Finding Excuses to Die: The Problem with Thinking It's about Everything Else

By Derek Penwell

(From the archives) 

Finding Excuses to Die

“It was great to see all those people there for Easter yesterday.”

“Pretty great.”

“Of course, and I hate to say it, there’s a part me that dreads Easter.”

“Well, there’s a lot to dread about Easter. It’s busy, and all those extra services. Easter’s tough on ministers.”

“No. That’s not what I’m talking about. Well, all that stuff is hard, but I mean something else.”


“Monday. I hate the Monday after Easter. Because as soon as Easter’s over, I start thinking about next week, and how most of those people won’t becoming back. Then that reminds me about how it feels like our congregation’s dying.”

“I know. That’s rough. So, what are you doing to make things different?”

“We want to change.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Well, it’s more complicated than that?”

“More complicated than what?”

“We want to change, but in order to change we need some things to be different.”

“But if things were different, that would be change already, right?”

“Has anybody ever told you how obnoxious you are to talk to?”

“Yeah, I get that a lot. But what is it that you need changed that—if you got it—would finally provide the right environment for transformation?”

“For one thing, we need more people to get involved.”

“How are you going to get them involved?”

“We’ve tried everything we know to try: begging, chiding, wheedling, shaming.”

“How’s that working for you?”

“It’s not, actually, smart guy.”

“So, you can’t change until somebody else does something?”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t sound very good when you say it like that.”

“Why else can’t you change?”

“We need more resources.”

“Like what?”

“It’s been tough. The budget’s been a train wreck. Money’s just hard to come by. If we had more money, things would be way easier.”

“What would money buy you that—if you finally had it—would allow you to change?”

“I’m not sure. Wait. I could get a new computer.”

“What would you do with a new computer?”

“I could get more done.”

“What kinds of things could you do with a new computer that you can’t do now?”

“I could write more, organize my time better. Digitally. You know.”

“You don’t have a computer?”

“Yeah, but a new one would be more efficient.”

“I’m just going to take shot in the dark: Have you ever considered the possibility that the quality of your tools isn’t your most pressing problem?”

So, here’s what I think: Most congregations don’t want to change. I’ve said this before, but I’m still convinced it’s true. Most congregations would rather die than change.

Believing that something external has to change before anything internally has a crack at transformation is a recipe for death. Whether you admit it or not, when you say, “Just as soon as _____, then we can start thinking about changing,” you’ve started making preparations to die.

And the convenient part about it is that you’ll have ready made excuses for why it’s dead.

Waiting for the conditions to be just right, focusing on external stuff is like saying:

  • I could be a better preacher if I had a nicer pulpit.
  • We could have more baptisms if we just had a nicer baptistry.
  • We would have bigger budget if we had better accounting software.

It’s fiddling. Plain and simple.

You can’t lose weight by buying a cooler treadmill. If you’re not using the heck out of the one you’ve got, buying a new one is only going to succeed in making you two things you don’t want to be: fat and broke.

In fact, you don’t even need a treadmill at all, we have these wonderfully free analog devices called “roads” and “sidewalks” that, with a little effort should suit your purposes.

If you’re not changing with the people and resources you’ve got, then even if all those Christmas and Easter folks came the next week, nothing would be different. In fact, things might get considerably worse.

Most ministers are afraid in the deepest part of their souls of getting everything they’ve always said they needed.

Because if your wish list is completed, and you finally get everything you think you need to change (more volunteers, a better web site, an associate, the right associate, great leadership, a bigger parking lot, an oversubscribed budget, shade grown coffee and Barcaloungers in the narthex), what happens if things don’t change then?

If you think what’s at stake can be fixed by newer and better Barcaloungers, then this is the best I can do for you.

If you’re worried about equipping disciples for the reign of God, then get back to work. You’ve got all you need to do that right now.

You want to change? Then change.

“That’s easy for you to say.”

No. Well, it may be easy for me to say. But it’s not any easier for me to do than anyone else. I fight my own battles with resistance.

The question isn’t whether I’m perfect at it. The question is whether I’m right about it.

