With Progress, Detraction is Subtraction

mlk-jail“I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.” — MLK, Letter from a Birmingham Jail

It is no great secret that mainline, Protestant churches are on the decline. A great deal of effort and energy are put into reversing this process. Call it Emergent Church, Transformation, or a whole host of other buzzwords, we church leader types seem convinced that change is the key to forgoing what increasingly looks like a certain (be it slow) demise.

So, we invest money, time and talent into the latest sure-fire program with the best of intentions. Quite frankly, it feels good to be doing something about it rather than sitting hopelessly tied to the past and repeating the mis-takes of yesteryear over and over again. We slowly make a case to whatever power structures there may be (formal and informal), get as many people as possible on board with the “new vision” and then begin the process.

Here’s the thing, once the “process” moves beyond reading books about what this “change thing” might look like, and we get down to actually changing things, people (the very people who were “on board” with the new vision) start criticizing the change once they see that it will actually change things. (I know that seems ridiculous, but it is actually very human. The idea of change is much less challenging than people actually mucking about in our comfort zones).

As people begin to detract from the change, detract from forward progress, we pastoral types feel a deep need to not only bring them along with us, but to sooth over the tension that such disagreements cause.  The thing is, each time we halt to address the criticism, we also halt the forward motion, we cease building a new future and focus on mending the past, we shift gears from the macro-management of the church’s future to the micromanagement of every concern expressed.

It’s almost hard to think about not doing exactly that, but when you do stop to think about it, when you choose to handle change this way, you are choosing to let go of the vision for the church and to get caught up in the everyday concerns of the world. Said differently, when you are trying to move a body forward, focusing on the detractors (even earnest ones) subtracts greatly from your ability to actualize progress. In many ways, life has taught those who object to change exactly that; preventing change does not take being right, it only takes being loud enough (or concerned enough, or hurt enough, etc.) to garnish attention, because it causes those working toward change to loose their vision and focus their energy on you.

In the end you, at the very least, slow down the change to which you object and in the best case you wear down those working toward change so much they they throw their hands up in frustration and walk away. With the exception of earnest objectors who might actually just be trying to understand, a great deal of the detractors are not interested in what is best as much as they are interested in getting what they want. Those working for change frequently, out of genuine concern, make the mistake of believing that with enough dialogue and nurturing the detractors can be brought on board. While this is  certainly a virtuous perspective, and early on is worth putting some energy in (but not the majority of energy), there is a point at which you have to face reality and boldly move forward into the direction you understand God to be calling you, realizing that people you care about will probably choose to take a different path and that the split may be rocky and even less than cordial at times.

I can’t help but wonder if that is part of the wisdom that Dr. King saw as he looked at the new vision, the change, he was trying to usher in in the U.S. “If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk…I would have no time for constructive work.” With progress, detraction is subtraction. It is painful work and goes against every fiber of your being. It literally hurts, but Jesus never promised us that it would be easy, just that it would be worth it.

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