Hope Network Newsletter: Change Without Chaos (May 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Lynn Anderson
May, 1993

Part 1

Dr. Fred Craddock of Emory University tells this story: While on an out-of-town speaking engagement, Craddock was invited to dinner at the home of a middle-aged couple. Both host and hostess were divorced from previous mates and had been married to each other only a few weeks. Dr. Craddock was their first dinner guest.

“We sat down to an elegant table,” recalls Craddock. “White linen. Stem crystal. Fine china. And the heaviest, most ornate silverware I’ve seen.” Since the host couple was nervous and Craddock was a stranger, conversation began awkwardly. Fumbling for words to fend off the ominous silence, the hostess picked up her ornate fork, examined it from several angles and commented, “You know, I don’t like this fork!”

With that, her husband stood, abruptly threw his balled-up napkin in his plate and slid his chair against the table with enough force to rock water from the glasses. Then he turned on his heel and left Dr. Craddock and the mortified woman alone with the fall-out.

“Being a man of the cloth,” Craddock said, “I felt I should say something, so I ventured, ‘I don’t think those forks are all that bad!’” Craddock’s comment triggered her tears. “I don’t know why I said that,” she wailed. “All he brought to this house when we married was this silverware. When his first wife threw him out, her parting words were, ‘and you can take your mother’s [expletive deleted] silverware with you!’”

Craddock reflects painfully, “It never would have occurred to me that an innocent little word like ‘fork’ could carry so much explosive baggage.”

These days the word “change” is nearly that loaded – especially around church circles. One of my favorite hymns is Henry F. Lyte’s “Abide With Me.” But with one of his lines, Lyte inadvertently did a number on us: “Change and decay in all around I see….” Actually, the words “change” and “decay” don’t belong together. “Decay” belongs with “death.” But “change” belongs with “life” and “vitality!” However, Lyte’s little line subliminally programs us to think change is bad.

Of course not all change is good. I am not interested in just any old kind of change. But I unabashedly push for positive changes.

Why Change?

Many churches need to change their worship style. We must make worship more authentic by using the heart language of our times. We have no trouble understanding why missionaries to Moscow must speak Russian. Yet, antiquated, rural styles of worship and religious communication are as foreign to our urban, contemporary America as is English spoken in Russia. If we do not change that, young people will continue leaving us for churches where the language of worship makes sense to them.

The church must also change in order to better equip Christians to flourish spiritually in our secular world. We must “do church” in ways that intentionally lead people along a user-friendly path of life-development from the street where they live, through the church to the heart of God.

Most churches must change in order to connect with unchurched people. Our dismal growth stats prove that what we are doing isn’t working. We are not leading many unchurched people to Christ, much less assimilating them into the body and nurturing them into spiritual maturity. Since 1980, cites George Barna, “the proportion of born again Christians has remained constant (32%). There has been no discernible growth in the size of the Christian Body.”

Don’t Tamper

Of course, some things definitely must not be changed! We dare not tamper with eternal foundations. These are the same in Botswana as they are in Boston; the same in the first century as in the twenty-first. For example: The Bible is God’s Word – and always will be. The one almighty God is Father of us all. Jesus Christ his crucified and risen Son is our Savior and Lord. The church is the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit is alive. Salvation is received by grace through faith. Christians are called to love, praise, service, obedience, and holiness. These absolutes will never change.

Something Has To Give

However, some other things must change – and keep on changing as the culture changes. New times bring new tools and demand new tactics. Mega-churches, for example, are enabled by a “tool” called the freeway. A few years ago mega-churches were virtually impossible, because no transport arteries existed capable of assembling large numbers of people so quickly. Other new tools include things like CNN and Fax; microchips and fiber-optics and a thousand others which create “new consumer expectations and new performance capabilities and new competitive threats,” says Peter Drucker.

In his book Dying for Change, Leith Anderson wrote:
Everyone is in motion. Each church member is changing while the society is changing. Change is not the choice.

It is increasingly difficult for any individual, family, business, organization, church, or community to escape the sweeping changes brought about by drugs, globalization, environmental pollution, political polarization, or economic realignments.

Whether for good or ill, whether we like it or not, change is inevitable.
Both needs and opportunities change constantly and are different in Chicago than in Dallas; different for Dallas in 1993 than Dallas in 1952. So we must dance lightly on the balls of our feet and constantly change strategies and formats to connect with an ever-changing culture.

Not long ago, I believed churches could not change. Past literature said they could not. However, I no longer believe that churches cannot change, for I have seen churches change. Current literature chronicles hundreds of changing organizations, including churches. And some changes today are not merely cosmetic. Basic paradigms are shifting. Profound and speedy changes have catapulted us into “new realities” which make the “old rules” obsolete. If you don’t believe me, ask Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

Yesterday’s “maps” fit times when change came in small units and moved slowly. But today, we have run off the old maps. We are sailing uncharted waters. Even more scary, the speed of change accelerates constantly. If we are to connect, we must stay ahead of the change curve, continually inventing strategies to manage what is not fully here yet.

