I have thought about this a number of times, and each time I do, I remain convinced that resistance to change is more than just the key reason churches are declining in America. I believe resistance to change is a mark of a sinful attitude.
The Gospel Is All About Transformation
One of the key truths in Scripture is that the work of God always involves the transformation of a person and a people. Let’s just list some key ones.
- Adam was mud, transformed by God.
- Abraham was age, transformed by God (don’t get me started on the change required for circumcision).
- Joseph was pride and prejudice, transformed by God.
- Moses was passion, anger, insecurity, and education, transformed by God.
- David was shepherd and runt, transformed by God.
- Daniel was a captive foreigner, transformed by God.
- Peter was a hotheaded coward, transformed by God.
- Paul was zeal and legalism, transformed by God.
- John was “son of thunder,” transformed by God.
- Jesus himself was death, transformed by God.
Throughout the Bible, God turns darkness into light. Consider these verses:
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:18
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:2
Is it any wonder that we use the word “conversion” to refer to someone who becomes a Christian? Life with God is all about “conversion” and “transformation.”
Why is it, then, that the church of Jesus Christ is the most resistant to change of any organization in the world? We who preach conversion, are unwilling to convert. We who preach transformation are unwilling to transform!
I know why.
Reason #1: Sin
The first reason we are resistant to change is that we are sinful. Ever since Adam and Eve’s first act of disobedience, human beings have been convinced that we know better than God how to manage our lives. We do our own thing, live our own way, and shun God’s will.
That is the reason we need to change in the first place. God wants us to grow and develop into people who represent him in this world, represent him to the world, and take care of the world for him.
God told Noah and his family, the only humans to survive the flood, to multiply and fill the earth. They got the multiplying part down (who wouldn’t want to do that?) but they really avoided spreading out over all the earth. It was a lot more fun to have everyone stay together. God had to intervene to scatter them (see Genesis 11:1-8).
Sin, the desire to do our own thing and follow our own rules, is the reason we need to change, but it’s also the thing that keeps us from becoming who God wants us to be.
Reason #2: Pride
I personally believe that pride is the root of all sin. The prideful person believes that he is the most important thing in the world, even more important than God, and every one of us has a large helping of pride even if it doesn’t come to the surface of our lives in such overt fashion.
When it comes to Christians and churches, though, pride takes on a slightly different form. Let’s call it “the Pride of Arrival.” Many Christians believe in their hearts even if not with their mouths, that once they have been converted, they are on the other side of the fence—in the group of people who no longer need to change. “God has changed my life!” they might say, but rarely will any of them say, “God is changing my life.” “I was baptized,” rather than, “I am a baptized believer.” “I received Christ,” rather than, “I’m trusting in Christ.”
The problem is that a sense of arrival is only pride in sheep’s clothing. None of us has arrived:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. — 1 John 1:8
And even if we have, it isn’t by our own merit!
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. — Ephesians 2:8-9
It’s this very sense of arrival that proves we need to be continually changing to become more and more like Jesus!
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 3:12-14
Reason #3: Lack of Faith
One more big reason that Christians and churches are unwilling to change is that we lack the faith that the God who created the universe and prepared the Bible would be able to preserve his good name in the world, so we like Pharisees build up systems and rules and codes of conduct in a vain attempt to preserve our version of orthodoxy.
We get the core elements of the faith intermingled with the peripheral elements of the faith, and lose our ability to change. This should not be. Consider these core elements:
- That God exists and has revealed himself through the Bible.
- That all people are guilty of sin and subject to God’s wrath.
- That Christ came as the Way, the Truth and the Life — providing atonement for sin, teaching and modeling how to live, and empowering his followers to live that life into eternity.
Now consider some of the issues I’ve faced in churches I’ve served:
- Congregational government is the only acceptable form of church government.
- Music should be “contemporary” (or “blended” or “traditional” blah, blah, blah).
- The pastor should not illustrate messages with clips from Hollywood movies.
- The financial records of the congregation should be treated with the utmost secrecy.
- The children should stay in the adult worship service to see how their parents worship.
Honestly, I don’t care how you (or I) feel about those issues. The point is that they are inconsequential in light of the core truths of the Word of God. We should be willing and ready to change any of these peripheral issues in light of God’s Word and the culture of the day.
In fact, one of the key distinguishing marks of what issues are core and what issues are not is to consider which issues have enduring relevance and which issues have temporal significance. For example:
Jesus offers forgiveness from sins. Certainly relevant for all people everywhere anytime.
Worship songs should be accompanied by a guitar. Potentially irrelevant if no one owns or can play a guitar.
Reason #4: Nostalgia (Repeat the Fuzzy)
The final reason, I’ll address here is what I will call the repeat-the-fuzzy attitude. Or to explain what that means, a desire to go back and relive a former time when I felt all “warm and fuzzy” inside.
Without a doubt, most every Christian in the world has had a spiritual encounter with the Living God that has profoundly impacted his or her life. Moses did. Elijah did. David did.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I believe God gives us mountain-top experiences to confirm to us that he really is the Living God. However, we try to duplicate those experiences and repeat them over and over to try to relive all that good stuff over and over again.
Peter, immediately after Jesus was transfigured in glorious fashion right before his eyes, said this:
“Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) — Mark 9:5-6
The NLT translates that as “three shrines.” Peter had just seen something amazing, and I think he wanted to keep it going. He wanted to institutionalize it. “Yes, Master, I think we could come back here each day in the morning so you could hang out with Moses and Elijah and we could watch, or if that’s too much for you, perhaps Sunday mornings at 10:30 would be better. What do you think?”
Changed and Changing
I think it’s about time that the Church (and the Christians in it) figures out that to proclaim the importance of “conversion” without demonstrating a lifestyle of conversion is hypocrisy of the Pharisaical kind. Let’s throw out the concept of “converted” and adopt the more biblical concept of “being transformed”!
I’m not saying we should compromise on core truths of the faith. I’m saying we should be really careful about what truths we claim are in the core—carpet colors and worship styles certainly should not be!
I dream of a church that is composed of people on a journey together of growing closer and closer to Jesus, and in so doing become agents of change for each other and for the world around them.