From the Lions’ Den

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From the Lions’ Den

From the Lions Den

My mother was a smoker. Like many of her generation, she started smoking as a teenager, unaware of the health risks she was inviting. Once the dangers of smoking were publicized, she tried to quit, but a lifetime of habits is hard to break. She finally did quit, though, but it was too late, and cancer was already taking her life at the age of 61. Change – even life-saving change – is hard.

Earlier this year, I wrote a series of columns in this space about the challenges facing American Presbyterians in our day. I discussed the reasons for our chronic membership decline, the increasing marginalization of churches in a post-modern, post-Christendom America, and the need to develop a new way of being the church to adapt to this changing landscape.

I call that new way becoming an “inside-out” church. By “inside-out,” I mean a church which is not content to sit inside the church building trying to attract those who are outside to come join them to encounter God. Instead, an inside-out church is one which recognizes that we are called out from our churches to engage our neighbors in the world where Christ is already present in mission. The church building is no longer the destination for our mission but its base.

This is a tidal change in how the church has operated over most of its history in North America. It recognizes that our situation is more like the church of the mid-first century than the church of the mid-20th century. But change is hard, especially the kind of change that forces us to adapt our ways of being the church to a new and different set of challenges.

You might be familiar with the parable of the frog in the kettle. The parable points out two ways of trying to boil a live frog (don’t try this at home). The one way is to boil a kettle of water and then throw the frog in. That doesn’t work because the frog will detect the hostile environment and jump right out. The second way is to put the frog in a kettle of cold water and raise the heat so slowly that the frog doesn’t even know it. The frog will simply stay in the kettle until it is boiled to death.

The world is changing around us, but if we do not recognize the change and get out of our comfort zone, we will end up like the frog. Change consultant Robert Quinn calls this “the normal state” that leads to “slow death”:

The failure to change is a process of closing down, of ceasing to respond to the changing signals from the world around us. As we become increasingly closed, we lose energy and hope. We experience negative emotions such as fear, insecurity, doubt, and denial that lead us to shut out the signals being sent by evolving external realities. We thus become increasingly disconnected and lose still more energy.

In [churches], the same dynamics come into play. We all spend most of our time unconsciously colluding in our own diminishment and the diminishment of the [church]. We collectively lose hope, turn to self-interest, and experience increasing conflict. The [church] becomes more disconnected and loses more energy. At both individual and [congregational] levels, we tend to choose slow death over deep change. (Building the Bridge as You Walk on It, p. 19)

The work of transformation isn’t easy. We are creatures of inertia. We settle into routines and expectations that create a comfort zone in which we operate. Whenever we try to break out of those comfort zones and change those routines and expectations, hidden forces of inertia within the organization rise up to return us to the normal state of terminal comfort.

Change consultants call these adaptive challenges. They are different than the kind of problem solving we are used to doing that merely require applying some technical skill or launching some new program. Using a medical analogy, technical challenges are like broken bones: the physician resets the bone, puts the limb in a cast, and the healing will happen. Little is expected or required of the patient. But adaptive challenges are stopping smoking or maintaining long-term weight loss. They require the full participation of the patient to change behaviors and a larger community, typically, to assist in resisting the physical, social, and emotional pressures to return to the former condition. 12-step programs are examples of adaptive change (Heifitz & Linsky, Leadership Without Easy Answers).

Adaptive challenges require new ways of thinking and acting. Real transformation can’t happen by technical fixes like changing the worship service or starting a new program. It only happens when we change our way of thinking, and our desire for change is greater than our natural preference for the safe and familiar.

Changes are happening around us. The heat is on and no one will turn it off. We can recognize the change and get moving, or sit and boil.


Dan Saperstein, Executive Presbyter

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