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Editorial Paragraphs

 

Change

 

Rev. John Westendorp


Recently I spent some leisure time pasting last summer’s family photos into an album. Photos don’t belong in shoeboxes but in photo albums. In the middle of that exercise some new photos of our latest grandson arrived from Queensland. Amazing, how much the young fella has already changed in just three months!

A lack of change in an infant is a major cause for concern. Young mums fret if junior doesn’t put on weight quickly enough or if the first teeth are slow to appear. To remain static in life is a contradiction in terms. That came home to me forcefully when, in the process of tidying up the shoebox, I found a few old photos from ten years ago. That made me realise how much I too have changed.

In Scripture the changes in the physical life become an analogy for change in the spiritual life. Paul rebukes those in Corinth who are still spiritual infants. Scripture presupposes growth... and growth equals change. In that context resisting change is sin.

If all this is true why then do we often struggle so much with change? Let me mention three reasons.

 

1. Change for the sake of change.

More than ever, change has become an integral part of our culture. Folk my age still sat in school desks at primary school where inkwells were filled every morning and where pens with nibs and blotting paper were the means of taking down lessons. Since then we’ve had several generations do the same thing with ballpoint pens. Our present generation is beginning to tap out those lessons on laptop computers. My home entertainment as a lad consisted of listening to Tarzan on the evening radio. When I began courting my wife I was captivated by some of the first programs on the black and white television set of my future in-laws. Today we have colour television with surround sound – often with a wide program-choice via cable television. Our grandchildren belong to a generation that get their entertainment by ‘surfing the net’.

The point I am making is that in our Western society the rate of change has increased to the point where nothing surprises us anymore… where, in fact, we very quickly get bored if change does not happen quickly enough. That leads us very easily into a mentality of ‘change for the sake of change’. In my street I often see perfectly good furniture put out on the street for the Council garbage collection. I don’t know why it is put out but I suspect, from appearances, that the style is no longer so fashionable. Everything today has a use-by date. Our fast rate of change means we become bored so easily.

It is one thing to say that in the church change is necessary – and it is. But when change for its own sake is foisted upon us then it is understandable that folk dig in their heels. Allow me to give an example from the worshipping life of God’s people: our praise. In recent decades we have recognized that fresh translations of the psalms and modern settings of our hymns can make a fine contribution to the worship of God’s people. We’ve introduced some contemporary Christian songs and many of our folk have embraced the better ones of these modern offerings. But what has made this change more difficult for some is that in some instances it has become ‘change for its own sake’. After a few weeks of a certain song we are tired of it already and want to move on to another one. Change for it’s own sake happens in other areas too. Successful youth programs are jettisoned because “it’s been done before”. People leave one church for another simply because they “need to move on”.

Let’s have change by all means. But let’s guard against too quickly seeking change simply for the sake of change.

 

2. Comfort zones.

Change is not difficult in many areas of our life. When fashions in my teenage years dictated that iridescent coloured socks were in, I willingly changed to the new fashion. That wasn’t difficult. There are other areas in our lives though, where change is much harder to implement. I recall some ‘group dynamic’ workshops I attended as a young adult that highlighted my rather reserved nature and that challenged me to become more open and vulnerable. For a rather private person that was a threatening change – one that was much more difficult to make than a switch to iridescent socks.

The point is that change can become a problem for us because it impinges on our comfort zones. That means that our reactions to change are not always based on whether a particular change is a good one or not. Our responses to change are often gut-level reactions arising out of our personal comfort zones. For example: the idea of “passing the peace” or greeting your fellow pew sitters on a Sunday morning may be a worthwhile idea to implement. No doubt you could find good Biblical grounds for asking me to turn around and wish my fellow worshipper God’s blessing. But if I’m basically shy then introducing that change will threaten my personal comfort zones. Examples could be multiplied.

The writer of Ecclesiastes 7:10 may have had our personal comfort zones in mind when he wrote, “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” The more threatening we find change the more there will be a nostalgic longing for the good old days before they started introducing all these new-fangled ideas. Here those who are responsible for implementing change need to do so with much pastoral sensitivity and at a rate that allows people to overcome the barriers of their comfort zones. Change in the church has often been bulldozed through by the leadership – at the expense of much hurt and people leaving. The same change could have been implemented successfully over a longer period of time and with a more consultative approach.

 

3. Not all change is necessarily good

There is a great deal of talk in the church about change being necessary because of the massive changes in our culture. I can relate to that concern. I heard a third generation Aussie, of Greek descent, complain recently that if he wanted to understand everything that happened in the worship services of his church he would have to learn to speak Greek. In his Greek Orthodox Church the worship services were still predominantly in the Greek language. Here was an unwillingness to change in order to adapt to the contemporary culture. But this resistance to change resulted in a language barrier that hindered fellowship with God and His people.

However not all change is necessarily good – especially when the issue is the church adjusting to the contemporary culture.

We talk at great length about the church existing in a post-modern culture. It is true that there has been an immense shift in thinking in these last decades. It is important that the church understands that shift – from modernism with its certainty that truth could be proven scientifically to a post-modern view that we make our own forms of truth. But how far does the church need to change because of culture. There is a big difference between changing to communicate more effectively to our culture and changing in order to embrace the culture. In practice that can become a fine line easily crossed. If, in order to engage our culture, we allow the culture into the church, the result will be disastrous for the church. Someone once warned: he who marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widow in the next.

At this point of change in connection with culture, there are many instances where change in the church has not necessarily been for the better. When churches and synods increasingly adopt managerial models for ministry then the motivation for such changes may well be for us to more effectively reach our contemporary society with the gospel. Our society, after all is run at all levels by CEO’s, why then not also the church? We can then even carry out all sorts of reviews to see how effectively the changes are working and implement further changes to make our structures even more effective. However, all of that doesn’t get to the root of the problem – that the Biblical servant model has been replaced with a managerial model and while the managerial model may serve us well in our present society it may let us down badly when our society eventually reinvents itself.

 

Biblical Change

This is certainly no plea for the status quo to be maintained. Nor is this a polemic against change. It is, however, a plea for all change to be critically evaluated in the light of Scripture.

Ecclesiastes 7:10 certainly reminds us that it is not wise to resist change and look back nostalgically to the past. However the prophet Jeremiah also reminds us that there will be times when we need to hang on to the tried and trusted ways of the past. “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it.” (6:16).
 

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