Embracing Brave Change as Christian Identity and Mission

For people in ministry, one of the most frustrating phrases to hear from congregants and committees is, “But we’ve never done it that way before.” There is often a lot packed into that one sentence—fear (of risk, of failure), hesitation around trusting the pastoral leader, and even grief over the loss of the familiar.  For leaders this phrase can feel like a roadblock. They have probably (hopefully) spent time researching, discussing, praying, and discerning. They feel passion and a sense of call; so they will also feel frustrated when their new idea is greeted with trepidation, fear, hesitation, resistance, grief, or that dreaded phrase, “we’ve never done it that way before.” How do ministry leaders help their communities prepare for and embrace change? How do community members communicate all that is behind that phrase to their ministry leaders? I focus on these questions for three reasons: 1) change really is inevitable; 2) change is part of our call as Christians; and 3) change is complicated.

Change is inevitable in the church. There are many, many polls to show this—a new one just out from the Pew Forum this month—and many, many articles, blogs, and books that membership in Christian churches, in particular mainline Protestant churches, is in decline across the United States. If churches want to stop shrinking—and maybe even grow—they must embrace change. If they do not, change will come anyway—but in the form of churches closing, being sold, or turned into housing, breweries, community centers, or razed and replaced with a different kind of building entirely. Change is inevitable. The questions then become, how will we respond to change, and will we choose to be agents of change or passive recipients?

Change is not simply a cultural reality. It is more important than that. Change is part of our call and our heritage as Christians. In response to cultural change, theological awareness, and the Spirit of God, the church has always been changing. The church has taken different shapes in different places at different times across the world. Church doctrine and polity regularly changes. Congregations change as neighborhoods change. When the church becomes aware of its mistakes and sins, we hope for and expect repentance—a turning around—and change. As we follow the Spirit of God, we must respond to the Spirit’s nudging if we are to be faithful. The history of the Christian church is the history of change. It is the history of Jesus bringing and being something new in the world and the history of Paul bringing that newness to new places and new people in the world. The truth is that God knows we are sometimes slow to see what God does. We need help. The Spirit is always trying to provide that help. Every ministry that a church or other Christian organization has “always done” was new at some point.

Change is not simply a cultural reality. It is more important than that. Change is part of our call and our heritage as Christians.

Change is complicated. This is true even when we are ready to commit to it and see it as upheld by our theology. While some people may find great hope and joy in pursuing a new direction, others will encounter much grief and loss. We who seek the Spirit’s nudging to do a new thing must also realize and respect that the church has done a good job of being a spiritual refuge and a meaningful formative space for those who come through its doors, sit on the uncomfortable pews, and raise their voices in prayer, praise, and song each week. Members have been baptized and married in these churches. They have been to the funerals of their friends, children, and spouses in the sanctuary where they know one day their own life will be celebrated. Sermons have been thought-provoking, Bible studies have helped them understand their faith in new ways, fundraisers have given them purpose, and the annual traditions have provided rhythm and order. Pastors and ministry leaders need to gather and respect the stories of how current ministries came about. When a leader discerns that it is time to change a ministry or end a ministry it must be done not only with excitement for what is coming next, but also with respect for what has come before and awareness that the congregation needs a grief process to let go and move on to something new.

Thanks to a grant from the Lilly Endowment, Wesley Theological Seminary, where I am in ministry, has been helping congregations in the Washington, D.C. area to pursue innovative ministries with young adults outside of their congregations. Some of the congregations with which we work are thriving congregations with innovation as a part of their identities. Some of the congregations are struggling with decline or with social realities like gentrification. We have found that not every church has the same motivation for wanting to be part of learning how to do innovation in ministry, but we have found some trends in what helps a church embrace this kind of journey and what makes it harder. Here are a few of the things we’ve learned:

