I was recently chatting with a friend of mine who also works as a youth worker in his local Uniting Church. He was regaling me with a story- familiar to many of us- of the opposition he was experiencing whilst trying to move some furniture around so that the Church space might be more accessible to a younger crowd. The response he received to this radical foray into the unknown was perhaps a little too predictable. Apparently the furniture functioned well enough exactly where it was and, more importantly, had remained in the same place for years without causing previous youth leaders any problems. Why did he want to change it?
My friend was laughing at this state of affairs, as if the age old difficulties of facilitating change within a stubborn and rapidly declining congregation was some sort of amusing game. Despite the mild annoyance he felt, it was as if he thought that this sort of rigid opposition to new initiatives was inevitable but ultimately harmless, and that if the situation was dealt with ‘prayerfully’ it would be resolved to the benefit of all. When (and if) he finally got approval to move the furniture he might well consider it a major win for youth ministry!
For my part I did not share in my friends amusement. As he was telling me all this I couldn’t help but conjure up images of Yes Minister’s Jim Hacker battling Sir Humphrey Appleby to get just one tiny piece of minor policy change on the board- ultimately to no avail. Outwitted and outmaneuvered by Appleby, Hacker would almost always defer to the status quo, perhaps content in the fact that he at least tried. And whilst this television series might indeed be fictional, it is striking just how similar the experience of Jim Hacker can be to those of us working toward change in the Church. After repeated experiences of heated opposition over trivial issues such as furniture placement, it can become easier to just give up and go through the motions. One only has enough energy to fight so many battles after all. Of course, when this happens it is nothing short of a missional tragedy.
Within declining suburban congregations it can be tempting to look to changes in the world around us and blame them for the fact that no-one seems to be coming to Church anymore. The advancement of science, secularisation and changing ethical norms are all convenient ways for us to locate the source of our missional failures somewhere ‘out there,’ whilst subtly letting ourselves off the hook of complicity. Such cultural and societal changes have of course presented the Church with significant challenges, but I strongly suspect that a far more influential factor in the reality of Church decline comes from within; namely, in the desire of many to own, control and seek comfort in the Church, and to protect these interests with a zealousness and stubbornness that would rival that of the Pharisees. Such mindsets refuse missional change and innovation because it threatens the nostalgic comfort of consistency in a changing world. In some cases, a person’s whole identity may have been formed over decades immersed in the same Church, and any hint of change is therefore a threat to the core of one’s being. Little wonder then that change is so often considered a danger!
The problem with all this is that the Church’s primary function is not to provide a secure haven away from a dangerous world. Nor should it be a place for one or two strong individuals to wield untempered control over the congregation and its activities. Instead, the Church should be functioning as a prophetic sign pointing toward the love of God for humanity, and to share this love with those beyond the physical walls of the Church itself. It is therefore incumbent upon all of us, as active members of our Churches, to constantly question ourselves and our motivations to ensure we are thinking and acting in ways that honour and enhance God’s mission and not our own agendas. The urgency of our current context demands nothing less.