Keeping the faith and changing with the times - is "always reforming" possible?

Change matters, but does it mean keeping the faith or compromising with culture? Presbyterians don't find this easy. We change or we die, but if we engage in inappropriate change or manage good change badly we are also at risk. Not all change is a good thing - repentance is change for the good, there is also a change that is turning towards sin rather than away from it. A difficulty for churches is that a failure to change with the times can also be a kind of failure to be true to the requirements of the Gospel. Change for the good can also be managed badly.

Being Reformed is not only about knowing what to change so that the life and worship of the church are more appropriate to the the truth of the Gospel (semper reformanda), the circumstances of the times, and the people of God coming into the church, but also when to change, and how to do it in ways that hold the church together on the same journey. There are tensions between the needs of the people who are already part of the family of the church, and those we seek to reach for Christ. Second-guessing the needs and tastes of others or confusing our own comfort zones with the requirements of Gospel truth are risks we run.

Change requires leadership and patience. People react to new proposals not just in terms of whether they think it is a good or a bad idea, but in terms of whether they have been given time and opportunity to own a decision and not have it forced upon them.

Decisions which have failed to take people along have wrecked ministries and damaged congregations. Yet it is possible to do it right, and turn the risk of change into an exercise of faith which grows people's trust in God and confidence in each other.

A change proposal may be about large things or small. A seemingly trivial modification to congregational life can have a strong emotional or symbolic importance which catches leaders off-guard. What may be to many a sign of promise and hope about new styles of music, different times of service, the facilities of a new building, the redecoration of a room, or the benefits of a particular Christian education or outreach program, may be the last straw in their sense of ownership and security for someone else.

It can be important to repeatedly engage people in discussion of questions of purpose, mission and theology, before taking a vote on a practical matter at hand. What is our mission? Why do we worship? What do we believe about God? What then do we need to do? This helps us see hesitations or opposition to change as an opportunity to understand better what people are concerned about.

It may also be possible to allow for diversity (as with different styles of worship at different times), or to try something for a period before making a commitment. Things may be clear-cut to some, but others need the gift of time to process things.

For some things in the wider life of the church, it may be a matter of allowing people space to take responsibility for their own decisions, even if we would do things differently. Conversely we may wish to be cautious about requiring others to make the changes we ourselves wish to make. Managing change also requires care for those who in good faith see things differently.

We sometimes use very bad arguments for advocating change. "The church is declining, therefore we have to do something different!" may suggest we need to do something, but it does say anything at all about the merits of a particular proposal.

Here are some other pointers for managing change in a congregation.

When St Columba was looking at a new building before they moved from Pakuranga to Botany Downs, they put the congregation in buses and toured round other churches. They then met to discuss what they liked, what they did not like, and made suggestions to the planning committee. The whole church were on the journey.

with thanks to Keith Nisbet


Alban Institute Congregational Resource Guide, Congregational vitality: Change.

Gilbert R. Rendle, The Illusion of Congregational "Happiness", and Leading a congregation through change, Alban Institute.