Positive Change is Possible
How can congregations bring about positive change while simultaneously maintaining unity? This question has been on my mind a lot recently, so I've been trying to come up with a systematic way to deal with sensitive subjects, traditions, and genuinely positive changes. Obviously there is not one answer because every congregation is different, but I wanted to create a general guideline that is primarily for me but may give you some ideas as well.
In the course of my studies on this topic, I've met with several ministers who have dedicated their lives to following Jesus, and, in the process, they have been able to bring positive change to literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people within their communities and beyond.
How do they do it? How are they so successful?
Well, the truth is, it is somewhat of a numbers game. While they have helped many, it is equally true that they made a lot of enemies along the way; however, their efforts have been, in my estimation, overwhelmingly successful. I believe we can learn from their experiences and apply their Biblical methods of bringing about positive change to our own congregations.
So, I've created a flow chart of sorts that has come from these various interviews, conversations, and my own observations in Scripture and the world around me. This flow chart works for me, but you may have to define some terms differently, add a branch, or even remove a branch.
Is it scriptural? Will this offend someone's conscience? Is it helpful to all? If it's not helpful to all, can others be accommodated? Is it feasible?
Before walking through a few examples of how I might follow this chart, let me spend a few minutes defining some terms.
Is it scriptural?
Someone might disagree with this question because of the ambiguity of the word “scriptural.” What is “scriptural” to me may not be “scriptural” to you because we might use different methods of interpretation, have different views of ascertaining Bible authority, or any number of factors that might contribute to our varying understandings. I know how I would define “scriptural,” so I have no problem leaving the question as is, and it also accommodates those who do not define scriptural my way. Were I ever to implement this system in a congregation, it would require more work. Even then, however, it would need to be tailored to that specific church.
So, what do I mean by scriptural? I mean that it does not violate any clear teaching of the Bible. Whatever change is under consideration will need to be in line with the fruit of the spirit and, most of all, love. I do not mean that there is a pattern of worship laid out in the New Testament that we must follow each Sunday. Dallas Burdette's article “Oddities in Pattern Theology” discusses the many pitfalls of the pattern theology that we have inherited from our puritan ancestors.
If something in not scriptural, then it should never be implemented. Since we do view the Bible differently, that may seem harsh, but keep in mind that this may vary from congregation to congregation. It also doesn't mean “never” in the sense that the change should never be implemented; instead, it is saying that as long as the consensus is that it is against God's will in some way, it shouldn't.
One day in reevaluating the issue, that conclusion may change.
Will this offend someone's conscience?
Just because something is “scriptural” or “lawful” (as Paul uses the term), does not mean that the change should be implemented instantly. For example, Paul told the church at Corinth that women could pray and prophesy with their head covered, but he told Timothy, who was at Ephesus, that women should keep silent. These two texts are only a contradiction if one is working form a “pattern theology” perspective. But since Paul was not creating a pattern for the church to follow in a so-called worship service, the differences between 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy have to do with the specific situation at that time.
Rachel Held Evans, who was totally in favor of women taking an active role in the church, had this to say:
So in considering the writings of Paul, the question is not, Are head coverings good or bad? The question is, in that context, Did head coverings help or hurt the advancement of the gospel and the preservation of unity?
The question is not, Should Christians eat meat? but rather, in that context, Did eating meat help or hurt the advancement of the gospel and the preservation of unity? And as we consider the application of Paul's teachings in our various contexts today, the question is not, Should women be allowed to preach? but Do women preachers help or hurt the advancement of the gospel and the preservation of unity? Paul was smart enough to know the answers to these questions would vary from church to church and person to person, so surely he was smart enough to also know they would vary from culture to culture and century to century.(Inspired, page 214)
In other words, a change may be perfectly fine, but there might be those who are accustomed to another way, and if the change isn't absolutely necessary, then the congregation should get together, talk about the change, and figure out together what ought to be done. I'll speak more to this later.
Is it helpful to all?
Some changes may be desired by a few people in a congregation. Other times, the whole church may want some kind of change. In the former situation when all are not wanting a change, the church needs to see if everyone can be accommodated in some way if it is going to lead to division. Again, if the change is necessary, then it may be required to proceed, but if it's possible, then care should be taken to maintain unity.
Is it feasible?
I'd love to have a full gymnasium, but I think the person over finances would have a heart attack if I said that, and I prefer to keep her around for as long as possible! Some things you would like to do in a perfect world, but it just isn't possible. A group in the 1700s could probably have used a praise team, but that was obviously not possible without the technology available to us today!
