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January 21, 2014

Hope Network Newsletter: You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks! (Aug 1992)

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by Lynn Anderson
August, 1992

Be careful what you say. Words can come back to haunt you – especially if they get into print. I know first-hand.

My friend’s voice sounded weary over the phone. “Lynn, you were right,” he reminded me. “It’s hopeless. Old churches can’t change. I’m tired of beating my head against brick walls. So what do I do? I don’t think I have what it takes to go plant a new church. Besides, my wife couldn’t handle the financial uncertainty of church planting. I give up. Over and out. Out of the ministry. Maybe out of the Church of Christ.”

“Wait a minute,” I objected. “That’s not what I had in mind.” Although I had meant to traffic in hope, inadvertently I had contributed to my friend’s despair.

He had read an interview I had done some months earlier with Image magazine, where I had said, “Churches, like people, have stories and once a church’s story is established (and by the time it is 25 years old it is very definitely established), you can’t change it a great deal. You can clean up some habits here, change some cosmetics there, but the basic nature of that church will remain unchanged.”1

What can I say? I was wrong. I have changed my mind. I’m still passionately convinced that we must be planting new congregations that will be more culturally appropriate to our times, if we are to effectively reach lost people in our culture. But I am not about to give up on all old churches either. Let me tell you what has revived my hope that some old churches can change enough to reconnect with our times.

First: My map was obsolete!

True, the literature of the past couple of decades says that churches can’t change. And church growth researcher Lyle Schaller told a gatehring of “our” preachers that since declining churches can’t likely change, we must “plant or perish.” I had bought into that assessment. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Right?” Hence, the Image article: “Churches can’t change.”

But, my conclusions were built on what has happened in the past, not what can happen in the future. Rapid change has run us off the old map.

“Poor Henry Ford has lost his mind. Says he is going to manufacture buggies that (ha ha) will need no horses. Gimme a break!”

“Come on now, Mr. Wright. Fly? It can’t be done. Look at history.”

“No, no, Mr. Galileo. That is not how the universe works. Ask anyone – from the beginning of time until now.”

All these comments share two things in common:
(1) They were dead wrong.
(2) They were founded on old systems, old paradigms that did not allow for the astounding changes which were already in motion.

When I said that churches couldn’t change I was wrong too, and for the same reason. The past had observed, “Don’t try to change a church. It won’t work.” But the underlying paradigms of our culture are shifting so swiftly and profoundly that what the past has taught us does not necessarily hold true for the future. We’ve run off the map. Our whole view of reality has shifted.

For example, in his book Future Perfect Stanley M. Davis asserts, “In the industrial economy, our models helped us to manage aftermath, the consequences of events that had already ahppened. In this new economy however, we must learn to manage the beforemath; that is, the consequences of events that have not yet occurred.”2

Davis’ thesis is that much current management theory was designed to operate organizational structures which were obsolete by the time the theory had been published. But the old rules concerning organizational cutlures are off. Paradigms have shifted. We are sailing in uncharted waters and encountering what Peter Drucker calls “New Realities.”

The profound cultural paradigm shifts which alter the ground rules of change in the marketplace obviously impact churches as well. We can no longer assume that as things have been so shall they always be.

Second: Like you, I have actually seen some individuals change radically. Once I was “fired” then “rehired” three days later. A decade later one of the elders who had aggressively favored my firing wrote a long letter of profuse apology to Carolyn and me. Then point by point he explained significant ways in which his thinking had changed – after he reached the age of 70!

Third: we have seen whole congregations change. Leith Anderson’s watershed book, Dying for Change, case-studied an old and declining city congregation that changed enough to become a flourishing church again. The successful renewal of Leith’s church gave a lot of us hope that things can change where we are too.

Less than a year ago I was called to be the pulpit minister of the Preston Road church in Dallas. Yet some 10-12 years earlier I was occasionally “branded” in the Preston Road bulletin as an example of apostasy! Old dogs do learn new tricks.

Fourth: Not just individuals and congregations change, but our whole brotherhood has changed. The speakers headlining our lectureships and workshops represent a different breed from 15 to 20 years ago.

Our views have changed too! For example, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is assumed these days. But this was new and dangerous teaching two decades ago when a “word only” dominated fellowship took to task such visible leaders as Jimmy Allen and Carl Spain and others who helped us rethink the work of the Spirit.

We look different, too. You may remember when “kitchens in the church,” family life centers, gymnasiums, youth ministers, special singing groups, etc. were suspect in many of our churches and flatly “verboten” in others. Not so now!

Also, less than two decades ago cutting edge journals like Image and Wineskins would have been filed in the “dangerous fringe” category, but today they appeal to a broad cross-section of our fellowship. And the “yellow journals” which terrorized our fellowship two decades ago have painted themselves into corners of low circulation and even lower credibility.

Preaching is changing. Topical preaching which was once standard fare in our pulpits is giving way to textual, expository preaching – in user-friendly language.

