Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Discontinuous Change

Yesterday at our staff meeting we talked about continuous vs. discontinuous change. Put simply, continuous change is change that happens little by little. Tweak the quality of your worship music and mess in minor ways with the style of preaching and you may draw a few more people to worship. Most of us are constantly trying to create continuous change. Every day in every way we are trying to get a little bit better. Learn a new habit. Read a new book. Initiate a new conversation. Manage finances better. Keep the garage a little cleaner.

If everything in your life is working the way you want it to, continuous change is probably right.

But sometimes life demands more than continuous change. Either something internal says, "This is not working!" or your external context changes and "the way we've always done things" no longer works. You can't tweak your way out of a radical problem -- you need to find a radical solution.

This is at least part of what Jesus was driving at when he told the rich young ruler to "sell all that you have, give money to the poor, and come follow me" (see Luke 18:18-25). The young man had life pretty much in hand. He was looking for some kind of continuous change that would help push him over the edge to eternal life. But Jesus responds to his question by saying this requires discontinuous change. The young man needs a radical solution.

Simply put, he has misdiagnosed the problem. It's like going to the doctor with a sore throat hoping for some high powered cough drops and finding out you have throat cancer and need immediate surgery.

We -- especially those of us in the church -- are often guilty of misdiagnosing our problems. We think we need to add a guitar player to the opening song or provide brunch after worship, and God wants to do throat surgery. This is why Jesus so often tells people to "repent!" Repentance is the New Testament's way of telling us we need radical solutions. We need a clean break from our previous pattern. We need discontinuous change.

I am not recommending that churches reinvent themselves every six months. That is a foolish trend that creates a climate of mistrust or else it merely gives lip service to the radical nature of change. But too many churches are stuck in a past that is fifty years out of date. We continue to do the same old same old things, hoping that some minor tweaking will bust our church loose from our moorings.

It is not the church that has changed. Rather, our context has changed in radical ways. Fifty years ago, the church was in the center of the culture. Pastors were Very Important People. Those who attended church usually attended the church their parents did, or at least a church in the same denomination. Church calendars, with their odd seasons like Lent and Advent gave structure to people's time. When churches spoke, everyone knew that what they said was important. Knowledge of the Bible was relatively widespread and people acknowledged the Bible as in some sense an authoritative book.

So today, churches often assume this context. But the context has changed. People may know the Bible, or they may wonder what is the difference between the big numbers and the small ones. Church attenders may have no idea what Easter or Christmas are really about, let alone Pentecost and Epiphany. When churches speak, people generally ignore what is said unless it's pathetic and foolish enough to draw CNN's attention. Clergy may be respected, but society has read enough headlines to know that they're not to be trusted with money or with children.

Yet the vast majority of churches simply motor along like a moped on the freeway. Our context demands discontinuous change. Think of every image that comes to mind when you think about what "church" means -- pews, one-hour worship services, steeples, offering plates, robes and candles and certificates -- and toss them out in the compost. Now start with the New Testament in one hand and the internet in the other, and figure out what it means to be church today. Along the way, take those proud traditions and figure out not how to live in the past, but how to have a past here in the present.

A dozen years ago, Sally Morgenthaler said that the world is asking three questions of the church. Though the culture has largely decided we don't have good answers, I think Sally's three questions (slightly altered to keep up with the calendar) still provide a good way to begin asking what discontinuous change might look like for the church today. Here are her three questions:

1. Do you know God?
2. Do you have a story?
3. Do you live in 2011?

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