The Pain of Change

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.)
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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity,, and blogs at his own site at

7 thoughts on “The Pain of Change

  1. I don’t think anybody would disagree with this post. The disagreements, and divisions, will occur when we address specifics.

    Your ministry is outstanding in LGBT justice.
    Craig Watts has a great ministry in opposition to militarism.
    I’m absolutely brilliant in advocating non-superstitious faith.
    Bob Cornwall is by far the best at communicating to a wide audience in a mainstream way.

    Of course we have the Disciples Heritage folks. They too would agree with every word in your post Indeed, they feel they are placing faithful discipleship over “being nice”. Their theology is childish, but some who fight for social justice have childish theology as well.

    The conversation is important. But it won’t mean anything until we get specific.

    (Frankly, I think we should consider merging with the Alliance of Baptists, but I’m a mad man.)

  2. I agree that it might be hard to find someone to disagree in principle. However, we don’t live “in principle”; we live in a world where decisions to choose one thing over another is to risk disappointing some constituency.

    I’m not thinking Disciples Heritage, which I think is largely irrelevant. Instead, I’m thinking about regular old traditional Disciples who have a heavy investment in being a denomination, as such, like all the rest of the mainline “big kids”–with all the trappings that come with it. The denominational superstructure we’ve been supporting is something we need take a hard look at, to determine what purpose it serves, what needs to be kept, and what needs to be dropped.

    Once we have those conversations in earnest, I’m sure we’ll be able to find someone who disagrees. Perhaps it was I who lacked clarity.

  3. I understand better now. You are continuing the theme about riding dead horses. You are 100% correct. When we begin these conversations in earnest, there will be no shortage of disagreement!

    Example: I’d sure like to see HQ turn the fire they experienced into an opportunity to lead this very conversation. Maybe we need less brick & mortar. I’ve imagined what it could look like if HQ chose to make their transition a positive example for getting out of the old and into the new.

    • The fire should definitely prompt us to reevaluate our investment in structure (physical, organizational, and programmatical). We’re continuing to funnel money into maintaining things, the urgency and necessity of which, we may have lost track of.

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