“What I love most about rivers is:
You can’t step in the same river twice
The water’s always changing, always flowing
But people, I guess, can’t live like that
We all must pay a price
To be safe, we lose our chance of ever knowing
What’s around the river bend
Waiting just around the river bend…”
Pocahontas, Classic Disney 1995
Churches can never stay the same. This is a truth that many do not feel comfortable with, would happily deny, and at times even fight against. However, churches like rivers are constantly in flux, constantly moving, changing, and if they weren’t they would be less for it. I hope you can excuse the historical difficulties with Disney’s Pocahontas to allow me to use this analogy as personally it is one of my favourite songs from Disney and also a great way to view life and the church.
It can be incredibly tempting to stay safe, and it feels safer to ignore the changes within our church communities, fight new ideas about worship, prayer or organisation because it might go wrong. But when we do this we end up paying an extreme cost of gradually dying, losing the Spirit of the church, and becoming a shell of what we were meant to be, and become. If we don’t take the risks we don’t gain the reward.
Practically speaking, imagine you are sitting in church when a stranger walks through the doors, they look friendly enough but you don’t necessarily bounce up to greet them, you let them observe their surroundings and they join the service. You chat, they share a little of who they are, the congregation breaks up to go home for a nice lunch, and you think little of it. At first it might seem as if they will have very little impact on your happy church life, but things are changing whether you see them or not.
The fact they walked through those doors means that something has changed: their journey and yours. God is planning something however insignificant this new arrival may seem. They carry with them experiences, knowledge, wisdom and gifts, all which should be brought out by good teachings, pastoral care and community. A good church will welcome this and see them as another blessing to the work the church is called to.
Sadly, it is also often the loss of members of a congregation, either due to life or death, that have an impact but hopefully they leave behind a strong example, experiences, promises and plans which the church can move ahead with.
Whatever the change, each individual holds a unique diversity created by God and we should embrace that. The world-wide Church is connected as a body in the same way the river is connected to the waters of the world, but each country, denomination, community and individual is moving and living within this body as cells. We will not all be called to the same work, but we can support each other. When a church shares their lives we all benefit and are impacted and changed (hopefully) for the better. We also allow each individual to grow in freedom with God rather than boxing them into a role or label that we would prefer; this organic growth allows for more honesty, development, and community as each can depend and love each other for who they are.
In all this I am not suggesting that churches should deny their own identity; honestly it is unlikely that someone new will walk through the doors purposefully aiming to change everything about it (and it will be clearly apparent if they do). There will be churches that work on the same mission for decades and those that diversify and support many aims, communities that focus on pastorally caring for the student populations that move through, and those diligently caring for the families who live round them their entire lives. None of these are bad things, and yet no church is perfect. People come to a chosen church because of these differences. They come in order to find somewhere to belong, because they have hopefully heard about the gifts, the aims and the love within a church and want to be a part of it.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. … God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
1 Corinthians 12: 12-14, 24-26, NRSV
The church is not meant to be a building, the structure is not what holds us together, and if the bricks fell down around us we could still continue to worship. Control is delusional when it comes to a church, and if there was a clear status quo we would likely be bored, frustrated, and the jobs of ministers and pastors would probably be much easier. A new face, or a new perspective in an old one, may introduce newness and challenge the established norms, but by looking to God alongside each other we go so much further.
It may not feel safe, or easy, and may come with conflict and debate and difficulty, but very little of the Christian life is easy, and if every cell is attempting to do it’s best for God it can only benefit the body. The river may be constantly moving, but so are you, and accepting this will allow you to enjoy the Spirit as it guides you round the river bends. Who knows what glory is waiting for you if you just step into it.