Discerning Mission

Missional Lab

Missional Lab: How to Help People (Like Me) Who Hate Change

By Kristin Eisele

When I was seven years old my parents brought home a new set of dishes. It was awful. It was change. I cried. When we changed cars, when I had to get a new winter coat, when my favorite television program was canceled, I cried. Imagine my enthusiasm at the change required of the church in this era.

And yet, I really do want to be a part of what God is up to. Reflecting on my resistance to change along with my desire to be a part of God’s mission, I began to identify specific phrases, patterns, and characteristics that irked me about this missional movement. Here are a few suggestions, in no particular order, for ways to get people like me, people who can hardly stomach the idea of change, on board with being transformed for mission. (Yes, it can be done!)

1. Remind me that change can be a good thing by giving me very specific examples.

Simply offering the phrase “Remember, Kristen, change can be a good thing,” would definitely not endear me to you or your cause. Change, as an abstract concept, is a threatening thing. Offer a concrete, positive example, especially an example that applies to my life. “Jesus didn’t stay dead! That was a good change!” “You grew out of wearing giant bows in your hair; that was a really good change!”

2. Help me understand why transformation is needed.

Sobering statistics can help with this, such as the reality that mainline denomination churches have lost nearly 20 percent of their members over the last 40 years. However, those statistics can also be paralyzing. Tell me that you believe that “all the redemptive power of God is already present in the world and is at work in and through the church,” like Craig Van Gelder said in his book The Ministry of the Missional Church. Remind me that the goal of transformation is to be able to let that power work through us. Show me how the proposed change will help accomplish this.

3. Include me in the process.

One of the most encouraging conversations I’ve had in the last year was with a pastor of a church in South Dakota. The church has a number of wonderful qualities, including an amazing willingness to try new things. I asked the pastor why she thought this was the case, and she gave several reasons. One, she clarified that the congregation is “really open to doing things if they know what’s going on” so she is “deliberate about communicating: ‘this is what we’re talking about, what do you think?’” Two, the church firmly believes that “everyone belongs. There are some odd ducks but everyone belongs and we’re all in this village together.” When a decision needs to be made, everyone gets to have their say. If some don’t agree with the final decision reached they know they “aren’t going to agree on everything but we can still be church together.”

4. Once the change is implemented, include me in whatever new thing has been set up.

I know, I know, I probably just told you that I refuse to participate, but be patient with me. Ask me to write out my thoughts about why the change makes me nervous. Ask if there is some part of the change that I could accept, even work to integrate. For example, if you want to overhaul the Sunday School curriculum, and I’ve been a Sunday School teacher for ten years, tell me you value my experience. Ask if I would be willing to plan an activity each week or read the Bible story. Help me to see that while the format might be different and the goal might shift from teaching Bible stories and doctrine to forming disciples, the overarching idea is the same: engaging young people in the faith.

And along those lines…

5. Place the change within the bigger picture.

You’re cutting the bi-monthly Explorer’s dinner?! But that’s for visitors who are interested in joining the church! We’ve always had that! (No matter that not a single visitor has shown up in the last five years…) Tell me that you’re grateful for my concern in wanting to have a space for new people to explore the church. Explain that this is still the goal; we’re just going to try some new approaches to it. Welcoming people is still a part of the church’s story. We’re just “learning to tell this story in fresh ways" (Van Gelder, 145). Help me see that the change is in keeping with the narrative I’ve learned and is simply an answer to the question, “what is the chapter we are presently in or the next chapter the Spirit is leading us into?” (Van Gelder). Same book, just a new chapter.

6. Sign me up for Change Haters Anonymous.

If only this group existed.

7. Bring the Holy Spirit into the conversation.

Part of my issue with change is when it feels arbitrary. If the church has discerned a need for change as a result of prayer, I’ll feel more secure. Better yet, include me in the discernment process. Ask me to pray about it. Remind me that if we’re trying to make changes to more fully participate in God’s mission for the world, then the Spirit must be a part of figuring out what those changes should be. As Craig Van Gelder asserts, “Developing a Spirit-led process for discernment and decision making and bringing this into the practices of leading in mission in a congregation are complex but essential tasks.”

And speaking of the Holy Spirit…

8. Let me take it slowly.

As the change is instituted, don’t pressure me to “get in or get out.” Let me watch it unfold and see the impact it makes. Allow the Holy Spirit to work in me at the Spirit’s pace. As the pastor of the church in South Dakota says, “the Holy Spirit pushes and pulls and prods through all of it.”

9. Be compassionate.

Admit that you aren’t always thrilled with change either. Tell me I’m not the only one who is resistant to change, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. As Martha Grace Reese says in Unbinding the Gospel, “telling God it’s okay to change an institution I lean into for my stability…is really scary. But we need to do it.” Help me to hear that sentiment and be comforted by it. And please, please, please- 

10. Don’t make me feel like God can’t use me if I’m not yet ready to embrace something new.

Because God most certainly can. Perhaps I’m not ready to embrace the change because I truly felt I was serving God’s people through whatever is now being replaced.

11. Try not to turn me into an “enemy of progress” when I’m really not.

A few weeks ago I heard a presentation in which congregations were divided into groups based on their receptiveness to change. The first two and half percent were called "innovators" while the last 16 percent were called “laggards.” Calling a group of people “laggards” is not exactly a good way to win them over. I imagine many of the “laggards” in the church want to be a part of God’s mission for the world just as much as the "innovators" do. The thing is I sometimes feel like I’m being set up to oppose a process I could otherwise enter into willingly, even enthusiastically. I’d like to make a point here, but I want to make one thing very, very clear before I do: I am one-hundred percent in support of going out into the world, carrying the great “good news that God adores us and everyone else” (Reese, 3). I believe this is a key part of being a Christian. That said, when all of the conversation regarding missional theology is about new ways of being church and ministering to people who have never been in the church, and none of the conversation is about ministering to people who grew up in the church, for whom traditions are an important part of their faith, a message is communicated that sets me on edge -- the people in the second category don’t belong in the missional movement. Don’t leave me behind. I might be a bit old-fashioned but I have something to offer.

12. Remind me that “safety lies in God, not in our habits” (Reese, 122).

The world around me is in a near-constant state of flux. Sometimes I feel like I’m surrounded by quicksand, and I just need one place that is stable. Surely that place is my church, right? As Diana Butler Bass expresses it in Christianity for the Rest of Us, “Church changes? How can that be? After all, the New Testament teaches that ‘Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.’ Many Christians interpret this to mean that Christianity and the Church never change,” and yet the Holy Spirit, “the breath of God that blows as it will [is] ever changing and ever recreating.” Be gentle when you tell me that all of life involves change, as hard as that can be, and be joyful when you tell me the security I seek is always available in the open and loving arms of God. Amen.


About the Missional Lab series: In Spring 2013, members of Mary Sue Dreier's "Transforming Congregations for Mission" class launched a deep and broad conversation about how to better follow Jesus in a new era -- an era where the church is losing privilege and nothing can be assumed about the people who go or don't go there.

The blog posts in this Missional Lab series are drawn from those papers. Thanks to the contributors, to Prof. Dreier, and to Luther Seminary's Center for Missional Leadership.
About the author: Kristen Eisele is a sort-of senior Master of Divinity student at Luther Seminary. She is newly married, and she and her husband will head out on internship next year.


Image: Love Will Tear Us Apart
(Creative Commons image by John Ivar Andresen on Flickr)

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