Saltsburg Preaching Worship Led by John Bell

Change affects not only individuals, but the body of the church, according to Rev. John L. Bell, a global lecturer, seminar leader, hymn writer, member of the Iona community and minister ordained by the Church of Scotland. Bell delivered the Saltsburg Worship Workshop at Christian Theological Seminary, on February 6, exploring how liturgy and worship present opportunities to embrace the complex and emotional experience of change.

During the workshop, Bell led participants through an exploration of scriptures and case studies from his work with churches in Europe and America, examining how faith and worship can help individuals view times of transition as constructive experiences.

Bell used the metaphor of three human body parts – the head, heart and gut – to convey how individuals interpret change and the lessons church leaders can glean from each response.

The “head” may respond with intellectual discomfort regarding an idea. According to Bell, individuals who oppose change based on logic or intellect can be persuaded to change if they are provided with information that supports the change. Tradition is an aspect of worship that can be particularly contentious within the church when it comes to change. However, Bell observed the only constant of tradition is that it changes. He shared how church traditions have changed over time based on locality, geography and the conventions of the time. “Humans can be myopic in how they define tradition, focusing on practices and spaces. The tradition is that we gather to worship. It’s the space that changes,” Bell said.

Change can bring not just discomfort but discontent among members of the church body. Bell shared a humorous story of a 1764 congregation so upset by the landlord’s choice of pastor, that on Installation Day, an opposition group formed outside the church, tearing the wig off the pastor’s head, pelting him with mud and even striking him on the cheek with a dead cat.

The Bible provides a wealth of information regarding sensitive issues in the church. For example, Bell noted that the subject of women in leadership continues to be a divisive issue in some churches that ascribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Yet he remarked on Deborah’s role as a judge in the Hebrew Bible and referenced the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John as the first evangelist. “Information yields insight that women have always enabled things to happen in the church,” he said.

Examining music in the church, Bell acknowledged, “People don’t like to sing a new song.” This resistance conflicts with a Bible that makes multiple references to new songs, particularly in Psalms and Revelation. “We must remember that songs such as Jesus Loves Me and Abide With Me were once new songs too. New music has always been with us because we have a God who asks that we sing a new song,” he said.

The “majority report” versus the “minority report” can influence the way people in a church react to change based on how information is interpreted. For example, when Moses sent forth spies to report on the Promised Land, one group brought back a fearful report focused on the giant inhabitants dwelling in the land, while Caleb brought back an assessment that the Israelites would be able to overcome the inhabitants. The majority report prevailed, ultimately dooming the Israelites to decades of wandering in the wilderness.

A popular notion that individuals are made in God’s image and that God does not change can keep people stuck in a particular mindset about the nature of God. Bell noted that Scripture does not reflect an unchanging God. He shared examples from Genesis onward of times when God relented after people argued or pleaded their case. In other instances, God was moved by a spirit of compassion, such as when Jesus did not follow the law and condemn the adulteress but forgave her sins.

Beyond the intellect, the human heart also interprets change. Congregants may resist a change because of an emotional experience associated with their church. For example, an individual may oppose remodeling the church because such an act would alter the site of their moment of salvation. Individuals may find themselves torn between the sensibility of their head and the pain in their heart.

Bell shared the story of a Scottish church that replaced a worn, shared Bible with a large print version, tremendously upsetting a woman whose grandfather had donated the original Bible. “We need to give the individual time to grieve for whatever the perceived loss may be,” Bell said, when sharing how churches can respond to a member whose heart is resisting change.

Finally, Bell acknowledged that individuals can respond adversely to change based on a “gut” response. Responding to individuals who resist change based on a gut reaction is best addressed by appealing to a vision. “Individuals and church bodies can be moved by the vision of an alternative, new possibility. We know vision is essential and that without one, people perish,” Bell said. Another way of handling change in the church is to help individuals contribute the gifts they have. Bell noted a contentious church member whose attitude and engagement changed when she was invited to serve as the “voice of God” in a play about Noah’s ark.

As he responded to participant questions, Bell noted that two factors contribute to a congregation’s growth: First, healthy congregations believe in hospitality. He noted the opportunities to engage that exist when hospitality becomes personal and inclusive as opposed to a function performed by a few elders.

Second, a congregation will live out the rumor it hears about itself. Bell referred to Jesus as an example of someone who used rumors to change the world. He noted how Jesus changed Peter’s perception and how he was received by others after Jesus referred to him as a “rock”, creating a new rumor about Peter’s identity.

“While not every change is good, change is essential in order for the body of Christ to move forward. Listening and appealing to the head, heart or gut can help congregations move forward,” Bell concluded.

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