How To Serve New Wine Without Getting Skinned (Mar – Aug 1994)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mark Frost
March – August, 1994

It was one of those cartoons that brings a smile to your face not because it’s knee-slapping hilarious, but because it’s so invariably true. It showed a group of elders meeting with a young minister. “Our last preacher finally convinced us that this church needed to change,” one of them was saying, “so, we changed preachers!” Reading that cartoon moved me once again to thank the grace of God and the patience of the brethren that I’m still ministering to the same congregation after 15 years. After all, this 40-year-old, traditional church didn’t exactly include “change agent” in my job description when I signed on. Yet I am convinced that meaningful change is possible in such a church. Over the past few years, we’ve learned a lot about how to implement change, most of it by first discovering how not to do it. Let me share some things that have been helpful to us.

First, we have learned that changes are most likely to succeed when they are in harmony with the church’s mission as perceived by the membership. Anything that promotes this perceived purpose will be warmly embraced; anything else will provoke something similar to the human body’s immune response: the “infection” will be surrounded, isolated, immobilized, and destroyed. The problem is often that the congregation’s perceived mission is not only unstated; it is also only loosely connected to the biblical mission for the church. In the Detroit area, where I live, many congregations were started by Southerners who came north after World War II to work in the auto factories.

Understandably, an unspoken mission of many of these churches became to provide a safe haven of southern culture in a confusing and hostile environment. That’s why many churches in this area still cling to traditions that were the norm in the rural South in the ‘40s and ‘50s, even after many southern churches abandoned them. The first task, then, is to examine the unstated agendas that presently guide the congregation, then call it to a more biblical understanding of its mission.

To help accomplish this, we have an elders’ and deacons’ retreat twice a year. At each one, we spend time talking over our priorities, plans, and progress. We study and pray together we share our thoughts, fears, goals, and dreams. In our retreats, we’ve used ideas from books like Robert Dale’s To Dream Again to help us shape our vision. To rekindle a vision for growth among our members, we asked John Ellas, from the Center for Church Growth, to conduct a diagnostic study of our congregation. I have also tried to preach and teach on the church’s purpose regularly. To begin setting the stage for a small-group ministry, for instance, I took six months to preach through the first three chapters of Ephesians, emphasizing the communal dimension of Christian life. We haven’t yet arrived at as clear a vision as we should, but we do know this: without a common understanding of God’s purpose, any changes we make are destined to be cosmetic, short-lived, and divisive.

As we move toward a biblical vision, we try to connect the changes we make to our growing sense of mission. If a change is seen merely as a means to favor one person’s preferences over another’s, it will be resisted. But if the change is clearly presented as a means of fulfilling our mission, people will accept it, even if it causes discomfort. A year ago, we decided to use one regular song leader of Sunday mornings instead of rotating the task among several leaders. The move was ripe with possibilities for hurt feelings and charges of favoritism. But we worked hard at communicating the reasons for the change: greater continuity and quality in our worship, making it more meaningful and more understandable to newcomers. Since they understood how the new system fit into our mission, all of the other song leaders, including two of our elders, willingly supported the change.

Not only is it important for the leadership to know the purpose behind a change; it is crucial that they also “buy in” to it. At one of our first leadership retreats, we decided we needed greater variety in our worship assemblies. A couple of weeks later, a song was led while the Lord’s Supper was being passed. Reaction was swift and strong, leading to a hastily called elders’ meeting. John, the elder with the greatest seniority, spoke first.

“Personally, I’m very uncomfortable with it,” he began. I listened incredulously as, one by one, the four other elders echoed his sentiment. It seemed certain that what I considered to be an innocuous change would be squashed by the high command! I was totally unprepared for what came next. John spoke again.

“None of us like it,” he said, “but that’s not the issue. The question is, Does it help us reach our goals?” Again, the four other elders voiced their agreement, and we were free to try the concept again. Because they were committed to the purpose behind the change, they were able to act independently of their personal feelings.

