Bulletin :: May 2000

Changing Our Paradigms

par.a.digm (par’e-dim). N. 1. A pattern, example, or model. (Gr. Paradeigma: para-beside + deigma, example).

A paradigm is a way of viewing life, a way of seeing reality. If the way two people see reality is different, it will likely cause conflict. In other words, if their paradigms clash, so will they. When William Carey spoke to Christians in England about sending people to other countries with the Gospel, this was a new idea for them to consider. They responded, “If God wants to change the world, He doesn’t need you.” Their paradigms clashed; they were looking at reality in different ways. Thankfully, Carey’s paradigm gained acceptance, and now most Christians see the importance of sending missionaries around the world with the good news.

In the early 60s, mainline Christians began manifesting gifts of the Spirit, like speaking in tongues. Up until this time, such gifts were “reserved” for Pentecostals. The shake-up in the Church was enormous, as two different paradigms were clashing, one that viewed charismatic gifts as not operable today, another that encouraged them. Today there are about 300 million Pentecostal/Charismatic believers worldwide. Talk about a paradigm shift!

A person’s paradigm is his or her reality. When you change a paradigm, you are changing a person’s reality, the way that person views truth. One reason for so much conflict in local churches when changes are proposed is that paradigms are clashing, and it is not easy for us to change our way of viewing reality.

I once saw a picture in a psychology book of a young lady with a fur cape. Someone else who also saw the picture said it was an old bag lady. I couldn’t see his perspective-until he pointed it out to me. Our reality is dependent upon our perspective. We can be locked in by our perspective, insisting that the other person is wrong. Getting a new perspective makes us more tolerant and more open to new truth.

When Jesus said that “new wine is put into fresh wineskins” (Matthew 9:17), He was speaking about a paradigm shift. The Gospel, the new wine, could not be contained in the skins of the law; it needed the New Covenant of grace. That was too great a paradigm shift for many Jews to make. Jesus acknowledged the struggle of changing when He said, “And no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, ‘The old is good'” (Luke 5:39). Change is difficult for all of us. We get established in how we see or do something, and change is threatening to our routine.

Jesus also spoke about not putting a new patch on an old garment. Why not? Because it wouldn’t get the job done: “He will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old” (Luke 5:36). William Carey fought an unbiblical paradigm that wasn’t right and that wasn’t working, just as Luther and Wesley did in their world and as Charismatics did in the 60s. They all said, “There is a new way of looking at truth, one that conforms to reality.”

Few people today think that the earth is flat, but some are still holding to paradigms that drastically need changing. Maybe they would rather “fight than switch.” To change is to let go of something, to acknowledge that “I was wrong,” or at least that I need to change. When Jesus spoke about the new thing God was going to do after His ascension, the disciples felt more comfortable looking back rather than looking forward: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Changing one’s paradigm to accommodate the new (the new wine, the new music, the new methods, the new move of the Spirit) is no easy task. Witness, for instance, the struggle of the apostles in acknowledging the right of the Gentiles to be in the same family with Jews. Leaders must exercise love and patience in calling people to a new reality. But they also need boldness and perseverance, because it must be done, just as I needed a new perspective of the picture in the psychology book in order to be less dogmatic and more understanding of the other view. Applications of this perspective for life in the local church abound!

When people sing the familiar song, “This is the way we go to church, go to church, go to church,” they are describing their paradigm. The second verse reads, “This is the way we work at church,” and something that is new and different is naturally seen as a threat. Leaders must help people to view a paradigm shift as a challenge but not as a threat. Because we are naturally defensive and fragile, we tend to view a paradigm that is different from our own as a wrong one. We wouldn’t be holding a paradigm if we viewed it to be wrong. You don’t have to be Amish to resist change. We all know how to do it.

All of us have a massive number of paradigms. For instance, in relation to life in the church, we have our perception on:

  • the role of the pastor (administrator, leader, facilitator, enabler, equipper, counselor)
  • the role of the laity (go to church, be equipped for ministry, give tithes, serve on committees)
  • the role of the local church (help its people grow, reach out to the lost, worship, fellowship)
  • the means by which a church is successful (grow, get rich, disciple its own, reach out to others).

In each of these areas, differently held paradigms will often mean disunity in the church. As Doug Murren writes, “Most congregations are inevitably stuck or frozen in a perpetual state of paradigm collisions, unable to move ahead strategically” (p. 55). In some cases, our paradigms are just different; in other cases, they are wrong. Here is where a leader needs to help people have a Biblical worldview.

I have several friends who are doing church planting. They view the church differently. One sees it as a center for sacramental life, another as a healing center for the broken and another as a conglomerate of cell-churches. Three different paradigms-three different ways of “doing church.” If they were all working together, something would have to give in order to accomplish a common vision.

Pastors can err in leading people through paradigm shifts by…

  • changing too fast-or too slowly
  • not changing at all
  • changing the wrong things
  • copying someone else
  • not including others in the change
  • not appreciating the past.

If the apostles are our example, we learn from them that we probably won’t change without much pressure placed on us. It may come directly from God or from other people. Peter knew he was called to take the Gospel to the “ends of the earth,” but he had trouble seeing beyond Jerusalem. A paradigm shift that has been difficult for most mainline churches to make is releasing the pastor to do the equipping rather than the ministering. Many still feel that the pastor is paid to “do” the ministry. But after a nervous breakdown because of overload, a pastor may be more willing to do less fishing and rather to teach the people how to fish.

Pastors can help people change their paradigms by:

  • teaching a Biblical perspective of the church and of church life
  • being patient, realizing that change is not easy
  • celebrating the past while moving toward the future
  • developing a compelling vision that moves people toward the future and away from outworn paradigms
  • enjoying the process, keeping a sense of humor, staying positive (don’t get grouchy)
  • learning to spot paradigms in conflict and work toward resolution
  • letting people talk it out rather than snuffing out all dialog.

(Many of the ideas expressed in this article come from the book “Leadershift” by Doug Murren.)