ONE OF MY FAVORITES BUMPER STICKERS is “Change is good. You go first.” Those six words capture how most people feel about change—it’s fine for the other guy! An evangelistic Christian, in contrast to set-in-their-ways believers, is open to change, to being the “other guy.” Sharing the gospel effectively requires adjusting your lifestyle continually, being willing to do new things in new ways to reach new people. This is a major attitude adjustment for many believers.
One youth leader taught his teenagers this response to whatever circumstances they encountered on a missions trip: “That’s just the way we like it.” That simple response shaped their attitude and helped them learn the flexibility needed for success in a different culture. It’s a good reminder to be flexible, adjusting to changing circumstances rather than complaining about unexpected events. It’s a good theme for believers who share the gospel as life happens—even when they aren’t on a missions trip to another culture.
Why do Christians resist change? Why is it so hard to adopt new approaches to evangelism or accommodate the needs of new believers? Why do Christians become so entrenched in particular methods? Why is change so hard—even change needed to help us reach more people with the gospel? The answers are far too complex for a few paragraphs, but here is a summary of some key points.
First, people resist change because of a propensity toward self-preservation. Risk threatens our sense of well-being, often a false sense of safety based more on perception than reality. This leads to the second reason people resist change. Encountering change is more an emotional experience than a reasoned process. No matter the facts, some people just can’t overcome their emotional roadblocks to change.
When one church decided to relocate, the decision was based on the need to create additional space for more people to have the opportunity to worship. There was no disputing the need—standing room only in multiple services every week. In theory, the church’s members wanted more people to be saved and become an active part of their fellowship. When relocation was proposed, however, the response of some was negative, and emotional. One man said, “All my children were baptized and married in this church. Why are you taking my church away from me?” When the pastor replied, “We’re trying to create a place for other families, in the future, to have the same privilege your family had in the past,” the fellow was not satisfied. He continued to oppose the relocation, though never disputing the former facility was inadequate, but mostly focused on his sense of loss and displacement caused by having “his church taken from him.”
This leads to the third reason people resist change. Potential change is often perceived as loss producing a grieflike response. When someone dies, affected people usually go through a grief process including shock, anger, denial, bargaining, and (hopefully) acceptance or adjustment. Change often carries with it a similar sense of loss. When churches change, familiar programs, methods, approaches, locations, or people are lost or replaced. Depending on the emotional attachment to former structures or relationships, this sense of loss can be profound, like grief associated with death. Intense anger, often associated with a response to death, is also a common response to significant change.
One group of churches had sponsored a children’s camp for several decades. Attendance had declined to around 20 children as most of the churches dropped out of the program. The longtime leaders were determined to hang on to their methods, remembering years before when hundreds had attended and dozens of children had been converted each year. They couldn’t give up their emotional attachment to past success. While their camp continued to decline, another one was created with a fresh format appealing to children today. The second camp was a strong success, reaching many children with the gospel. Some Christians cling to outdated methods or programs because of their meaningful memories of past successes, limiting their evangelistic effectiveness in the future.
Finally, a fourth reason change is difficult is because resistance is tied to the level of change required. For example, changing from pews to chairs in your worship center may not be difficult for you. After all, it’s just furniture. But if your grandfather built the pews, the level of emotional investment increases exponentially, and so will your resistance to the change. Superficial changes are more easily managed. Changes affecting core values or close relationships are much more difficult. Making the personal changes necessary to adopt a more evangelistic lifestyle certainly fits this category. These are personal changes that may be quite difficult to assimilate.
Adopting a new lifestyle means you embrace change, as painful as it might be. You recognize the reasons change is difficult and overcome them. You endorse variety in methodologies for reaching people and value diversity among people. Both of these choices are contrary to the perspective many believers have today. Many Christians are settled in their methodological ways and comfortable in their monocultural community. As you focus more on personal evangelism, you will embrace the changes required for sharing the gospel and managing the response from people around you. Learning to do that is challenging, but essential. The process starts by adopting a more biblical perspective on change.
Jeff Iorg, Unscripted: Sharing the Gospel as Life Happens (Ashland, OH: New Hope Publishers, 2014).
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