Why we don't change ...and why we do
I am someone who loves change, who loves newness, who gets new ideas all the time — and even these new ideas get interrupted by newer ones. But I’ve experienced and learned over the past few years the deep need for not changing so quickly, too.
At Zion Lutheran Church, and at most churches I’ve attended, the order of worship generally stays the same from week to week. There may be different songs, a different message, but in most churches we can count on A and then B, and then C and D, happening each week.
At Zion — and I assume at other churches, too — there are reasons why we don’t change a whole lot from week to week. When people ask me why we have to say the Lord’s Prayer every single Sunday, I joyfully respond and say that we get to say it every Sunday … and we do because it is one of the things that people have memorized. That way everyone can participate —children soak up these things like sponges, and so they can often recite parts of worship before they can read. Those who can read, do. And those whose eyes aren’t so strong anymore, or who are listening to worship on the radio without worship materials, not only know where we are in worship, but can participate.
Memory is a huge part of why we don’t change certain things. Even way before modern psychology, humans knew the power of repetition. It shows up throughout the Psalms in the Bible. Repetition helps us remember. And when we remember things, they can become more meaningful for us. Comfort food isn’t comfort food because you had it once … but because over time you came to associate it with good things, and it became a safe, happy thing. So too, with parts of worship.
Also, our worship ties us to our past, to those who have believed before us, and those who have passed the faith on to us.
And, if the regular worship attenders had no idea what was going on, it would be a lot harder for them to help out those who are visiting. Though it may at times seem counter-intuitive, in part we don’t change for the visitors we welcome into worship with us.
But there are also reasons why we do change. In the different seasons of the church year, we have different focuses — the birth of Jesus, the life of Jesus, Jesus’ preparation for the cross, Jesus’ resurrection — and each of these has a different feeling to it. So we use different words during those seasons in worship.
We change because, at least as Lutherans, we realize that we aren’t perfect. We’ve been doing this worshipping God thing for thousands of years, and yet we haven’t gotten it totally down yet. That’s a little embarrassing to note, probably — thousands of years of trying and we still haven’t found perfection. But I think it’s also a testament to resilience, perseverance, and the trying out of a whole lot of different ideas.
And jumping off of that, as people and societies, we are always changing. If we didn’t change at all, we’d all still be worshipping in Greek or Aramaic. We’d still be holed up in locked rooms, completely fearful. Or maybe we would have stopped changing during part of the middle ages, when western European churches disallowed women from singing, and the men who were not in the choir, because in their thought the best way to praise God is to all be on exactly the same musical note all the time.
And we change because as humans, we crave newness. We like familiarity, and the comfort of the past, but we need the hope that something different can provide.
We change, and we don’t. We do it for purposeful reasons — always with the thought of how we can get the message about Jesus out to more people, in a deeper way, a more meaningful way.
Will Johnson is pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Glendive. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.