However, let me raise a warning flag here: Our finest Christian leaders are learning what must change. But explosions erupt in churches all over the country because very few, even of our brightest and best, know how to change. Many sincere attempts at much-needed change backfire, actually heightening fear and hardening resistance. So it is imperative that we learn to change without trampling on hearts or dividing churches. In fact, at this turbulent point in our history, the most valuable skill we can acquire may well be effective change management. Then we can change without chaos.

Even in the marketplace, the science of change is a brand new field. Many of today’s flourishing corporations assign teams of high-powered personnel specifically to manage organizational change. A couple of examples: Carey Garrett, a warm and bright Christian woman from the Preston Road church, heads a change management team of some 20 people for the giant EDS Corporation. In another format, Joe Beam, a brother known to many Wineskins readers, leads a booming Georgia-based consulting group which knocks down big bucks helping corporations manage change. Even the literature addressing the science of change has itself become a growth industry. “Two years after Tom Peters’ book In Search of Excellence described 43 of the ‘best run’ companies, 14 of them were in financial trouble. Business Week declared the reason to be ‘failure to respond to change.’” 3 If business organizations cannot survive without change management skills, can the church flourish without them? We have to shift paradigms (the way we see things) as we move to more effective churches for the twenty-first century.

Some Basic Assumptions for Change Agents

In the following observations I have borrowed from several resources mentioned at the end of this article, combining them with my own experience across 30 years of scrambling to keep up with changing times. Of course, I don’t pose as an expert change agent. I will only help you find the tip of the iceberg. But, hopefully, these principles will keep you out of some trouble and nudge you toward further exploration.

1) Change will not come until a group sees the need to change. In other words, change won’t happen in churches until the status quo is intolerable. Why would people want needless change? Why disturb a peaceful church? However, put bluntly, many churches in our fellowship must change or die! Most of our congregations have plateaued or are in decline. Less than five percent are growing by evangelism, although many are “swelling” by transfer. Dedicated and bright young people leave us in droves and head down the street to churches that speak their language.

I love our fellowship and have no plans to leave. True, we have a lot to learn. But we do have something unique and precious to offer. So for me it is intolerable to stand by and watch antiquated formats and ineffective strategies drag our fellowship down the drain.
Let’s refuse to throw in the towel. “Sure, some folks will not change even when they see the handwriting on the wall. Once they catch a vision of what God can do through us if we reconnect with our culture, most Christians will run toward the needed changes. So good change agents must clearly and constantly spell out (a) the strategic value of changes, (b) the biblical rationale for changes, and (c) the parameters of changes being proposed.

2) Change will not come without resistance. Most change agents assume that everyone will automatically go for changes which will obviously improve effectiveness. Wrong! When implemented changes hit the inevitable resistance, green change agents tend to assume the proposed change must be wrong and to back off. But resistance doesn’t necessarily mean your proposed change is wrong. On the contrary, resistance is a normal part of change.

Ronnie White from the Quail Springs church in Oklahoma City, says, “Most ‘changers’ don’t appreciate the pain involved in change. If you change too fast some people leave. If you change too slow, others leave. Either way, it hurts.”

Ronnie is right! Change produces a grief separation from past comfort zones, memories, and traditions. Even if I don’t like what I have been doing and I am going to like what comes, I still feel grief separation. According to Carey Garrett of EDS, grief separation triggered by change actually passes through several states. She says, “First comes denial. ‘We don’t really need this change. Things are O.K..’” In modern urban settings, read: “Why change what worked fine in Muleshoe 75 years ago?” This explains why some churches went on automatic pilot back in the ‘50s and no one has been back to the cockpit since.

Carey Garrett explains further, “After denial comes a period of resistance. ‘O.K., I see what you’re trying to do, but maybe we could….’ Usually the organization will move on through further stages: confusion, then anger, to exploration of change options. Finally, if change is skillfully managed, renewal (or change) may come. But change does not come without resistance.”

3) Change won’t come without trust. I won’t change for you unless I trust you. Church leaders who gather behind closed doors to “make decisions,” then march out and announce sweeping changes are making for trouble. Trust grows out of open, healthy relationships and is nurtured by dialogue.

Howard Publishing Company will publish a book I’m writing on spiritual leadership titled They Smell Like Sheep. Shepherds smell like sheep because they constantly touch sheep. That’s why the sheep will follow them. They trust their shepherd to lead them into green pastures and beside still waters. Good leaders (good change agents) build trust through authentic relationships by serving, loving, listening, laughing, and crying with their “flock.”

