This post is part of an ongoing series about grappling with paradox, contradiction, and mystery as it relates to church leadership in today’s world. Find the rest of the series here: Introduction, Global & Local 1, Global & Local 2.
“So change has been the one constant, I guess. That, and Christ.”
– Carey Nieuwhof, reflecting on his career in church ministry
“Did children want sports cars for parents? No. They wanted Hondas. They wanted to know that the car would start in all seasons.”
– Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King
“Jesus also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good.”’”
– Luke 5:36-39
Here’s an old joke:
Q: How many Church of Christ elders does it take to change a light bulb?
My dad tells that one much better than I can type it. In our relatively short history, Churches of Christ have seen both courageous change and staunch change-avoidance. However, as a movement whose initial commitments included “restoring the ancient order of the New Testament,” we’ve certainly tended towards the latter.
Churches of Christ are not unique in this. All people have to manage the polarities of change and stability, and this is especially true when people get together in groups. Life is a dynamic experience. A life isn’t a fixed sort of thing. Because the experience of life is often unsettling, many of us long for predictability and stability. It’s normal and healthy to look for a place to set your feet down. Having no stability is to blow like the proverbial leaf on the wind.
However, there is an equal danger in becoming too entrenched in one’s ideas – thus the light bulb joke above. Not only is change inevitable, but change can also be very positive and even necessary for the promotion of life and vitality. Hospitals, personal computers, penicillin, books, agriculture – many of the good things in life that we enjoy and often take for granted came into being because someone or some group of people was courageous enough to bring about positive change. When my wife said “I do” on our wedding day, she was declaring a promise that would change both of our lives forever, and I’m so glad she did!
Change is not inherently positive. Change is not inherently negative. Sometimes it’s one or the other; sometimes it’s probably perfectly neutral!
Christian faith is centered on belief in a God who created and continues to create. The polarities of change and stability are embedded in the nature of God expressed in the Trinity – God is the transcendent one who exists outside of creation, the incarnate one who is subjected to the demands of time and space, and the mysterious Spirit moving within creation and making all things new. God’s movement toward the world brings about creative and positive change.
Part of the difficulty in managing change and stability in the church seems to be that we want the wrong things to be stable. For instance, we’d like Scripture to be stable. We’d like for it to be fixed, unchanging, timeless, and comprehensible. Instead, what we get is a complicated, multi-vocal testimony about a living God. Perhaps it’s true that Scripture remains unchanged while we ourselves are the ones who change around it. Either way, our experience with Scripture is much more like an ongoing conversation with a life-long friend and trusted guide than it is like reading a textbook and mastering the subject. The subject of Scripture is God. How could we ever presume to master God? There’s always more to learn and always more room for us to grow.
We’d also like church to be stable. We’d prefer it if church were like a safe and stable island amidst the swirling ocean of chaos and change in the world around us. We’d prefer to experience church as a calm, sandy oasis, in which we can sip our (virgin) Piña Coladas and look with pity upon the fools who ventured too deep into the dangerous waves of changing cultures and communities. This is, of course, an impossible fantasy. Because the church is people. And the church doesn’t exist apart from the world – it exists for the sake of the world. Like it or not, to belong to God’s church puts us in the middle of the dynamic, messy, unfolding relationship between Creator and creation.
We’d also prefer for people to be stable. Maybe I should qualify that – we’d like for other people to be stable. We’re typically quite content to forgive ourselves when we change, adapt, or grow. I’m generalizing here, but the human tendency to place others in categories is well documented. And when someone breaks character from the pre-determined category in which we’ve placed them, it can be unsettling.
One of my favorite Scriptures to reflect on when I think about managing the tension between change and stability is Psalm 1. This psalm describes two ways or roads. One is the way of the righteous and one is the way of the wicked. There’s a sense of movement to these images – the way or the road or the path – it’s all the same word. It seems to imply that growing in righteousness is a process that takes time. Transformation and change are two of the tools that create righteousness. Righteousness is more like the product of a journey with God than something you can instantly microwave into your soul or download into your heart. Likewise, to be a wicked person takes time. Both are a way that you walk upon – a road that you travel.
However, Psalm 1 offers two other images for righteousness and wickedness. The righteous are like “trees planted by streams of water” (v. 3). What’s more stable than a big, thick tree planted right next to a stream? It’s the image of stability. It’s an image of rest and rootedness and learning to drink deeply from the waters of life. This rootedness comes from ”delighting in the law of the Lord” and meditating on God’s law all day (v. 2).
On the other hand, the wicked are ”like chaff that the wind drives away” (v. 4). ”Chaff” is like the plant stuff that you throw away when you’re threshing grain. Can you imagine anything less stable? Less rooted?
The stability that the righteous experience in Psalm 1 doesn’t come from Scripture, church, or other people. All of those are products of culture. One of the consistent byproducts of culture is its ever-changing and evolving nature. The righteous person’s stability comes from being rooted in the eternal – the God to whom Scripture witnesses and reveals, the Lord whom the church confesses and worships, the Creator whose image people bear.
However you manage change, you cannot go backward. You can go forward and you can grow deeper and taller, but you can’t go backward. There is no moving backward. There is only moving forward. You can bring values and practices from the past into the present, but you’re still going forward. You can drink deeply from the source of life and grow strong and resilient, but you can’t go backward. Only forward. Walking trees. Rooted pilgrims drawn deeper in the heart of the mystery of the triune God.
The question for churches today is not “will you manage change?” but “how will you manage change?” And perhaps the bigger question, “How will you ground that change in the eternal nature of God?”
What do you think? How have you seen churches managing this tension well? What keeps churches nimble enough to address the shifts and changes in culture around us? What keeps churches rooted enough to ground change the nature of God? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Header image: Course-Baker, Robert. IMG_1760. August 1, 2014. Retrieved from flickr.com. Some rights reserved.
Ben has a passion for studying scripture, preaching, and prayer. His life’s work is leading others closer to God as he himself continues to grow. He earned a Masters of Divinity (2011) and a B.S. in Christian Ministry (2007), both from Abilene Christian University. Ben currently serves as the Senior Minister at the Meadowbrook Church of Christ in Jackson, MS. Ben is very thankful to the Churches of Christ, who have nurtured him in the faith and introduced him to Jesus. Ben and Laura – his wife, ministry partner, and best friend – have been married since December 2013.