I am convinced that much of the church in the United States, the Free Methodist Church included, needs change, change and more change. Even a quick glance at what is happening around and among us should be enough to convince us that the church simply must change. In the U.S., most denominations are in decline, and some of them must “pull up” soon or they will “crash and burn.”
Denominations that are growing in the U.S., like the FMC, often show modest growth at best. A closer look, however, is not as encouraging. Most of these churches are growing thanks to new church plants, “out-of-the box” ministry initiatives and outreach to an increasing number of ethnic groups around them. At the same time, an alarming number of their existing churches (as many as half or more) are “stuck” or in serious decline. Thus, even for “growing” denominations, many local churches are headed for certain closure unless something changes — unless they change.
Why should this be so alarming? What’s wrong with just maintaining? Where does the Bible say change is good, and more change can be even better? Especially if it’s just change for change’s sake? Well, let’s take a step back, a deep breath, and look carefully at these questions.
First, note how very different it has been in other parts of the world. In Africa, for example, at the beginning of the 20th century, something like 2 percent of sub-Saharan Africa could be called Christian in any sense. Then the modern missionary movement began and, in less than 100 years, more than 50 percent of the same region has become Christian. The movement of Jesus there has experienced exponential growth. The same story can be told about South America and much of Asia during this same time period.
In other words, during the 20th century in most of the world, the “church” has multiplied incredibly. Yet in our part of the world, the “church” limps along. This prompts another question: Which experience of church tracks most faithfully with the story of church we read in our Bibles? You can google it if you want, but I think the answer is obvious. The story of most of the world and the story of the Bible, when compared with the current American story of church, powerfully suggests that the church in America must change, then change some more.
I am not talking about change simply to change, and I am not assuming that just any change would be good. Neither does the Bible, which describes the kind of changes the church here — our churches —must make.
Of course, we begin with Jesus. When the time was right, Jesus steps on the scene and calls for huge, massive change. He declares the time has come, the kingdom of God has come and, in response, He calls people everywhere to “repent.” “Repent” never happens without change. Change in thinking, change in direction of life and change of heart prompt not only the first steps but continuing obedience on an entirely different life path. Change, change and more change.
Immediately, Jesus begins to call people to follow Him. The people He called did not come to Him; rather, He went to them, interrupting their lives with a call to follow. Imagine the changes of those first followers who had been fishing with family and friends, who never thought they’d do anything else until they heard, “Follow Me.” More than once we read something like, “They got up, left their place of work and associates and even family, and followed” — not just for an hour or afternoon, but the foreseeable future and beyond. In fact, they began a journey of more changes than we can count.
Once a small group began to follow Jesus, there was continuing change. The group of followers became a new peer group for one another, they entered an apprenticeship for work and life, they received new teaching, and practiced new ways of relating to friends and enemies, to name just a few of the changes.
One of the more profound changes was a deepened call from Jesus to join Him in His public ministry, which in time would extend to the ends of the earth. In other words, their “conversion” not only brought them into intimate sharing with Jesus and His followers — so intimate that it took priority even over their natural families and included participation in Jesus’ own mission. Jesus came to do something, and following Him meant joining Him in whatever that was. So, again, imagine the changes wrapped up in learning to orient and organize the whole of life around the things Jesus came to do. Could anything really remain the same for long? These changes were intended not only for the first disciples of Jesus.
Sent by Jesus
In Luke 10:1–20, Jesus sends 70 (or maybe it’s 72) others into various villages. These are not the 12 Apostles, who were sent earlier (Luke 9:1) but many others who were following. I believe Jesus sends them to do the kinds of things Jesus expects the church to do — not just pastors and “foreign missionaries” but members of the church as well. I cannot give a full account of what He tells them to do, but please make these observations with me:
- He sends them two by two, to say and do what Jesus said and did. Wherever they go, they are charged with making Jesus’ message known and sharing Jesus’ ministry among the people.
- There are not enough of them to do all Jesus asks: not enough workers, not enough resources, simply not enough. But this must not deter them. Still they must go. Evidently not having enough is not an excuse, whether it is enough partners or money. It is just the reality.
- When they experience their lack of workers or resources or whatever, they must pray that the Lord will supply. They carry out their mission aware they are totally dependent on the Lord.
- They will encounter opposition, danger and threat. Jesus says He sends them as sheep among wolves, knowing full well that all sheep are afraid of wolves. Still He sends them and expects they will go.
- They are told to expect some rejection. If the wolves do not get them, others might!
