Change. We realize in some abstract way that change is necessary. Growth in any form requires change. But even though we know it intellectually, change can be hard to assimilate emotionally. So, the question is not whether change will happen, but whether the changes that come help to equip us for discipleship in the kingdom of God. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is obviously undergoing change. In some part of our minds we know that, and that it is necessary to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world. But change is hard. Where do we go? How do we get there? Who will come along as we move forward, and who will decide to embark on a different journey? Can we say we love people if we make them mad? A lot of questions. A lot of decisions to be made about how we will remain faithful to the vision that gave birth to the Disciples in the first place, and about how we will carry that legacy into the future
The primary question for us as we make decisions, though, should not be about whether the changes we make will cause distress (we know that any decisions we make are potentially troubling), rather, our primary question should always be, “Are the decisions we make, the changes we propose faithful to the claims of the gospel?” We want to be sensitive to the discomfort that people feel when change comes, while at the same time understanding that some discomfort is inevitable. We seek not necessarily to increase people’s anxiety, but we understand that all change produces an attendant amount of disquiet.
No change is ever universally accepted. Some people will like it. Some people will hate it. Therefore, in making decisions, we need a more substantive criterion for deciding how to act than whether or not change is popular. I would suggest to you that the criteria we use to discern whether the direction in which we are headed is the right direction ought to center on whether any decision increases our commitment to discipleship. Does a particular decision help us more faithfully live out a vision of the gospel that understands hospitality as fundamental to our identity? Are we embracing others in the way Jesus embraced others? Are we producing disciples capable of embodying the truth of the gospel that God seeks to be reconciled to all creation? Do we have a vision of Christian maturity that challenges us to move beyond the easy and convenient to accept that which asks that we lay down our lives, pick up our crosses, and follow Jesus down the sometimes dark and frightening road he travels? Are we expending our resources in propping up structures and programs, the purpose of which has been lost in the press of maintaining institutions?
In agreeing to be guided by the principle of faithfulness in decision-making, we make the implicit statement that the way we judge change is by whether or not it assists us in our goal of making better Christians—not by whether it allows us to continue herding our sacred cows. As we continue our journey during this time of transition, with our focus on the sacrifice of Jesus, we can’t help but be reminded that faithfulness is our response to a Lord who was first faithful to us—and acting faithfully is always the most loving thing to do.
At [D]mergent we’d like to help facilitate a conversation about what changes are necessary to keep the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) a faithful partner in bearing witness to the gospel. What kind of things do we do that are necessary? What things have outlived their usefulness? What should our priorities be? At the heart of the conversation is the question, “What unique role does the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) fulfill that would leave the landscape that much more impoverished if we weren’t here?” Tell us what you think.
Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions. He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and a Ph.D. in humanities at the University of Louisville. He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon. Penwell was once shot with a potato gun while fleeing the scene of a Cold War espionage sting at a premium vodka distillery in a rural Estonian outpost. (He doesn’t like to talk about it . . . so don’t ask.)