Do I have to change?

When I graduated from college, I was one class short of a linguistics minor—accidentally. I never set out to achieve said minor, but my interests and electives aligned in such a way that I ended up taking all the core courses and a few electives.

One of the things anyone who’s studied languages knows is that any given language is always, always changing. There’s no way to avoid it. That’s why some words don’t mean the same things they did 600 years ago, or even half a century ago. That’s also why only one student in my composition class was not utterly confused when I used “hokey” to describe something, well, hokey.

Some languages aren’t changing anymore. Like Latin. Latin isn’t changing anymore because it’s a dead language. Nobody speaks it any more, and outside of a few limited contexts, it’s not too useful. (Sorry, Latin-lovers.)

The thought of a church that doesn’t change might seem attractive—no need to worry about declining membership or shifting demographics or Jesus-is-my-boyfriendian praise & worship songs. Everything just how it always has been.

This way of thinking is really dangerous, though, because just as with languages, a church that doesn’t change is dead (as is an unchanging faith), and refusal to change is sounding a death knell. It may be possible to refuse to develop and change, but this is also a refusal to grow and be renewed.

As with any process of growth, there are growing pains. Dealing with change is almost always hard, in any almost every circumstance. As the church changes, things will be lost—not always bad things, just things that have been outgrown.

Some say, for instance, that the small-parish model is obsolete, that a church needs a congregation of 200+ to survive/thrive. I don’t know that this is true, but if it is, if small parishes are lost, that is the loss of a good thing that no longer works. And that loss is one that will be very painful to some. It is a loss that will need to be mourned before it can be accepted or embraced.

J. Barrett Lee at The Theological Wanderings of a Street Pastor talks about growth, change, and death in the context of calling a new pastor, noting that a growing church may feel like it’s dying, which he says is just the point: a Paschal metaphor. “A growing church is a dying church. It has to be. It cannot be otherwise. The way to Easter Sunday goes through Good Friday.”

I think it’s important to acknowledge that change can be a very painful experience, an experience of death and mourning. When we acknowledge this, we can deal gently with ourselves when we encounter changes we do not relish, and we can deal more compassionately with those who seem resistant to changes we would like to impose.


How do you cope with change? Is there something about the church you really wish would remain unchanged? What losses in the church have you mourned recently?


6 thoughts on “Do I have to change?

  1. Oh that’s hard. I hate change! I don’t like it when Facebook comes up with a new view, I’m a Luddite who clung to not having a cell phone for as long as possible and then to her non-smartphone as long as possible and while my husband lusts after fancy new technology, I’m not sure I can handle figuring out how to operate yet another gadget. And I don’t particularly like change in church or at work or anywhere else. “The way we’ve always done it” is familiar and comforting and I’d like to keep it that way, thankyouverymuch.

    But you’re right. Without change, there is no growth, only stagnation and death. And I love your concept of allowing time and space to mourn the losses that accompany change, even as we recognize its necessity.

    But just as clearly, change for change’s sake is no good, either–it leads right to Jesus-is-my-boyfriendism and all the rest. I read something about the Amish, once, which I think is a good guideline. It’s not that they reject all change (technology), but that they wish it to be proven good before they accept it. So that’s why some communities do have electricity or telephones or motorized tractors–they have weighed and evaluated the benefits and drawbacks of accepting that particular technology and decided that the former outweighed the latter. Then, and this is just as important, they proceed to implement such changes deliberately–just because there is benefit to the community having a telephone does not mean suddenly every teenager is glued to their own cell phone.

    I think that sort of thoughtfulness is important when evaluating changes in the church. Let’s not just abandon small parishes or old hymns because “bigger is better” or power points and praise songs are more hip. Let’s evaluate, deliberate, see what makes sense to keep and what to let go and what to change and what to stay the same, and maybe blend the best of several ideas–and leave space to acknowledge both the mourning of the lost ways and the excitement of new possibilities.

    I could natter on with a linguistic example in the church that’s a pet peeve of mine, but this comment is too long already. ^_^

    • I’m no better! I’ve only had texting for a little over a year now (and I’ve only had a cell phone for just over three years). I really like organ music, and choral music. Baroque and Renaissance are the best. See?

      I also really like small (or, well, maybe medium) parishes and old hymns (and Tudor anthems), for what it’s worth.

      I really, really like what you have to say about making intentional changes! (and not because it lets me slow down change and progress, either. 🙂 ) Sort of relatedly, your comments make me think of Patheos’ “Slow Church”—have you heard of it? Pretty neat stuff.

      I’ve mostly come to terms with my linguistic peeves, but after grading a stack of first-year essays, I remember a few…

      • Ha, it’s true that my reclusive introvert self is a big huge fan of texting and not having to actually talk to people on the phone. 😉 But yes. Good, old music on good, old instruments are mostly my preferences. And I get positively giddy if our choir director has us try something from Mozart. ^_^

        I hadn’t heard of (or at least, never checked out) the Slow Church stuff. Thanks for the link!

        Well, this particular pet peeve is about “thees” and “thous,” and I wrote a long comment about it once on *someone’s* blog, so forgive me if it was this one and I’m being a broken record. The short version is, the LCMS (the conservative Lutherans) have a hymnal, kind of like TEC’s Prayer Book. There was a version published in the fifties or so that, say, my dad would have grown up with; one published in the seventiesish that I grew up with, and a new one published just a few years ago. The seventies version modernized the language of a bunch of hymns, changing “thou” to “you” and that sort of thing. The new one went back and changed everything back to the old-fashioned language–“you” back to “thee,” etc.

        The thing is. I know that those old hymns (and the KJV, for that matter) use “thee” and “thou” on purpose because those pronouns were English’s informal you (you have some Spanish, yes? I think Spanish has formal and informal yous to some degree, though I can’t remember what they are). Using the familiar form of address emphasizes the close familial relationship of Christians with God and with one another–God as Father and us as “neither slave nor free” but all siblings in Christ. So the word choice was important and conveyed a particular meaning when those hymns were originally written.

        But now, most people don’t use “thee” and “thou” anymore. It sounds stiff and formal to do so because it’s archaic. So singing hymns or reading Bible passages using those terms does the *opposite* of what using them was intended to do. They make God sound farther away–a remote being addressed in strange, half-understood incantations–and Christians seem stiff, formal, perhaps unfriendly. And while I, knowing the meaning behind the terms, can still appreciate hymns written that way, the truth is that the hymns weren’t changed back in the new hymnal because Lutherans are starting a massive education campaign on formal and informal pronouns in the English language. They were changed back because older church members spent thirty years griping about the changes made in the seventies and insisting that everything just needs to go back to the way it was in the good old days.

        It’s a good example of a situation where change really is needed–most people are not amateur linguists and don’t see the theological resonance of using those terms. They just see a bunch of stuffy old church people using stuffy old words that they don’t understand (like my dad always said, “English speakers are the only high-school students forced to study Shakespeare in a non-native language.”). Even though there is a good reason to use those terms, if they no longer function in the way they were intended, it’s time to change–not just for the sake of change but for the sake of preserving the meaning of the hymn.

        Anyway. I told you it was a long rant. ^_^

        • Ha! True, though—my mind was blown when I first learned that “thee” and “thou” were informal terms. And I’m pretty sure I learned it in a foreign language class—Spanish and French both have formal and informal 2nd-person forms, and they both use the informal to address God.

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