Change? Who Said Anything about Change?

By Ted Hopkins

Almost every Lutheran knows the old joke about how many Lutherans it takes to change a light bulb. “Change? Who said anything about change?” After an initial chortle, this joke always hits pretty close to home for me. Change is hard. More than that, I don’t like change. I’m only willing to accept change when I’m deeply unhappy. And even then, I would rather have other people change to make life better for me.

Change takes will and effort, and it’s often awkward. I don’t want to deal with that. I am pretty comfortable with everyone accommodating to me—see how flexible I am!—but I don’t want to change myself.

I think many Christians feel the same way about our own congregations. When I started dating my wife, Beth, I found out that Baptists have the same joke Lutherans do, but with a minor variation: “How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?” Across denominations, we tend to sit in the same pew, hang out with the same friends, and feel comforted by the same sermon style week after week. Change? Who said anything about change?

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once claimed that a person can never go through the same river twice. The point was not only that the water was changing—an obvious point about currents—but that a person is constantly fluctuating, too. The next time she enters the river, her experiences will be different, her relationships will be different, and even her cells will be different. Everything changes.

This ever-changing, topsy-turvy reality ought to feel familiar to us. At least, it feels familiar to me. Let me give you an example. Not too long ago, I happily observed to Beth how great life was going. (This would be called foreshadowing if I were living in a movie…) The children were building solid friendships and getting along so well, and they were even opening up to us about important stuff. Work was going great for both of us, and we seemed to be building on meaningful friendships, established as adults even.

But within two weeks, nothing felt the same. The kids were at each other’s throats. Instead of being in sync, Beth and I began butt heads at almost everything, once even literally. (This would be called irony.) Work trouble started, too, and those burgeoning friendships didn’t seem quite as stable as they just had.

Isn’t this how life always is? Wait a few weeks, and nothing is the same…

This world of flux affects not only our personal lives, it impacts our churches, too. Over the last century, Christianity has experienced a pretty serious change in relationship to North American culture. The Christian faith does not have the same cultural capital it once did. Our religion does not have pride of place in schools, government, or even in the public sphere. Not that long ago, Christianity held all of these privileges, and others always adapted to us. But things have changed.

So, what are we going to do about all this change?

We could dig in our heels and refuse to adjust. We could act like nothing has changed. We could just keep trying to vote in politicians who will bring back the privileges we want, trying to make everyone change to fit us.

All of those options have a kind of logic that can be appealing. And all of them can be framed in pious language about theology, the Church, or Jesus. It sounds right to say that we want to “remain faithful” to Jesus. It feels holy to say that we want to “stay true” to our tradition and our faith. But all too often those religious phrases can become ways we cloak (even to ourselves) our own intransigence and discomfort with change.

So, what are we going to do about all this change?

Maybe the first thing that needs to change is the question.

Instead of focusing on what we are going to do, we can think first about the Word and work of God: What commands and promises does God the Father give to us for the Church in this time? How is the Spirit leading us to be formed into Jesus for this changed and changing world? How does Jesus’ own life and ministry change how we relate to this new time and space?

To be clear, the Church must not become the culture, or even become like the culture. Instead, we must be faithful witnesses to the world, witnesses of Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection for us and for the world.

Faithfulness to Jesus does not permit us to avoid change.

In fact, I think it’s the opposite: faithfulness to Jesus leads us to faithful change. But let’s talk about that next time. (This one would be called a cliffhanger.)

Rev. Dr. Theodore Hopkins is associate professor of theology, pre-seminary director, and family life ministry director at Concordia University, Ann Arbor. He is author of the book Christ, Church, and World: Bonhoeffer and Lutheran Ecclesiology after Christendom.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply