Much of the church in the U.S., including my own, needs change, change, and more change. Even a quick glance at what is happening around and among us should be enough to convince us that the church simply must change. In the U.S., most denominations are in decline and some of them must “pull up” soon or they will “crash and burn.”
Denominations that are growing in the U.S. often show modest growth at best. A closer look, however, is not as encouraging. Many of these churches are growing thanks to new church plants, “out-of-the box” ministry initiatives, and outreach to an increasing number of ethnic groups around them. At the same time, an alarming number of their existing churches (as many as half or more) are “stuck” or in serious decline. Thus, even for “growing” denominations, many local churches are headed for certain closure unless something changes. Unless they change.
Why should this be so alarming? What’s wrong with just maintaining? Where does the Bible say that change is good, and more change can be even better? Especially if it’s just “change for change’s sake?” Well, let’s take a step back, a deep breath, and consider such questions more carefully.
First, though, note how very different it has been in other parts of the world. In Africa, for example, at the beginning of the 20th century, something like 2% of sub-Saharan Africa could be called Christian in any sense. Then the “modern missionary movement” began and in less than 100 years more than 50% of the same region has become Christian. The movement of Jesus there has experienced exponential growth. Similar stories can be told about South America and much of Asia during this same time period.
In other words, during the 20th century in most of the world, the “church” has multiplied incredibly. Yet in our part of the world, the “church” limps along. This prompts another question: Which experience of church tracks most faithfully with the story of church we read in our Bibles? You can google it, if you want, but I think the answer is obvious. The story of most of the world and the story of the Bible, when compared with the more recent American story of church, powerfully suggests that the church in America must change. Then, change some more.
I am not talking about change simply to change, and I am not assuming that just any change would be good. Neither does the Bible, which describes the kind of changes the church here—our churches—must make.
Of course, we begin with Jesus. When the time was right, Jesus steps on the scene and calls for huge, massive change. He declares that the time of fullness has arrived, and the Kingdom of God has come near. In response Jesus calls people everywhere to “repent.” “Repent” never happens without change. Change in thinking, change in direction of life, and change of heart that prompts not only the first steps but continuing obedience on an entirely different life-path (see for example Mark 1:14-15ff.). Change, change, and more change.
Immediately, Jesus begins to call people to follow him. The people he called did not come to him; rather, he went to them, interrupting their lives with a call to follow. Imagine the changes of those first followers who had been fishing with family and friends, who never thought they’d do anything else until they heard, “Follow me.” More than once we read something like, “They got up, left their place of work and associates and even family, and followed.” Not just for an hour or afternoon, but the foreseeable future and beyond. In fact, they began a journey of more changes than we can count.
Once a small group began to follow Jesus, there was continuing change. The group of followers became a new peer group for one another, they entered an apprenticeship for work and life, they received new teaching, and practiced new ways of relating to friends, others, and eventually enemies, to name just a few of the changes.
One of the more profound of these changes was a deepened call from Jesus to join him in his public ministry, which in time would extend to the ends of the earth. In other words, their “conversion” not only brought them into intimate sharing with Jesus and his followers—so intimate that it took priority even over their natural families; it also included participation in Jesus’ own mission. Jesus came to do something and following him meant joining him in whatever that was. So, again, imagine the changes wrapped up in learning to orient and organize the whole of life around the things Jesus came to do. Could anything really remain the same, for long?
The Gospels make it clear that these changes were intended not only for the first disciples of Jesus. In Luke 10:1-20 Jesus sends 70 (or maybe it’s 72) others into various villages. These are not the 12 Apostles, who were sent earlier (see 9:1) but many others who were following. I believe Jesus sends them to do the kinds of things Jesus expects the church to do. Not just pastors and “foreign missionaries” but members of the church as well. I cannot give a full account of what he tells them to do, but please make these observations with me (from Luke 10:1-17):
- He sends them two by two, to say and do what Jesus said and did. Wherever they go, they are charged with making Jesus’ message known and sharing Jesus’ ministry among the people.
- There are not enough of them to do all Jesus asks. Not enough workers. Not enough resources. Simply, not enough. But this must not deter them. Still, they are sent. Evidently not having enough is just the reality not an excuse, whether it is enough partners or money.
- When they experience their lack of workers or resources or whatever, they must pray that the Lord will supply. They carry out their mission fully aware they are totally dependent on the Lord.
- They will encounter opposition, danger, and threat. Jesus says he sends them as sheep among wolves, knowing full well that all sheep are afraid of wolves. Still, he sends them, and expects they will go.
- They are told to expect some rejection. If the wolves do not get them, others might!
- They will have the power and authority, not to mention the resources, they need if they will go, praying to and depending upon the Lord of the harvest.
- They went under such circumstances, and came back marveling and rejoicing, reporting that even demons were subject to them.
Note the elements of change stated or implied in all that Jesus says. Contemplate being under resourced, encountering wolves, rejected by some or many, and still going. Imagine the changes to the typical human psyche such that deprivation, legitimate fear of mortal danger, likely rejection, and possible injury and death do not deter them from following Jesus’ instructions.
You may be thinking that these words are not meant for every Christian at all times and places. No doubt, that’s true. Even so, the gospels conclude with Jesus’ words that do apply to all followers of Jesus at all times and in all places. These words speak of making disciples and teaching them to do all that Jesus taught the first disciples. Clearly, then, the instructions to the 70 are among those instructions and commands. The details may change here and there, as will specific circumstances, but in general the profile of following sketched above at least points toward a series of radical changes in so-called normal human being and living. That profile in general characterizes all true following. And, this is a profile of change, change, and more change.
By its very nature, then, following Jesus leads to ongoing, significant changes of one sort or another and, thus, from time to time we would expect that “the church needs change, change, and more change.” The point of such change is not simply to get bigger and make a show. Rather, to find ways to declare and demonstrate the reality of life under the loving lordship of God. Jesus sent them to call others into this kingdom by following Jesus. In the process, people and places were changed. Indeed, throughout the history of the church, a changed and changing people have brought godly change wherever they go. That has always been the norm and the plan of Jesus our Lord for the people called church.
What must we do when the church declines and fails to participate in the ongoing mission of Jesus? Isn’t it true we quite literally must choose between changing and dying? Under these circumstances wouldn’t you agree that the church—we—need change, change and more change?
(Think about it and stay tuned.)