I abhor change. I delight in the familiar. Uncertainty drives me crazy. It can take me years to adjust to new circumstances and surroundings. I don’t believe there is any such thing as a new tradition. I’m the kind of guy who never wavers from the one thing on the menu I already know I like. Usually to a fault, I am a creature of habit.
Most of what goes on in church can be described as habit. We follow the familiar rhythms of the calendar week after week, year after year. We worship on Sunday mornings. We eat dinner on Wednesday nights. The deacons meet the second Sunday of the month. Church council meets every first Monday. There are four weeks of advent before Christmas, and the children wave palm branches in worship on the Sunday before Easter.
Some habits continue to serve us well. We ought to continue to develop habits like daily prayer, regular Bible study and weekly church attendance. But other habits have the potential to hold us back and limit our individual and corporate effectiveness.
If there have ever been people and churches that had a hard time changing habits, they were in Galatia in the 1st century. When Paul wrote Galatians he was frustrated because the Galatians refused to adapt to a new reality. Like me, it was taking them years to adjust to new circumstances and surroundings.
Changing habits is never easy. In fact, changing habits is downright hard and can often be scary. The trick to giving up old habits is to see that change is required to open ourselves up to a new vision or to fulfill a new calling or to achieve a new purpose or to be more fully who God wants us to be. Change can, and ought to be, an energizing experience, not a painful one.
Paul told the Galatians they were living in a new reality that required them to interact differently with the wider world. They needed to give up some old habits and be open to a new way of being the church. Paul encouraged the Galatians to refuse to go back to who they had been (4:9) and told them that they needed to be ready to minister to new kinds of people (3:28).
Paul told the Galatians that it was time to redefine who the church was for, that they needed to embrace a broader audience, and that they might want to develop some new traditions. Paul said, in breaking some old habits, find freedom and opportunity to make some new habits, and resist the temptation to fall back into familiar rhythms (5:1).
He encouraged the Galatians to give up things like discord, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, factions and envy (5:19-21). And he asked them to embrace new habits like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (5:22-23).
When we look at the above lists, one thing we can learn is that it’s not only what we do that’s important; how we do it is important, too. The first list should serve as a warning that change, however small or large, has a tendency to bring out the worst in us. And the second list should serve as a reminder that even in the midst of change, Christ has the potential to bring out the best in us.
So what habits do we need to give up? What new habits do we need to embrace? Those are questions I can only answer for myself. But I do know that a willingness to embrace change provides opportunities for new freedom and energy and excitement. And a refusal to acknowledge change can only produce frustration and fear.
The God we worship never changes, but the world to which we minister is changing faster than ever. As we wrestle with how to embrace an ever-changing world, one more piece of advice from Paul might remind us that even large challenges have surprisingly simple solutions.
“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” -Galatians 5:6