4) Principle # 4 overlaps # 3: Change won’t come without ownership in the change process. If I suddenly announce a change designed to alter your life, without first having gotten your input and asked how you felt about it, you are more likely to balk than to buy in. This does not mean, however, that visionaries are led by group consensus or a fully democratic process. A camel is still a horse that was put together by a large committee! Or, to paraphrase Peter Drucker, “The more participatory your visionary leadership style, the more your organization will get small.” Visionaries must cast vision; leaders must lead, but not without involving those who will be affected by change. Good ears make good leaders. Leaders may listen through focus groups, questionnaires, surveys, and many other means. And people are more likely to follow a dream when they feel a sense of ownership.

5) Change won’t come without disequilibrium. Webster calls disequilibrium “a state of emotional or intellectual imbalance.” Although disequilibrium may be uncomfortable, it is not necessarily bad.

Even positive changes create disequilibrium. For example, the fact that some of us want children did not diminish the shock when they actually arrived. Our son and daughter-in-law have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and an infant son. Although both kids were planned, that second baby shot their disequilibrium factor off the charts!

Churches can feel this too. When you change too many things in my church too fast and hold that pace too long, even if I voted enthusiastically for the change, I will likely dig in my heels.
Somewhere along the way, I cooked up a little antibiotic for disequilibrium: two facts and two strategies.

Fact one: Change does not come without disequilibrium.

Fact two: People cannot endure sustained disequilibrium! Here is where most “eye-on-the-goal, can’t-wait-for-the-plodders” style of change agents mess up. They push people out into disequilibrium and hold them there till an explosion comes. So, what to do?

Strategy one: Weave! Alternate between safety and disequilibrium. Teach new ideas for a while, stretching your church out beyond comfort zones and into fresh thinking. At first you may hear, “Wow. I never noticed that in the Bible before!” This is only mild disequilibrium. But when you feel your church approaching the limits of tolerance, back off! Talk about familiar and safe things for a while. Then, move back out to the cutting edge again. Weave in and out: first with new ideas, then as you actually implement new practices.

Strategy two: Employ prayerful brinkmanship! Be sensitive and prayerful lest you take your church over the brink of tolerance. Watch out! It is immoral to gamble with the solidarity of a church. Don’t plunge recklessly toward the brink. Prayerful brinkmanship comes back to the key importance of relationship. I dare not weave a church along the brink unless I am very much in touch with the feelings of those people.

During my last few years at the Highland church I finished my doctor of ministry degree and wrote a book. Overcommitment underdescribes those days. During that time we implemented several major changes at one time. People began to murmur. Some locked their brakes. Advisors told me, “Slow down, Lynn. This is too much too fast!”

I defended, “Aw, come on. Don’t be nervous. I know these people. I’m listening!” But I really didn’t know their feelings. I had gradually withdrawn into my own little world of overcommitment and distraction and didn’t know how far I had drifted out of touch with the church. I had made too few deposits in my trust account and was nearly overdrawn.’

Trust is crucial in the change process. We are change agents. So was Jesus. But, even Jesus changed people by building trust through relationships. He still does. We are not likely to improve on his approach!

For Additional Reading and Study:
Allen, Jere and George Bullard. Shaping a Future for the Church in the Changing Community. Atlanta: Home Mission Board, 1981.

Anderson, Lynn. “Music That Makes Sense.” Wineskins. Vol. 1, No. 9, Jan/Feb 1993.

______________. “To Dream Again.” Wineskins, Vol. 1, No. 1, May 1992.

_______________. “You Can Teach Old Dogs New Tricks.” Wineskins. Vol. 1, No. 4, August 1992.

Barker, Joel Arthur. Future Edge. New York: William Morrow and Co., l992.

Barna, George. User Friendly Church. Venture, CA: Regal Books, 1991.

_____________. Marketing the Church. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1991.

Beam, Joe. 171 Kestwick Drive East, Martinez, Georgia 30907, (404) 870-2278.

Davis, Stanley M. Future Perfect. Reading, MA; Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1987.

Drucker, Peter. The New Realities, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988.

Garrett, Carey. 3321 Lovers Lane, Dallas, Texas 75206, (214) 692-5739.


1 George Barna, Marketing the Church, (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991), 21.

2 Leith Anderson, Dying for Change, (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1990), 11.

3 Robert Tucker, Managing the Future.Wineskins Magazine

Lynn AndersonFor the twenty-five years Lynn has served as an adjunct professor at Abilene Christian University, teaching missions, ministry, and leadership courses. And through those years he has been called on increasingly by scores of minister and numerous churches—as they sought encouragement, resources, and counsel in the midst of the challenges of church leadership. Lynn Anderson is an author, well-known speaker, and founder of the San Antonio-based Hope Network Ministries, a ministry dedicated to coaching, mentoring and equipping church leaders. [http://www.mentornetwork.org/]

 

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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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