  • People who are willing to be a part of a team committed to working on innovative ministries are leaders who already have many other commitments and demands on their time. (No surprise here.) When a church is trying to maintain its current programming and do something new at the same time, we must be good stewards of the congregants who are putting in the time and energy to make it all happen. If innovation is just one more thing on an already full plate, it will be hard to give it the time and imaginative space it needs.
  • Innovation is formative work. A leader in ministry must lead people in knowing, being, and doing (three aspects of Christian formation according to Christian education scholar Frederick P. Edie) Christianity differently. While their own vision is important, bringing others along is a key part of leadership. Some of Christianity is about what we know, but certainly not all of it. Christianity is also about the kind of person someone is and what they do in their lives. Pastoral leadership for change must help others conceptualize of their Christian faith in different and broader ways. There is re-education and re-formation necessary. Christian faith is practiced everywhere and every minute of a Christian’s day. We must stop thinking that Christian faith is separate from what we do with our lives, times, and relationships. When we embrace this, we can also embrace ministries that take place outside of the church and outside of Sunday morning. Importantly, pastors and ministry leaders are just as in need of this kind of re-formation as congregants.
  • To truly be able to welcome people from outside the church, the church must listen carefully to their desires, needs, gifts, and hopes. When a church plans programming it usually listens to those who are inside the church. This makes sense – we want to serve our current faith community well with our ministries. And also, we are not called only to serve ourselves but also the world. What if our neighbors need to use the church building differently than we could have imagined on our own? What if our neighbors have ideas about what ministry can look like that we couldn’t come up with because of our limited point of view as church members/attenders? What if listening deeply and with empathy to our neighbors leads us to hear God in new ways? If it is true (and I believe that it is) that the church is called to represent and embody Christ in the world, then we are called to respond to the needs of the community around us just like Christ did. New opportunities for responding to the needs of the world, the needs of our neighborhoods, are always around us. Lest we think our call as Christians is to only fulfill needs, we are also called to see how God is at work in the world outside our walls. We need to get to know dimensions of God unfamiliar to us because we have stayed in our pews for too long. We often assume we know what God’s voice sounds like, but we have forgotten that the sound of a voice is different in the open air than it is inside a sanctuary designed for acoustics.
  • At the same time, leaders in the church must also listen carefully and deeply to the stories within the church. Those who have been a part of the church for a long time are the keepers of the stories of God’s action in and among the congregation. We asked the churches working with us on innovative ministry with young adults to interview the oldest members of their congregations. This helped our teams connect to the history of the church, which was especially important for team members who were newer to their churches. This practice of story-listening also taught the team to appreciate existing ministries of the church so their innovations could plant roots connected with the church’s longstanding identity. Teams were also able to see how the church practiced hospitality so that new people felt invited, welcomed, and valued as a part of the community. This offered them insight into what this spiritual practice of hospitality might look like now, too.
  • Leadership and membership in churches need the space to experiment and fail and learn – all things necessary for doing a new thing. Trying something new takes courage, but it also takes things like money without strings and permission to fail. Every failure is a chance to learn and then try something else new. Through our grant from Lilly, we have been able to give our partnering church teams money without strings. Their church administrative boards (and their pastors) do not get to tell them how to spend it. We tell these teams that we expect them to fail and to have to change course as they try out their new ideas. Permission to fail is a new experience for many churches, and it is incredibly freeing.
  • The most successful church teams are those that include different ages and different kinds of connections to the church. For a church to get on board with what a group decides to do in terms of innovation and new ministries, they need to know about it and believe in it. Having people on the team who are long time members or have a lot of power in the church help that happen. Having newer people keeps the memory of being outsiders at the forefront of the conversation.
The history of the Christian church is the history of change.

Churches can be agents of change. They really can. They can do new things, listen to new people, and respond to the Spirit in creative ways. Pastors and ministry leaders need to focus on the formative work of helping people see Christianity and the practice of it in a different way to prepare to embrace change and embark on a process of doing something new. There needs to be a lot of trust in the leadership and a lot of respect for the congregation’s history and present. Once Christians are clear that God is calling us to do new things—as God has always done—and that we can trust God to help us be creative in response to the challenges, needs, and people we get to know in the process of deciding what new things to do, then we are ready to embark on a journey of faithful innovation. There will be risks and failures, and it if it is in service to God and our neighbors then it will be worth it and will help the church more closely embody the Christ we claim to follow.

change, church, Ministry

Emily A. Peck-McClain

Rev. Dr. Emily A. Peck-McClain is Visiting Professor of Christian Formation and Young Adult Ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. Peck-McClain is author of Arm in Arm with Adolescent Girls: Educating into the New Creation (2018). She is also a contributing editor to Speaking Truth: Women Raising Their Voices in Prayer, which will be released in February. Peck-McClain lives in Maryland with her spouse, three kids, and one dog.


Featured Image: SomeDriftwood, “Change?” (February 23, 2010). Via Flickr. CC 2.0 license.

Photo #1: Kent Kanouse, “Inside the Old Stone Church Restaurant, Castle Rock, CO” (September 25, 2010). Via Flickr. CC 2.0 license.