The Death of Parochialism: Planned Change in the Church

As I sat listening to the keynote speaker, the executive director of the association of churches of which I was a member at their international convention, I heard him say something very disturbing. "Pastor, if you want your church to grow, you must give up the idea of knowing all of your people." When I heard this statement, I got up and walked out and left that association of churches.

It was at the height of the church growth movement. Seminars were being given all over the country on how to do it. Ministry of Management was a popular theme. “How To” became the rage. “Do it like this and you will achieve success.” Whether it was Peninsula Bible Church, Crystal Cathedral, Willow Creek, everyone had a shtick. The goal was change. The church had to change. Men and women became the gurus of change and had a platform to promote their ideas.

That was the ‘70s and ‘80s. Then came the ‘90s. At the bi-annual meets of a smaller group of pastors, the goal was to have renowned speakers to increase attendance. Over a three-year period following these meetings, it was noted that each celebrity crashed and burned due to the discovery of some character flaw such as infidelity or other moral turpitude. This phenomenon was taking place in every corner of Christianity. By the twenty-first century, revelation of moral failure on the part of religious leaders has become a torrent.

In the quest for change, something went wrong. Can we put our finger on it? At the risk of being overly simplistic, the culprit is the quest itself. The church became fixated on outward conformation rather than inward transformation. The mandate to “make disciples” became increase numbers. The culmination was, “seeker sensitive” rather than individual spiritual development. The pastor, the change agent, was hired to produce change rather than to develop a mature body of Christ.

In his book, The Change Agent: The Strategy of Innovative Leadership,”[i] Lyle Schaller led the charge. In it, he outlined the need for a change agent who would stir up enthusiasm for change. He referenced various theories on how to do it such as that of Kurt Lewin:

  1. Unfreeze the present situation
  2. Move to a new level
  3. Freese the group life at the new level

One element of change highlighted for the proposed change agent was The Importance of Discontent. To this, Dr. Schaller devoted an entire section. He wrote:

In any discussion of intentional change it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of discontent. Without discontent with the present situation there can be no planned, internally motivated and directed intentional change.[ii]

This insightful statement is made in his chapter on The Process of Planned Change. Where do we find such a concept in the Old or New Testament? Some of the places I can find it are on the plain of Shinar where Nimrod built his ziggurat. Or in Solomon’s Ecclesiastes, where he warned young men to consider the vanity of human effort under the sun. Or where the half brother of Jesus warned:

 Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit." Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that."[iii]

 It is the nature of man to want to be an agent of change and Dr. Schaller does not hold back on expressing how to do this. He comments extensively regarding the theories of one lauded expert on change, Saul Alinsky, especially in his reference to “rub the sores of discontent.”[iv]

Dr. Schaller adds his own list of ways to produce discontent to accomplish planned change. He gives four of the basic sources of discontent:

  1. The first is the response to a bad decision...
  2. A second and related means of creating another source of discontent with the status quo is to deliberately cause a malfunction in one of the accepted means of social control...
  3. A third approach to raise the level of discontent is sometimes referred to as the “vision and model” concept...
  4. There is a fourth approach to certain discontent, however, which overlaps all three of these other approaches and which can be described as the basic source of discontent. This is discovery by an individual for himself of the difference between the ideal and reality. It stands out by itself as a subject deserving separate consideration by every agent of change.[v]

Dr. Schaller then adds a separate section titled, The Self-Identified Discrepancy, in which he highlights an individual or individuals who raise questions and draw attention to perceived discrepancies in conventional modalities.

As I read The Change Agent, my mind drifts back to philosophies of change used by men in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that produced two world wars and subjugated whole nations under the iron fist of totalitarian rule by change agents. This philosophy is commonly known as dialectical materialism.

This philosophy has always been man’s recourse to power and control by those who claim to be agents of planned change. So why would anyone promote earthly philosophies to accomplish God’s Work on earth?

Lyle Schaller went on to write fifty-six books becoming one of the most influential instructors on how to for the church for generations. His books sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Undoubtedly many aspiring seminarians are still gullibly consuming this platter of culinary humanism.

My purpose is not to focus on any one individual or group of individuals, but to emphasis the drift from the social gospel of modernism into the planned change philosophy of postmodernism. On the one hand, the idea was we can make it better, while on the other, we have made it worse and must accomplish planned change any way possible.

The prophet Isaiah wrote:

Seek the Lord while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the Lord, And He will have compassion on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon. "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways," declares the Lord. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.[vi]

Why did I give this article the title, The Death of Parochialism? The Word of the Day for August 22, 2020 published online by Merriam-Webster, gives three possible definitions to the term, Parochial:

  1. Of or relating to a church parish
  2. Of or relating to a parish as a unit of local government
  3. Confined or restricted as if within the borders of a parish: limited in range or scope (as to a narrow area or region): provincial, narrow[vii]

The first example given of parochial follows:

The book is marred by the parochial viewpoint of its author who fails to take into account the interplay between local and global economies.[viii]

Church has become a petri dish for every kind of change—planned change. The ministry of pastor-teacher has become that of celebrities and CEOs. The idea that a pastor is the leader of a flock of God’s people personally attending the sheep of His fold is outmoded, no longer acceptable in this postmodern world. Peter’s admonition is drowned out by the cries of malcontents seeking what is better in their own eyes.

Peter wrote:

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.[ix]

What the church needs are shepherds, not change agents. The pattern set by the apostle Paul early in his ministry needs to be emulated in the church today:

But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children.  Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.[x]

Years later, as I sat discussing church ministry over lunch with the retired executive director who made the statement, "Pastor, if you want your church to grow, you must give up the idea of knowing all of your people," I asked him why he said that. His response was, “I got off track.” Unfortunately, it was too late for his entire denomination of churches. The question is, is it too late for the church in the twenty-first century? Or are we going to continue to drift to and fro by every wind of doctrine?

[i] The Change Agent, Lyle E. Schaller, Abingdon Press, 1972

[ii] Ibid. 89

[iii] Jas 4:13-15

[iv] Op Cit. 90

[v] Ibid, 91-94

[vi] Isa 55:6-9


[viii] Ibid.

[ix] 1 Pe 5:1-3

[x] 1 Thess 2:7-8