The fact still remains that if you think the culture of your church is going to change for the better if you wait long enough for everything to fall into place before you do the difficult work of transformation, you’re always going to find an excuse to die.

How My Mind Has Changed Over The Matter Of Full Inclusion In the Church Of LGBTQ Folk

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Today, I choose to tell the story of how my mind has changed.  I was not always a supporter of the full inclusion of LGBTQ folks in the life of the church.  For me, I hoped I always lived with an element of compassion toward this group of people and believed that they had a place in the church, but that place stopped when it came to positions of leadership.  I believed that same-sex relationships stood outside the accepted Christian norm of what was permissible for those in leadership positions.

My compassion was rooted in two things.  My understanding of the gospel as a vehicle of love and grace, not judgement and condemnation.   And my friendship in college with a gay student.  We were at a very conservative Christian college thirty years ago where he had to keep his orientation a secret. We became close enough that he revealed it to me and I kept his secret with him.  I saw firsthand his difficult struggle and witnessed the lie he had to live.  I watched the look on his face when “gay jokes” were told.  I know he experienced deep pain at times and he struggled with feelings of loneliness and isolation even in a large Christian community.  On the other hand, my hesitation toward full inclusion was also influenced by two matters.  One was my understanding of the scriptures.  Though, I would acknowledge it was mentioned rarely, and never by Jesus, the seven times that same-sex behavior was discussed, I understood it to be in a non-approving way.  Second, was my personal inability to understand same-sex attraction.  I just didn’t get it.

I was able to live with this “welcoming but not affirming” understanding for quite some time and even viewed myself as somewhat of a progressive on the matter.  The change started happening when a young gay man asked to be ordained by the regional church that I was part of, a region that expressly forbid the ordination of “avowed and practicing homosexuals.”  A rather quick, awkwardly planned, and loosely understood Regional Discernment process was put into place.  What it ended up doing was kicking the can further down the road to a more fully formed Regional Discernment Process.  It was a process I was asked to co-chair along with another pastor in the region.  Participating in that process was a long five year commitment.  Though that process had too many parts to mention in this post.  It was during that five years that my mind began to change.  Here are a few of the specific things that happened that changed my mind.

1)      I could no longer reconcile my understanding of scripture with a negative view of homosexuality.  Scripture is not primarily a rule book full of do’s and don’ts.  Scripture is a story about God’s love for all creation.  A love most fully known in Christ, who not only did not mention the matter, but always welcomed into his circle those who had been pushed to the edges of society.  If I interpret the scriptures through my faith in Jesus, I can’t come up with any understanding other than that of full inclusion for LGBTQ folk.

2)      I met too many especially talented gay and lesbian people who loved the church and wanted to serve it fully.  I met numerous persons who were in lifelong committed relationships with a person of the same gender.  Their relationships were of a mutual love and reciprocal caring.  The only difference between them and a heterosexual couple was the matter of gender.  At this point, I began to realize it was more important how we loved than who we loved.

3)      The book, “Middlesex,” played probably the most important role in my change of mind for it dealt with issue of intersex people.  Though the book was the fictional account of someone whose gender from birth was not distinguishable, I was gripped by the things I learned.  I was also driven by this book to look at matters from a scientific perspective where I learned that 1 in every 1,500 births has some biological problem with gender identity.  I decided, that if gender can be non-determinative biologically, then there are psychological and emotional aspects to gender that are difficult to understand as well.    “Middlesex” helped me “to get” what I didn’t get for a lot of years.

So this is a very brief story of how and why my mind has changed.  How has it changed my ministry?  In every congregation I have served I have tried to address the matter of human sexuality both from the pulpit and the classroom.  Since, I save all my sermons and class material I went back and researched my offerings on this matter.  You can see a clear progression in my work from “welcoming but not affirming” to “open and affirming.”  In my previous congregation I led a four week study that looked at the matter of homosexuality and the Christian faith from a personal perspective, an understanding of scripture, what science has to say about the matter and finally what kind of community should we be as people who follow Jesus.  More than forty people attended the class and we had a healthy and healing conversation that I think influenced the understanding of many folk.

