Why the Church is Slow to Change

Why is the church slow to change? One form of an answer may be found in the political realm. One of Andrew Sullivan's readers took a class in Political Innovation and offers a thought on American v. European implementation of change:

[O]ne of the things we discussed is that America's system, due to federalism, local and individual autonomy and other factors, is really great at producing innovation. At the same time, the system is set up to resist change. In Europe, on the other hand, the system is not very good at producing change at all, because those ingredients are not present. But because the bureaucracy has more power, and because there are fewer levels of government, it's much easier to implement change.
So what you have, ironically, is American innovators coming up with brilliant ideas, and overseas countries being the first to implement them--which explains why, for instance, the rest of the world is now ahead of us on gay rights even when America played a huge role in creating the movement in the first place.
To me, this precisely describes the tension built into the United Methodist Church (along with other connectional churches). Which, since it essentially parallels the US government's structure, should come as no surprise!
  • Because of the connectional sharing-of-pastors-and-resources, fresh eyes offer innovative new ministries at the local level. We hear about these daily in our news sharing, and then when we replicate those ministry successes in our local churches, we innovate again. Innovation and novel forms of ministry are abound!
  • However, because of the hierarchical system and four years gap between legislative sessions, change is slooooooow to occur. The system is built so that rash responses are discouraged, but also important stances and witnesses and reflections on society changes are slow as well. Even the local church committee structure discourages change.
  • Finally, because other denominations may have simpler polity or more individual church free will (congregationalism), other denominations implement these ideas more easily than we do. Every four years the UMC seems to be old news as the issues we wrestle with, the UCC and other congregational churches has already made progress on. Congregational polity makes change easier, but not always for the better (ie. Baptist takeover and expulsion of female pastors).
I'm not saying connectional churches come up with the ideas first (although that may be a doctoral research project if anyone actually reads this). I'm saying this tension is both a blessing that is keeps us together, and a thick pool of molasses that keeps us afloat but moving slowly.

On the local church level, this is an important tension as the church must reach a level of consensus before acting. It keeps us together, discussing passionately at times, but it makes changing hearts and minds more important than bluster and threats. It keeps us together.

On the meta-level, connectionalism is a blessing and a stumbling block. Novel forms of ministry (be it evangelism initiatives or the sexual identity of clergy) clashes with the structure which resists change. Sometimes clergy can't stick it out and leave. Sometimes entire churches can't stick it out and leave. But to the patient, change comes incrementally and doors open slowly but surely.

In short, this post is written to two types of people:
  • To you if you feel like the UMC is changing too rapidly...take heart that the slow structural change forces everyone to moderate and be mindful of one another so that we bring everyone together as well as possible (so long as we all play the game fairly...yes, I'm looking at you renewal groups).
  • To you if you feel like the UMC is too slow to change...take heart that that it is the messy determination of the heretics, of the outliers, that drag the church kicking and screaming into new forms of ministry.

Connectionalism is messy. But it's a messiness that's ours and holds both tremendous potential and devastating setbacks. May we hold this tension creatively and never seek to upturn or dismantle it lest we lose the tension that makes us one.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments.


gavin richardson March 23, 2009 at 9:04 AM  

i can agree with you, with one response of observation. i would say that the umc specifically is slower/resistant to change now than it has ever been because it has entrenched itself in long standing tradition of linear fashion.

whereas now our settings are much more in tune with a web approach to thinking, decision making, & spiritual theology/practice our church can't get itself unstuck from 200 years (and probably a strong last 50 years) of traditional linear thought.

Rev. Jeremy Smith March 23, 2009 at 9:15 AM  

Gavin, thanks for the quick response. What do you specifically mean by "linear" thought. I think you mean that one thought must necessarily follow another sequentially instead of the relational way webworkers do things sideways and backwards. How am I following you?

gavin richardson March 23, 2009 at 9:41 AM  

yes, on the linear thought. the idea of that as ethos shows up from written & printed language to even how we shape our sanctuaries with the front focus and premium built on oratory preaching (i know we didn't start out that way in the early renewal of church of england). does that help clarify?

Blake Huggins March 23, 2009 at 12:08 PM  

And this would be precisely why I am constantly torn between the goodness of our established connection and the tendency toward institutional entrenchment.

nathanaquilla March 25, 2009 at 11:26 AM  

Every four years does make for slow change, but I also wonder if we had general conference every year how much more burdensome would that be on finances and time, with increased time being spent on voting, electing delegates, etc.

A Texas woman told me that the Texas legislature meets every two years because the state is so large it makes it more difficult to meet annually. Maybe some research could be done on political change in Texas versus other states.

Looking into the crystal ball, I can see a time where we are able to join annual conferences together over the web, maybe even into a general conference. Once we are willing and able to do this, then yearly or even by-annual general conference will be possible.

lance houghtling,  March 30, 2009 at 10:33 AM  

Just comparing blogs from UMC pastors with what arrives in my mailbox from the denomination and its connective publishments is illustration enough. And even when fresh ideas are reported from my mailbox, the writing is. . .well, technically well done I guess (woo hoo).

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