Change is a part of life. Christian faith puts hope in a radical transformation of a person in Christ. Evolutionary theory places an emphasis on the adaptability of species and even individuals to adjust to their environments. Economics recognizes how consumer behavior will change in accordance to prices. Etc. Etc. To be human is to change. While there are different degrees of change occurring with different frequencies, such as changing apperances, changing behavior in certain circumstances, change in one’s personality, etc. it is a part of life. Even the most pessimistic views of people that see people mired in evil and sin recognize some degree of change, even if it is simply on the surface level without any real substance. However, while being human entails change, that doesn’t mean change is something we can control. As a follower of Christ, I can’t just make my heart conform to any set pattern I want it to. When economic theories that prescribe centralized control of the economy, the government often find themselves incapable of managing and creating what they envisioned. Evolutionary theory radically pushes out the idea of a purposeful intention in change; it is a bottom-up change that occurs in relation to the environmental context and circumstances and not a top-down imposition. In other words, I can make things change but I cannot reliably control what someone or something will change into. If I get angry at someone for hurting me and I then react with that anger, they might change their behavior, their attitude towards me, etc. But more often than not, I will not get the violator to change their mind and admit their violation. At the core of the problem is that I can not fundamentally account for every single factor that impacts a person and makes them as they are; and even if I could account for everything, that doesn’t mean I understand how my actions would successfully lead to the change I want to see.
Despite this reality, there are often times naive dreams often associated with utopian visions of the future where we believe we have the power and know-how to produce the very person and society we wish to create. Often times, there is the presumption that a select group of people have a special power and insight that everyone else does not have and that through their program you will achieve a desired change. In its more innocuous forms, it is witnessed in the set of supposed self-help gurus, or even Chrisitan preachers, selling books and videos on how you can reach some longed for goal, if you only follow this specific formula. These can be dangerous when consumers have unrealistic expectations about them, but this damage tends to be limited to only a few before it comes out that the program is a sham. However, in its more vicious, dangerous forms, it takes the form of governmental authority trying to institute mass change in the populace with tragic results, such as in the USSR and Maoist China. Then, there are various degrees in between voluntary, self-help gurus and coercive, top-down domineering governments. However, at the end of the day, there is the dangerous belief undergirding all of them: that you can control change.
Why is this dangerous? It comes through a combination of judgment against those who “fail” to reach the ends and the power the authorities have other those who fail. The people with credibility and authority may designate the reason for failure as due to something in the person/people: they didn’t try hard enough, they weren’t genuine, they are resisting, they are mentally ill, they are a lost cause, etc. etc. In the end, those with authority in such contexts will come up with rationales that single out certain people; it clearly isn’t their methods, or their ideas in their mind. With that comes the social judgment of the “failures” and with that the power to control a response in those failed persons. In more voluntary contexts, the guilting and shaming will be met with more products they can purchase to finally “breakthrough.” In coercive contexts, the failure is put to death or abandoned. Always, the problem lies in the intentions and abilities of the “failures;” it never rests in the inability and incompetence of the authorities to do what they originally set out to do. To be clear, the problem isn’t the explanations as to why things don’t go according to plan; it is the fact that those with the authority uses the explanations for failure as a justification for self-serving an/dor destructive ends. The implicit belief that we can change people, or even the world, is beset with a fundamental justification of one’s power over who and what one is trying to change, where the failure of change in the person(s) being control then further justifies the power of the authority. All the explanations offered are self-serving in that they reinforce the power of the authority over and against the powerlessness of those they stand over.
Undergirding this implicit belief that we can control the way people change is the idea that people are essentially tabula rasas, blank slates onto which anything can be written. A different variation may not say that people are “tabula rasas” but it treats people as all people fundamentally the same, so that the knowledge of changing that occurs in one person will work with another person. Whenever people advocating for change propose beliefs that people are basically like sheep that will do what you instruct them or that people are all fundamentally the same, be very cautious. At the end, these beliefs all justify the power of the (would-be) authority with the idea that their efforts to act will produce the desired for results because people are something we can easily mold and change. However, as reality doesn’t conform to this view, Inevitably conflicts arise due to the lack of understanding and lack of skill by the authority to accomplish what they set out to do. So, in the end, there is the false belief that there are people with power to create and control change and that all events that fail to conform to that belief are rationalized as problems with the people being controlled rather than a problem with the ones in control. This isn’t to say that people can not facilitate change in a desired for direction in others. It is simply to recognize that people do not readily and easily conform to our wishes and that it is self-serving and destructive in the long run to think that you can reliably change other people.
For Christians leaders, it is vital that we recognize this. Even God Himself, although He is portrayed as a potter who can mold us as clay, does not exhibit such a unilateral control of people’s choices.1 God’s great power to change creation and the people within it is done not through a top-down, unilateral act to push people into conformity or to “miraculously” change the neural structures of the brain of every person so that all people will do what God wants of them. No. Rather, it was Christ taking on human life and weakness and submitting Himself to human power, which oppresses and destroys. Christ changes the world be His powerlessness becoming the scene where His power is made known. Thus, as in the sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2, people are moved not by some fiat of the divine will, but by realization and recognition that they were on the wrong side of those who crucified Jesus, when the resurrection showed that Jesus was on God’s side. God let people realize the consequences of their actions. People repented and were baptized in the name of Christ not due to some top-down imposed program of change, but rather because Christ provided themselves the way to realize and know about themselves, that that they were not who they thought they were. If I may generalize, Christ and His followers change the world through being the sort of people who when heard and seen catalyze changed perceptions in other people; they didn’t impose a program upon others, rather their witness and faithfulness serve as a conduit for people to perceive themselves, others, and even God differently. While Jesus and later the apostles, particularly Paul, would offer explanations why people saw and did not understand what they saw and come to faith, often times attributed to a hardened heart, the missional program of Jesus didn’t take theses explanation as a justification for trying to control the unbelievers more; it simply meant that one should shake the dust from their feet and leave them to do as they do.
Hence, the missional program of the followers of Christ is that of witnesses. The prime action by which God’s will is made known by His people is not described by some success verb, such as influencer, change agent, etc. Rather. the disciples are described as witnesses and also their own lives are also witnessed. The way Christ facilities change through His Church is grounded upon the change of perception that comes from seeing. The mission of the Church is not tasked with some term of success, but simply a term that leads people to speak to truth in a clear, vivid way. Then, only once people perceive the same way as the disciples then do there occur more directed involvement in mentoring communities into spiritual growth and maturity. In other words, one must begin to see and understand the same as others, explained as the event of new birth, before the authorities of the early church would begin to enact spiritual and nurturing authority of then. Thus, one only facilitates change in others when there is already the necessary change occurring in the first place; then the apostolic authority acted as midwives to help facilitate the birth pf what God had conceived within a person.
In short, change is not something we can control. We can sometimes facilitate it and we can catalyze change in others, but we can not reliably control the when, where, how, and who of change. So, it is important to be aware of individuals, governments, religious authorities, socio-political movements of both the right and left, etc. that suggest we can make the who;e world into our idealized imagine; that way lurks control, self-serving manipulation, and oppression. Nor should the church accommodate to the unrealistic optimism that permeates Western, society based upon science and technology which justifies the belief we can reliably change and control things; we do not need to define our mission according to success verbs that place the emphasis on the act of changing people. Rather, being witnesses and being witnessed serves as the central task of the Church, and through that, people who we would never expect and imagine will change in ways that we would never have been able to do and manage.