When Your Church Is Resisting Change

I sometimes tease our young pastors that “in all the world, there are only three people who enjoy change, and none are members of your church.”

It’s a common perception in our churches that the Lord’s people seem to be resistant to change. And there is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence, as flockless shepherds step up to tell how they lost their pulpits when they tried to change a schedule or a program.

But, look around at the people attending our churches. They seem to handle change fairly well in other areas of their lives. They’re on computers, own X-boxes, play farm games on Facebook, send emails, and stay in touch with the world by their smart phones. No one at church drives a 1948 Packard because he doesn’t like change. No woman still wears the hair styles of the 1930s (as they did when I was a kid in the 1940s and ’50s). Their clothing is fairly up-to-date.

And yet, I can take you to an even dozen pastors right now who carry the scars of battles they fought trying to get the Lord’s people to make even the simplest of changes.

What’s going on?

Here is my take on why change is hard for God’s people. And the news, I have to say, is not good. The Lord who said, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5) is probably not very pleased with those who hold onto what He did in the past and refuse to accept the new thing He is doing today.

The Lord who repeatedly commanded that we “sing unto the Lord a new song” (Psalm 33:3; 96:1; etc.) is probably not impressed when we refuse to sing anything but the songs we grew up under.

Why Change is So Hard for the Lord’s Frozen Chosen.

By the way, these are in no particular order, other than as they occur to me.

1. Change feels like loss.

–“If we add choruses to our worship service, we will have to cut out some of the hymns. But I love the hymns. Why should I give up my wonderful hymns for some cutesy little tunes someone wrote in his garage?”

–“If we add an additional worship service, we will divide the congregation. I’ll not see my friends unless we attend the same service. I am ag’in it.”

–“When I go on a diet, I lose weight and get healthier, which are all good. But I also have to quit wearing some things in the closet I love. And give up chocolate ice cream. So, no diet for me, thanks.”

2. Change challenges our belief system.

–“It was good for Paul and Silas; it’s good enough for me.” Yes, sir–give me that old time religion.

–“Are you telling me how we’ve done it all these years wasn’t working? Or has God changed the way He does things?”

–“Why should I buy one of those new-fangled Bible translations? The King James is still the Authorized, Authoritative Version. It has served us well all these centuries.” (I actually did have a friend tell me in all seriousness, “If it was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me.”)

–“Pastor, I love people and I think we should be taking the gospel to them. I just don’t want to go to church with them or sit on the same pew beside them. We’re just ‘different,’ you know what I mean?”

3. Change sends us into uncharted territory and it’s scary out there.

Joshua told Israel they must be obey all that the Lord God commands, “for you have not been this way before” (Joshua 3:4).

The future is uncharted territory, but we walk forward into it whether we like it or not. Believers have a Lord who dwells in the future as well as the present. We can go confidently into “that good night,” as one put it. “He leadeth me in paths of righteousness.”

“I don’t mind going into the future so long as I have something familiar to hold on to. And you are taking my security blanket away.”

Security blankets. That would be familiar buildings, people, customs, and things.

For good reason God’s people were told throughout the Word, Old and New Testament, that “The Lord is My Rock.” He is our security, not that pew my daddy paid for, not that parking space where I’ve always parked, and not the time of services nor the choice of hymns.

4. Change often snags on hidden tree trunks, slams up against hidden shoals.

The new pastor decides nursery workers should be free to attend worship occasionally. Not a revolutionary idea. But this means some who have stayed out of Sunday School for eons to rock babies (and pick up additional income on the side) are now being asked to change. Suddenly, the young pastor who thought he was doing something spiritual which everyone would welcome finds himself the target of attacks and insinuations. The bloom quickly fades from his joy.

When the preacher suggested the congregation should rotate positions like treasurer, chairman of deacons, and personnel chair, he quickly discovered that some positions are considered family heirlooms. “My daddy and his daddy before him were the treasurers of the church. I feel it’s my duty to them to carry on the tradition.” “I’ve held this position since the Eisenhower administration, and frankly, pastor, I don’t intend to give it up.”

“I know you meant well, preacher, but Mrs. Johnson is threatening to withdraw the pledge she’d made toward the new sanctuary if you insist on changing the times of the service.” What is left unsaid is that Mrs. Johnson stopped the same change from being made a generation ago. She has a long memory.

5. Change is anathema to the carnal.

Jesus said, “Men put new wine into new wineskins” (Matthew 9:17). God’s faithful children are the new skins, meaning His people–the church–are to be containers of this new thing He is doing. The Lord’s people are to be adaptable, flexible, growing, responsive to the Spirit.

Unbelievers and carnal Christians have many things in common. Chief among them is a resistance to the will of God. What counts with both groups is “how I think,” “what I feel,” and “how we’ve always done it.”

