It seems that we’re constantly having to make changes these days. Most obviously there are changes in the people who attend the church. Long-established members move on and new faces appear. Even the arrival of lots of new babies brings change to the congregation – new challenges, new strains, new opportunities. Do we need an organised crèche? Should we start a mother and toddler group?
There have been changes in leadership over the last couple of years and there are more on the way. We’ve called Martin as ‘our missionary’ to Charlesworth; we’re looking to appoint two new deacons; we need a new treasurer. There seem to be constant changes in who does which jobs in the church. In the next few months we may well have to change the times of services… What about the building we meet in? We’ve met in the St John hall for twenty years now. But we may soon be forced to find a new location if the hall is sold or demolished.
Evangelistic activities come to an end. Last month, the Hollymeade nursing-home where we held a monthly service closed down. But other possibilities open up. I wrote in last month’s bulletin about the need to reach out to international students. The situation in Charlesworth is a huge opportunity for us to reach out with the gospel – but it’s one that’s sure to bring great changes to our own work.
We’re living through days of change. Some of the changes have been forced upon us. Others we’ve chosen because we believe they’ll make us a more effective and God-honouring church in the long run.
Some people like change. They thrive on it. “Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changing!” cried Toad of Toad Hall. That’s largely the mentality of our society. People change their jobs every three or four years, move home almost as often, change their furnishings with every season, never want to be seen in the same clothes twice, want to read the latest book, listen to the latest CD, replace their mobile phone every few months.
I’m not like that. I don’t like change. I’m happiest when I’m stuck in a comfortable rut, following a familiar routine, not needing to improvise or innovate, knowing what lies ahead and how to go about it. “If it ain’t bust, don’t fix it”, say our American friends. Or as a great statesman said three hundred years ago, “If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change..” Those would be my mottoes. Once a machine is running smoothly and doing its work properly, I’m happy. I don’t want to be constantly stripping it down, replacing parts of it, tinkering and experimenting. I’d like to belong to a church that runs like a well-oiled machine. But that isn’t what God’s given us at this time.
There are dangers for a church – or any institution – during a time of change. Let me list some of them.
Firstly, there’s the danger of discontent. If you’re made like me, you’ll feel uncomfortable when there are changes happening all around. You’ll feel insecure, wondering what’s going to happen next, having to adjust to unfamiliar routines. You may approve of every change in itself- but still find it hard to cope with the sense of instability. At times I feel like shouting “Stop! Can’t we just stand still for one week?!”
At those times I often turn to the opening words of Psalm 90. “Lord you have been our dwelling-place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth or you formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God”. Generations have come and gone; customs, societies, even churches have changed and changed again. But God remains the same – and he is the dwelling-place of his people. We find security in him. If everything changes around me, he is still the same God.
And although some features of church life are changing for us, the big things haven’t changed at all. We are still preaching the same Bible. We are still worshipping the sovereign, holy God. We are still resting on the finished work of Christ. We are still holding to the great doctrines of the reformed faith. We are still worshipping in the way that believers have worshipped for hundreds of years, even singing the same hymns. I may feel that everything is changing in the church. But in fact, the changes are largely on the surface. At a deeper level, nothing changes at all. And we pray that it won’t, till the day when the Lord Jesus comes again.
Secondly, there’s the danger of disunity. When things just stay the same, everybody gets used to them. We may not think they’re ideal, but we accept them the way they are. But the moment there’s the possibility of change, there’s also the possibility of disagreement and conflict. For example, at the moment we’re all used to holding services at 10.30 am and 6.30 pm. But if we start discussing changes to those times, then overnight we could have people arguing and falling out with one another. We could have one pressure group fighting for 6 pm, another for 7 pm, and another for the abolition of the evening service!
In times of change we need much grace if we’re to remain patient, sweet-tempered and kindly with each other. And we all need to remember Paul’s words: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better (ie more important) than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others”. When we come to discuss changes, each one of us must come with the attitude, “I’m not looking for what’s best for me. I’m looking for what’s best for others”.
And then thirdly, there’s the danger of addiction to change. It’s not only our society that’s obsessed with constant change. The same mentality has invaded many churches. The more changes they make, the more they feel the need to change. They want change for its own sake. And the changes don’t stop at service-times and meeting places. They want to change the style of worship. They want to get rid of preaching and substitute little dramas and dialogues in its place. They want to throw out great hymns and bring in little ditties strummed to a guitar. They want to change the whole pattern of leadership and install women in the eldership. And in the end they want to change the very nature of the gospel we proclaim and the way we proclaim it.
Well, you say, we’re in no danger of going down that road. I trust you’re right. But we’ve been seeing in our Sunday evening series, how quickly even the church in Ephesus became addicted to novelty. God preserve us from that!
I’m praying that a time will come when we can run for years on end without great changes – we’ll have the right building, the right people in leadership, the right balance of activities: all the departments of the church’s work will be working effectively in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the only change we’ll be thinking about will be growth: men and women and children being converted and added to the church; believers maturing and advancing in grace; the church together maintaining a more and more effective witness to the world around.
That will be a rut worth settling into!