I know it is likely that many of the people who might read this article have already made the journey toward full inclusion, but there might be some who haven’t.  I told my story for the latter.  I could no longer understand my Christian faith as one that excluded people who wanted to be part of the body of Christ and be fully accepted for who they were created to be.  I believe changing my mind on this matter has drawn me closer to following the one I call Lord.  And my prayer is that my friend from college found a church that could love him fully for who he is.

Forced Adaptation

By Rev. Mindi

In 2009, the world changed as we knew it.

We went from analog to digital TV.

Remember the concerns, the worries and concerns for senior citizens that would no longer be able to watch TV, that people wouldn’t be able to find the digital converter boxes (even though you could sign up for one for free) and that people would have to buy new TV’s?

We survived. The world didn’t end. Chaos didn’t erupt in the streets. And now, six years later, we’ve almost forgotten about that transition. Few of us have the big box TV’s anymore. When I asked my congregation a couple of weeks ago (using this change from analog to digital as my sermon illustration about change), only a couple of people still had a box TV. Everyone else had a flat TV, including the senior members of the church. Six years ago, there were concerns that senior citizens wouldn’t be able to accept the change from analog to digital, and that was the main argument against the change.

Turns out, senior citizens adapt pretty well, as do most of us.

What happens when the church is resistant to change and uses the excuse that our senior members can’t make the shift and change? One, we are telling ourselves a lie about a group of people, and two, at some point the change is inevitable and we either adapt, or our message is no longer received. Because it is almost always the very people who are afraid of a generation or group not being able to adapt to change that are unable to make the change. It is almost always the ones worried about others that cannot make the shift themselves. The results after the 2009 switch from analog to digital show that the largest group not ready for the shift were ages 35-54.  Not senior citizens.

I went out to lunch today and at the table was a tablet with card reader. This is now the third restaurant chain that I have been to in the last month that is switching over to this practice, where you pay right at the table when you are finished. The menu is even loaded and you can order your food from your table, but for now, the wait staff still come to your table and take your order the old fashioned way, but who knows for how long? More and more chains are having options of ordering online through an app and you pick your food up ready to go.  How many churches are still only taking check or cash for pledges and donations? How many church websites still do not have a mobile option? How many congregations still do not use social media? And how many times will we make the excuse that it is senior citizens who are not ready? 

1440 was the year technology changed the church forever, the year the printing press was invented. In the next one hundred years, Bibles would be mass produced and printed in languages other than Latin. The church was eventually forced to change. The next big shift is already happening, in both the ways technology is used within the church, but also the church itself, in how we organize, gather, and do mission and ministry. We are shifting from creating community to finding God already at work in the community. We are shifting from doing mission to help others to partnering with others in their God-given work. But some of us are adapting faster than others. Some of us are handling this shift better. 

As those of us that have congregational budgets operating on a calendar year know, this is Stewardship season. This is the time when we mail out the pledge cards and stewardship letters and invite people to give. However, unless we being to embrace technology, we are going to be left behind, or out completely, if we are still expecting people to carry cash or check. And unless we embrace the shift of partnering with our community that already exists, to do the work God is already doing, we are going to be shutting the doors of many churches that still think their mission is to share the message of Christ’s love but have no idea how to do it in today’s world.

There are hundreds of books out there about this shift happening in our church and culture, with authors who can state this far better than me. However, if we cannot admit that it's not senior citizens that have a problem of adapting, but ourselves, those of us in leadership, we are fooling ourselves and shutting the doors on our face.

Inside Out

By Rev. Mindi

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

There stood a church by a major road that said they wanted to grow. They had a beautiful old building and everyone in the community knew exactly where the church was, but few knew there was a congregation that still met there. They tried making better signs, but still, people zoomed by in their cars. Sometimes, people would stop and visit, and now and then some would stay and join the church. This congregation was not too small, but not very big. They held a Bible study and a youth group and four Sunday school classes. Still, they said they wanted to grow.

And yet… the church did not grow very much. Some were puzzled by this. Others were concerned, worried about finances. Most didn’t know what to do, except to say that they needed to advertise more. The church often said they wanted to grow, and immediately afterwards would add, “But we don’t want to be a megachurch.”

