I spoke with a pastor recently who told me his congregation sold a gift of land, not because they needed the money, but because they were afraid they might have to move. The parcel of land was larger, centrally located to new developments in the fastest growing area in the city, and much more accessible. The president of the Trustees explained the decision this way: “When we thought about all we might lose, it just didn’t seem worth the risk.” Today, a large Baptist church sits on the property, packed to the rafters every Saturday and Sunday, with a wide variety of ministries happening every day of the week. My pastoral colleague laments, “…and the people in my church are relieved, because if that was us ‘we wouldn’t be the same church anymore!'”
What is it that causes so many people to resist change so strongly? Why is Egypt preferable to the Promised Land? (Could it be that most people can’t see anything but wilderness?) Almost all churches say they want to grow, but they want growth without change — a fundamental impossibility. Most say they want to attract new people, but they don’t want to be disturbed or discomfited — another impossibility. Most church members say they want a future for their beloved church, but they would rather see it die than become something different — even when that “something different” is better. Leaders grow more and more frustrated by followers who don’t care to follow.
Sometimes it isn’t even conscious. A few years ago I facilitated a planning/brainstorming session with a group of predominantly under-thirty adults — a group proud of their radical, non-linear thinking. For the day, a wide variety of supplies were offered — paper, pens, markers, paints, cardboard, clay, toys, poster board, wire, pipe cleaners, glue, etc. — and the groups were given the freedom to go anywhere they wanted — in the building, outside, at Starbucks, wherever — and the assignment was to envision any future they believed was possible. When we came back together, every group brought a piece of newsprint with a bullet list of mostly things they were already doing. Given almost total freedom, each group did what felt familiar, safe, and expected. In reviewing the day, many criticized the process for limiting their creativity. I think of this day often, and it reminds me that most people stick with what they know. It takes more than permission to free people to behave in new ways.
People need to want it. The Chosen people left Egypt only when the pain, the danger, became too great to ignore. In very straightforward terms, the costs of staying outweighed the benefits of leaving. For years, staying had more value than leaving, but once the scales tipped the other direction the children of God hit the road. There is a simple lesson here: when costs outweigh benefits, resistance is to be expected; when benefits clearly outweigh costs, people will freely change. A key function of leadership is to cast a positive vision where gains trump losses. Milk and honey beats bread and water every time.
Helping people want change is a gift. It isn’t change that people resist so much as being changed. No one likes to feel like life is happening to them. We all want some sense of control over our own future. When change is imposed by the few on the many, resistance is inevitable. When change is vital — spreading from mind to mind, heart to heart, and gut to gut — it is an irresistable force. People who decide to change operate differently from those who feel forced to decide to change. Motivation comes from within — they are deep heart’s desires that move us from the inside out. Motivation is a powerful positive force. Manipulation comes from without — it is the will of one imposed upon another. Manipulation can be a terrible negative force. All too often we trade motivation for manipulation — trying to get others to do what we want them to rather than helping others find good reasons to want to change for themselves.
Three motivating values in American culture today are comfort, security, and the preservation of the familiar. Each of these motivational values resist the kinds of change we claim we want in the church. Reaching out to strangers is risky and disruptive. Opening our doors to new young members is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. New hymns, new rituals, new practices, experiments with music and drama — these all move us from our comfort zones. So, what benefits can be promoted that more than cover these costs? There is no one answer, but a good idea is to talk about it. Ask people what they are afraid of losing and invite them to figure out what might be gained. Any answers people come to on their own is an answer that has more power in their lives.
Change is fundamental to Christian discipleship — we cannot be faithful Christians without growth, and all growth is change. Change is fundamental to leadership — we cannot truly lead unless we are moving people to new depths of understanding and engagement. But leading change is not about dragging people where they don’t want to go. Good leadership helps people find that which is so compelling and attractive in the future that there is no question of remaining stuck in the past. This takes time. This takes patience. This takes compassion and grace. This takes prayer and discernment. In fact, this takes God, and it probably won’t happen unless God is the reason for all we do.