- They will have the power and authority, not to mention the resources, they need if they will go, praying to and depending upon the Lord of the harvest.
- They went under such circumstances, and came back marveling and rejoicing, reporting that even demons were subject to them.
Note the elements of change stated or implied in all that Jesus says. Contemplate being under-resourced, encountering wolves, rejected by some or many, and still going. Imagine the changes to the typical human psyche such that deprivation, legitimate fear of mortal danger, likely rejection and possible injury and death do not deter them from following Jesus’ instructions.
You may be thinking these words are not meant for every Christian at all times and places. I grant that. Even so, the gospels conclude with Jesus’ words that do apply to all followers of Jesus at all times and in all places. These words speak of making disciples and teaching them to do all that Jesus taught the first disciples. Clearly, then, the instructions to the 70 are among those instructions and commands. The details may change here and there, but, in general, the profile of following sketched above at least points toward a series of radical changes in so-called normal human beings and living that characterizes all true following. Clearly, this is a profile of change, change and more change.
By its very nature then, following Jesus leads to ongoing, massive changes of one sort or another and, thus, from time to time, we would expect that the church needs change, change and more change. The point of such change is not simply to get bigger and make a show — rather, to find ways to declare and demonstrate the reality of life under the loving lordship of God. Jesus sent them to call others into this kingdom by following Jesus. In the process, people and places were changed. Indeed, throughout the history of the church, a changed and changing people have brought godly change wherever they go. That has always been the norm and the plan of Jesus our Lord for the people called church.
What must we do when the church declines and fails to participate in the ongoing mission of Jesus? Isn’t it true we quite literally must choose between changing and dying? Under these circumstances, wouldn’t you agree that the church needs change, change and more change?
How might we begin changing more toward true following and toward the vision Jesus has for changing the world through His people who have been changed?
Jesus began with a call to repentance. Shouldn’t we? If your church is declining or dying, wouldn’t you like it to be different? If it is the same old thing Sunday by Sunday, if visitors are rare and return visitors rarer still, wouldn’t you like it to change? If Jesus has not “sent you” wouldn’t it be incredible if He did? Why not start there? Seriously consider the need for change and ask the Lord of the church where you should start the changes.
Jesus sent people ahead of where He intended to show up. Where has Jesus sent you? A good clue might be: Where are you regularly? Could it be that’s not an accident? Another good clue might be to consider the people around you most needy, most neglected, poorer, hurting or at a disadvantage of some sort. Where are the people most unlike you and the folks already at home in your church? Jesus loves them as much as any of us. So ask the Lord to help you see; then take a walk. Ask the Lord to help you hear; then begin a “listening tour” wherever you live, work and play. See what happens.
Jesus sent people together, so the church needs change, change and more change. Share your growing burden (you will have a burden should you start considering these changes yourself) with some fellow followers of Jesus. What do you see together? What do you hear together? What might you do together? Engage in such conversation, and then invite Jesus into the mix. See what happens.
Jesus said to make your prayer agenda be your sense of inadequacy in the face of the enormity of His mission. Pray the Lord of the Harvest to send … what you need. I know people and churches that have believed Jesus was serious, and the changes began that made all the difference.
Jesus gave His own authority and empowerment. He told them to announce His presence and power. We do this in a number of ways, such as by telling our story of encounter with Jesus, by looking for opportunities to make new friends and then to expect openings to bless and pray with and for them, and by finding out what people near you need and then doing something about it. See what happens.
Imagine if you and a few others began seriously to consider embracing such changes in order to orient your lives more fully around the Person and work of Jesus?
Our church in Erbil, Iraq, was “stuck” a couple of years ago. The church was a small group of struggling Christians trying to maintain in the middle of a hostile culture. It was not clear they would succeed for long. Then, at the strong urging of their overseers, they decided to move. Literally, they relocated across the street from a refugee camp filled with people chased from their homes by ISIS. The church moved and began to do whatever they could think to do for the people across the street. They made friends, learned of needs, offered help. They became “servants” to the needs of the hurting. The church changed, changed and changed some more in response to a new sense of Jesus calling them to join Him in ministry with needy people. As I write, we have just had a service in a new building that was filled with people, new life and all sorts of hope for that part of the city.
It could happen where you live. There could be the kind of changes I’ve mentioned above, which would lead to more and more. You could change, people in the church could change, and the folks across the street could change. You and your church could see what happens.
Bishop David Kendall is an ordained elder in the Great Plains Conference who was first elected to the office of Free Methodist bishop in 2005. He is the author of “God’s Call to Be Like Jesus.”4