The church had traditions it practiced for years—a yearly retreat, a Christmas party—but the folks who had been there a long time never talked about what they were. The folks who had been there for a long time lamented that the new folks never came on the retreat. The newer folks said they were never invited, and they didn’t know where it was or what happened on the retreat. The Christmas party was held year after year, and everyone knew what they were supposed to bring except the new folks, who felt out of place if they came at all.

But the kicker was the time the church leadership purchased new mugs with the church logo, but gave them only to members and told the pastor and the greeters not to give them to any new people that day, because they were a gift for the church.

The church claimed to want to grow, but what it really wanted was to stay the same and not die. It wanted to keep the people they already had, and while they were friendly they were slow to welcome newer people into leadership, and sometimes those newer people faded away after a few years.

Sound familiar?

Maybe that church isn’t so far, far away after all, but way too close to home. We have become an internal institution with insider speak, hell-bent (for lack of a better term) on sticking to what we know because we don’t know what else to do. We don’t want to die, but we don’t want to do what it takes to change, because it means we have to change, and it means that the whole understanding of church we grew up with has to be turned inside out.

The first place to start is to stop. Stop using insider language. Start from within and work on moving outward. Start making sure that traditions are explained and not assumed. Start by assuming that not everyone always knows what everyone is talking about. The worst place insider language is used is in the talk of church membership. We assume everyone knows what membership means and why it is important. Even in my current church setting, though I have invited people to become a member almost every Sunday, it was only recently that someone who has been part of the church for a long time asked me about what it means to be a member and wanted to know if they could join. Even our membership language is insider language that needs to be turned inside out.

Next, look at those traditions and see if they are only practiced by a few (usually the folks who have been there a long time) and if it is time to start something new. Then look to moving outward. Moving ministries from inside the building, inside the time constraints, inside the leadership that has always done things one way at one time in one place and move back into the community.

We have to turn the church inside out in order for the church to be what it was intended to be: the body of Christ, the community of faith.

“But what about the people who have been here for so long? What about the people who have been part of this church their whole lives?”

When I’m asked that question, I often ask the person who is questioning me if they have talked to the senior generations in the church. In all of the ministries I have served, the oldest generation in the church has never been afraid of change—because everything already has changed.

We need to speak the truth. We need to stop talking about growing if we really just want things to stay the same. If we are the ones afraid of changing, then we must turn that fear inside out into hope. And if there is just one thing to change, one thing to start that you can do, its stopping our insider language.

Change and Control

By Rev. Mindi

Recently I was part of a conversation with someone about a local nonprofit advocacy organization. The local nonprofit has had ups and downs but is less than three years old. It’s doing amazingly well for a new program. And yet, they told me that one of the founding board members feels the organization should fold because “it’s fizzling out. No one wants to be involved.”

I and others look around and see the amazing work this organization is doing, how it is reaching new people all the time, and wonder how in the world a founding member could say that. Then we realized that this founding member is tired and doesn’t want to be involved any longer, but does not want to see the organization proceed without them, and does not like the direction it is going with the new folks that have become part of it.

Immediately a little bell rang in the back of my head. This is just like church.

A lot of churches have people who are on the governing board who have been part of the congregation for a long, long time. They remember how great the church used to be, and all the programs it once had, and all the things they used to do—and because the church is no longer doing them, the church is fizzling out. Dying. Even if new people are coming in.

Now, we all know churches that hold on so dearly in hopes of not dying that they don’t ever change and eventually do end up closing. But I have seen a few churches in which those in leadership clung so tightly and were ready to have the church close and die as long as the hymns didn’t change. As long as the pastor they loved could bury them. As long as they could still sit in the same pew. And the leadership board never changed because they never asked anyone new, or made assumptions that new people couldn’t fulfill the commitments.

I guard against jumping to the conclusion that this is all elderly people in the church. Some of the greatest supporters for change in every church I have ever served and in many churches I have known have been my 80+ folks. While they love the old hymns they haven’t been afraid of trying a new song, or a new way of worship, or a new way of community involvement, even if they cannot participate at the same level any longer. I have found it doesn’t matter what age the person is; what matters is control.