Another incident showed us what happens when the leadership approves an idea, but doesn’t buy into the concept. Two deacons suggested that we play a good, a cappella song in the auditorium just before the assembly. It would be a signal for people to begin finding a seat, and it would help center their minds on worship. In addition, we could use it to acquaint our people with contemporary songs. I brought the idea before the elders near the end of a long meeting. They hurriedly said we could try the idea and then evaluate it. I could tell they had some unspoken concerns, but I chose to ignore their signals. I was anxious to get on with it, and could see little value in asking for negative input. We announced the plan to our members, but didn’t spend much time getting a “:buy in” from them either. The result was predictable. The first time the tape was played, strong objections were raised and the elders moved quickly to scrap the idea. Time spent getting the leadership and the congregation tuned in to the reason for the change might have resulted in a much different outcome.

That episode taught us another valuable lesson. We already knew that it is best to try new ideas for a short time, followed by an evaluation. Through this incident, we learned that before entering a trial period, three very important questions must receive clear answers. The first is, What period of time constitutes a “fair trial” for this concept? In the absence of an agreed-upon answer, the tacit response becomes “until the first wave of criticism.” The second question is, Who will evaluate the concept at the end of the trial period? The default answer is, “The elders, in emergency session.” Finally, we must answer, How will we know whether the change succeeded or failed? In the absence of other criteria, the standard is usually the likes and dislikes of the leadership. The result of leaving these key questions unanswered is polarization and strife.

We’ve learned that all change generates opposition. But the mere existence of criticism doesn’t kill innovation. The way the criticism is received and managed makes the difference between temporary and lasting change. The scriptural guideline is found in Paul’s instruction to Timothy: “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct” (2 Timothy 2:24-25). Obedience to this standard means refusing to attach derisive labels, such as “legalist” or “traditionalist,” to opponents. Some who oppose change may be legalists, but many are not. It is a sin against the body of Christ to place a derogatory tag on what may be nothing more than a difference in personality type.

It is important to show opponents the respect of listening carefully to all concerns that are presented in an appropriate manner. Thankfully, our elders have learned that they must not respond positively to temper tantrums, ultimatums, and power plays. But when sincere brothers or sisters have been pushed out of their comfort zone by a change our leaders have learned to listen. Periodically, the elders divide up and conduct feedback sessions in each of our zones. At these meetings, all comments about changes we’ve made are encouraged. When a person claims scriptural support for their objection, the elders are quick to schedule a Bible study session with them.

Personally, I am learning that those who oppose change are necessary to me, and to the body. Mike, another of our elders, is the most evangelistic person in the congregation. He has a heart that longs to reach the lost with good news. But his personality is quite different from mine. Often, we find ourselves on opposite sides of issues, especially with regard to change. When we notice that beginning to happen, we know it’s time for us to take a couple of hours to talk things over and pray together. The Lord has used these sessions in a powerful way to mold and refine me. Mike’s honesty has often helped me face my own pride and stubbornness. His perspective has enabled me to present my ideas in a way that exhibits sensitivity to those who are uncomfortable with change. I’ve learned that when I listen closely to the concerns of my brother’s heart, the two of us have a chance to work for a “win/win” solution. If I refuse to listen or treat his “big deals” as “no big deal,” the best we can hope for is “win/lose.” More typically, we end up with “lose/lose.”

We’ve discovered the value of honoring fellow-believers regardless of their feelings toward change. Recently, we held a banquet to honor our “senior saints.” The elders’ wives prepared the meal and the elders served it. Then Gordon, an elder with an “aw shucks” Oklahoma demeanor, addressed the silver-haired crowd. He expressed appreciation for their hard work and dedication. Then he added, “We know that in many ways, this congregation is far different from the one you worked so hard to build. At a time when you had expected to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor, you are being called upon to accept many disturbing changes. The Lord has not changed, but the world has. We want your grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be people of faith, just as you are. For that to happen, we must change the way we communicate the gospel. We beg for your understanding.” In a loving way, Gordon was able to tie the changes we were making into a powerful value held by our senior citizens: the desire to see their faith passed down to future generations.

Our handling of change has been imperfect, at best. While some have been disturbed by the rapidity of change, others are frustrated with how slowly it has gone. Those who would like to see the changes come more quickly might have been happier if we had simply planted a new, more contemporary congregation. And no doubt some others would have been happy to see them go. But by working together, we have benefitted from each other’s strengths and compensated for each other’s weaknesses.

Together, we are witnessing a steady stream of new members coming to know the Lord, who are also beginning to understand what genuine Christian community is all about. And thanks to the grace of God and the patience of brothers and sisters, I’m still privileged to be a part of it all.Wineskins Magazine

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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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