Change is challenging regardless of the context. Change regarding a community or institution that one holds particularly dear and/or one that is believed to be an integral aspect of the Kingdom of God seems so much more painful. From the numerical heights of church attendance in the U.S. of the 1950s there has been a steady decline from that point, and it seems to be unabated. One only has to visit one of the large metropolitan centers, particularly on the Eastern Seaboard to find massive churches that are only a shell of their former selves or have now been transformed into a hip new micro-brewery amidst urban gentrification.
Diane Zemke provides insight into aspects of change occurring in the U.S. church and encourages some opportunities for individual church communities to either end well, or assess what stage they may be in to determine if there are alternatives. In many cases it must be recognized that there are not.
This is not necessarily defeat, though this is a very difficult message to accept. It does not mean that the Church as a whole is in its death throes but possibly suggests that at critical points in the life of a congregation, they failed to recognize the changes occurring around them and anticipate appropriate responses. God is still very much present and active in all of those communities but may be moving in ways that no longer fit the way things had happened in the past.
While there were several premises with which I disagreed the book by Zemke, “Being Smart about Congregational Change” provides sufficient insight and some strong research that is useful for any congregation regardless of how ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ they feel they are and what stage they are convinced they are in at the present. In many ways the text would be better used by those churches who believe they are on the ‘cutting edge’ of contemporary ministry because so did the ones that are now brewing beer at one point in time.
In a leadership context it is likely that any one of those in this course of study may be needed by one or more congregations at several different stages along the life-cycle of a church. It would be wise to have an understanding of these change principles and help those congregations through some self-assessment in order to discern what God might be saying to the congregation as well as how God is moving in the local community.
Change is already upon us, there is no use denying it. The hope is that the US church is willing to respond to those changes in a manner that encourages greater development, growth in critical areas of need and deals with some of the issues of the past. Faith communities will never be perfect this side of eternity but it is even more hurtful to be producing greater harm through an unwillingness to recognize reality.
Personally, I have struggled for the past 15 years at an institution that has not handled change well and I fear now may be doing more harm than good when it comes to the spiritual life of college students. In attempts to maintain tradition and encourage greater appreciation for ‘high church’ worship I fear that what is actually occurring is that unchurched students are being inoculated with the Gospel so that they are unlikely ever to become full of the real thing. Let’s pray that this is an isolated context, but I fear it is not and Zemke’s text suggests that there are many others potentially caught in that trap.
May all of us be wise in our leadership of the Church and encourage the faithful to listen intently and respond faithfully to the dynamic works of God and the love of humanity displayed in a multitude of ways. May we not cling too tightly to traditions for their own sake but at the same time not simply dismiss them because they are deemed out of date. May we recognize the pain that change such as this can cause and never stop pastoring those who are living through it.