Newsletter :: July 2005

Help! My Paradigm Just Changed
by Paul Anderson

Jim called me on return from his third missionary stint overseas. He said, “Paul, I’ve had a paradigm shift.” I could detect a smile in his voice, and I knew what he meant. We had talked about life in the Spirit at seminary. Jim had been more cautious than open. But God had moved on his heart, and his worldview changed dramatically. So did the paradigm of millions of others after Pentecost started hitting mainline churches in the sixties.

A paradigm is…

  • A perception
  • A coat hanger
  • A wineskin
  • A way of viewing reality
  • A part of our belief system

Jesus gave two illustrations of change: a new patch on old clothes and new wine in old wineskins. In both cases, putting the two together brings disruption. Jesus was referring primarily to the change from the old covenant to the new covenant, but several truths surface from His parables that can be applied to change in the kingdom:

  1. There often exists a built-in conflict between the old and the new. An old institution will likely have difficulty receiving something new.
  2. The longer the old has existed, the more calcified it will tend to be. New movements can expect some conflict with old movements. If there is no problem with the old, that may be a problem.

A paradigm is helpful. It enables us to know where things fit. It gives us a hook to hang things on, a context for the text. But it is harmful when God wants to give us a bigger picture. A paradigm can keep us from seeing new things. It’s hard to view the new covenant out of old covenant eyes. God is always changing us. That is what sanctification is all about. We are being “transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.” But old patterns of behavior and ways of thinking resist a new paradigm. And the bigger and more pervasive the paradigm, the harder the challenge to change it.

Think of the disciples: their worldview didn’t allow Gentiles in the family. God had to bust through their paradigm. Some paradigms are limiting; others are wrong. Some have a paradigm that says, “Important things happen at church.” You think God wants to change that one? “Thinking outside the box” means going beyond our view of reality, outside our normal way of operating. Paradigms can paralyze because they hinder us from seeing things in a new and creative way.

Change is not optional. Status quo literally means “the state in which” or “the existing condition.” The Kingdom is dynamic because the God who never changes is always on the move. That is exciting-and uncomfortable. We want to settle in with what is rather than what might be; it is safer and more comfortable. As an alternative to true change, we try tweaking an old system or idea or structure. But as a pastor friend told me when we were starting our seminary, “A new paradigm cannot be started out of an existing paradigm.” That made sense.

To change our paradigm, we must be willing to say, “I don’t see the big picture. There is reality that exists outside my frame of reference. And I may be wrong in my view.” That is why Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” To repent is to change our mind, to look at God and reality in a different way. When we change our way of thinking, get ready-the Kingdom is about to break in with something new. It starts as a new way of thinking, but it eventually impacts behavior. None of us sees everything accurately. The more humble we are about our blindness, the more open we will be to the Spirit bringing a paradigm shift. (This movement was originally called a “paradigm shift” by Thomas Kuhn in his book, The Structure of Revolutions.)

Some people embrace such changes more easily than others. Entrepreneurs, pioneers, and visionaries spend a portion of their time in the future. They are always asking “what if” and “why not” questions. They are agents of change, and they bring breakthroughs. They think outside the box. Paradigm shifts create discomfort, even for people committed to change. The disciples took the Gospel beyond the Jewish community only after God messed with their paradigm. The instinct of self-preservation kicks in when we feel the insecurity of change. God wants us to be secure, but He takes us out of our security to bring us into new security. He knocks away our props because He wants us to experience the freedom of truth, not the freedom of our own constructs.

Leaders are responsible to help people with change, because paradigm shifts have winners and losers. For instance, in the contemporary climate, organists are often the losers, while drummers are among the winners. Leaders need to understand the price that people pay for a paradigm shift and help them deal with the losses as well as celebrate the victories.

People different from us can help us with paradigm shifts because they view reality in a different way. Outside consultants help congregations to stretch their viewpoint. John the Baptist was a gift to the Pharisees, but they were unable to receive from him.

The old typically reacts to the new, but the new can react to the old in a damaging way as well. Those rejoicing in the latest new thing could be the next conservatives, when the new thing becomes the old thing. Those who judge the old may be subject to the same judgment. Bands in worship services are a fairly new reality-but certainly not the ultimate reality. If our children toss out the bands and ask for unaccompanied music with candles, will we be able to adjust?

Timing is an essential ingredient of paradigm shifts. The old covenant was God’s provision for the children of Israel for a season. The prophets announced that the new was coming, but that didn’t keep people from resisting it. When it came, those looking for the Kingdom were able to embrace the change and walk out of the old and into the new.

Are there areas where you are resistant to change? Where might God be preparing you for change-even major change?

Here are some possible paradigm shifts we might want to think about:

  • Pastoring is a gift, not an education. That means there are more pastors around than we may be aware of.
  • Where’s the church? Where should it meet? What should it be doing? How does Sunday impact Monday? Is what happens “at church” more important than what happens out there?
  • Have we finished the Reformation? How can the laity be released for ministry?
  • What form should worship take? What ingredients? What is a worship service?

Bottom line: I am slowly learning, as a friend of mine says, to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Because change is here to stay and because much of that comes from heaven, I don’t want to be a resister; I want to be an enthusiastic participant.