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Some say, for instance, that the small-parish model is obsolete, that a church needs a congregation of 200+ to survive/thrive.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?