I reached for a bottle of my favorite shampoo and headed for checkout, reading the label as I went. “New formula, new bottle, with easy-open cap.”
While waiting in line, I felt something cold on my right leg. I glanced down to see a long strand of pink slime running down my pants leg. Well, they were right about the easy-open cap. When I got home, I discovered the new, taller bottle would not fit in my cabinet, and when I washed my hair, the shampoo left my hair feeling waxy. I dropped the bottle in the trash. Five dollars, wasted.
Anybody can change something, but improving it is another matter entirely.
More change has taken place in the world since I was born than in all of previous history—an absolute earthquake of change. We are all living on a fault line, wondering when the next tremor will occur.
With so much change imposed on us, maybe it’s a good idea to think twice before adding to the confusion.
When it comes to change, I’m flexible, as long as you don’t change anything without first asking some tough questions, like these:
Will This Change Really Make a Difference?
As the church minister, you decide to change all the clocks in the building to the latest fad: atomic clocks. Fine, but it’s still 9:00 all over the building. The only real change is to your bank balance.
The young preacher makes a radical change his first month on the job. He hauls out all that “archaic” church furniture—the pews, the Communion table, the pulpit. He paints the walls black, hangs a light bar, and installs a powerful sound system. What has he really accomplished, except to antagonize the mature members who are paying the bills?
My wife, Sharon, worked in public schools for many years, until her recent retirement. Her greatest frustration was that the principal would change methods of teaching reading every year or two. It took teachers a year to learn the new system, then he would change it again. Not surprisingly, reading scores did not go up, but blood pressures certainly did.
The principal would do better to settle on one of the many good methods of teaching we have known about for a hundred years, and let teachers focus on giving students personal attention, garnering parental support, and eliminating classroom interruptions.
So, before I change something, maybe I should be required to show how it will make a difference.
What Are the Side Effects of This Change?
Even good change can be disruptive and stressful.
The venerable Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale rates changes in your life by using a point system. Divorce, for example is 73 points of stress. Job loss is 47 points. If you accumulate 200 points in a year’s time, you are a candidate for mental or physical illness.
What’s interesting is good change is also stressful. Getting married is 50 points. Pregnancy is 40 points. Even taking a vacation is 13 points of stress.
A “change in church activities” is 19 points, about the same as moving to a new home. No small thing.
Someone should invent a “change meter” for churches, to keep track of personnel and procedural changes, so we don’t exceed our psychological limits.
“Beep! Beep! Beep! Warning! Your church has accumulated 200 points of stress. Please stop changing things now! Beep! Beep! Beep!”
Let’s say you decide to change the time of worship services by one hour. No big deal, right? Yet that one change can impact people who have to arrange rides or babysitters. In rural areas, it can affect milking times and breakfast times. It might increase the amount of traffic you face when driving to church. It may force you to attend a different worship hour or a different Sunday school class, one you don’t like where you have no friends.
Leaders should anticipate these side effects and give members ample time to prepare for such alterations of their lives.
Changes in technology have made life both easier and more difficult. My wife is church librarian. She often needs to contact members about overdue books.
“Trouble is,” she says, “people don’t freely give out their cell phone numbers or e-mail addresses.”
Some members can be reached only on Facebook. Young people may only tweet. The proliferation of devices and message services, like WhatsApp and Snapchat, have made it almost impossible for her to reach some members. Technology that was supposed to increase communication has, in some ways, isolated us from each other.
Is This Change Compulsory or Consensual?
It can be both at the same time, but consent is vital to success.
Just because you have the authority or power to change something, doesn’t mean you can do it without repercussions.
“Public sentiment is everything,” Abe Lincoln argued. He reminded us that laws do not change hearts.
How do you build consensus? By listening. Take a congregational survey about your proposed change. Interview key members. Have an open-door policy or a hotline for members to air their questions. And don’t just listen to young people. Ancient Rehoboam tried that, with disastrous results. The elderly need to be consulted, too. They have influence and friends whose support you will need. They know the history of the church, and many of them have money and energy to contribute, if you include them in the process.
Above all, leaders need to be honest. People don’t like to be tricked or manipulated. They will resent it. I know a young preacher who surveyed his members about changing from hymnbooks to projected visuals. What they didn’t know is that he had already purchased the projectors and software for the change. Such “cleverness” deserves to backfire.
Is This Change Doctrinally Accurate?
Bible doctrine is not our plaything, and the Scriptures give serious warnings to those who would tamper with truth.
Most church administrative decisions are probably in the realm of opinion, rather than doctrinal. Yet even small changes can alter directions, like the small rudder of a large ship. Changing to liberal Sunday school curriculum or an edgy Bible translation, for example, can shift patterns of thinking and beliefs.
In my lifetime I have watched a number of our churches drift into liberalism by a series of baby steps. No single one of those decisions could be labeled “evil,” but added together they brought about a sea of change, until the church was no longer recognizable as a New Testament church.
Likewise, some of our Bible colleges in times past slowly morphed into secular universities, as if we needed another such university in this country.
One reason some older members are wary of new worship songs and styles is because they know the arts have always been a port-of-entry for doctrine and philosophies. The arts are subtle and seductive. If I wanted to corrupt a church, I would start by writing the songs they sing. The arts need to be watched as closely as the choice of ministers or small group leaders.
“Change is the only constant,” the saying goes, but that’s a half-truth. Good things hang on for a long time, like the wooden pencil I am using to write this article; it was invented about 450 years ago after a large graphite deposit was discovered in Borrowdale, England.
Even when good things disappear, they often come back with a roar.
I am writing this article on Christmas Eve day. I just returned from the mall, where I was surprised to see one of the hottest Christmas items this year is the old record player and vinyl records. Turns out CDs don’t capture all the nuance of the old records, so today’s artists are coming out with vinyl versions of their new releases.
Well, I still have the record player I bought many years ago. It sits right here beside my computer. I love the scratchy sound of the needle, the rhythm of the slowly revolving record, and the velvety voice of Frank Sinatra accompanied by violins.
When it comes to change, I am flexible.
But don’t try to take away my record player!
Daniel Schantz is professor emeritus at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri.