Change to What? (Mar – Aug 1994)

By Matt Dabbs

by Sandra Woodroof Millholland
March – August, 1994

21How I wish we could visit personally about change. And church. And everything those concepts imply. If you are excited about the freedom to speak of change within the Churches of Christ, we could dream and plan together about what God is doing and going to continue to do with his people. We could wonder with great anticipation about the special part each of us will play in his plan.

If you are discouraged, confused, maybe a little sad about the potential problems change may bring within our movement (Where will it all end?, you might be thinking), I would hope our discussion would give you two things: a strong sense of peace that God is in charge and all is well, and a renewed commitment and appreciation for the task to which we’ve been called.

I have to warn you, though. If we really could sit and visit face to face I’d be tempted to talk to you about things like cybernetic processes, holons, deviation-amplifying deviation-dampening positive and negative feedback loops, equilibrium, balance, homeostasis, morphogenesis, equifinality, viability, and steady-state.

You may not be interested in those concepts, but knowing about them would help make some sense out of what’s happening in the church today. Don’t worry. I won’t spend any more time on Systems Theory except to say that those dynamics are biblical and they keep living systems, like the church, active and fully functioning. Let it suffice to say that I’m excited and optimistic about where we are and who we are becoming.

As we begin our discussion on change it will first be helpful for you to think for a moment about church. What is church?

Most of us would readily say that church is people, but we act as if church is somewhere we go, something we do, an opportunity for benevolence. We treat each other as if church is an organization with written and unwritten by-laws, rules, regulations, and exclusive membership rights.

These descriptions are an over-simplification, of course, but before we can understand change and how it impacts church, we need to bring to our awareness the all-important difference between organization and organism. I’ll say more about this later.

Now let’s talk about change. Change is a process. It’s active. Ongoing. Change is a means toward an ultimate end, not an end in itself. Healthy systems don’t change just for the sake of changing, they change out of necessity.

Organizations might survive for a little while without change, but living organisms, or systems, cannot. When living systems refuse to change, when so much pressure is exerted that change is impossible, when the system has a rule that rules cannot be changed, that system will either die from a lack of emotional energy, or tear itself apart from energy of the wrong kind. I’ve seen churches do both of these things, haven’t you?

Change only becomes overwhelming when people don’t have the knowledge, the skills, or the resources to adapt to it, and I see the church at an important place in history. What will we do with the inevitable change inherent in this living system we call church? What rules will we have about changing the rules of tradition we’ve imposed upon ourselves?

We need not despair over our petty disagreements and differences. On the contrary. We can rejoice in them. They are healthy and good when dealt with lovingly. It’s appropriate for people who care about the Lord and who want to do his will to think about and question the status quo. These interactions open up opportunities to submit to one another. They encourage accountability and we all need other Christians to be accountable to and for. Healthy living systems have many differences among their parts and they use those differences to perfect the whole. It’s called growth.

Growth ceases, however, when we use our differences against each other. I call that friendly fire. In an earlier article with that title I tried to remind us that while we as a church are bickering among ourselves about all the ways we don’t want to change, wounded souls are bleeding to death and our children are going elsewhere for spiritual nourishment. We cannot be known for what we don’t believe in if we expect to survive as a church.

The Lord’s church will always survive, you say. True. But I’m not sure the Church of Christ will. And we shouldn’t survive if we aren’t accomplishing God’s purpose for his church. If we spend all our energy debating method and never get around to mission we should expect defeat. The race is there and someone will run it successfully. I just hope we’re not found at the starting line arguing about the order of events, how to hold the baton, or who’s running anchor.

When I think of some of the silly things we argue about, I’m reminded of the scribes, the Pharisees, and the rulers of the temple. They meant well. They were good people, most of them, but they lacked vision. They were rule-bound and, consequently, ineffectual. I thought Christ came to change all that.

I work in a maximum security prison. Every day I go in harm’s way, and every day I counsel all day long with men who have raped, murdered, molested children, sold and abused drugs, and much, much more. I am truly blessed. These men need the Lord. They don’t know him. And I have the privilege of telling them about him. Their previous life circumstances are not the reason they are in prison; sin is. When I see what he can do in their lives it makes me ashamed of us for strafing each other over the “letter of the law” while forgetting — or ignoring — the Spirit with which it was given.

You didn’t think you wanted to talk about those strange words I mentioned back in the third paragraph, but we’ve talked about them anyway. And it boils down to this: Praise God that we are changing as a church. If we don’t, we’ll die. Pray that we can agree to disagree. “Change to What?” That’s an oxymoron. The church won’t change to anything. It wasn’t perfect at Antioch and it’s not perfect now. It’s imperfect people living and growing and always in a state of becoming more and more what God intended his church to be. Hopefully we’re smart enough to learn from the mistakes of the past, and hopefully we won’t keep doing what isn’t working well for us.

Most of what we worry about religiously won’t make any difference in 10,000 years. Most of it won’t make any difference a century from now. What will make a difference today, tomorrow, and forever is how we treat one another for the world to see, and whether or not we take Christ to a lost and dying world. It’s that simple. Do I hear Amen?Wineskins Magazine

Sandra Woodroof Milholland

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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