Thinking Out Loud

January 2, 2010

An Apologetic for Church Change

I’m late posting to my blog today because I’ve spent the whole day reading and finishing a book that a month ago, you probably could not have paid me to read.   Let me explain.

Twenty years ago we moved from The Big City to a town of about 15,000 people.   The churches here were characterized by a rural mentality that includes a resistance to change.

Before we got married, I wrote something called, “A Proposal for a New Kind of Church.”   About 200 copies were distributed.  It’s a topic that’s always interested me and still does.   Although I’m older now, I tend to think young when it comes to church and culture.

That means, in other words, that I take my cues from Brian McLaren, Michael Frost, Wayne Jacobsen, Frank Viola, Alan Hirsch, Jim Henderson, and other writers of that stripe.   I want to hear their ideas and align my thinking with some of the more progressive voices on ecclesiology.

So when a woman came in the bookstore and asked about a particular book that reinforces a more conservative view, I was a little concerned.   I knew the pastor of her church and I knew that he longs to see his church move forward, not retreat backward, so I phoned him and said, “I’m at a crossroads here.   I don’t want to refuse sales or inhibit open minded discussion, but I think to have this book circulating in your church right now would be like pouring gasoline on a fire.”

“Don’t order it, then;” was his response.

The supplier had plenty in stock.    I told the customer, in a carefully worded statement that, “the book would not be available through us.”

So when a group of people from some equally conservative churches started asking about Gordon MacDonald’s Who Stole My Church? I had a similar nervousness.    I think at first, my brain was thinking more in terms of John McArthur — the names sound somewhat alike — and my attitude was, ‘What can he possibly have to contribute to this discussion?’   Gordon MacDonald’s authorship didn’t change my preconceptions.   What could he say that McLaren and Frost hadn’t already?

The answer, surprisingly is, a lot.   After several suggestions that I was being a book bigot (and then reading a few reviews) I brought the book home on New Year’s Eve and started it at 11:00 AM this morning and finished it at 7:00 PM.

I’ve never done anything quite like that before.

Although he doesn’t acknowledge it, MacDonald takes his own cue from some next-generation communicators and uses a partially-fictional narrative set in New England to make his points.   It’s a brilliant move because characters in the story are able to introduce the requisite objections to church change at each juncture.

But it’s also so very evocative because you can see yourself and situations you are too familiar with being played out in its pages.   The book also gives you another set of possibilities.    What if the Holy Spirit truly intervened where there was congregational resistance to the vision that is sometimes imparted to pastors?    (Guys don’t cry when they read books, but during the last chapter I did suddenly have a need for a tissue.    Perhaps I’m getting a cold.)

MacDonald confronts a pastor’s perspective several times in this book:

If you [i.e. a pastor] really do give away your heart, then we people leave, they take a piece of it with them.   I have known more than a few pastors who have given their hearts away piece by piece until one day there was nothing more left to give.   It’s not unusual for some pastors to reach a point where they can no longer manage the disappointments of people leaving or just hanging around and making trouble.   Something dies within them, and they either quit or begin to treat their work as a regular job in which a person counts the days until retirement.

One chapter gives some fresh insights into the underlying factors that create the traditional or conservative mentality in the church; one being the Great Depression.    His analysis also is brought to bear on the role of women in the church, although it’s not a central subject, but part of the larger issue of the ‘paid staff versus volunteers’ debate.

There are many respects in which the book says some things that have been said many times before, but it truly presents them in a fresh and compelling way.   While the book is supposedly lifted from a pastor’s case files, there is a definite plot or storyline at work here as Pastor MacDonald recollects his weekly meetings with the church Discovery Group, a nice name given to a collection of people who most strenuously helped defeat the church’s last board resolution toward church innovation.     (Think: The nay-sayers.]

Interspersed throughout the fiction are some practical steps a church can take when the generational wars are looming large.   Also mixed in are examples from both New and Old Testaments of principles of change at work in the lives of Biblical figures.

I’d write more here but I’ve got to start compiling my personal list of people who simply must read this, and that includes people on both sides of the generational and worship-style divide.

Who Stole My Church: What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century by Gordon MacDonald was originally published by Thomas Nelson in 2007 and is releasing in paperback later this month.

~Paul Wilkinson

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