If there is one thing guaranteed to send a chill down the spine of the average congregation, it is the prospect of change in the church of Christ. Nothing is more likely to turn a pew into a trench than talk of a new hymn book, a revamped order of service or a restructured ministry. And we can understand why many Christians struggle in this way: change produces uncertainty which in turn exposes human insecurity. People are forced to look into a future they had hoped would be calm and predictable, only to find it mutating into something seemingly wild and unmanageable. Some of us will sympathise with those who struggle in this way. Maybe, as you read this, that struggle is your own. Yet the fact is that change is a dimension of life which we cannot avoid. It is also an inevitable feature of church experience. How then should Christians approach it?
Good change - bad change
Common sense tells us that not all change is of equal value. Some innovations and developments are good whereas others are bad. For example, believers ought to recognise that any change which makes the gospel more comprehensible to unbelievers is a positive step. If altering the way we do things in church leads to better outreach, and more conversions, who would call this bad?
On the other hand, the wise Christian also recognises that some change is negative. It is fair to say that there are several absolutes of faith and practice that should always remain fixed in stone: the deity of Christ, salvation by faith alone, the standards of Christian sexual ethics are some examples. If we encounter teachers who tell us to modify such fundamentals, so as to accommodate cultural sensitivities, we need to beware. This is bad change that must be resisted.
Taking these things for granted, what does the Bible have to say about the subject of change itself? The first thing to register is that God Himself delights in healthy development and progress. We see this by the fact that the primary task God gave to humanity was to fill His world and develop it (Genesis 1:26). Adam was not instructed to curate Eden like a museum; he was told to name the animals, not stuff them (Genesis 2:19). He and his wife were commissioned to sculpt and transform God's creation for His glory. Even though we live in a fallen world this mandate for change remains. Being human demands a creative approach to life and worship.
Further to this, the gospel itself ought to generate a mindset in which some progression and development is seen as a positive thing. This is because salvation is frequently described in Scripture as something that is 'new' (Psalm 40:3; Isaiah 42:9; 43:19; Jeremiah 31:31; Luke 5:36-39; Revelation 21:5). The very essence of conversion involves embracing a Divine programme of inward renewal and outward transformation (John 3:3; Romans 12:2). Salvation is fresh not stale; progressive not regressive. To suppress reasonable and godly development in fellowship life runs counter to the spirit of the gospel. Time-capsules may be at home in the Blue Peter garden, but not in the church of Christ.
Dishonest to God
It is also worth pointing out that a changeless church runs the risk of dishonestly representing the character of God to the world. This may surprise some - after all isn't God eternal and unchanging? Isn't Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever? The answer to these questions is, of course, yes (Deuteronomy 33:27; Hebrews 13:8). But the truths they refer to are statements about the essential nature and attributes of the Father and Son, not the forms they minister through. The style via which the unchanging character of God is expressed may vary from generation to generation. Therefore, a church that never develops becomes a living contradiction of these facts. It models a deity so woven into the chain-mail of our private traditions, and habits, that He appears remotely aloof to modern seekers and disciples.
Knowing that some change is good, and even necessary, doesn't mean it is always easy. People are creatures of habit, prone to panic when familiar scenes shift and shudder. How then are we to address this? Perhaps the solution comes by educating the church to recognise the positive spiritual benefits which change potentially brings in its wake. The most significant of these is found in the way it can enrich our faith in Christ.
The reason some believers fear change is due to the way in which it undermines their sense of spiritual assurance. Perhaps they were converted under a particular style of ministry. During their early Christian life they were helped by certain hymns and taught from a specific translation of the Bible. Praise God for this! But then gradually they began to lean on these things, as a source of spiritual security, in a way that the Lord who saved them never intended. Inevitably, any hint that these elements might be replaced by something new is seen as a threat. It feels as though the very foundation of their faith is being assaulted.
The positive in all of this is that change in these areas can force individuals back to a purity of belief that may have been lost over time. As cherished traditions and surroundings undergo alteration, believers are put in a position where there is little alternative but to draw closer to Christ alone for satisfaction and security. This in turn can have a profoundly positive impact on personal spiritual confidence. Whenever people look to their outward environment for security, insecurity is never far away, as little in this world stays the same for long. But when people find their source of confidence in Jesus alone, spiritual assurance grows because He is unchanging, His word is unfailing and His kingdom lasts forever.
How then should we now respond?
When the Christian faces change he or she can do so confidently, knowing that, if handled wisely, it can provide fresh opportunity for spiritual growth. How then should we practically respond when it comes our way? Let me close with three brief suggestions.
The first thing to do is consider the positives. Because change can be disruptive to our neatly ordered existence it is all too easy to react in an emotionally negative manner, from the gut as it were. Therefore, a good habit to cultivate is that of 'standing back' from the situation and asking ourselves what positive blessings may result from this change. Will it help non-Christians understand the gospel better? Will it teach Christians to learn how to distinguish unchanging truth from temporal tradition? If we adopt this approach we may be surprised at how many genuine positives we begin to find. This will then help us to face any new developments without undue anxiety.
The second thing to do is consider the need of others. It is often because Christians do not do this that conflict and tension occurs. Either those at the helm of reform aggressively trample over the sensitivities of others as they push through their own pet innovations and projects. Or those who find new things uncomfortable sabotage their introduction by withdrawing co-operation, even undermining those who champion them. Both attitudes are equally wrong and selfish. As Christians, we should examine the needs of others when change seems imminent. I may or may not want it – but will it promote the well-being of those around me? Is this change in the best interest of the church as a whole? By adjusting our thinking this way our responses are much more likely to be God honouring and Christlike.
The third, and final, thing to do is consider the Lordship of Christ. Who does the church ultimately belong too? It belongs to Jesus (Colossians 1:18)! Yet how easily we forget this. And when we do it becomes second-nature to demand that the church bind itself to our preferred patterns. But what if the Lord has other plans? What if, through the guidance of His word, Spirit and providence, He intends the church to develop in a hitherto uncharted direction, for the sake of the gospel (Acts 16:7)? Surely one of the exciting things about discipleship is how the Lord can guide people into fields of fruitful ministry they did not foresee (Acts 8:26-28). By developing a heart of submission to the dynamic Lordship of Christ, amid much of the change this entails, we can ensure that we experience the joy of being included in this harvest.