbols, devoid of life-changing power.  If what the church has always done just isn’t making a difference anymore, stop doing it.  Go back to who you are and find a new way to express your identity that will make a difference.  Unfortunately, churches have a habit of holding onto things that have become devoid of life-changing power.  “We’ve always done this, so we always have to do it.”  Even if it isn’t doing any good.

 Change is stressful, painful.  But the job of church leadership is not to eliminate the stress of change. Rather, the job of church leadership is to be like a thermostat, to regulate the stress of change.  Keep things warm enough that people will stick around, but cool enough that people will be a little uncomfortable.  We should encourage healthy conflict, healthy debate over competing values.  

 When it comes to change, the process of change is often much more important than the results.  It’s more important that we go through the process of change, that we talk about how to stay relevant to the world, than the specific change that comes out of the process.  

 And change often means failure.  It’s messy.  That’s another reason churches resist change.  What if we change and it doesn’t work?  We’d better not even try!  It’s true that not all changes “work.”  But if a church is unwilling to fail from time to time, then it will also never experience “success.”  

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