I have sometimes said and strongly believe that many who oppose everything new coming down the pike in church are atheists. Now, when pressed, they can give you a salvation testimony, they will vow and declare they believe the Bible from one end to the other, and they believe Jesus is coming back to earth some day. What they do not believe is that the Lord is in this place (Matthew 18:20) or has any particular interest in what’s going on today. They feel they can get by with their little road-blocks and pity-parties with impunity.

Many people are going to have a major comeuppance at Judgement.

6. Change is hard; coasting is easier.

“Any old dead fish can float downstream; it takes a live one to swim up it.”

In physics, inertia is the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest and a body in motion to continue moving. When church members sit down and take their ease, to rouse them and get them to do anything requires superhuman effort and involves overcoming their natural resistance.

John West managed a plantation in the Mississippi Delta years ago. He also pastored a small Baptist church across the Mississippi River in Arkansas. Once, when he had me over to preach to his people, he confided in me something I’ve long remembered. “My people could afford a full-time pastor. But they don’t want one. If they had a man of God on the field full-time, he would want them to come to church during the week and to have visitation and do other things. So, they resist any suggestion that they bring in someone full-time.”

7. Change goes against our conservative, traditional nature.

Even though the Lord said His people were to become new skins for the surging powerful work of the Spirit He would be doing among them, an equally strong current of conservative, traditional values flows through them. After all, doesn’t the Word say, “Do not move the old landmarks” (Proverbs 22:28;23:10). Surely that means to hold on to the best of the past.

And even our Lord said, “No one after tasting the old wine prefers the new, for he says, ‘The old is good enough’” (Luke 5:39).  He knew.

We must keep in mind what Jesus said to the traditionalists of His day. You have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition (Matthew 15:6).  Let’s not do that.

To be faithful followers of Jesus Christ means we will all necessarily be tradition-breakers and iconoclasts. (I refer you to II Kings 18:4 where the bronze serpent from Moses’ day was ground to ashes because it had lost its honored place as a relic of the past and become an idol.)

And so many more reasons….

On Facebook, when I asked why God’s people resist change so customarily, the answers flew in. People are wed to specific events (time, place, people) that brought spiritual blessings and are reluctant to let them go. They don’t want the responsibility of the result of changing. One said, ‘I’m satisfied where I am now. Complacent.”

To change is to admit that we were wrong in the past, one friend said. It’s an attack on my ego. It’s tied into self-righteousness.

The status quo is predictable, but change? Not at all. The familiar is always more comfortable.

One pastor said, “People are married to the world.”

Some people have had a bad experience in the past with wholesale changes and now resist any hint of it.

Change disorients us. “I can’t find my place.”

Is there an answer? What can a spiritual leader do to prepare his people for change? After all, life is change. Growth is change. It really does come down to a matter of “Change or die.”

Here are a few suggestions on a topic about which entire libraries have been devoted.

1. Preach.

From the pulpit, preach the new wine/wineskin metaphor, particularly when nothing controversial is going on. Show your people how Christ loves to do new things, how our Creator God tends to repeat Himself almost never, and how we become our own worst enemies when we limit Him to what He has done in the past.

2. Teach.

As the Lord told fathers in Israel, “Talk of these things when you sit in your house, and when you walk in the way; when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:6). That is, teach these concepts in everyday normal conversation.

3. Tweak.

I once heard a mega-church pastor say his church is always tweaking things, always making changes. Thus, no one is threatened by one more alteration in the schedule or the format. They get used to it and see change as a friend, not a threat.

4. Leak.

When the White House wants to prepare the public for a major change in policy, before making the full announcment, officials will arrange to have some details leaked to the press. The public is prepared and not taken by surprise when the president goes public with the program.

Before dropping a bomb on the membership, wise leaders will talk to individuals here and there, in bits and pieces, to test the waters and to prepare the people for what is to come.

5. Meek.

Be humble about this now. Especially if your people have no history of change. Expect them to react poorly, the same way you would in their shoes.

I said to a pastor who had sought my advice, “The issue you are promoting in the church is good. But it’s no hill to die on. Even if you have to back off and fight again another day, it’s all right.”

Sometimes we win more supporters by tossing in the towel for the sake of unity and brotherhood than if we had held to our guns and carried the day at the cost of relationships.

Exercise courage, pastor. A church has to change or it will die. Do not be one of these shepherds who is afraid to set a new direction out of fear of resistance or concern for his job. Be prayerful, wait on the Lord, pull plenty of leaders in as early in the planning as you can, then stand up and lead the way.

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This article originally appeared on JoeMcKeever.com and is reposted here by permission.

Joe McKeever
Joe McKeever

Joe McKeever spent 42 years pastoring six Southern Baptist churches and has been writing and cartooning for religious publications for more than 40 years.