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Learning and changing are essential to the survival of any organization, theory, belief, and person.  That doesn’t mean change for change sake though.  You change because you need to adapt to new information, circumstances, etc.  You change in order to survive and thrive.  This shouldn’t sound controversial.  Trees change in the fall – their leaves change color and then fall off in preparation of winter.  Our bodies change as we grow up.

Yet, often it seems as though people have a hard time adopting this line of thinking when it comes to organizations, theories and beliefs.  Maybe because these things are different from ourselves.  Maybe we believe that these things are not alive, so they can never change.  Maybe it’s a way to try and control something in the world.

This is certainly true when it comes to church.  I read an article yesterday by a religious person who was making arguments against what he labeled as progressive Christianity (although after reading it, I don’t agree with his label for what he was describing).  He was trying to make an argument for what he termed “historic” church.  You know the church that hasn’t changed – on anything.  Except for the fact that it has changed over time.  We don’t worship in the same way as those in the early church.  The church made this change.  Bishops in the early church often prayed extemporaneously in the very early church.  Then the church decided that this was dangerous – someone might say something unorthodox, so prayers became scripted.  And that’s just one change from the “historic” church.

At any rate, another article caught my attention – Why Organizations Don’t Learn. (It’s on the Harvard Business Review website – they give you five articles to view for free, then you have to subscribe after that).

Here’s the paragraph that summarizes the entire article:

Why do companies struggle to become or remain “learning organizations”? Through research conducted over the past decade across a wide range of industries, we have drawn this conclusion: Biases cause people to focus too much on success, take action too quickly, try too hard to fit in, and depend too much on experts. In this article we discuss how these deeply ingrained human tendencies interfere with learning—and how they can be countered.

If you have ever read A Failure of Nerve, you’ll recognize the items in the list above.  (By the way, awesome book – one of the top five books that everyone should read).  They are essentially the same things that the author of this great book discusses as why modern America has problems and lacks leadership.  (And it was written almost 20 years ago and is probably more true today than when it was first written.)

The church has its own struggles with this too.  I could make my own list when it comes to why the church struggles with learning and change.  My list would include:

  • Biases cause people to continue to do what worked in the past.
  • When there is a crisis in church (ie. low attendance), action is taken to try to fix the symptom.
  • Trying too hard to fit in with the culture – be something it is not.
  • Depend too much on experts – makes things, people, ideas, God unapproachable.
  • Leadership gets caught up in the anxiety and stops leading, but rather is reactive and responsive.

All of these lead to death ultimately or at the very least irrelevance.  And that’s not what the church is.

The historic church, as I’ll label it, was none of these things as far as I can tell.  Part of this is because it was new, and the church was doing something new.  Change was the only option.  Learning was a big part of what the church did.

We can be a church that learns and changes again.  Again, not change for its own sake, but because the church lives and has a message that hasn’t changed.  But the circumstances of the world have changed.  Regardless though, the message is just as needed now as it was when Jesus roamed the earth.  How the message is communicated can change and should as the world changes.

The message is still very needed, how we communicate it should change.  We learn, we grow, we let go of practices that are not useful any more.  We let go of ideas that have been proven wrong.  The church has done this in the past.  And, whether people like it or not, the church will continue to do this.

If the church didn’t change, then the church would have limited itself to the eastern part of the Mediterranean.  But that’s not what the church was called to do or be.  It was called to go and make disciples and to baptize – to go out into the world.  And going out requires the church to adapt and change in order to spread the message.  It means letting go of the attachments that can become idols.  It means learning.  It means taking risks.  It means knowing who it is.  It means tapping into people in the pews so they are no longer spectators.  It means taking time to reflect and think and pray. It means change and learning.