Are those in leadership willing to let go of having control and allowing room for the Spirit to guide change in the congregation? Are we willing to let go of having control and allow room for new people with new ideas, insights and energy to move an organization forward? Are we willing to let go of “my way” or “our way” or “the right way?” And perhaps the greater question, for both the nonprofit organization and for our churches is this: can we be part of something we don’t have control of?

I see churches closing, but I also see a number of churches managing a great shift, from inward focusing to outward focusing, to finding new ways of being part of the ever-changing communities we are in. While these congregations may dwindle in numbers on Sunday morning, the impact they are making on the community is increasing tremendously. Making this shift does not mean these churches won’t close; but it does mean they gave the opportunity for the Spirit to be at work.

Churches, community organizations, nonprofits and others can learn from this: when we try to control and put our vision in place as the right one, it may work for a while but eventually it will fail. Because the Spirit works in community (we see this all the time in the book of Acts). The Spirit works when we come together and build vision together. When we try to maintain control, we have lost sight of the work of the Spirit among us. When we only have the same people, the vision grows stale. Leadership must change and grow, just as the church or organization must change and grow, and just as the community already is changing and growing.

Trust the Spirit; trust the process; trust that new leadership in the church will not let it fail. Even if they don’t do all the things you once did. Even if they don’t continue all the programs you did. Even if they come up with something very different than what your vision of the church should be. Trust the Spirit, and trust that new leaders will be open to the movement of the Spirit of God just as you are.

Social Media and Social Justice

By Rev. Mindi

I’ve heard so many people comment about what has happened in Ferguson, Missouri, with the words “It’s like the 1960’s all over again,” or “The South never changes.” Never mind that Ferguson, outside of St. Louis, is technically a Midwest town, what is happening in Ferguson, happens all over the United States. And what happened in the 1960’s never stopped in much of the country—what stopped was white people’s awareness of it. This is the reality for black people in the United States: they are more likely to be accused and harassed by citizens and police, more likely to die from violence at the hands of the state.

What has changed since the 1960’s, however, is social media. While the news has covered Ferguson, though it was very slow to do so on national networks, individuals have been reporting via Twitter and Facebook, and livestreaming audio and video. We get not just one eyewitness account of what is happening, but multiple accounts from multiple viewpoints, giving us an overall narrative of what is happening in real time.

A similar thing happened when news of Robin William’s passing broke last week. The hashtag #FaithintheFog came through as a way for people of faith who have mental illness to talk about the stigma, the backlash in the church, and the ways the church has not always been helpful, but harmful.

Social media has offered people an opportunity to share within a global community network about what is going on, to engage in conversation and to build a greater narrative together. The church needs to follow suit. The church universal has the opportunity to engage in a greater narrative, to tell its stories and engage what is important.

Last week, I wrote about #NMOS14, the National Moment of Silence 2014 that took place across the country on Thursday. As was noted on Twitter by @FeministaJones, most of the vigils were organized by diverse people under the age of twenty-five (for more information about how this movement got started, click here).

When I came to my current church two years ago, it didn’t even have internet. We have had to build from scratch: website, Facebook and Twitter, and a weekly e-newsletter. But we don’t leave out those who do not use social media: we print the e-newsletter for those without email. We try to highlight something that happened on Facebook or Twitter in the newsletter so others can read it.

But we are not stuck behind. We are moving forward and working to join in the greater narrative. And the church universal needs to be sure to move with it. The old dismissals of “That’s not real connection or relationships” need to die. #NMOS14 happened because of social media. In Seattle, the momentum is still going and requests for further gatherings to talk about justice issues and follow up with action has all happened because of social media, and there is also accountability because once something is on the internet, it’s on the internet.

Sure, what we have now—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.—will fade away and something new will come. I hear that argument all the time. But if we just wait for the next thing, we will miss out now. Growing up in Alaska, we didn’t have a phone for years—we had a CB radio. My friends in the villages also had CB radios. But if they just kept waiting for land lines to come in, they would still be waiting. Entire villages in Alaska, Canada, South America and Africa—have gone from no phones to smart phones with 4G service. 

