Changing Habits Change the Church

“If organized religion has become less relevant, it’s not because churches have held fast to their creedal beliefs; it’s because they’ve held fast to their conventional rituals, roles, and routines. In other words, the problem with organized religion isn’t the ‘religion’ bit, but the ‘organized’ bit.”
This quote comes from chapter 5 (Becoming an Enemy of Entropy) of Gary Hamel’s book, What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation.” His assertion is that the Church, like other institutions, is stuck in an organizational paradigm that keeps us from moving forward in a time of constant and rapid change. It is not our message that needs work. The message is timeless. Our way of doing “business” is what is holding us back.
Rev. Watson Blake once said, “Bad habits are like a comfortable bed; easy to get into, but hard to get out of.” For many mainline Christians, our way of “doing” church is habitual. A habit is something that is done repetitively to the point of becoming unconscious. The way we worship, educate, fellowship, and serve has been practiced into habit, one might say a bad habit.
This crazy, wild ride of change in which we now find ourselves invites us – implores us – to evaluate our rituals, roles and routines. In order to be resurrected into the church we are called to be today, we need to let old habits die. Everything we do as an organization is subject to critical examination. No part of the institution is sacred.
This work needs to be done on every level of the Church, from the local congregation to the national denominational structure. Hamel states, “To thrive in turbulent times, organizations must become a bit more disorganized and unmanaged-less structured, less hierarchical, and less routinized.” He offers suggestions for moving from our habitual ways into a more missional and relevant ministry.
Be humble. “In a world of discontinuous change, arrogance is a mortal sin.” Can we, on every level of the Church, be self-critical, and gracefully accept the critic of others? Can we put our own jobs on the line for the good of the Kingdom?
Be honest. Listen to the dissidents and innovators in our midst. They have something to teach us. Because habits are unconscious, it is sometimes difficult for us to see what needs changing. The dissidents among us, and the critical outside observers offer new perspectives that can help us identify needed changes.
Keep the mission paramount. “It is easy, over time, to elevate form over function and confuse programs with purpose.” The purpose of the Church is to proclaim the Gospel, not to maintain itself. Mission means “sent.” We are a people called to be sent into the world to bring good news, give voice to the voiceless, and work for reconciliation and peace. We are not called to be catered to, or programmed to death. We get enough of that from the rest of society.
In addition, I suggest that we have as many purposeful conversations as we can, and really listen to one another. As leaders, we want to know what our parishioners’ deepest passions and most profound questions. What matters most to them? Where is God calling them to engage in the world? Along with serving their worship and pastoral care needs, let us keep them in prayerful discernment that leads to action. Create opportunities for dialogues about faith, current events, and mission. I believe these kinds of continual conversations will help us break old habits, and move us from “doing” church to “being” church.
“As institutions mature, the positive thrust of mission diminishes and the pull of habit strengthens – until one day, the organization can no longer escape the gravitational field of its own legacy,” writes Hamel. “We need to remind ourselves that it’s impossible to build adaptable organizations without adaptable people – individuals who are humble, honest, and inspired. These are the human roots of renewal.” Adaptable people can change their habits.
If one wants to lose weight and become healthier, she changes her eating and exercise habits. It takes a lot of practice and determination. Likewise, if we want to become healthier and more relevant churches, we need to change our habits.
What are the institutional habits that need to change in your ministry setting in order to move from doing to being?
(Originally written for, and published by ThePresbyterianLeader.com.)

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