As part of our work with congregations who are engaging in the process of
imagining their future, we invite them to first look back and connect with their past.
One effective tool for doing that is to create a timeline that includes significant
events from the life of the church, the community and the world.

Recently, one church we worked with did an exceptional job in noting when
significant events occurred in the life of the church. Along with the obvious major
events, this group also noted how innovation has been a constant part of their story.
They dutifully recorded, for instance, when indoor plumbing was first installed at
the church. Next came the year in the early 20th century when electricity was added.
Other notable advancements included the first time a sound system was put to use.
Air conditioning came in the 1950’s. The first paid youth minister was in the late
‘60’s. The first church bus was purchased in the 1970’s. The first international
mission trip was organized in the 1980’s. The first web page was set up in the
1990’s. Screens in the sanctuary arrived in the 2000’s. The first live streaming
worship broadcast was two years ago.

As we traced their history of innovation, we asked: “What was the response to these
innovations?” In every case, there was substantial opposition, with multiple stories
of bruised feelings and damage among the fellowship. One elderly member
remarked that he had never seen as bitter an argument at a business meeting as the
night the church voted to install air conditioning in the building. That night, six
families stormed out of the church and never returned over the reckless
extravagance of air conditioning.

Remember, what seems indispensible to us today, was at one time considered a
luxury or a waste or folly.

We would do well to reconsider Arthur Schopenhauer’s dictum:
Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized.
In the first, it is ridiculed.
In the second, it is opposed.
In the third, it is regarded as self-evident.

We regularly see two primary change scenarios that inflict great harm among
congregations.

The first is when congregational leaders force change/innovation too quickly and
without adequate relationship bonds. Armed with good intentions and a substantial
surplus of knowledge, these leaders assume that others will take their word for
needed change. Pushing forward without allowing others to come to experience a
similar learning curve, such leaders incite havoc among the body with their
steamroller tactics. Nearly always, the resistance organizes, and the conflict
escalates. Seldom is the end result a good one.

The second is when a leadership group has the mistaken notion that they can
achieve 100% agreement with their suggested change. Inevitably, they end up
paralyzed by their need for unanimity. In such cases, a small minority holds the
majority hostage, and creates great discord in the body. Even a cursory glance at the
literature regarding change reveals that 5% of any group will fall into the category
of “never adopters”. Jesus does not call us to make everyone happy. He calls us to be
faithful to the Gospel.

Rather than fall victim to these two extremes, perhaps we could all agree on some
insights into change/innovation as we seek to live out our divine mission.

1. Dramatic change is one of the hardest things for a human being to endure. At the
very least, let’s approach it with reverence and respect.

2. Resistance and opposition to your suggestions is not to be taken personally, but
should be expected, planned for, and welcomed.

3. To those who have taken a vow to resist all change, please, instead, take your cue
from the Biblical record. Throughout scripture, God is constantly doing a “new
thing”. Jesus threatened tradition with his radical notions about worship,
discipleship, and holiness. Why would you expect any less from your church’s
leaders? In the end, you really do want to side with Jesus, right?

4. While our core message will never change, the methodologies for practicing our
faith will be in a constant state of change for the rest of our life. The changes we will
go through in our near future (for a glimpse, read Physics of the Future, by Michio
Kaku) will make our squabbles over screens and technology look laughable, for
example.

5. Let’s admit that not every innovation, piece of technology, software or new idea is
equally valuable. Remember shuffleboard inlays in the fellowship hall, or the dozens
of roller skates you purchased for the throngs that were going to come to the gym
and skate?

What if we filtered all change/innovation through this question: does this enable us
to more nearly fulfill our mission as God’s people? What if that question mattered
more to us than air conditioning, indoor plumbing, or screens?

Bill Wilson
Dr. William “Bill” Wilson founded The Center for Healthy Churches in January of 2014. This followed his service as President of the Center for Congregational Health at Wake Forest Baptist Health since 2009. Previously he was Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dalton, Georgia, where he served since 2003. He brings over 33 years of local church ministry experience to CHC, having served as pastor in two churches in Virginia (Farmville BC and FBC Waynesboro) and on a church staff in South Carolina. Bill has led each of the churches he has served into a time of significant growth and expansion of ministry. He is the director of CHC.