Changing Cultures — Part 1

One of the continuing conversations in the church is the need for radical change. It is in fact an age old conversation, going back to the Apostle Paul’s way out call for the church to accept Gentiles. The reformers that led to the streams of faith that I inhabit likewise were agents of change, calling for the church to become something new and cast aside the old. From the very beginning, the church has had to deal with those who want to hold on to the old and those who believe that God is calling us to a new thing.

The question for most church leaders today is not whether our church cultures have to change, but rather how shall we go about effecting that change. The church has always adapted to the surrounding world, developing new ways of talking about Jesus and our belief in him as the source of meaning. While there may be some leaders who want to hold on to the old ways, remaining static in the face of a changing world, I believe that the majority of persons in any faith group (be it a church, an annual conference, a denomination, etc.) WANT their group to be relevant, to speak to the world around them, and to have an impact on the world. The problem for most is a lack of knowledge regarding how to go about making the changes that allow the community to be those things.

Traditionally the way that change has often happened in the church is for a strong, charismatic leader to arise who brings down a vision from on high which is then adopted or rejected by the people below. There is much to be said for this approach. It is extremely efficient. It can happen relatively quickly. It doesn’t require much discussion or relationship. All it requires is for people to be obedient to the leader and carry out his or her plan of action.

For many of us (or at least the readers of this blog) this approach seems foreign, for it represents a hierarchical way of being that we thought had been cast aside. Yet, one has to be careful to write this way off as an anachronism for in fact it represents the model of change repeated again and again in the scriptures. The story of faith that we received from our ancestors was based in stories of heroic figures who heard the call of God and went about acting on the call, often in the fact of opposition and danger. Likewise, the history of the church has often been based in the stories of the saints of faith, those larger than life people who often bucked the system to bring about needed change in the church. This is a prophetic model of bringing about change, and while it may indeed be out of touch with current realities, it has a basis in our history and tradition, and can be very effective.

Of course, there are problems with this approach (as there are with all ways of providing leadership). This approach to change-making is very often based in the personality of the visionary. Dynamic leaders are fun to listen to and can inspire us to new things, however when they are gone the community can often find itself floundering and without direction. This approach is one often filled with conflict as those who discern a different vision are marginalized for not “getting with the program.” And worst of all, this is an approach to leadership that can frankly be abusive when unhealthy people are given too much power and control to form the destiny of others. This “top down” form of is what led to such horrors as the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, and far too many other battles in congregations to mention.

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