Fifteen to twenty years ago, some of us were “blacklisted” from the major forums of fellowship and had numerous “revivals” cancelled. That lasted for nearly a decade. yet, nowadays we cannot begin to accept all our invitations. We have not become more traditional. It is the fellowship that has changed. Hang in, my ministry friends. Don’t give up on our fellowship.

Fifth: It is biblical to expect change. The gospel invites change so radical it is called “new birth” and results in “new creatures” who then keep on “changing from one degree of glory to another.”

As Paul moved from culture to culture he shifted strategies and became “all things to all men … to win some.”

Paul expected the church to change on Crete, even said the older people should lead the charge! (Titus 2:1-5). Frankly I am troubled when I hear comments that older people are hard liners and that they cannot change. In fact they have had to do a lot of changing merely to survive in this quick-silver world.

Change is a major interest of the New Testament. Look again at Acts 15 and Galatians and the late chapters of Romans. And in Revelation, the seven churches of Asia were warned to change or get their wicks snuffed.

No, we had better not change biblical values – things like the gospel or the Lordship of Christ or the church as the redemptive community. But our methods, strategies, formats and styles will need constant updating. At a Leadership Network conference in Colorado Springs, a group of pace-setting ministers of large evangelical churches took an informal poll. Most of those ministers had some experience in both the revitalization of existing congregations and in the planting of new ones. They concluded that it takes more than ten times as much energy to bring a declining old church to a given level of growth, than to plant a new congregation and bring it to a similar level of growth.

Three decades ago, many Bible majors in our Christian colleges wanted to plant churches and many congregations planned daughter churches. Nowadays, an existing congregation often sees a new church plant as a threat and church planters as somehow potentially subversive. So, graduating Bible majors tend to seek the security of established pulpits, rather than the risk of planting new churches.

Yet, by contrast, the evangelical world around is experiencing growth rates through new plantings. For example, the Southern Baptists have started more than 200 congregations in just one state in the past year!

However, in spite of the fact that renewal of existing churches may be much slower and more challenging than church planging, renewal is still an important ministry. Frankly, it is the central focus of my own energy these days. Not all congregations can change – maybe not all should. But we might realistically expect:

    1. Some congregations can change some – but not all congregations can change as much as some people want them to – especially not at the speed some expect. And some congregations will not be able to change – though they are dwindling and will soon die.
    2. Some other congregations, althugh unable to change, will likely not die – at least not in the near future. As Fred Smith says, they may survive “as a sport or an art form.” At one time international travel required sailing, and raising cattle required riding and roping. Today, however, regattas and rodeos exist only as sport for those who “like that sort of thing.” In the 16th century some forms of music were popular world wide that today are merely quaint art forms preserved by a few special interest musicians.Just so, some surviving churches will serve only a limited a limited audience. Although at one time their strategies and formats were culturally appropriate, producing explosive growth, today those outdated forms appeal primarily to a small nostalgic segment who may appreciate “that sort of thing.”
    3. A number of our congregations in key urban areas will experience the illusion of growth as rural people move to the city or as city people migrate from dying urban churches to newer, but still traditional, suburban churches. But this will merely consolidate our failures. These “swelling” churches may look successfuly short term, even though they make no significant inroads to the unchurched population.
    4. Still other churches will be able to change some, maybe even enough to grow slowly – reaching at least some pockets of unchurched people.


  • We see plent of reason to hope that more and more old churches will change enough to grow significantly by reaching unchurched people. Church watcher Lyle Schaller reports that less than 5% of congregations 25 years or older are growing by evangelism. And the growing 5% have undergone “radical systemic and methodological change.” But the fact that 5% have changed and adjusted enough to grow, proves that old churches can change. This may be especially true:
    • as God renews our focus on word, worship and witness.
    • as God refines our understanding of the message.
    • as we learn more about the culture.
    • as our leadership skills expand
    • as we gain skills in the science of change.



  • Most important of all: We trust in the God of surprises who made Ezekiel’s dry bones dance! The God who himself never changes constantly keeps changing everything. He is changing us as a fellowship. We are becoming more tolerant, more pluralistic, less rigid – “a kinder, gentler people.” Renewal is a valid ministry. However, renewal alone is too slow, too limited, and too late to reach all of our ever-changing, rapidly-growing, and pluralistic continent.


Besides renewing “old churches we must begin “new” churches that “look” different. In fact, at this very hour a number of these new churches are on the drawing boards or have already been launched. Let us all pray for these “pioneers of new paradigms” and encourage them as they sail off into uncharted waters.

Now is not the time to throw in the towel. You can teach old dogs new tricks. Believe me. I’ve seen it. Great days lie ahead.

P.S. We at Hope Network are elated at the overwhelming response from across the continent as registrations roll in for “A Church that Connects,” our seminar on “Change” in Dallas, August 21-23. See you there. And bring us your most hopeful stories about healthy change.

1 Lynn Anderson, “An Interview, Part One.” Image, VII, 3, May-June, 1991, p. 15.
2 Davis, Staley M. Future Perfect. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Reading, Massachusetts, 1987, p. 8.
Wineskins Magazine

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