April 21, 2016

Is Change Good?

What's the greatest obstacle to change and renewal in the Church? Lutherans are a mixed bag these days, but most of the time I presume political gridlock isn't to blame so much as apathy. (And perhaps "apathy" isn't the right word. Sometimes it seems almost like a militant adherence to the status quo.) Speaking from my experience, I don't know how many times in the past several years "I've never heard any complaints" was given as a reason not to change something. Its close relatives are: "We've always done it this way," and "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." It perplexes me to some degree. If I can find someone who is willing to voice some complaint, or at least suggest that improvements could be made, then will you consider changing? What if, like good Lutherans, we're just keeping our opinions to ourselves? Mother always said, "If you don't have anything nice to say..."

The same old argument came out of the bag recently in regard to commissioning artwork to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It's happened often enough to at least give me pause. Is there something to it? Are there times when the status quo is to be honored above change? If I can understand the mindset, maybe that will help me to overcome the rigid apathy.

I consider myself a traditionalist, so in that regard it's somewhat odd that I so often find myself on the side of change. On the one hand, I thank God that my church is a conservative Lutheran congregation. We don't have battles over praise bands, trendy youth programs, or licentious pastors. I think my church is pretty normal among the WELS in that regard.

On the other hand, probably like many WELS churches, we sometimes confuse the status quo for "tradition." They aren't necessarily the same. The traditions of the Church (e.g., the liturgy) were established long ago and for good reasons (e.g. maintaining good order, preaching the gospel, aiding learning). Those reasons still stand. The interesting thing about the traditions of the Church is that even while they remain, they change. What served as the liturgy in the Byzantine Empire won't work for 21st century American Lutherans in Seward, Nebraska. But we still have a liturgy, and we probably sing some of the same biblical canticles that Justinian sang—only they've been translated into English and set to different music with different instruments. The clergy that served in Hagia Sophia would have worn albs, just like our pastor. But their vesture would have seemed distinctly Roman and somewhat alien to us.

Traditions in the church are commended by the Book of Concord as being good and useful, but they change. Aside from regional and cultural changes that occur when Christianity is transmitted around the world, Christians have deliberately and often improved the tradition. This is why Romanesque churches eventually gave way to Gothic—many Europeans thought that pointed vaults, stained glass windows, more light, and greater verticality resulted in a more beautiful and fitting setting for worship. Note: These weren't radical changes—they occurred slowly over hundreds of years, and maintained the same basic layout of churches past. Also Note: There was nothing wrong with the previous style. When Constantine first made Christianity legal, Christians who had worshipped well enough in house-churches didn't remain there; they began building large basilica-churches. Likewise, the Gothic style didn't come about because parishioners complained that they didn't like rounded arches. In both cases, church architecture changed because Christians with artistic sensibilities saw room for improvement.

Jump forward to 1517. Martin Luther reformed many of the traditions of the Catholic Church. One notable example was that he excised the Canon of the Mass from the liturgy. The original reasons for having the liturgy still remained—but the Canon hindered them. It turned the Sacrament of the Eucharist into a sacrifice, thus denying the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ and obscuring the essence of the gospel. This is an example of a change that was not only an improvement, but a necessity.

Luther should serve as a good example for us even in the 21st century. Contrary to the beliefs of some, the Reformation was not a one-time event. The Word and its pure teaching must constantly be guarded; the Church must undergo constant reform and renewal. Our resistance to change is understandable, given how highly Lutherans value their heritage, and given the many pressures within the church to conform to an increasingly godless culture. But we can become so wary of negative changes that we fear any change. I see that attitude in myself often enough. Change is not the enemy of the Church. Bad changes are the enemy. Good changes are the work of the Holy Spirit. It may sound like a corny corporate policy, but Meme Dwight is right: improvement is always possible.

Of course, the Church doesn't change for the sake of change. We search the scriptures and test the spirits. We want to make sure: first, that there are good reasons to change; and second, that the change will actually be an improvement before we implement it. We should always resist bad changes. And for that reason, we can find cause to commend at least some of our Lutheran stubbornness. But if Lutherans are not open to change of any kind, then we're not open to improvement, either.

And that, I think, is not a tenable position for a Christian to have.