It’s an old joke.
How many [insert your denomination here] does it take to change a light bulb?
Change! What’s wrong with the old light bulb!?
They say that nobody likes change except a wet baby. That’s certainly true in the church. We hang on to traditions with a fierceness few can match. Where else can you see leaders wearing garments based on ancient Roman street dress (albs) or the gowns of 16th century academics (those black preaching robes)? Where else are you expected to sing the same songs that your grandmother or great-grandfather loved?
And yet, we know that the church has certainly changed in the past, and needs to continue to change today. Our culture isn’t static.The pace of change around us has only accelerated. When I think about it, that old light bulb joke is an example of how fast things are changing. Light bulbs had changed very little since the days of Thomas Edison. Now we have a reason to change a light bulb, even if it’s not burnt out. In my own home we’ve gone from incandescent, to compact fluorescent, to LEDs, in order to save energy and warm up the planet just a little less. We still share God’s good news, but the way we do that needs to transform and adapt as rapidly as our world does.
There seems to be a correlation between the ability to change and church vitality. According to the United Church of Christ 2015 Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey, a higher percentage of churches who see themselves as “thriving or doing OK” also embrace change. A higher percentage of churches who see themselves as “struggling” wrestled with change. Nearly 45% of struggling churches agreed with the statement that “we need to change to increase our vitality and viability, but the congregation does not seem to realize it, and/or doesn’t want to make the necessary changes.” Of the churches who knew they were struggling, 41% said that “we are slowly changing, but not fast enough nor significantly enough.” Only 3.5% of struggling churches said “we are where we need to be and do not need to change.” Even more interesting is that a smaller number of thriving churches, only 1.2%, agreed with that statement.
Left on our own, local congregations tend to plod along, doing the same things we’ve done the year before just as we’ve always done them. Over time, we tend to lose sight of an activity’s purpose. We forget to question its connection to our core mission as the church of Jesus Christ. After all, we spend our time in this one expression of church. Some church members spend their whole lives in one congregation. It’s easy to develop tunnel vision.Yet, as energy flags and numbers dwindle, we know we need change.
According to the FACT survey, what is most useful is outside help. It is most often to the denomination that churches turn to for the advice and financial assistance they need to change. Congregations also looked outside themselves for concrete examples of vital alternatives. Leadership training also plays an important part. My own congregation has made a lot of changes over the past decade. I see them as part of that 12% which prides themselves on being able to embrace change. We couldn’t have begun to do it alone. Other pastors and congregations provided models and supplied advice. The denomination provided intensive leadership training over a three-year period. Conference staff are always there to consult. The need for others’ help should not be surprising. When pastors or churches try to go it alone we are like the feet and the ears Paul talks about which insist they are not part of the body. We function much better when we stay connected and learn from each other.
Rev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.