Behavior Modification or Transformation?

ratm1Some comments at the School of Congregational Development highlight an incredibly important distinction.  “We’ve heard all this before.  The problem is putting it into practice.”  “You don’t have to talk me into thinking this is important, tell me ways to make it happen.”  “Doing this stuff is a lot harder than talking about this stuff.”  “What I hear today isn’t a vision, but a dream.  We are painting a lovely picture of what we wish the world — the church — could be.  But we haven’t honestly explored what it will take to turn it into a reality.”

Don’t hear this as a criticism — it is meant as a statement of where we are, but not where we want to be — and not where we are because we’re not good people doing good work.  I don’t feel there is much value in blaming or pointing fingers.  We have a system that pushes us to focus on short-term behaviors instead of fundamental change.  We promote behavior modification at the expense of transformation.  The distinction is one of superficial change over radical, or deep, change.  It is well to remember that our mission is not “making nominal believers of Jesus Christ for the behavior modification of the world.”

Let me illustrate with a few common examples from church life.

  1. Stewardship campaigns — 99% of all annual stewardship campaigns are designed to change short-term behaviors rather than institute long-term change.  Talking people into giving more money to the church is not the same as helping them adopt a generous lifestyle.  People can increase their giving, but not become any more generous; people who grow in generosity give more.  True transformation results in changed behaviors, but changed behaviors do not always result in transformation.  A church defined by the work of transformation cannot succeed by modifying behavior alone.  A step chart, a focus on tithing or proportional giving, filling out pledge cards, or designating a consecration Sunday can fund a budget, but it won’t unleash the giving/serving potential of a community of faith.  That requires seep, theological work over time — sometimes a lifetime.
  2. Using worship as an evangelism tool — during the 20th century, church sanctuary doors became the primary entry point for new members into the fellowship.  Historically, worship is fundamentally about God and provides an opportunity for the gathered fellowship in Christ to offer thanks, adoration, and praise.  More recently, the design of worship shifted to be more about us than God, and to be more for the novice than the disciple.  The transformative power of worship is reserved for newcomers to the faith.  Much about worship is designed to make people want to return to worship, not to deepen relationships with God and the fellowship.  Getting people to “attend” worship becomes the evaluative metric for assessing church health, instead of the multiple and varied opportunities to others serve in the name of Christ.  Worship is less our celebration of life together as Christian community and more a Venus flytrap to capture new members.
  3. Cross-cultural outreach and multicultural ministries — teaching people to be nice, to be friendly, to greet and meet, and to offer welcome is important, but it is essentially behavior modification.  We are welcoming “guests” not opening ourselves to receive new “family members.”  The best thing about guests is that they go home.  They may disrupt things briefly, but they don’t really change things.  Receive a new family member to live in the household and things will naturally and unequivocally change.  Welcoming people we easily relate to is often a large challenge.  What about welcoming those who are significantly different?  Everyone says they want to, but few do it gracefully or well.  The reason is that true hospitality has less to do with activities than attitudes.  And changing attitudes is about changing a culture — deep seated beliefs, opinions, prejudices, and practices.  This requires intensive reeducation and commitment.  You can’t learn how to do it in a workshop or seminar.  It is a long process — a true journey of faith for a community to walk together.  It is never enough to want to do it or to believe it is important.  It is always a case of working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

There are NO shortcuts to transformation.  Tools of behavior modification may be helpful to the process of transformation, but they can never replace the hard, intensive, demanding practices that produce deep change.  There are no three-day retreats, no DVDs, no online courses that can teach all you need to know.  One reason for this is that context is so powerful.  What each individual congregation needs to do will be unique.  No one else has your answer.  No model exists that you can apply that will be a perfect fit for you.  This is another important learning:  we need principles, not models.  How to talk to people who are significantly different, overcoming fear and resistance, deep listening, moving outside the church walls — these things can be taught, but they are only tools.  Each unique congregation in each unique context must figure out the best ways to use the tools, and do the hard work of “tools training” in their own fellowship.

Moving from desire to delivery depends on more than behavior modification and manipulation.  Transformation depends on healthy relationships, formational learning, serious commitment to train and practice, and mentoring and support.  There is no pill, potion, or placebo that will make change happen faster.

All of faith is a journey.  Leadership is no exception — it is a faith journey as well.  Church leaders facilitate transformation, not merely behavior modification.  As one young pastor said to me this morning, “The more I listen, the more I realize that this is hard!  If we’re going to make a real difference, it’s going to take a lot of work.”  Amen.

2 replies

  1. One of the things I think I’ve learned over the years is the congregations that actually engage deep change– real transformation to become disciple-forming and deploying, generative bodies of Christ– are those that have really faced the reality of their own death and chosen Life.

    Put less grandly, what I hear from Easum, Slaughter, and others who have done this is that the transformations they began to lead happened precisely because the congregations to which they were sent were on death’s door institutionally and spiritually, and enough leaders there wanted real life again enough to stand behind the pastor’s leadership (and their own desire to participate in real transformation) to weather the reality that many people there would leave, and perhaps more might come back in time, but those who would come would know clearly that membership in this congregation really was NOT for everyone– but only for those who were going to make the same commitment to life-transformation following Jesus as they had.

    Few congregations I think will dare to undertake that level of psychic risk. It is far easier to die among beloved friends than to choose to live when some of those friends who don’t want to live that way will choose to leave.

    Troeltsch would identify what these transformed congregations have done as a move away from “church” and toward “sect.”

    And I would argue that the notion of a sectarian congregation in a mainline denomination and a wider culture that expects all congregations to be open to all (whether for the right reasons or not– and often for its own consumerist ends) may be extraordinarily difficult to sustain over time.

    So maybe, for most congregations, the deep change toward being church fully in that format isn’t realistic for the short-run or the long-run.

    Maybe what the Wesleys did– creating societies and class meetings outside the ambit of the congregation’s life that WOULD be such transformative communities while the congregations would provide other benefits these smaller communities could not– is more realistic for more of us. What the Wesleys also did was require that folks in their Methodist societies ALSO stay connected to congregations, vitally so– which did inject some new life there as well, if not actually transforming the congregational systems per se.

    So in the Wesleys model (at least before 1784), the congregations were still Church in Troeltsch’s sense, while the societies were surely sects. Neither form had to compromise its gifts– one didn’t shift into the other. Both worked, and when they weren’t hostile toward each other, both networked to the good of both and all around.

    Finding, re-building, or creating these para-congregational discipleship and missional deployment groups AND keeping them networked with congregations is no easy answer, either– but it is a tried answer from our earlier history, and one we know had profound effects in England and North America, and still has those effects (as the class meetings are alive and well!) in Africa and the Philippines today.

    • I definitely agree with three points: most congregations refuse to consider their own mortality, many will only change when that mortality becomes no longer deniable, and that radical discipleship is not considered an option for many (most?) in our mainline churches. One thing I lament and try to do through this blog is at least raise the issue. In all my reseach one of the most surprising things I encountered everywhere (and that is just barely hyperbole…) is that most church-goers have never been challenged with a deeper commitment or spirituality. They do not hunger for meat because they have never tasted anything but milk. In my mind, what originally looked like sects to the “real church,” now look a whole lot more like “church to those dissatisfied with a fractured and sectarian institution.

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