The world has changed fast and will continue to do so. But the cause of justice has not changed. Racism has not changed. The stigma around mental illness has not changed. And these things will not change, unless we join in the greater narrative and work for peace and justice with our brothers and sisters in this country and around the world.

Idealized Failure

By J.C. Mitchell

Growing up in New England, I remember going to Woolworth’s counter and spinning the seats, but generally my mother would take us to a different store called Caldor.  It was a regional discount department store that originally started as a 5 & Dime.  It was where I am sure most of my toys and clothes were purchased.  I even remember the tent that I picked out when I turned ten was from this predecessor to Wal-Mart.  There were stores throughout the East, but the one in Ridgefield and Norwalk were the two I knew like the back of my hand.  

Caldor is no more than a fond memory, for the Ridgefield store is now a Kohl’s, and in Norwalk, a Wal-Mart.  Honestly the items are not very different, especially since fashion seems to repeat itself, and retro is currently quite popular.  Therefore I have been known to say to Mindi often, “Let’s go to Caldor,” referring to Kohl’s, Wal-Mart, or Freddies.  Her correction has turned to a laugh, for it is generally all the same thing anyway.  

Caldor and Woolworth’s both came to end in the same decade, but the former was the one where I had the stronger memories.  Today I compare any department stores to my Caldor.  I say “my” for it is actually an idealized memory.  Kohl’s and Wal-Mart are the successful competition, yet I can’t shake my boyhood memory.

Living in the past can keep stuck us in the present: it is not the past because you actually cannot go back, but you cannot go forward as well.  We all have our Caldors and the church is often one of our strongest.  Of course, a store is not nearly as emotional as a church, but it is easy to see how hard it is to progress when we only have the conversations that start with, “I remember….” Or “What if…”  Well, the reality is I now shop at Freddies (Fred Meyers) and I still have the essentials and some things I want and do not need. 

 So upon reflecting on my Caldor memory, I realize it was not their prices or logo, but that my mom would bring me there with my sister. That when I put on a new shirt, even if it wasn’t bought at a fancy store, I knew of my mother’s love.    I worry less about remembering the store or trying to figure out how they could have stayed competitive.  I am fine with knowing the store was for a season, but the memory lasts a lifetime, compelling me to make similar memories with AJ, my son. 

Early in this millennium the church has seen a lot of attempts of change.  We are not a business, which I cannot over emphasize, but I do believe we can learn from the reality of these “failed” department stores.  Of course I am sharing how my memory is often trapped by our idealization of our past.  This is a very real problem and we need to be aware of this when looking to implement new ways of being church, be it in worship, study, programs, or space.  The other key is to remember that we can also learn from “failed” ministries.  I put that word in quotes, because is it a failure to have served people but only for a specific time?  I do not think so.  

If we are looking to create new churches and new programs to serve people that have felt the church is not relevant, we need to understand we are not to create an institution that will last for eternity.  That is for the Divine, not us.  I want to be clear that we should not make the Gospel relevant: the Gospel is relevant.  However, the reality is there are many people that are suspicious, bored, or mad at the human institution we wrap the relevant Gospel within.  So if we criticize the traditional model and believe it must change, and even die to make room for a Resurrection--we must be ready that our new emergent programs, churches, thoughts, and ways will not last forever, either.  

Caldor Logo.gif

Change by any other name...

Missional, Transformational and Emergent. Lions, Tigers and Bears oh my! There are so many words swirling around the change we see in Christ’s Church. It can be overwhelming. It can be confusing. It can also be to easily narrowed into the type of change we personally have prayed for. “I want less structure! I want change!!” “I want to serve more people outside the church! I want change!” “I want to do Bible study in a bar! I want change!” “I want to sit in a bean bag and play x-box while I worship! I want change!”

Too often emergent Christianity is narrowed down to the concept of change. Many who identify themselves as emergent define it based on the change they want to see. Emergent Christianity, despite what many have claimed, is not a liberal movement. Emergent Christianity, despite what others have claimed, is not an evangelical movement. While issues such as gender identification, poverty and the global water crisis are often discussed by emergent Christians there is not an orthodox emergent answer. While living out the example of Jesus Christ in daily life is a common emergent theme, there is no emergent need to convert the world.

