In working in local churches for nearly 20 years, I’ve noticed that there are general two types of change that occur within institutions: changes in policy, and changes in culture.
Changes in policy are the easiest type of change to affect. That’s because they usually don’t involve many feelings. You might, for instance, announce, “The Bible study will move from Thursday night at 7:00 PM to Wednesday night at 7:00 PM.” Of course, there may be some grumbling among the crowd that occurs among those who preferred Thursday night. But overall, those policy change happens pretty easily because the change doesn’t trigger people.
Changes in culture, however, can be brutally hard to affect. That’s because the change gets at the group’s core values and can be perceived as a personal affront. When I started to introduce technology at the church I serve – through things like a new website, an online Participant Directory, an online giving option, and the use of Google Docs and Google Sheets several years ago – the change was met with fierce resistance. Not fierce ACTIVE resistance. Fierce passive resistance. No matter what I tried, most folks simply wouldn’t use it.
There were a couple of ways of thinking that contributed to the resistance. Some long-time church members felt threated by the shift to technology. Because we were a friendly, warm family church – they thought that technology was, by definition, cold and distant. There was no reason to offer classes, meetings, or services on line – because the sole purpose of those things was to get us together face to face. And no matter what I tried, I wasn’t very successful in putting a dent in their cultural resistance.
It wasn’t just the long-time members who were resistant to the technology, either. Some of the younger folks were resistant as well. “I use technology at work. I use technology to communicate with friends on social media sites. Why would I use it for church, too?”
No matter how carefully I tried to be in introducing online church stuff, I failed miserably. I was beginning to think cultural change in this area was impossible.
But then the COVID-19 crisis hit – and suddenly people’s thinking about technology and church changed overnight. Those whose previously thought technology was cold and distant – now experienced it as the ONE thing left that might hold us together. And those who compartmentalized technology – thinking it was only helpful for work or social media connections – now started to realize technology could benefit them spiritually as well. Clearly, the cultural grounds were shifting under our feet. Hallelujah!
So one question remains. Will this warming to the use of technology be a fad that disappears when the threat of the COVID-19 virus goes away; or will it become a trend that opens people of all ages to the continued merger of spirituality and technology?
I wish I could answer that question with certainty right now. Unfortunately, I can’t. There are two things that give me hope. First, the longer the “stay at home” order stays in effect, the more likely the cultural change might become permanent. Behavioral researchers say it takes at least 3 weeks to create a new habit. We here in California will pass the three week timeline this week. Fingers crossed!
Second, technologically oriented people are recognizing we have a window of opportunity right now to introduce technology to new parts of the church. Tomorrow afternoon, for instance, I’ll gather a small group to talk about how we might broaden the use of technology. You can rest assured that I’m doing everything within my power to make this cultural change stick.
I offer this model of change (policy vs. cultural change) simply as a tool to help you think about change in your own life. If there is an area of your life where you’ve tried to implement a change you considered small (policy) that triggered huge backlash, that’s an indicator that the change is a cultural one. If that’s the case, you need to slam on the breaks, adjust your expectations, and become as patient as possible. If you demonstrate to folks that you care about them through the VERY slow process of cultural change, then something might suddenly come along (I don’t know, say, a global pandemic) that overcomes the resistance when you least expect it.
Best of luck as you negotiate change in your own personal and collective lives.