Should the Church Be About Transformation? Or Stability?

House of cardsTransformation or stability.

Sometimes it seems like every pastor I meet lives in one of those two camps.

On the transformation side are churches with names like Catalyst, Thrive and Elevation. They’re led by pastors who are constantly driving for their church to be an agent of change. Some have even changed the title of “pastor” to “lead catalyst” to reflect that. These churches thrive on finding new, innovative ways to present the Gospel.

On the other side are churches and pastors that are digging in. They’re fighting what often feels like a losing battle against waves of negative societal change. They like to describe their church as bible-believing, fundamentalist, and/or “First (insert your denominational name here) Church”. One church sign I saw recently told everyone who drove by that they were Old-Fashioned, Hymn-Singing and Bible Believing.

So who’s right? The church as change agent? Or the church as a stable foundation?

Both. And neither.

Both are right, because the church needs to be a transformative community. And the church needs to stand for eternal truths.

Neither are right if they’re picking one side to the exclusion of the other, because we’re not called to be one or the other, but both/and.

Any church that sacrifices eternal truths for current trends is making a big mistake. And any church that refuses to change their methods to reach a new generation with eternal truths is just as wrong.

One is too trendy to last. The other is too stuck-in-a-rut to be relevant.

Most churches emphasize one or the other. A healthy church does both.


The Dichotomy of Both/And

People go to church for two reasons.

Reason 1: To radically change their life.

Reason 2: To connect with something/someone who never changes.

Transformation and stability. Two contrasting goals that people expect to get from the same place.

And it’s not just that some people want transformation and some want stability. Most people want both. At the same time.

And, whether they want it or not, everyone truly needs both. At the same time. No wonder pastoring is so hard.

A healthy church is called to be a community of transformation and stability. At the same time. 

People need the church to be a community where they can experience the transforming power of the Gospel. There is nothing else that will change us from sinners to saints, or continually push us to become greater reflections of the image of Christ. Learning to take up our cross daily is a life-changing life-denying process. That kind of inside-out transformation can’t happen in a business-as-usual church.

But we also need a stable foundation, a solid rock on which to stand. Many people who seek out a church, do so because they need a place to reconnect with the God who is “the same yesterday today and forever“.


Living In the Tension

It’s tempting to say that the answer to this dilemma is balance.

But it’s not.

Trying to balance such opposite extremes will either lead to spiritual schizophrenia (no one knows what’s going on) or resignation (one side wins, the other loses).

The longer I pastor, the more convinced I am that I’ll never find a healthy balance between these two opposing truths. I have to get used to living in the tension between them.

The more we change our style and methods, the more important it is to re-establish our total dependence on the unchanging truths of God’s Word.

Most pastors tend to emphasize one or the other, depending on their circumstance.

And sometimes that circumstance changes daily. Or it depends on who we’re talking with.

For instance, when I’m talking with church leaders who haven’t updated anything in decades, I come across as the crazy, California renegade, pushing for radical innovation and change.

But when I’m in a roomful of trendy, cooler-than-cool hipsters who are more likely to take their inspiration from the latest movie than the scriptures, I’m the old-school, bible-toting, Small Church preacher.


Let’s Work Together

The truth is, there are great churches on both sides of this.

Many churches that might appear overly trendy to some people, are just using new methods to reach unreached people with the changeless Gospel.

On the other side, there are some great traditional churches that provide a haven of comfort for hurting people, while serving their community in truly transformational ways.

A method that works in one situation may not work for another church in a different environment.

But the Gospel is true and transformational in every situation.


12 thoughts on “Should the Church Be About Transformation? Or Stability?”

  1. ‘A healthy church is called to be a community of transformation and stability. At the same time. ‘

    Truer words could not be spoken. Thanks Karl

    I have found that it is dissatisfied Christians seeking the ‘transformational’ churches while it is actually the non churched who are craving the stable settings proclaiming truth and developing cmumity

  2. Methodology gets confused with theology all the time. The “way we have always done things” is a potent doctrine in many churches. However, new doesn’t equal better or more effective. Living in the “tension” of changing how we communicate an unchanging message is a vital skill pastors must learn. The more we minister in reactive not proactive ways the more likely we are to choose a side based on our personal definition of success. Great and timely article. Thanks!

  3. Love the idea of living in the tension. This is probably true in many conversations as a pastor group I am in just had a similar discussion, though not on this topic. Yet, one thing most of us want to do is get away from tension and go to the “safety” of one way or another. Thanks for another great post and for a being a place where tension can grow and be maintained.

  4. In light of a close by, same denomination church that just moved into a brand new building and has all the bells and whistles, we’re thinking about advertising our church as “Church the way you remember it!” We are updating and refreshing our facility, we already have “passionate worship” (at least by our definition) and are very open and welcoming. I hope that will make a difference. But when you are real small, who knows?

    1. When everyone else is zigging I like to zag. Sounds like you may be doing your own version of that, George. But realize that “church the way you remember it” isn’t a positive remembrance for a lot of people. Be careful not to appeal only to church people.

  5. Once again, Karl, you’ve proven your skill at finding the sore spots and pushing on them!

    I’d like to contribute to this thread by angling in from the oblique.

    Over the past year I have been part of a research team that has been studying those factors which explain why some pastors are able to bring new life and conversion growth, time after time, while their colleagues typically cannot. The goal of this is to create professional development tools and coaching protocols that will help every pastor reach his (or, depending on your views, her) potential as an effective leader.

    Two of the key distinctions we’re finding relate to this post, the preference for structure and the preference for change. Please allow me to brief descriptions of change and structure preference, a statement of findings and then I’ll get to the point in reply to your post.

    Pastors with higher structure preferences tend to be careful, organized and orderly; they prefer things to come at them in sequence and prefer to segment their work flow step-by-step. Pastors with lower structure preferences prefer minimal formal organization and a higher degree of spontaneity.

    Pastors with higher change preferences prefer new experiences, innovative approaches and a more malleable environment. Pastors with lower change preferences tend toward repetitive efforts, minimal disruptions and predictable responsibilities.

    What the research has shown, to a high degree of validity and reliability, is that there is a statitistically significant difference between pastors who are able to bring new life to static churches and those who can’t. Those who cannot have a high degree of preference for structur and a low degree of preference for change. Those who can have the opposite profile, a high degree of preference for change and a low degree of preference for structure.

    So what? How does that relate to the point in your post?

    First, your observation that most pastors tend to fall into one of the two camps (stability or change) is absolutely spot-on. As for the actual statistical distribution, somewhere between 10-20% fall into the change camp and the rest fall somewhere in the stability camp.

    Second, these preferences are to some degree driven or determined by factors within the individual pastor’s character (be it due to nature or nuture) that most of them are not fully aware of.

    Third, and implied in something you said, is that these preferences color our hermeneutics and thus our biblical exegesis and thence our practical ecclesiology! How one wrestles with this question will be in some measurable degree influenced by these unrecognized personal preferences.

    Finally, the real gem in this comes at the end. Your observation that a method that works for one church may not work in another is so spot on that it deserves a series of posts on its own. This cuts to the heart of the “case study” method that comprises so much of what we think we know about effective church ministry and explains why pastors who look at how others do it to find an archetype of ministry success are usually doomed to discouragement and defeat.

    My apologies for going on at such length.

  6. How about stable transformation?
    Isn’t that what happens with a new baby we welcome into our home.
    Without the stability of the inner workings (heart, lungs, etc.) the external change and growth couldn’t occur.

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