In reality, we are just barely aware of a movement that is historical, cyclical and not yet done with us. In reality, we are grasping at words to name and claim the Holy Spirit’s movement among us. In reality, there is no name or adjective to fully describe that which we can never fully know and at present barely grasp.

What I have come to know is that the generations before me passed on the faith they received in the most effective way they knew. Like so many other aspects of our society in the past 100 years, an institution was built to preserve and protect the faith. Now, we have to unwrap what we have received and use it, then figure out the best way to pass it on. We can’t, like my uncle at Christmas, get so caught up in preserving the wrapping paper that we disrespect or altogether miss the gift. Faith is a precious gift and those who have received it carry a great burden to share it.

Not only do we share our faith, we live in it. We live in faith – unafraid of change. We live in faith – trusting that God has better answers than us. We live in faith – assuming that justice is worth the effort. We live in faith – demanding love and offering grace. We live in faith – knowing that one day we will know and be known beyond words.

The Pain of Change

Change.  We realize in some abstract way that change is necessary.  Growth in any form requires change.  But even though we know it intellectually, change can be hard to assimilate emotionally.  So, the question is not whether change will happen, but whether the changes that come help to equip us for discipleship in the kingdom of God.  The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is obviously undergoing change.  In some part of our minds we know that, and that it is necessary to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world.  But change is hard.  Where do we go?  How do we get there?  Who will come along as we move forward, and who will decide to embark on a different journey?    Can we say we love people if we make them mad?  A lot of questions.  A lot of decisions to be made about how we will remain faithful to the vision that gave birth to the Disciples in the first place, and about how we will carry that legacy into the future The primary question for us as we make decisions, though, should not be about whether the changes we make will cause distress (we know that any decisions we make are potentially troubling), rather, our primary question should always be, “Are the decisions we make, the changes we propose faithful to the claims of the gospel?”  We want to be sensitive to the discomfort that people feel when change comes, while at the same time understanding that some discomfort is inevitable.  We seek not necessarily to increase people’s anxiety, but we understand that all change produces an attendant amount of disquiet.

No change is ever universally accepted.  Some people will like it.  Some people will hate it.  Therefore, in making decisions, we need a more substantive criterion for deciding how to act than whether or not change is popular.  I would suggest to you that the criteria we use to discern whether the direction in which we are headed is the right direction ought to center on whether any decision increases our commitment to discipleship.  Does a particular decision help us more faithfully live out a vision of the gospel that understands hospitality as fundamental to our identity?  Are we embracing others in the way Jesus embraced others?  Are we producing disciples capable of embodying the truth of the gospel that God seeks to be reconciled to all creation?  Do we have a vision of Christian maturity that challenges us to move beyond the easy and convenient to accept that which asks that we lay down our lives, pick up our crosses, and follow Jesus down the sometimes dark and frightening road he travels?  Are we expending our resources in propping up structures and programs, the purpose of which has been lost in the press of maintaining institutions?

In agreeing to be guided by the principle of faithfulness in decision-making, we make the implicit statement that the way we judge change is by whether or not it assists us in our goal of making better Christians—not by whether it allows us to continue herding our sacred cows.  As we continue our journey during this time of transition, with our focus on the sacrifice of Jesus, we can’t help but be reminded that faithfulness is our response to a Lord who was first faithful to us—and acting faithfully is always the most loving thing to do.

At [D]mergent we’d like to help facilitate a conversation about what changes are necessary to keep the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) a faithful partner in bearing witness to the gospel.  What kind of things do we do that are necessary?  What things have outlived their usefulness?  What should our priorities be?  At the heart of the conversation is the question, “What unique role does the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) fulfill that would leave the landscape that much more impoverished if we weren’t here?”  Tell us what you think.


Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions.  He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and a Ph.D. in humanities at the University of Louisville.  He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon.  Penwell was once shot with a potato gun while fleeing the scene of a Cold War espionage sting at a premium vodka distillery in a rural Estonian outpost. (He doesn't like to talk about it . . . so don't ask.)