Cultural Transformation of the local church

Organisational bureaucracies are designed to resist change

There is a growing conversation around the outer reaches of the church calling for cultural change. These voices cry in the ecclesial wilderness where the cultural malaise of a dysfunctional and increasingly disconnected church finds its only hope in cultural transformation. There is an urgency for things to change before we fade away into cultural irrelevance. How can the church be missionally focused without some form of cultural transformation lifting the church out of its spiraling malaise? The church at the grass roots, at the forefront of the ecclesial engagement with the secular world, sees the need for change, and yet it seems powerless to see this change occur.

The hiatus that has occurred is at first incomprehensible. The sense of powerlessness is measured in direct proportion to the perceived inability of the organisational church to provide the sort of cultural transformation being sought. Surely any sort of cultural change needs to occur at a strategic, overarching, organisational level. The dilemma faced is that the institutional church is seen as the means by which the transformation must occur, and the blockage preventing such transformation from occurring. This single-minded focus on what the ecclesial bureaucracy is going to do to instigate such change, is a self-imposed powerlessness by the grass roots who believe they can only seek change with the corporate blessing of the church's organisation entity. Sadly, they are looking in the wrong place.

Let's understand the church's burgeoning bureaucratic juggernaut. Bureaucratic systems are intentionally designed to resist change. They assert power by ensuring the norm remains static and inflexibly fluid while creating the ideal that change is only possible because only they have the capacity to comprehend the broader strategic environment in which any change potential may manifest. The guardians of this system are all trained to think in terms of sustaining the bureaucratic machinery. The fear generated is that if such a machinery collapsed, the entire venture would cease to operate. The forces of the world that exist in opposition to the ideals of the church would ravage the church if the bureaucratic organisational entity was no longer able to do the things it currently does. So it creates systems in which this power is exerted.

For a start, the very training and preparation of church leaders, specifically those serving as clergy, are funneled through a single point where control over the end product can be sustained with the purity of the ecclesial design serving the ongoing propagation of the bureaucratic ideal. Mother church gives birth to her children so she, as they venture into the outer reaches of her realm, can be ensured ongoing fidelity. This subtle and yet bizarre mechanism of control manifests itself in the voices of the clergy she has birthed who look back to her ecclesial structures to not just empower change, but to actually bless any form of potential change. Without such a blessing an ingrained disconnectedness manifests causing a hiatus for change, thereby imposing guilt within the individual who seeks change without her blessing.

To satisfy the voices calling for change, the bureaucratic entity creates mechanism within her own domain or control that are specifically designed to create the illusion for change. These so called ecclesial experts, exalted to positions of power and influence because of some collective memory in which they demonstrated change as possible, are absorbed into the bureaucratic machinery for two reasons. Firstly, they serve to appease the groaning voices of the grass roots pleading with the church organisation for transformational change by allowing them a platform in which they can extol the virtues of their glorious past. This serves to offer sufficient noise to suggest that change is potentially plausible, until the grass roots see through the ruse and the bureaucratic system s forced to find another distraction. Secondly, by bringing such experts into the fold, the church bureaucracy now has the capacity to exert greater control over them, ensuring that any change they may instigate is now subsumed into her institutional control. In the end, the bureaucratic system achieves the pathological need to ensure impotence for change, while creating the illusion change is happening.

History is a great tutor in all this. No form of cultural; change every happened at the institutional level of the church. From the earliest days of Christianity until the present, real transformation change has always and only occurred at the grass roots. Here in the trenches of grass roots engagement with the world, individual leaders who have abandoned all hope in a bureaucratic ecclessiology, and have demonstrated the strength of character and courage to step out in faith, are the real agents of cultural transformation. Unloading the shackles of bureaucratic manipulation, abandoning the subconscious bureaucratic overlord imposed in their formation, and seeking out others in the trenches who have stepped forth, these become the real agents of cultural transformation.

It's not hard to become such a person. Return to the biblical story with fresh eyes, looking to find Jesus, and asking what it is he has called you to do, becomes the first step. Prayer, intentionally focused on the need for change in one's own perspective, as well as the perspectives of those one has an immediate influence with, becomes the powerhouse to fuel change. Crafting a clear vision for change at the grass roots, and finding ways to fulfill that vision and change becomes a core identity issue that is driven by a deep conviction behind why one is in leadership in the first place. Having the moral courage to reject, defy, and challenge the bureaucratic machine is equally important, for it will, in many ways, strive to dislodge, dis-empower, and reassert control over its wayward child.

Change is possible at the grass roots, but it will never come from the institutional church. Despite the rhetoric and noise it makes, it will always be impotent towards change. Its in its very nature to be just that. The sooner one acknowledges that, the soon one finds the freedom to become a real change agent for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.