Let me show how I might handle a potential change using this flow chart.
When I first arrived to the North Broad Church where I am now a minister, one of the first things I noticed is that they have a praise team (four mic'd singers who sit in the audience – one for each part). I had never participated in a worship service with a praise team until that first Sunday.
Here's how I processed it:
- Is it scriptural? I didn't see why it wouldn't be. A song leader picks out the songs and leads them for the congregation. His job is to pitch the song correctly, maintain the tempo, and pick out effective songs. A praise team simply supplements that.
- Will this offend someone's conscience? Apparently not at this congregation.
- Is it helpful to all? In this case, I believe it is helpful to everyone. Those who do not know the songs, like myself, were able to listen in to our part, read the music, and pick up the song fairly quickly. It also helped maintain the key and the tempo, which, when not maintained, can become a distraction.
- Is it feasible? Yes. The microphones are already owned by the congregation and it is not costing the church any more money other than the occasional AA battery.
While using a praise team has always been scriptural, it has not always been expedient. There may have been some in the past who would have gotten offended because they weren't simply used to it. While changes shouldn't be implemented that offend someone's conscience, unless they are an absolute necessity, what might a congregation do to eventually implement that change when it is appropriate?
I think the answer lies in how we typically think of the assembly. Typically, we sing a few songs, take communion, listen to a sermon for 20-30 minutes, say a prayer, and then we go home.
Making Decisions as a Congregation
In this setting, a congregation will remain stagnant, or any changes will take place extremely slowly, possibly taking several generations. Why? Because the only person doing any interpreting of the Bible, voicing their views, and presenting ideas in the assembly is the preacher! He holds the congregation hostage and typically nobody speaks during his sermon.
While it is true that there are Bible classes offered several times a week, it's also true that these are not as well attended as the Sunday assembly, so it is inevitable that these individuals would be left out of the only time during the week in which discussion can take place, and they are just as much a part of the flock as those who are there whenever the doors are open.
In order for a congregation to implement positive changes while maintaining unity, the job of interpretation and decision making falls on the entire congregation, not just a few men and women. They must come together regularly to discuss the Bible, workshop ideas, be patient with disagreements, and be honest with one another. While some, if not most, decisions can be made by a few people, some decisions need the input of everyone, especially if they are used to a certain thing. This may not be true in some fellowships, but for those of us who grew up in a “pattern theology” kind of environment, it is essential.
Three Key Principles
Thinking of these ministers I mentioned earlier, here are three principles that one must understand in order for this system to work: (1) our unity is based in our common faith in Jesus and love for each other, (2) disagreements will come, so we must be patient with each other, and (3) we must be open and honest about our convictions, opinions, and ideas while we study the Bible together.
When I say that we should love one another, I mean in the sense Jesus talked about: as He has loves us. In other words, it is the self-sacrificial love that Jesus showed through dying on the cross. If we have that kind of love for each other, the flow chart would never make it past the question of conscience if a situation arose where someone's conscience would be offended.
Paul said that he loves his brothers and sisters in Christ so much that he would eat vegetables only if it meant keeping them from stumbling. While all things were lawful, not all things were expedient (1 Corinthians 6:12). That's the attitude we ought to have. If we say, “Come on and change! We agree it isn't inherently wrong, so it shouldn't be a big deal,” then we need to realize that if it isn't a big deal for them to change, it shouldn't be a big deal for us to not implement the change. If it's not a big deal for the other person, then it shouldn't be a big deal for you.
That leads to points two and three: if we have that kind of love while remembering that our unity is found in common faith in Christ, then there isn't any disagreement that could come between us. Paul would not have told the Ephesians that they needed to be tolerant, patient, and endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit had there not been a potential for disagreements. Why is it any different for us today?
When we have this philosophy, we can study the Bible and be honest with each other. We don't have to worry about being judged or looked down on for our views, questions, or ideas. We can voice them, discuss them together, and walk away as brothers and sisters in Christ. This way, the entire congregation grows together.
Yes, this would take time. No, we wouldn't be perfect in following these guidelines, but that's where the patience, the tolerance, and the bearing with one another comes in. In fact, even these guidelines may need to be reevaluated regularly!
The point is that if we want to grow as a body of believers, it will take effort and a lot of patience and humility. Peter commended those who were always abounding in the Christian virtues discussed in 2 Peter 1. We do that as a congregation through growing in grace and knowledge together, not on our own.
In the next article, I want to talk about the illusion that positive change = quality church growth.